Change may be slow, but it’s worth the wait.
This life truth was recently made clear to Jodi Spiro’s third graders, a group of students passionate about doing their part to save the earth—particularly when it comes to limiting the amount of garbage that’s dumped into the environment, a topic they’ve discussed often this year.
“We knew there was a problem, then we watched this video of how much trash ends up in rivers and oceans, and we thought it was really sad,” said class member Helena A. “We saw this island made out of trash—it’s bigger than Texas.”
“It feels like people don’t really care about what they’re throwing out,” added classmate Declan M.
And it really bothered the third graders to imagine Rowland Hall contributing to the problem—especially in one specific way: even though the school had returned to a traditional serving line at lunch (during the pandemic, individually packaged meals were delivered to classrooms), the dining hall hadn’t shifted back to using metal cutlery. The students knew the use of plastic utensils had to be creating a lot of waste, so in October they visited the dining hall to get an idea of just how much. The third graders began by counting the number of plastic utensils that fit into the dining hall’s cutlery dispenser, then determined how many times that dispenser was filled. They were shocked to learn that the McCarthey Campus was tossing around 900 plastic forks, knives, and spoons each week.
We realized how much we were throwing away and we wanted to know why, and we wanted to change it.—Third grader Declan M.
“We realized how much we were throwing away and we wanted to know why, and we wanted to change it,” said Declan.
And though the students were anxious to make those changes right away, Jodi knew they would need the support of campus partners, including SAGE Dining Services, Rowland Hall’s lunch provider, which she knew was probably using plastic cutlery for a reason. Jodi saw the moment as an opportunity for her class to not only understand the reasoning behind that decision, but to learn how to respectfully present their request to reverse it.
“The way you go about something is the way you’ll get lasting change,” she told the class. “You’re going to get better buy-in from everybody if you’re respectful.”
So the class began by writing persuasive letters to explain their concerns and to propose their solution, which they sent to Julia Simonsen, food service director for SAGE, in November. They received a prompt response explaining that there was indeed a reason behind the use of plastic cutlery: students had been throwing away the dining hall’s metal cutlery, as well as reusable cups and even lunch trays. This was its own problem—the dining hall simply couldn’t afford to keep replacing these items. The third graders realized that, in order to address their cutlery concerns, they would first have to tackle another waste issue. So they made Julia an offer: they would teach lower schoolers how to properly use lunchroom materials if SAGE agreed to bring them back. Julia agreed.
With their end goal in mind, the third graders jumped into making plans for educating fellow students both on the proper use of cafeteria materials and on limiting what they sent to the landfill. They knew they would have to talk to every Lower School class, so they divided into teams, with each team choosing the grades they wanted to present to and the approach they thought best for that age group, such as a slideshow, a game of Kahoot!, or a Book Creator story. They also teamed up with staff and faculty members Emily Clawson, Mary Anne Wetzel, and Collin Wolfe to create a TikTok video demonstrating these skills, which they played for every class.
Jodi Spiro's third-grade class is on a crusade to make our school more environmentally friendly, and their first stop is the dining hall. After seeing how many plastic utensils were being thrown away, the students knew they had to take action. They urged the school to bring back metal cutlery, reusable cups, and compost buckets. Even at such a young age, these students are authentically learning and making a difference not only for our school, but for the world. Great job, third graders!
♬ original sound - Rowland Hall
Rowland Hall third graders demonstrate where to discard leftover milk, how to separate trash from compostable materials (which are then used by the Lower School’s Garden Club), and where to return utensils, cups, and trays.
These class presentations were another chance for the third graders to tap into their respectful dialogue skills: they had to present their material in ways that didn’t place blame on anyone and inspired students to want to help. “We wanted to make sure everyone understood the problem,” explained Helena. “We showed them what’s been happening and what they can do.”
And the presentations made an impact. From first to fifth grade, students expressed a desire to help fix the dining hall’s dual waste problems through their daily actions. “I didn’t really know that I could actually convince people this well of what's been happening in the cafeteria,” said Declan. “It felt really good.” Fellow third graders in Matthew Collins’ and Katie Schwab’s classes even created posters to help remind students to pay attention when disposing of items on their lunch trays, which are helpful resources as students continue to build these habits.
From her perspective, Jodi was thrilled to see not only how other classes responded to her students’ hard work, but how the experience also built the students’ confidence. She said her class loved being seen as experts on a subject and answering their peers’ questions; after each presentation, they returned to the classroom beaming and asking to talk to more people. “I think it brought out parts of themselves that they probably didn’t even expect,” she said.
They learned change is slow, but change is possible, and to be persistent: just because you want something to change doesn’t mean it’s going to follow your timeline.—Jodi Spiro, third-grade teacher
It also showed them that hard work on a cause you believe in is worth it. When the reusable cutlery and cups returned to the dining hall after April break, the moment was more than just the culmination of a nearly school-year-long goal; it was a strong reminder of how young learners can help address problems that seem insurmountable—such as waste in the environment—and truly make a difference.
“It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with the bigness of it,” said Jodi, “but the students learned you can start with something small and in your control, like what’s happening in our school. They learned change is slow, but change is possible, and to be persistent: just because you want something to change doesn’t mean it’s going to follow your timeline.”
They also learned that making good choices add up and that, often, being the change you wish to see in the world starts by simply making a small decision to do something.
“Don’t be a problem starter,” summarized Jodi. “Be a problem solver.”