This interview continues ROL’s “Teachers’ Voices” series, a monthly feature celebrating teachers who, with their students, have accomplished remarkable projects that combine literacy and technology. For more about Teachers’ Voices and links to other interviews in the series, visit the series introduction.

Teachers’ Voices

An Interview with Mark Ahlness and Jean Carmody About the Earth Day Groceries Project

Nicole Strangman
Reading Online Editorial Assistant
CAST, Inc.
Peabody, Massachusetts, USA



Miss Rumphius gave her gift away to the world, and that’s the way I feel about the Earth Day project. I had the seed of an idea (to carry the metaphor a little bit there), and...it’s gratifying just to see it grow and spread.

Mark Ahlness


Earth Day rolls around on April 22. If you are looking for a way to celebrate the day with your class, look no further than the Earth Day Groceries Project. Mark Ahlness, third-grade teacher at Arbor Heights Elementary School in Seattle, Washington, USA, created this very special Internet project, which has students decorating grocery bags with environmental messages and giving them away at grocery stores to educate the community. He has dedicated great time and effort to the project as it continues to grow. Last year, Jean Carmody, who teaches art at two elementary schools in Cranston, Rhode Island, USA, participated in this project with her students from kindergarten to Grade 5. Websites for Stadium and Glen Hills elementary schools showcase some of the wonderful work her students created as they educated both themselves and their community about the environment.

 

Other Interviews in the Teachers’ Voices Series

portrait of Mark Ahlness

Mark Ahlness

portrait of Jean Carmody

Jean Carmody

As I talked to these exemplary teachers about their experiences with Earth Day Groceries, I learned what it takes to get a project like this started and the rewards it can offer to teachers and students.


screen shot of the Earth Day Groceries Project home page

Home Page of the Earth Day Groceries Project


Nicole:

Mark, I am truly impressed with how successful the Earth Day Groceries Project has been. How did this all come about?

  Mark:

I got an Internet account in 1993 from NASA -- that was very exciting -- and got on some educational discussion lists. I tried this project at my schools: borrowing grocery bags from the local supermarket with the agreement that the kids would decorate them and bring them back, and the store would distribute them to customers on Earth Day, April 22. It would be an environmental education project where the students were actually empowered as teachers to educate their community on the importance of Earth Day and of protecting their environment and so on. And they did that through the artwork that they put on each grocery bag.

It was a huge hit. I involved most of the school the next year. And, after that, I wanted to share it even more. The Internet was just starting with discussion lists for educators, and so I sent this invitation out to Ednet and Kidsphere in 1994. I received responses from 43 schools, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. There were about 15,000 bags decorated just through this one little announcement! I was just blown away. The power of this medium is something!

That summer I began building our school website. And for the first 4 years of the project, the Earth Day Groceries Project was part of that site. It’s continued to grow. I established it with its own domain name several years ago, and 2 years ago, I set it up as a nonprofit organization. I still run it myself, but we do have a board. The reason for doing that is that it became a very big project in terms of the amount of time required.

children's Earth Day artwork

Earth Day Artwork from the Students at Arbor Heights Elementary School

Nicole:

Looking at the website, it’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into the project. How did you develop the skills you needed to construct the site?

Mark:

There were no books on HTML [hypertext mark-up language, the tagging system used to create most webpages] published when I started working on the school website. Basically, I went to a few websites, and I looked at the source of the webpages. I learned how to copy and paste, put my own information in, and look at the page locally. That’s how I learned how HTML worked. Then I found a very simple HTML editor and learned a little bit more. So, I was self-taught, and trial and error was one of the first ways that I got started.

Nicole:

How have things changed since then?

Mark:

Now there are a lot of books, and terrific online resources and courses. The opportunities to learn are all over the place. The biggest challenge for teachers is finding the time to do it. That’s the biggest challenge for me -- just finding the time to keep my skills.

Nicole:

Jean, introducing computers into the classroom seems like a somewhat unlikely thing for an art teacher to do. What prompted you to do it?

