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Take the Green Challenge

Originally appears in the Fall 2015 issue

The gym is dark on an early February morning, illuminated faintly by the low winter sun streaming through windows two stories up, and a few candles dotting the stage.   They shine on the 7th grade classes singing a song about energy, accompanied by their teacher on acoustic guitar.  The rest of the school listens, some of the younger students swaying and bouncing as their bodies naturally find the music’s rhythm.  This all-school assembly will kick off the month’s Green Challenge – Save Electricity – and the students who planned the assembly didn’t want to use electricity to show a PowerPoint, or even to light up the stage.  The concert ends, and the whole school is informed of some of their common tasks for the month.  Each classroom will be making light switch plates for their room and common spaces throughout the school that will remind people to turn off lights when leaving the room.  Classes will be assessing their use of ghost power and devising solutions to reduce it by unplugging unneeded appliances.  Inspired by the presentation of the month’s initiatives, students file back to their classrooms to start working on ways to use less electricity throughout the school.

I feel extremely fortunate to have spent the past 12 years at Prairie Crossing Charter School, a K-8 school with an environmental focus.  Unlike many other educators with a passion for environmental education, I never have to defend my reasons for taking students outside to learn.  While we certainly present multiple viewpoints about the complex environmental issues that affect modern society, it’s never been in question that our school will support eco-friendly solutions and courses of action.  And yet, several years ago, I realized that while we were engaging students in learning about sustainability at a deep level, we had neglected some of the most basic environmental behaviors.  I could walk into a classroom and hear a meaningful discussion on the local food movement, but look into the trash can and see students’ papers on food systems tossed away carelessly in the bin bound for the landfill. Oh the irony!  We had come so far that we’d forgotten where we started.

Thus was born our Green Challenge program, which brings our entire school community – teachers, students, non-instructional staff and parents – together to focus on one environmental topic or behavior each month.  We learn about the topic academically first, with each child studying, at an age-appropriate level, the science, politics, economics, and other aspects of the issue.  We analyze our current behaviors, set goals, and aim to lessen our environmental impact.  For us, the Green Challenge program has been a way to get back to the basics, making sure that we don’t forget the simple things that people can do every day to help the planet.  For other schools, the Green Challenge program could serve as an entryway to creating a school culture that encourages conservation behaviors.  Whether you’re at an established Green School or are looking for a way to start implementing environmental initiatives in your school or classroom, try Green Challenges to unite your community through eco-friendly behaviors.  This article will explain how to start/implement the program, including helpful tips for sustaining it and suggestions for two-years worth of monthly challenges.

The Formula 

Each month of the school year, embrace a Green Challenge.  At our school, several weeks prior to the month’s start, staff members receive a challenge overview.  This document details the challenge’s outcomes and activities.  Month after month each challenge contains the same or similar elements.  These include:

An Opening Assembly.  Near the beginning of each month, we hold an all-school assembly to introduce the newest challenge.  At the assembly, students learn what the month’s focus will be, get some background information, and begin to learn about what they will be asked to do through the course of the month.  Assemblies often involve student participation, like the one described at the top of the article; classes have performed skits, created books that were projected and read aloud, created videos about challenge topics, and performed concerts.

A poster.  Each month’s theme has a visual image that represents it.  At our school, I created these images using bold colors and following a similar visual look for each challenge. You may want to take this task on yourself, or make it an assignment for one of the upper grade art classes. The graphic is inserted into a poster that states “In (Month) and beyond, we (challenge topic).” For example: In November and beyond, we Compost. The posters are hung in each classroom and in school public spaces, with large banners lining one wall of the gymnasium.  The posters serve to remind everyone, including visitors to campus, of the month’s focus!  When the month ends, posters remain hanging, and new ones get added next to them so that by the end of the year, classrooms and public spaces have an entire row of Challenge posters to remind all of what we’ve accomplished through the year.

Facilities Components (if applicable).  We strive to make our campus environmentally friendly, and to set up systems that encourage lessened impact.  Challenges may have facilities components that are very involved.  For instance, the first time we did our recycling challenge, we made sure that every trash can in the school was paired with a recycling bin and vice versa.  We also provided uniform labeling for each receptacle to provide consistency.  Other challenges have minimal facilities components – for our “Drive Less” Challenge, we installed student-created anti-idling signage in our parking lots, but no other changes were made to the campus.  Some challenges, such as “Leave No Child Inside” and “Trash-Free Lunches,” have no facilities components at all.

Content Components.  These start out as simple statements of what we want students to understand about the month’s topic.  The content components are accompanied by a variety of resources for teachers – lesson plans, videos, readings, websites and other resources.  This allows teachers to easily teach the content and meet the needs of their class.  Some of the months feature required activities that each classroom must complete; other months have a menu of options from which teachers can choose.

