By Renee Cho
Aimee Ostensen’s second graders at Manhattan Country School learn about the pizza they eat by creating a food chain comic strip tracing its ingredients back to the wheat field, the vegetable garden, and the cow. Fourth graders in Shelley Land’s class at West Elementary School in New Canaan use the plastic bottle caps they collect and recycle to practice estimating, graphing, measurement, and decimals.
Looking at classroom subjects through the lens of environmental impacts is a fundamental part of Sustainable Education (SE), a movement that teaches children a new way of thinking, incorporating environmental stewardship, economic security, and social equity. The Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation (CELF), headquartered in Chappaqua, was created to help schools and teachers incorporate sustainability into the K-12 curriculum.
Chappaqua parent Katie Ginsberg, the passionate and dynamic force behind CELF, was inspired to found the organization seven years ago after her older son, then in fourth grade, came home excited about Earth Day activities he had learned about – water monitoring, changing light bulbs, recycling, etc. But after a week, he never mentioned them again. Katie noted his quick drop in enthusiasm and asked herself, “If this is all the environmental education our kids are getting, how will we ever solve our big problems?”
She called some schools to find out what kinds of environmental programs were available and learned that sustainability was only occasionally taught in science class or introduced in an assembly program. Katie believed there had to be a way to thread environmental education into the daily school curriculum — and set out to do something about it.
Not having a background in education was a huge advantage. “If I had known then what teachers have to deal with on the frontlines in the classroom, I wouldn’t have believed I could get anything done,” Katie says. In fact, her background in marketing proved much more useful, helping her find the right way to communicate CELF’s message to a broad audience. Beginning in 2003, Katie started going into schools to give Introduction to Sustainability programs to raise awareness about the concepts of SE.
SE is more than just environmental education, she explains. It relies on “systems thinking,” a way of viewing problems, not in isolation, but in relation to the big picture. It takes into consideration good citizenship, how economies work, and the implications and impacts of different decisions on our natural resources. It teaches that everything is connected.
Learning for Students and Educators
To date, CELF has worked with over 100 schools in New York City; Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties; and New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, and Iowa. CELF offers both school/student programs and teacher training.
The School Ecological Footprinting Program is a PTA-supported program for fourth and fifth graders, their teachers, and parents. CELF helps them collect data to determine the school’s ecological footprint, compare it with other schools’ footprints, then create an action plan to reduce it, taking into consideration the environment, economics, and health. The action plan might include plans for a no idling zone, a walk-to-school day, or proposals to get the cafeteria to include less meat or more local foods.
CELF’s annual Students for a Sustainable Future Expo aims to show students that they can make a positive difference no matter what field they choose, as long as they understand how to incorporate sustainability into whatever they do. The Expo took place this year on April 23 at Pace University in Pleasantville, and included 65 exhibits. It featured presentations by corporations, non-governmental organizations, and county government around themes such as green building and sustainable design, energy, food and fair trade, and environmental advocacy and education. Middle and high school students also exhibited their innovative projects.
The Sustainable School Coordination Program helps educators in LEED-certified schools figure out how to use their school’s green features in the curriculum. The Gateway School, a charter school for special education in New York City, recently moved to a new silver LEED-certified facility with bamboo floors, day-lit classrooms, occupancy sensors, radiant floors, and smart metered computers. CELF helped teachers there integrate aspects of the green school into their curriculum through themes like energy and product lifecycle. With all schools now required to meet higher energy efficiency standards, the upgrades will present new opportunities to incorporate SE into the curriculum.
CELF’s annual Summer Institute for Sustainability Education teaches educators of grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 how to integrate sustainability into their existing math, social studies, science, and English language arts curricula. By understanding the concepts of SE, educators are given a lens through which to view all other subjects, but how each teacher uses that lens and for how much of the curriculum remain up to the individual. Aimee Ostensen and Shelby Land both attended the Institute last summer. This year, the Institute is being held July 6-10 at Manhattanville College in Purchase.
Since Westchester County created its Climate Change Task Force in 2006 (Katie chairs its Advisory Council Education Committee) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, the momentum for SE has been building. Katie measures CELF’s success over time through feedback from teachers who’ve been through its programs. They are reporting back that they’re trying to incorporate more and more SE into their curricula— teaching more than one unit, or extending it for a full semester or for a whole year.
“Once you have the knowledge and the values, there’s no turning back,” Katie says. “The teachers realize they have a huge impact on how these kids will turn out and how prepared they are to face the future. It’s a big responsibility, but also an empowering one.”
Looking to the Future
CELF’s goal is to become a national movement with satellite offices across the country offering teacher training and school/student programs. But of equal importance is to influence educational policy on a state and national level and revise learning standards so that SE is a required part of every curriculum.
What continues to inspire Katie are her own kids — Will (16), Maddi (15), and Greg (10) — but she’s doing this for all our children. “Once you know about these things, you feel responsible to do something about them,” she says. “And sustainability is a wonderful way to engage kids. If they feel they have a say in their future and some ability to affect it, it makes them happy and committed to education… and that’s what we need.”
If you would like to bring CELF to your school, or find out more about the Summer Institute for Sustainability Education for teachers, visit