Earth Day Groceries Project poster

Classroom poster from the project starter kit

Jean:

I started constructing webpages a couple of years ago, and just continued to develop with it. Being an art teacher, I like doing anything visual, and doing webpages became a way for me to become visually and “artically” challenged.

Nicole:

Was working with your students on the Earth Day Groceries Project the first time that you had done something like this -- something that involved putting work on the Internet?

Jean:

Yes, it was. And it was wonderful! I was looking for a way to get the kids involved with the community, and this was a good way to do it because it involves both art and community service. The kids absolutely enjoyed it; they were excited. In fact, they actually had their parents go grocery shopping on Earth Day just so they could get the bags! And some of the students even brought the bags back to school to give back to those who created them.

Nicole:

What were your goals for your students when you started to participate in the project?

Jean:

I just wanted them to come up with a message and make a picture that related to the message -- those are the most important things.

screen shot of page from Stadium Elementary website     screen shot of page from Glen Hill Elementary website

Webpages from the Stadium and Glen Hills elementary school websites

Nicole:

How did you help them to achieve those goals?

Jean:

I would introduce the lesson by talking about recycling, ecology, the environment, and ways that we can improve the environment. We’d talk about what Earth Day is -- the whole meaning behind it.

From an art standpoint, we would talk about the graphics: What is the best way to design the product to get interest in it? We would talk about advertising, too -- the message in the advertising, whether through the words or the pictures. And then we’d talk about how to design it.

The one thing I tell my students is not to get too wordy, because if they get too wordy, people aren’t going to read it. Keep it simple. And the kids really take it from there. I do not believe in saying no to them, because it is their imagination -- as long as they are working within the themes of the earth, Earth Day, recycling, and ecology. And they seem to catch on pretty quickly.

child’s artwork   child’s artwork   child’s artwork
child’s artwork   child’s artwork

Earth Day artwork from Jean Carmody’s third, fourth, and fifth graders

Nicole:

So, by giving them the freedom to pick their own messages and to express them with art and words, you help ensure that all students, in spite of their differences, can participate in the project and do well at it?

child's illustration of a garden

A second grader celebrates planting a garden

Jean:

Yes, a lot of my students are visual learners, and this allows this project to be more meaningful to them. There was one particular second-grader who had done a picture of a garden. This child came up with the idea of a garden himself, which I thought was very good. They all come up with their own ideas, because art is supposed to be unlimited.

Nicole:

What were the primary skills that your students developed over the course of the project?

Jean:

They learned about the environment, and they learned that by getting a message out they could do something -- whether it be through pictures or words.

Nicole:

These are themes and skills common to many major subject areas. Did the students’ other teachers get involved at all in the project?

Jean:

The entire school was involved with the project, including the special education classes. The other teachers would help in terms of talking about recycling, helping me with the messages, helping me with the ideas, and helping the kids come up with ideas.

Nicole:

Mark, what are some of the other ways that you’ve seen teachers integrate this project into their teaching?

Mark:

Well, it’s probably the most powerful geography lesson that I teach in terms of learning the U.S. states, capitols, cities, and so on. I print out all the reports; we have this huge display wall every year, and I ask the students to put a dot on the state that the report came from with the number of bags on it. So that’s pretty much built in if a teacher wants to take advantage of it.


wall display of participating schools

The wall display at Arbor Heights school, showing participation in the project

 

There are a lot of math possibilities involved. If a teacher wanted to ask his or students to do research -- you know, “How many states participated in 1998? How many bags were decorated in Delaware in 1997?” This is at the elementary level. At the secondary level, teachers have done trends or predictions of participation.

In the early days of the project there was a lot of reading involved, and there still is the potential for that -- to have students read and share the reports.

Schools have set up their own webpages having to do with the project as well. You can talk about design and, of course, environmental science -- however teachers want to integrate the preservation of our world into their curriculum and the study of Earth Day.

Nicole:

Entire schools get involved with this project. What do the students seem to like most about this it?

