As I set out my containers filled with colorful beach plastic in preparation for the activity I had planned for the 3rd through 8th graders attending San Diego Area Writing Project’s Young Writers’ Camp in Cardiff, I stopped and noticed how beautiful it looked and reflected on the incongruity of the marine debris lined up in an elementary school corridor that would soon be filled with eager summer campers.
As the kids arrived, they noticed the colorful plastics and had questions before they even settled in. I introduced myself and shared what I do to make a difference as a teacher, avid beach cleaner, photographer, writer, and maker. I showed examples of my work and asked everyone to theorize about how some of the items could have ended up on the beach.
We discussed balloon bits, bucket handles, and bottle caps, and the wide-eyed campers expressed amazement while sharing their insights and observations. They were excited when they found something they recognized, and they even identified an object on my Circles within Circles piece for me. “It’s a water gun plug!” one of the campers exclaimed, and I was grateful to finally know. (I find them often but couldn’t figure out what they were.)
After I showed them my Instagram account and my blog, I shared the work of my sister and her husband, Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang who are renowned beach plastic artists—and my inspiration. I shared their plastic arrays arranged by hue and included an image from their Plastic Forever blog to highlight the point that making art and writing go hand-in-hand.
From there, we segued into a deeper discussion about marine debris, and I played a video from Ocean Today’s Trash Talk series to enhance their understanding. Living in coastal San Diego, most were already aware of the problem of ocean pollution, and by a show of hands, a few had participated in beach clean-up events in the past. In addition, many have attended environmental assemblies at their schools where they may have seen the iconic image of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic or the picture of the turtle whose shell became deformed as it grew into the plastic six-pack ring wrapped around its middle.
Those images are shocking and cause one to think about the damage we are doing to the planet and its inhabitants, but research has shown that scare tactics aren’t the best way to inspire people to effect positive change . In an Environment360 interview about his book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes explains: “What we know from psychological studies is that if you overuse fear-inducing imagery, what you get is fear and guilt in people, and this makes people more passive, which counteracts engagement.”
Knowing that scary images aren’t effective in motivating people, I want to engage students by sharing poignantly beautiful photographs and objects that draw them in and allow them to develop connections.
By providing opportunities for students to talk about, work with, and write about the plastic debris, their connections grow even deeper. As their interest and insight develops, I am confident that they will find their own ways to make a difference based on hope—not fear. (I discuss how I remain hopeful while cleaning the beach in my blog post entitled What Is Hope? )
My ultimate goal is it to have an even greater positive impact by empowering young people to use their creativity to inform and inspire others. I want them to know that their classroom teachers aren’t the only people who are educators. They too can teach through their words and actions and through what they create and share with a wider audience.
To lead campers into writing and making, I shared examples from Young Writers and Photography Camp that I co-taught earlier in the summer. (A 25-minute center activity that I did with campers during that program was the seed that grew into this more fully developed presentation.)
After we discussed the endless possibilities for writing, I demonstrated the hands-on work they would be doing. I dumped a tub of plastic out on the floor and explained the connection between writing and making by sharing that just as one might revise a piece of writing one can revise a piece of art that’s in process too. Objects in a collage and words/phrases/sentences on a page can be added, deleted, and moved around as the artist/author develops and works to improves the piece.
Finally, campers headed outside and began arranging the plastic into pleasing compositions that they captured with the devices/cameras they brought from home. It probably goes without saying that they had fun working in pairs to lay out their designs.
They also enjoyed discussing the pieces of plastic as they placed them on their work surfaces. I heard exclamations of excitement as familiar objects were recognized, and I overheard a pair seriously negotiating the placement of a bottle cap. Someone held up a black cone-shaped object and was surprised by my explanation that it was an eel trap.
As they made their arrangements, I couldn’t help but think about the significance of their interactions with the material. The eye-catching plastic, as beautiful as it is, represents humanity’s failure to protect our natural resources; it exists in contrast to the fresh-faced innocence of the children who were creating with it—the embodiment of hope for a future in which we can and must do better.
Their final products were beautiful, intriguing…and fun! One of the creators of the “pink beach boy” and I discussed the fact that the image was both cool and not cool at the same time. We laughed as we came to that realization, which reminded me that humor is another positive way to engage an audience when tackling difficult topics.
After campers finished collaborating on their designs, they grabbed their notebooks and began to write. Some drafted poems, while others crafted letters and stories. A couple of campers asked if they could write comic strips, and I exclaimed, ” Yes! A comic strip about marine debris. What a great idea!”
One of the campers in the 5th/6th group drafted a story about the life of one water bottle that eventually ends up in the recycling bin after going on quite an adventure, and an older camper in the 7th/8th grade group began working on a powerful piece about the urban jungle.
Two girls in the 3rd/4th grade group who worked together to create their plastic collages wrote very different pieces. While one wrote a letter to the “government,”the other developed a poem:
Sea turtles and sharks
Dolphins and whales
Clams and mussels
Jellyfish and sea snails
Their lives are endangered by marine debris
and humans need to find a solution
So I am asking you please
When you go to the beach
Pick up some trash
So the creatures of the sea
Can live happy lives in peace
We had a few minutes for sharing in author’s chair before I left the campers with some final thoughts on making to make a difference. I explained that not everyone is as passionate about marine debris and cleaning beaches as I am. I challenged them to discover what that they care deeply about and encouraged them to find ways to inform and inspire others through their own making and writing.
Before I had to say good-bye, I asked them two final questions, and I pose the same two questions to you:
Wonderful! This is a great example of your efforts to make a difference in the world, and you efforts to help young people find their own place and way to be involved. Really appreciated the comment ” scare tactics aren’t the best way to inspire people to effect positive change”.
Hopefully these middle school students will have educators, community mentors and others who offer them continued opportunities to engage in activities that teach them about the environment and other issues and enable them to test and practice ways to get involved and to influence how others become involved. By the time they are out of high school or college many could be passionate leaders in different fields, armed with a powerful tool kit for creating change.
This is amazing on so many levels — first of all, the recycling of trash for making something creative and new — brilliant! The use of this creativity for writing? Brilliant! The sharing here so that you can inspire the rest of us and the world? Brilliant! And then, the whole mindset of making a difference in the world at large? Brilliant and necessary. Thank you for such wonderful inspiration.
Thank you, Kevin. I look up to you as an innovative educational leader and someone who works to make a difference. CLMOOC has had a big influence on me, and your positive feedback means a lot!
In working with elementary students, I’ve always felt a pang of guilt when involving learners in environmental issues and cleaning up the mess that the generations before them created. Your statement “…research has shown that scare tactics aren’t the best way to inspire people to effect positive change…” and your point about focusing on humor really struck me in reading this post. I love your work and the way you involve students in the fun and creativity of turning something destructive into art. I’m also thinking about how students can take what they’ve created and advocate for change in their communities to reduce the plastic treasure you find on the beach (especially balloon debris). Kids deserve a positive, action-oriented solution to the problems they didn’t create. Thanks for contributing to mindful, creative learning!
Margit, Sorry for the delayed reply. Somehow I missed your comment when you shared it. Thank you for the reflective response. Lots for me to think about—especially the idea of having students take what they create into the community and advocate for change. Thought-provoking!