Got Trash

Leading a Community Cleanup

Michelle was first INSPIRED to join Roots & Shoots when she won a grant to design a service-learning team with her fourth and fifth graders at PS 56 in Staten Island, New York. The goal was for students to determine areas of need in their community and to identify solutions themselves. “The kids were to come up with everything, from start to finish,” she says. Her role was to facilitate—not to lead but to support students when they needed it.

The team started by using the Roots & Shoots Community Mapping Tool to explore the needs of people, animals, and the environment around them. In mapping their community, they OBSERVED that there was a pond near the school that was littered with trash, and they started to see connections between their community and the larger world: The pond led to a creek that eventually reached the ocean. Students felt strongly that if they could clean up the pond and keep it clean, says Michelle, then “we, ourselves here in our little community, we wouldn’t be polluting into the Atlantic Ocean.” That was the spark that propelled them into ACTION.

You teach children to care.

Michelle LoMagno Roots & Shoots Leader
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Students cleaned up trash around the pond, then they began working on the root cause of the problem through an educational campaign about littering. To tackle the issue, they broke into three groups. One designed a presentation about reducing, reusing, and recycling to share with parents and students during a school assembly. A second brought their artistic and communications skills to bear, making posters for the recycling and trash bins on campus to help students and teachers put the right thing in the right bin. A third group created a lesson plan and went into kindergarten, first, and second-grade classes to teach the younger students about proper recycling.

But perhaps the biggest splash was made by a project that came about organically. One day as the team walked out into the hallway after a meeting, they realized they were stepping over mounds of trash. “And in the piles of garbage were everyday things that everyone uses, like erasers and Post-its and markers and pencils.” The students said, “There’s garbage all over the floor that’s not even garbage!’” Michelle recalls.

They had an idea. “Secretly, every day, with the help of the custodians, they collected the garbage that was on the floor, and in the end, we created a sculpture,” she says. Using plastic water bottles along with the other found materials, they built a large sculpture of a trashcan with garbage pouring out of it. They displayed it in the school’s lobby and titled it PS 56’s Got Trash.

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Learn more about the Community Mapping Tool Michelle and her students used to brainstorm their project and explore our free curriculum, online course for educators, and mini-grants to fund your group’s ideas!
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Near the end of the school year, the students were invited to Brooklyn to present their project and join students from 13 other schools in a CELEBRATION of service. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to us to talk to us about the sculpture,” says Michelle. “It was really amazing.”

But the team wasn’t done yet. Michelle and her students applied for a grant through the Department of Sanitation that allowed them to make planters for the school out of recycled tires. They painted the tires and turned them into eye-catching works of art—a ladybug, a donut, a frog—that are displayed at the front of the school property along with a sign about reducing waste.

Michelle says service learning has had an enormous impact on her students, not least those who may be introverted or usually don’t get involved for other reasons. Students develop communication skills and grow in their emotional intelligence, she says: “You teach children to care.”

Are you an educator or community leader like Michelle and looking for ways to involve your own young change-makers in making a difference for your community? Read more stories below or get started right away with a 1-click action!

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