Sally High, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Pagosa Springs Middle School, was honored as one of Ecycle Best’s top five green teachers in April. Ecycle Best is a blog maintained by Ecycle, a green electronics trade-in company, recognizing environmental and green achievements.
High, honored alongside educators from Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia, sat down with The SUN for an interview Friday to talk about environmental education in her classroom.
In 2012, High was honored with a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators through the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. The award recognized her as an outstanding teacher who incorporates innovative environmental education in her classroom and who uses the environment as a context for learning. The award also provided $2,000 to further environmental education activities and programs in the middle school.
High said the money from her 2012 award helped renovate the middle school’s green house and continues to help promote gardening among Pagosa middle school students.
Seventh-graders can choose to take two different environmental electives with High, one focusing on clean energy, the other on greenhouse gardening. Those taking the gardening course are taught environmentally friendly practices, given starter seeds that they cultivate throughout the course and then take home at the end of the year, and maintain a small vegetable garden in the school greenhouse.
Outside of the elective courses, students in High’s social studies classes also partake in environmental learning.
High and her students have enjoyed working with solar panels, used a bike to power energy-efficient versus non-energy-efficient light bulbs (noting how much more they have to pedal to light the later), taken day trips and/or overnight camping trips to Crow Canyon, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Chaco Canyon and Bandelier in conjunction with other middle school teachers, toured PAWSD and the town’s geothermal building and many other outdoor activities.
Inside the classroom, High and her students have used their social studies class, focused on the Eastern Hemisphere, to discuss air pollution in China, water quality in India and Japan’s nuclear energy disaster after the tsunami.
Much of what High teaches in her classes goes hand in hand with her implementation of the Colorado Environmental Education Plan (CEEP).
CEEP was created in 2010 through legislation requiring Colorado to adopt a statewide plan for environmental education. The plan is focused on improving students’ knowledge of the environment and increasing their opportunities for outdoor educational experiences.
CEEP’s primary goal is to connect teachers with the resources they need to provide quality environmental education in all subjects. CEEP allows local school districts to work out the details of their education plan, creating their own requirements and keeping the control local.
High is the southwest regional council liaison for CEEP, meaning she is responsible for promoting the state’s plan and connecting educators with resources in the region.
In addition to implementing CEEP, High is trained to teach Colorado State University’s (CSU) Clean Energy Curriculum. CSU provided High with several sets of mini solar panels, wind mills and other tools for assessing and teaching clean energy practices in the classroom.
A few years ago, High and her students conducted an energy audit of the middle school using CSU resources and the school’s electric bills. The students calculated out the building’s energy use and made recommendations to the district based upon their findings. The biggest recommendation: change to energy efficient lights.
A short time later, a professional energy audit was conducted of the building, resulting in similar recommendations, which the school has begun implementing.
High laughed and said that her students can no longer get an energy reading off of the lights using their monitoring equipment because the new lights are so efficient.
Since her 2012 award, High said the doors that have opened locally, statewide and nationally, allowing her to continue implementing environmental education, have surprised and humbled her.
High has now presented nationally on incorporating environmental education into the classroom and has expanded her role as environmental educator out into the Pagosa community. High is an instrumental figure with Pagosa Verde and she organizes the Colorado Environmental Film Festival Caravan.
When asked why she has made environmental education a top priority in her life, High responded, “It’s a personal conviction of mine, something I believe to be very vital to our shared life together and our future.”
Reflecting again on teaching, High said that there has been “such a change from teaching twenty years ago,” in regards to students being receptive to environmental education, which is exciting.
High stated many times during her interview that, though she was honored individually by Ecycle Best, the entire middle school -and school district continues to rise above and beyond when it comes to environmental education.
This will be High’s last year teaching at the middle school and she hopes the current teachers and new teacher(s) coming in will continue to focus on environmental education and will continue to see the value in getting students outdoors.