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Students energetic about school teach-in

Speakers, trips, films illuminate fracking, oil spills


by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Marine toxicologist Riki Ott, known for taking action in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, lectures on the importance of activism to Sunnyside Environmental School students during a teach-in. Like kids in a candy store, the middle schoolers gawked at the pieces of technology in front of them.

There was a shiny smooth photovaltaic panel, a piece of a solar water-heating panel, a digital multimeter, a solometric sun eye, and a pyranometer — all objects or instruments used for solar energy and to test how much energy is in a given spot at the moment.

The students sat attentively as Steve Sefchick, a Sunnyside Environmental School parent who works for a solar power company, engaged them in a chat about his tools and work as if they were college students, rather than sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

“I was thinking they weren’t going to grasp the concepts, so I tried to make it as simple as possible,” Sefchick said afterward. The students surprised him, though. “I asked them about how nuclear power worked, and they just rattled it off like they were technicians, and that really impressed me.”

It was all part of a four-day energy teach-in held in late January at the Portland district’s focus-option school at Southeast 34th Avenue and Salmon Street.

Sunnyside was founded on the premise of blurring the line between the classroom and real world, so the teach-in concept wasn't all that foreign.

Students have daily lessons in their school garden, and they study ecosystems, sustainable practices and other nature-based concepts across the curriculum.

For the teach-in, the middle school teachers took time off from their regular studies to focus on energy: energy forms, the physics of energy and ripped-from-the-headlines topics like fracking and coal transport.

They rode the TriMet bus to the Bagdad Theater to watch “Gasland,” a documentary about fracking. From their classroom they watched “The Last Mountain,” a 2011 film about the fight over coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains.

They visited Reed College’s nuclear reactor and got a presentation at Mercy Corps.

Energy “is the current issue of our generation,” says Tara Branham, part of the middle school team along with Karen Shay and Jan Zuckerman. “It is really powerful to have us all come together.”

Most of the teach-in consisted of presentations by invited guests: local industry representatives as well as Sunnyside parents and alumni with expertise in various energy-related fields.

State Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, came to talk about energy efficiency. Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, discussed the bird and marine life he saw affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Students also heard from people working for Greenpeace, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Iberdrola Wind.

The biggest name was Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist, author and former commercial fisher known for taking action in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In between all of the lessons, the teachers scheduled time for debriefing and giving students time to ask questions, reflect on their lessons and write about their responses. They’ll work it into a persuasive energy and “action plan” to carry forward, and some may present it to their peers at another school.

Every student had some takeaway.

“Coal burning has added mercury to tuna!” wrote sixth-grader Shelton Bowman. “Why didn’t I know this before? How many fishermen have lost jobs because of this?”

Inspired by teachers

It wasn’t the first teach-in for Sunnyside.

Four years ago, the teach-in was on the Iraq War. The next year they focused on climate change.

Teachers decided to revive the tradition after attending a November conference organized by Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee, Wisc.-based nonprofit that promotes curriculum reform through a lens of social justice.

Several Portland teachers are avid followers of Rethinking Schools, which produces a monthly magazine.

After seeing a presentation on “how statistics lie” in relation to the BP oil spill, “We said, ‘We have to do this,’” Branham says. So they quickly organized a list of resources and guest speakers they could tap into.

Sunnyside doesn’t have any special funds to bring in guests or organize teach-ins. It just took time to pick up the phone and ask, Zuckerman says.

Sunnyside is one of the district's most competitive schools to get into. Although it's called a focus option, which allows anyone in the district a chance to attend through a lottery, those slots are severely limited.

Last year in the school of 608 students, just 18 were accepted through the lottery — eight in kindergarten and 10 in sixth grade. A hundred forty students applied.

That means the school is now primarily comprised of inner Southeast Portland neighborhood students, who are guaranteed to attend.

Added staff helps

Teachers say what was most critical for the teach-in was the time to plan, and the ability to push aside core classes for a few days, which at any other school would require an OK from the school administration.

Luckily, Sunnyside has that leeway, organizing these types of projects all the time.

Vinnie Miller, a Mt. Hood Community College student, is on staff 30 hours a week as Sunnyside's sustainability coordinator. There’s also a garden coordinator, both paid by Parent Teacher Student Association funds.

Miller has helped organize student efforts like “de-lamping” the school — taking out as many as 176 unneeded light bulbs — and serving as a pilot school for the city’s food composting effort.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Miller worked with students on a service project for children in Haiti affected by malnutrition.

Last fall, eighth-graders divided into cohorts to take on yearlong projects relating to pollution, homelessness, hunger, climate change, animal rights, same-sex rights and other topics.

The pollution team, for example, created a recycling program for soft plastics — the plastic wrap and grocery bags that inevitably float around but aren’t typically recycled.

“We have a lot of power as middle schoolers,” says Aiden Dummigan, an eighth-grader. “If we have good information, we can do things and make huge impacts and change the world.”