Toni Allison

First Graders Explore Ecology

Toni Allison, a science teacher in Greely, CO, drops 300 bags onto the floor of her first grade classroom at Winograd K-8 School. The billows of plastic represent the number of grocery bags the average American tosses out each year. Then, she asks, “If we gave you a reusable shopping bag, would you use it? Of course, they say yes.” Her first graders better understand their green footprints after visiting a local landfill, where they saw truckloads of waste dumped into the gaping canyon— an event that happens more than 200 times a day.

The field trip was made possible by a $5,000 grant Allison and her colleague Audrey Forgue received from the NEA Foundation and Nickelodeon. Instead of an Earth Day event lasting just one day, Allison integrated a yearlong ecology unit into science curriculum using the Think Earth Environmental Education. For three years, more than 160 students participated in the project, receiving goodie bags of green supplies— from reusable water bottles and sandwich bags to shower timers and compact fluorescent light bulbs. Their assignment? Use them and teach family members how they can do their part.

Students also learned what happens when pollutants enter water systems because they witnessed it during a field trip to a water treatment facility. They witnessed even more clean-up and conservation at a local power plant, a recycling center, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, and elsewhere, depending on that week’s unit.

“Before, we taught the tree unit at the beginning of the year,” Allison said. “Now, we can connect it all the way through the year into our Africa unit to speak specifically about the region of the rainforest.” During the winter holidays, students visited a Christmas tree farm to review the seed life cycle and learn how trees can be recycled into mulch.

Allison’s initial grant proposal included a district-wide recycling program, but the district found other means to implement and sustain such a program. With the extra funds, she stretched her project over three years, packing in seven field trips a year. “We’re lucky if we even get to go on one field trip in town with how money is right now— at any grade level,” she said.

One day, Allison hopes her project will enter with the district-wide curriculum at the elementary level. Meanwhile, its residual effects have already trickled through the halls of Winograd. The school, much like the town of Greeley, has a diverse population of nearly 50% Hispanic students and 25% English language learners. “We have pockets that are pure poverty, and we have pockets that are high socioeconomic levels,” Allison said. Some families already used eco-friendly products, while others learned about them for the first time. One parent wrote in a letter to Allison, “My daughter was so excited about planting her small pine and educating us as a family.” Allison’s first graders have even started reminding her to use the backs of papers before throwing them away. That’s a request she’s happy to fulfill.