Mark:

It’s become a tradition at our school. It’s kind of like, “Well, at Christmas you always have a tree. If we’re doing grocery bags, it must be Earth Day.” The kids love it. Kids just like doing art, love being creative. And the stuff that I see being created -- every year it just keeps getting better and better.

Now, my own class -- I like to call them the ambassadors for the school. They go around with a bundle of bags for each classroom. They practice in class in front of their classmates, and they have to get the stamp of approval that they are ready for the general public, and then they go out and have a fun, exciting, and nervous time talking to the fifth graders and answering questions and giving them their blank bags and telling them all the rules (although everybody knows them). Then, as students around the school work on the bags and send them back to us, my students proofread for spelling. So, they become involved as editors. And then the culmination of it all is that we walk to the store and deliver them in person. So they feel kind of important and special. It’s a big deal!

    

Decorated bags from the Earth Day Groceries Project 2001
(click on the images to see more)

Nicole:

One of the other terrific things about an Internet-based project like this one seems to be its motivating power for students. Would you agree?

Jean:

It definitely is a motivator. That’s why I put pictures of the bags on the school websites. The kids are motivated because they like to see the work online.

Nicole:

Are there other benefits to putting the work online?

Jean:

The parents are very proud of their kids when they see their work up there. And some of the other art teachers in my district got involved with the Earth Day project last year because they saw what I had done. It gets educators involved and gives them ideas.

         

Earth Day grocery bags decorated by Jean Carmody’s students in kindergarten to second grade

Nicole:

How else have you shared what you know with others?

Jean:

Glen Hills Elementary is considered a model school in the district. Basically, the district is focusing on Glen Hills in terms of how educators can integrate technology in the classroom. In 2001we applied for the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Working Wonder Grant to create model classrooms with one computer for every four children. So, we have seven or eight classrooms that each have six computers in them, and we have a media center with seven computers in it.

About ten teachers and the principal went through a 2-week training this summer. My colleague Doreen Murphy and I were two of the trainers, and we taught these teachers how they could include technology as a part of their teaching and their students’ learning.

If teachers from other schools want to come and see how this school is integrating technology in the classroom, they can. It’s great! There’s so much to share. And it just seems like everybody should know this. You hope everybody could.

Nicole:

Mark, what else is special about this project?

Mark:

It’s a noncommercial project that’s always free. It’s never been one that you have to pay to get into. Another thing that makes it a little bit different from other online projects is that you don’t have to register, you don’t have to sign up, you don’t have to say you’re going to do it. The only thing that I ask is that if you participate, just let us know.

Nicole:

What sort of challenges have you had to face with this project?

Mark:

One of the frustrations and challenges is trying to keep it going without support. Basically, it’s still a one-man show. And I need to make it not so, because the work is getting to be too big now. And so there are times when I’ve been disappointed over the lack of support.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that the boundaries of where I work are different. They’re not defined by my four walls and are not defined by my city or district or state or even country. The boundaries have changed, and I feel myself part -- very much part -- of a different and larger community.

In 1996 or 1997 the American Forest and Paper Association stepped forward and said, “We’d like to be a part of this. How can we help you?” And I said, “How would you like to buy an ad on the school website?” I checked around with the people in my district as much as I could, and for 3 years ran an ad on the Earth Day Groceries page. And that was really kind of how it started out financially. And since I established its own domain name, they have provided technical assistance.

Nicole:

Your investment has been immense. How has the project repaid you?

Mark:

Well, besides having it be a wonderfully rich tool to use for myself in the spring with my own third graders, every year I find myself close to tears several times just reading motivational stories, obstacles overcome, exciting moments at a school. When you realize how many stories are out there, it’s very moving, very rewarding to me as the originator of the project -- and I think to other people as well. And, of course, when I get the pictures of the kids working on this stuff -- to see the joy on their faces, the pride when they’re designing their bags.

