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My students took action by writing to their city council about environmental injustice in their community. Students first became interested in environmental problems during field trips, pictured above, and lessons that we did in-class. On their field trip to Kingman Island, they spent their time looking at pollution in and around the Anocostia River. Students had both seen littering in their own community and mathematically investigated data that they recorded on their field trip about where litter in their community comes from. Students were inspired to try to do something to fix the problem of excessive plastic bag littering, so they wrote letters to their city council. As their teacher, I had suggested that they not only point out the problem to city council, but also give city council solutions to the problem. We brainstormed various solutions as a class, such as banning plastic bags or doing education campaigns in school. Students then discussed the potential pros and cons of each solution, and were given the freedom to choose their favorite solution to write to city council about.
While students were exposed to a wide variety of environmental problems during their class and field trip investigations, the large presence of plastic bag pollution stuck out to them as a problem they wanted to fix. Students had investigated both water pollution and litter through their field trips and several in-class mathematical investigations. The letters below are what they chose to write to city council about these investigations.
Even more information about students’ prior knowledge and investigations into environmental injustice can be found in access.
Analyzing the Pollution Data
Students used math to analyze the data they found on the field trip from two different angles: the average amount of plastic each group found, and what percentage of the litter was plastic. In both cases, students saw that their data collection revealed that plastic bag waste exceeds other types of waste.
As pictured above, students practiced their statistics skills through analyzing the data found during their virtual field trip. By analyzing data they had seen on their field trip, students were able to see how there can be general truths and trends found by multiple statistical samples without each statistical sample being identical. This real-life illustration of a difficult statistical concept helped students solidify their understanding of taking multiple samples and variation. By analyzing the results of this study, students realized that plastic bag waste was consistently pervasive in their community.
Another way students analyzed the data they found on their field trip was by comparing the percentages of each type of litter, as pictured above. This was an excellent visual illustration of the math concept of “percents”, which my students had some initial difficulties with, and taught them more about the composition of litter in their community. The student pictured above, for example, was able to clearly see that plastic bags were the most common type of litter we found on the field trip, so it would be the most useful material to reduce the littering of. The student was able to make the connection between how they mostly saw plastic bags on the field trip and calculated that plastic bags were the highest percentage in the data. This further convinced students that plastic bag waste was an important issue to tackle in their community.
Students used their data to brainstorm solutions that they wanted to implement for reducing plastic bag waste. Students discussed as a class what the pros and cons of each solution was based on the context that they saw on their field trip, as pictured above. For example, students said that they saw a lot of plastic bags from grocery stores specifically on their field trip (a connection not obvious from data alone), so they wanted to center much of their proposals around grocery store plastic waste.
Teaching Writing Letters to City Council
Students were very passionate about the environmental injustice they learned about. I emphasized that it was not enough to simply be upset about this injustice, but that we had the power as a class to do something about it. I suggested to the class that city council controls local pollution and littering laws, and that they may listen to a large group of passionate students writing to them about the subject.
I guided students through how to write a basic draft letter to DC city council. I showed students how to Google “contact dc city council”, and encouraged them to either write the chair or their local council member, Vincent Gray. Students were given the freedom to email a different city council member if they were so inclined. Students were able to successfully find the email with my assistance, and I have attached the typed up letters they sent me below.
I encouraged students to come up with their own favorite solution to plastic bag waste after we discovered our findings at Kingman Island as a class. We brainstormed ideas and discussed what had already been done in DC, but all ideas written to city council were the students’ personal favorites.
Student Letters to City Council
(First Draft Text: Dear City Counciler, Please help stop polution. Our earth is is not healthy. We need to get people together and save our earth. If we dont we may be polluted for the next thousands of years. Please think about it and write back. Also plastic bags is our most worry. Because we use plastic bags for groceries and they wind up in the street. We need to make different bags so we won’t have to use plastic bags. From,)
This student was very passionate about stopping pollution after seeing so much plastic waste on our field trip. While they did not successfully proofread their letter entirely, it is their authentic best work in the time that was allotted.
(First draft text: Thes should clean everything and use reusable bags to instead of plastic ones thes got very good and thes hurt the environment)
This student did not fulfill the paragraph length requirement for their letter, but was still very passionate about reducing plastic waste in the environment. They believed that using reusable materials instead of plastic was the best solution.
