Tahoma students are in the forefront of a new project that aims to improve the way we all interact with the environment.
The Watershed Report recruits teens from school districts along the Cedar River watershed to spend their summer learning about “sustainability” — how personal behavior and government policy can help keep air and water clean. And more students are participating from Tahoma than from any other district.
“It really opens your eyes to the world around you,” says Tahoma freshman Jayaram Ravi.
For example, “you understand more of why you should recycle than what you should recycle.”
I think (Tahoma is) leading the nation
“I feel as though I am part of an organization that causes real change,” sophomore Conor Hammond wrote in a reflection last week. “Our successful trip to present to the House Environment Committee was evidence of this.”
The Watershed Report is the brainchild of Peter Donaldson, a curriculum designer, actor and founder of Youth Theater Northwest on Mercer Island. He was named the Outstanding Non-Formal Environmental Educator of the Year in 2010 by the Environmental Education Association of Washington.
Donaldson reached out to the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed to fund the Watershed Report, which is wrapping up its second year.
Donaldson says he learned from his father, John, who was the former director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, about the connections among salmon, the watershed and sustainability.
“Salmon are the icon that says how you are behaving in relation to land and water, and they’re the teacher for sustainability issues in our region,” he says.
The students’ training, which Donaldson calls Watershed College, involves a “policy boot camp,” in which students learn about environmental issues facing local governments, mostly over the summer. They then work together to create short films explaining each issue and encouraging sustainable practices. View their videos HERE.
Donaldson says the energy and dedication of the watershed students is similar to that of his former theater students on Mercer Island.
“I like facilitating an ensemble of smart young people,” he says, with students motivated because the work feels authentic and meaningful. Donaldson says schools make a mistake when they focus solely on textbooks and tests for teens. Mentor-apprentice relationships make more sense for young adults, he says, with the message: “Welcome to the world. There’s work that needs to be done.”
Donaldson and the students conceive and write the films collaboratively along with 10 adult mentors, and Donaldson does most of the producing. He uses his acting experience to coach students in public speaking skills that they need for both the videos and the public screenings. Ravi says Donaldson has taught him to use tricks such as inflection, eye contact and rhythm to improve.
“All of this was very difficult, but he really teaches in a way that’s easy to learn,” Ravi says.
Public screenings of the films begin at REI in the fall, then continue in communities along the watershed through the winter. Students screened their videos for Maple Valley on Jan. 13 at Tahoma Middle School. A week later, four of the kids – all from Tahoma – presented to the House Environment Committee in Olympia.
Ravi says a satisfying moment came for him when one of the senators on the committee told him she recognized him from the REI screening.
“We’ve delivered a message that can be remembered by a member of the Washington State legislature,” he says.
Ravi says he was inspired to join the project when he took a science class last year from Tahoma teacher Jonathan Neil in a unit about Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest. Ravi calls Neil an “amazing teacher.”
“He showed us pictures of animals with trash in their bodies and how the water is being really polluted,” he says. “I never thought of the water as being unsanitary or unclean.”
Donaldson speaks to science classes such as Neil’s at Tahoma Junior High about sustainability issues, which has led many students such as Ravi to join his Watershed Report project. Out of 22 students from 10 schools, Tahoma students, from freshmen to seniors, make up the largest group with 13.
Both Donaldson and Ravi credit Tahoma’s curriculum over many grade levels for drawing students to the Watershed Report, which will begin recruiting new students soon.
“That district is amazing in terms of supporting sustainability education. I think they are leading the nation,” says Donaldson, who lives on Mercer Island. “We are going back to other districts like Mercer Island and Issaquah and saying, ‘They’re doing it. Are you ready?’”
Ravi plans to continue with the Watershed Report, and his work with Donaldson has led him to enter the Siemens Foundation-sponsored We Can Change the World competition, which challenges students to come up with sustainability solutions. Ravi’s idea is to design a sustainable school for the Tahoma district.
Ravi says his work with the Watershed Report goes so much further than an academic class.
“It really shows you more of the world than you would get in school,” he says. “You can create change in the society, and the world can see you for a person that can accomplish something.”
Read more about the Watershed Report HERE.