Behavior Components.  At the heart of each challenge is the goal of changing people’s behaviors in such a way that we reduce our impact on the planet or improve student health.  Behavior components vary from large changes with time-consuming behavior monitoring and data collections, to smaller actions that can’t be measured.  For example, in the Reduce Paper Challenge, each classroom and office area monitors all paper usage for a week to get an accurate picture of what people use before modification begins.  Then each class/space sets a goal or reduction target.  This could involve photocopying or office paper, but just as often it has to do with the paper towels used in hand washing or cleaning practices.  Then classes spend the remainder of the month trying to achieve their goal, still tracking all paper used. It’s a very involved month, which for our school has led to long-term changes in paper use habits.  On the other hand, during our Drive Less challenge, all behavior goals occur outside of school and are mainly suggestions for family conversations, as our students are not old enough to drive themselves!

Contests/Incentives.  Some challenges naturally lend themselves to contests between classrooms or students.  We use these sparingly because in my experience there are often negative elements to competitions. For one thing, they can cause students to place blame on each other, often for choices that were made at home by their parents and not by the students themselves (such as the choice to buy packaged lunch-foods).  For another, they provide an external motivation that ends as soon as the contest ends, and sometimes don’t lead to permanent change.  Still, contests can be a fun way to get students involved in lessening their personal impact.

Literature Links.  Provide teachers with a list of ideas for picture books, books for older readers, and articles that tie into the theme and can be used in reading instruction.

Home Connections.  These are delivered via several methods.  First, both the school and individual classrooms publish bi-monthly newsletters.  Green Challenge updates, appropriate facts, ideas, and discussion topics are included in these. In addition, students may have homework assignments that relate to the Green Challenge, and encourage family discussion.

The Challenges

At Prairie Crossing Charter School we have developed a two-year cycle of challenges.  These 18 topics provide variety and interest; by the time students repeat them they are older and the content level has become more challenging. Here are the challenges we’ve developed, feel free to add or change to meet your school and student’s needs.


Month Odd-even year (2015-16) Even-odd year (2016-17)
September RecycleThis is a basic challenge, but it’s always an important topic to address, especially at the beginning of the year. The challenge requires looking at behaviors as well as ensuring that the campus is well equipped and set up for proper recycling behaviors in terms of bin labelling and placement. Focus on WellnessThis challenge involves looking at the links between healthy choices (food, free time, etc.) and environmental impacts.  Students learn about the dimensions of wellness, including physical, environmental, social, emotional, and intellectual. This challenge focuses on environmental components of wellness, but also ties in with anti-bullying initiatives that lead up to Bully Prevention Day (the first Monday in October).
October Strive for Trash Free LunchesThis challenge heavily involves families, and is especially important for those schools that do not have a lunch program! Eat RealTo correspond with Food Day on October 24 (more information at, students learn about the connections between food choices, the environment and health, with an emphasis on the impact of the food system on the planet.
November CompostDuring this challenge, we review our procedures and ensure that students understand the complete cycle of nutrients, as well as the benefits of composting. Celebrate our ValuesPCCS’ value statements include environmental learning, academic excellence, partnering with parents and personal responsibility; this challenge ensures that all students know what your school stands for, and why it’s important and unique!
December Share Don’t TossThis is a holiday-time initiative that encourages students to donate used items, and think about gift-giving practices; at our school it aligns with the “Holiday Bazaar” event – a gift donation/exchange arena where students can buy used items to give to their family members for the holidays Use Less StuffIn December, as the holidays approach, we look at the amount of resources we consume; students assess needs vs. wants, and learn to think about what’s really important to them, and how that can tie into their holiday traditions.  This challenge tackles the “reduce and reuse” concepts from the 3Rs.
January Use Less PaperIn a school, paper is a heavily used material; this challenge encourages students and staff to rethink and reduce paper usage without compromising their academic integrity. Save EnergyStudents learn about energy sources and think about all of the things in their lives that aren’t possible without energy.  This challenge includes electricity and transportation, but focuses in on things like heating/cooling due to overlaps with “Save Electricity” and “Drive Less” challenges.
February Save ElectricityThis challenge is designed primarily to ensure that everyone in the school is thinks about turning things OFF when they are not being used, but involves students in thinking about sources of energy and natural resources as well. Design GreenDuring this month, students learn about the green aspects of the physical campus; at PCCS this includes a LEED certified classroom building, native landscaping, and others.
March Conserve WaterIn this month, we look at how much water we use and for what, and determine/enact ways to reduce usage of this precious resource both at school and at home. Drive LessThis is an initiative to involve our families, since our students are all too young to drive themselves (but if teaching the program at a high school could be a way to get new drivers started on the right path).  This challenge is especially relevant to PCCS’ carpooling procedure, since our school has no bussing.
April Leave No Child InsideTimed to line up with Earth Week, this challenge involves getting students outside for meaningful, integrated learning experiences, as well as play and adventure. Take Tech OutsideThis challenge involves getting students outside, and invites teachers to explore how we can use technology to enhance EE.  It was also specifically designed to coordinate with Earth Week.
May Retool our School SuppliesIn May, ask students and teachers to think about what will happen to still-good school supplies at the end of the year. We implemented store-your-stuff -for-next-year options and collect donations. GardenThis challenge encourages classes to use the school’s raised beds and classroom discretionary garden areas, and integrate them with academic studies.