(First Draft Text: Dear city council, I want to reduce plastic bags by getting bouts to get the trash out of the water and use filter pipes get recylce it for new uses. it will melt the plastic into new things like bags pens fork and spoon. and if trash go back in the water it will go back into the cycle.)
This student had the idea of reusing all existing plastic to create new materials. They wanted to let City Council know this was a simple method to reduce plastic waste.
(First draft text: Dear city council, I care about reducing plastic bag waste. I think we should start returning the plastic bags from the grocery store. Return them back to the store. Over half of the litter we found was plasic waste. The plasic wase has killed tons of sea animals.)
This student wanted to let City Council know that the type of plastic waste we found on our field trip, which was calculated to be over half plastic, would be extremely detrimental to wildlife. They wanted to create a city program to return and reuse plastic bags.
(First draft text: Dear, care about recylcing because peoble throw stuff on the ground and dont pick it up thats all litter bottle soda cans so I found plastic bags waste. its in the water and in a sewer)
This student believed that much litter and waste was caused by a lack of adequate facilities to dispose of trash. They wanted to increase the number of trash cans and recycling bins throughout the city.
(First draft text: Dear city council, I care about reducing plastic bag waste. I think we should recycle more. Stop using much plastic. Stop littering plastic. Thanks for taking time out of your day to read my letter. From,)
This student believed that recycling more would go a long way towards reducing plastic waste and improving the city. They also, of their own accord, decided it would be a great idea to thank the city council for taking time to read their letter.
(First draft text: Dear Citey Council…I thought that we should be more big on community litterin because if we are gonna live in this community we have to keep it polluted free. So it’s best for mroe signs from now and then. Even if they keep taking your signs down keep working hard with helping our community.! Thank you!)
This student believed more education and signage would help reduce plastic waste. They believed the community would get behind a collective effort to reduce waste as long as city council was persistent in letting people know they should not be polluting.
(First draft text: Dear city council. I care about reduing plastic bags waste. I think we should. Bring your own plastic bag for something cold. Over half a litter we found was plastic bag waste.)
This student believed everyone should be responsible for bringing their own bags everywhere in order to reduce plastic waste.
(First draft text: Dear City Council I CARE about reducing plastic bag waste. I think we should put more trash cans. I dont the animils to keep dying. But I think some people will keep litter.)
This student was very passionate that many animals die from plastic waste. Like a previous student, they believed that this problem could be mitigated by providing more trash cans and recycling bins around the city.
(First draft text: We can use it to do closes/clothing and we can make it out of glass or paper or we can do it in own phon casses on put it in own car wells and make it out of thing to reepoudus thing so we wont have so much puloshan like how it is in chiny they have a lot of trash so they need it to pick up there trash and they have to put in the resikl been.)
This student made a connection between our discoveries in math class and the learning they had done about China in their social studies class. They wanted to let City Council know specifically that we would have pollution as bad as China if we were not careful about our waste. They wanted to have us reuse our existing material to make new products in order to cut down on waste.
(First draft text: Dear city council, I care about reducing plastic bag waste I think we should! We should reduce more bags! There are a lot of bags every were! We need to stop littering! Also bring our own bags! So stop making alot of plastic bags!)
Emailing the Letters
After typing their letters, I had students email them to their City Council member. I showed students how to use Google and find the email city council members. I told them that our school was in Ward 7, but they were free to contact a different city council member if they preferred. It was important to show students that in order for advocacy to be effective, they must do more than simply care about an issue inside the four walls of a classroom. Students got to know the satisfaction that they discovered a problem and actually did something about it by emailing their letters.
My students took action about an issue they cared about by writing to their city council members about plastic bag pollution in their community. Students learned a lot of important skills through doing this project. Students learned how they can discover truths about the world through mathematics, and then how to draw conclusions based on those truths. Students also learned how they can Google the information for themselves on how to electronically send letters to their city council. Students felt very empowered by the experience and expressed interest in investigating more real-world problems in the future. Rather than me sending the letters for them or not sending them at all, students knew that they were capable of doing something about a problem using tools already at their disposal. Students knew they had the skills to discover an important issue, figure out a solution for this important issue, and then do something about this important issue. Students discovered a newfound passion for environmentalism, but can take this advocacy toolset with them to conquer any injustice they may become passionate about in the future.