In terms of future directions for this, I want to pursue the idea that this is really a huge art project. People began using pictures to document their project, and now the pictures that people send in are a big part of the website. There are hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of pictures of kids involved in this project, displaying their artwork or working on it and so on. It’s one of the largest -- if not the largest -- student art give-aways that I know of. There are thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- of bags that are literally works of art, that students work on, sweat over, and then give away to someone they don’t know. It happens every year and it’s very rewarding to know that that happens.

display of decorated bags

An impressive display of bags decorated by kindergarten through sixth graders

Nicole:

Jean, how did your students feel about giving their work away?

Jean:

They felt good about it. They really didn’t mind because they knew that people were going to get a message from it, which I thought was very good. I had told them straight out front, “You know, you aren’t going to get the work back, but think of all the people who are going to see it.”

Nicole:

And they can always see the pictures up on the web!

Jean:

Exactly! And I did take photos of a lot of the students’ work.

Nicole:

Has the Internet changed your teaching beyond this project?

Mark:

Oh, yeah! The Internet and computers have changed my teaching in big ways. I have 11 computers in my rooms. In 1994 there was one. They belong to me...so I’ve sort of been a crusader -- you know, an early adopter -- for the website. My kids write on computers daily. They’re working on a word-processing task at least once a day. They have weekly individual Web assignments that are posted on the Arbor Heights website called the Room 12 Top Ten Lists. They are in PDF format [portable document format], and people anywhere can use them.

And then I have a lot of cooperative partner work in doing research. I do a variation on adopt a city in the U.S., where the students have to go find information, build little reports, and so on. And we’ll be doing stuff with cameras next year in the classroom.

So, technology has changed the way I teach. I’m not a different teacher because of it, but it’s a different school. My classroom now looks very different from the one I taught in 10 years ago. Students still sit in chairs, but they don’t sit there as long, for example. The potential is enormous, and I’m getting excited, getting geared up and figuring out how technology will affect what I’ll teach again this year. It’s exciting. It changes every year, and I look forward to it -- even at the end of the summer.

Jean:

For me, it has made teaching more challenging, and it has made my job more exciting! Because there is so much out there, and I still haven’t found it all. As a teacher, I am learning something new everyday, and it’s wonderful!

Nicole:

Jean, are there other ways that you have attempted to merge technology and education?

Jean:

A while back I joined Talkcity as a host for their education chats at “Educenter,” which led to my present position as community coordinator for Apple on AOL. I have a project that I am in the midst of creating that will involve education chats for them. Also, I completed the masters program in technology and education at Lesley University.

Nicole:

Do you have any advice for teachers who don’t have the knowledge of computers that you have but feel like they’d like to be involved with this sort of thing?

Jean:

Don’t be afraid. Take it one step at a time, which is what I did. I started out by doing word processing, and I just started learning new things that one can do with technology.... There is no limit to what one can learn!

Nicole:

Mark, what has the Miss Rumphius award meant to you?

Mark:

icon image of the Miss Rumphius AwardIt’s meant a.... I’m struggling for the right word -- but maybe there isn’t one. It has meant lots of things. I’ve taught that story [Barbara Cooney’s book Miss Rumphius, from which the award takes its name] to my kids as part of my reading curriculum for several years, and I love it. And then to get the award -- well, it just kind of blew me out of the water. I was very honored, and teaching the story means more to me now, and my students can tell that. It’s a beautiful story about giving things away. Miss Rumphius gave her gift away to the world, and that’s the way I feel about the Earth Day project. I had the seed of an idea (to carry the metaphor a little bit there), and.... You ask what’s rewarding about it. Well, it’s gratifying just to see it grow and spread. That’s tremendously rewarding.




Images are property of the Earth Day Groceries Project and are used with permission. To print this interview, point and click your mouse anywhere on the article’s text; then use your browser’s print command.

Citation: Strangman, N. (2002, March). An interview with Mark Ahlness and Jean Carmody about the Earth Day groceries project. Reading Online, 5(7). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=voices/ahlness_carmody/index.html



Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted March 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232