Upcycling Upstanders

Posted by Eran DeSilva on January 24, 2014

It’s one thing to talk about trends. It’s another thing to learn about them, to experience them firsthand, and to understand how your own choices and actions can impact what a trend looks like.

As a global studies teacher at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California, I see a lot of my students talking about “upcycling,” the act of redesigning or repurposing an existing item. Rather than recycling your plastic bottle, why not turn it into a vase? Or maybe you can collect all of your potato chip bags and create a fashionable purse? Upcycling can be an art movement, a form of activism, and is good for both our local communities and the global environment.

This fall, I wanted my freshman global studies class to use the idea of upcycling to practice ideas of participation, examining how our choices can impact the world around us. The class examines global issues such as public health, resource use and distribution, environmental issues, access to education, women’s issues, and world conflict through the lens of geography. We study these issues by looking at themes that Facing History explores, such as identity, membership, and participation.

In one recent class, students became outraged after learning that in the amount of time it takes for them to read their homework assignment, a section of the Amazon rainforest that is as large as two football fields will be destroyed. So I asked them, How does a community balance economic and social development with environmental sustainability?

For the next two days we examined the complexity of the issue, considering the multiple perspectives involved (loggers, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, Native Amazonians, consumers, multinational corporations). One useful resource was short documentary The Student, the Nun and the Amazon, which shows impoverished communities living in the rainforest and two upstanders working on their behalf, Sister Dorothy Stang and a student named Sam. Students learned that the destruction was multilayered in causes and effects. Moreover, there was no clear solution, no one perpetrator, and no single victim. They began to look at the motivations of the loggers and multinational corporations – and felt discomfort as they saw that consumer demand in developed countries such as the United States played a part in this destruction. All of a sudden, the students realized that they are very much part of the deforestation that is taking place on another continent. We coupled the film with critical thinking and analysis activities using Facing History vocabulary and framework to help students navigate this complicated issue. Students considered how identity can influence choices and looked at questions such as Who were the perpetrators in the rainforest destruction - loggers or consumers? The Brazilian government or the international community? Were consumers bystanders or perpetrators? How could individuals choose to become upstanders and protect the environment? The underlying goal was for students to connect how their individual choices impact their larger global community.

In their final project for this unit, the students had to raise awareness about what they had learned by creating art pieces that advocated for environmental sustainability and stewardship. There was one catch - they had to use discarded materials from whatever they consumed during a single week!

As they collected their “trash” and recycled materials, students learned about how to construct 3-D art projects from local artist Kim Munson, who worked with my seniors last spring on an art as advocacy project [read more about that project here].. The project allowed students to track their own consumption patterns and use art to express their understanding of global issues. Through the project, students practiced critical analysis and thinking skills, and creative problem solving. Using only recycled or discarded materials was challenging, and often the students’ plans didn’t go exactly as they had hoped. They needed to redesign, rethink, and retry new ideas in order to successfully complete their assignment. We displayed the final projects at the local farmer’s market in downtown San Jose. Student ambassadors accompanied the artwork and shared their new found knowledge and insight with the community. In engaging in a conversation about environmental issues and encouraging one outside of the classroom, these students became upcycling upstanders working for eco-justice!


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Eran DeSilva teaches 10th and 12th grade History at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, CA. She is the recipient of a 2013 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant from Facing History and Ourselves. This post is part of a series that highlights the classroom and school work of the 2013 Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant winners. These teachers are thinking outside the box to transform schools and impact student learning and their projects are helping students worldwide to become more active, concerned citizens.

Topics: Art, Choosing to Participate, Innovative Classrooms

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