Of course, schools can create their own challenges based on their own environmental needs and their situations.  Challenge creation could be the task of the school’s Green Team, a group of committed teachers and/or administrators, or it could fall to classes of students.

In fact, after we completed our first two-year cycle through Green Challenges, a class of third and fourth grade students asked me if they could develop new Green Challenges to fill holes that they, as students, saw missing in the program.  These students created three new challenges – Save Endangered Species, Don’t Litter, and Reduce Fossil Fuels.  Using our templates, the students created challenge overviews.  They performed at the assemblies, implemented contests, and made announcements over the PA system each morning.  Their energy and involvement reinvigorated the Green Challenge program in its second cycle.


Five Tips for Implementation

  1. Go it alone (if you have to). Part of what we love about the Green Challenge program is that it involves our entire school in a united effort.  With kindergarten through grade eight students, we don’t often have topics and foci like this that apply to the entire school population.  However, if there isn’t administrative support or the entire faculty is not on board, Green Challenges could be implemented by a single grade level or even classroom.  Done well, this could be a springboard for whole school participation in years (or months) to come. Participating classes may be able to prove to the administration that they saved money or improved student performance through their environmental initiatives, and their enthusiasm and fun may make other teachers want to join in!
  2. Start slow. Jumping into a monthly Green Challenge program can be overwhelming.  I advise schools that are starting out to consider implementing only four challenges each year, and skipping a month in between (or even allowing longer time for each challenge, perhaps lining them up with the school’s grading quarters).  This allows more planning time, and will make it easier to develop the challenges.
  3. Switch off. If doing challenges every month, try interspersing challenges that involve more classroom activities and behavior changes with ones that are relaxed, and focus on issues that won’t take as much energy.  For example, the Conserve Water challenge involves data collection/auditing, which may involve research into water flow and fixtures.  This is followed by behavior modification and additional data collection.  In many cases, it also involves homework as students monitor their home water usage.  That month’s intensity is followed by the fun challenge of Leaving No Child Inside, which is a challenge we meet every month regardless.  Some challenges are naturally less labor intensive than others, but every challenge can be done to the level that is appropriate for the school at the time.
  4. Use the buddy system. At Prairie Crossing, each class is matched up with a buddy class – older and younger students are matched up to work together.  These classes start as reading buddies; reading together several times a year and developing a relationship while working on critical literacy skills.  We found that these student buddies were great for the Green Challenges, especially after we had been through our first cycle.  At that point, the older buddy may have already done the Green Challenge a couple of years prior.  They are able to take a leadership role and teach what they know to their younger counterparts.  This keeps the older students invested, engaged and on task.  Meanwhile, the younger students get to see, as a role model, an older student engaging in eco-friendly behaviors and telling them why it is important.
  5. Line it up. Integrating subject material makes learning more meaningful to students.  We have taken great efforts to align and integrate our green challenges with either all-school events or grade level curriculum.  For example, we created our Donate, Don’t Toss! Challenge to highlight the Holiday Bazaar. The accompanying challenge allows us to celebrate and promote the event and help students to understand its importance and impact… and we didn’t have to develop a big new thing for the challenge!  Similarly, we already had big, themed Earth Week celebrations at our school, so we tied challenges to those events.  The above chart notes other all-school-event integration.  We also try, when possible, to align challenges to academic curriculum.  The energy challenges coordinate with times when classes are studying electricity.  The Conserve Water challenge happens around the time when students are learning about the water cycle.  This allows teachers to enhance their content in both their academic classes and with the Green Challenge.


The Green Challenge Program provides a framework for classrooms or schools at any level to embrace or enhance eco-friendly behaviors.  It gives schools and teachers a structure for making classroom changes and introducing environmental topics.  It fosters community togetherness and involves families.  Challenge your school to go green today!

To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.


Naomi Dietzel Hershiser is the Dean of Environmental Learning at Prairie Crossing Charter School, a K-8 school with an environmental focus in Grayslake, IL.  She works with teachers and students to ensure that all classes at Prairie Crossing focus on environmental literacy and learning in and from nature.  For more detailed information on any of Prairie Crossing’s Green Challenges, contact Naomi through the school’s website,