Sabina Malkani, EcoRise Teacher, Washington, D.C.

Q&A: Inspiring Kids to Impact Their Built Environment


Sabina Malkani is the science and reading intervention teacher at Bruce Monroe Elementary School @ Park View, a Title 1 school in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Just last spring, she completed her first EcoRise training. This year Sabina’s third-graders received the first Eco-Audit Grant award of the year: $825 to fund two student-driven sustainability projects. The students conducted an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) audit and used the funds to make 28 bottles of non-toxic green cleaning supplies for their school to improve the air quality in the classrooms. They’ll also take a field trip to visit a local green cosmetic company to learn more about the industry process.

In this Q&A, you will hear how Sabina’s passion for teaching sustainability sparked a new way of thinking in her students, and how that mindset spread throughout their community.

Q: Why did you decide to do an eco-audit and how did EcoRise help you?
A:
I wanted to switch my focus from science to environmental science because I think our kids need to understand the impact they have. I was so excited to talk about sustainability and water quality last year, but I didn’t really have the tools. Then I got an email from James Rountree [DCPS director of science] about a partnership with EcoRise and signed up for a Grants and Design Thinking workshop. It’s the best training I’ve ever been to.

I came back from the training so excited. I started my first lesson, Intro to Sustainability,  about two weeks after the training. EcoRise lessons are aligned with the standards I need to teach and very hands-on with the kids. The lesson plan had all the information I needed. We ended up spending two and a half months talking about water and habitats. We talked about when there isn’t water, there isn’t habitat. When there’s no habitat, animals die. The kids were blown away. Which helped me realize the value of these lessons. After that I was excited to undertake an Eco-Audit with my students. I realized the power of it and I was hooked. I loved all the EcoRise resources and support staff.

I was sold on doing an eco-audit before I started it, but then when I was in it, I was like, oh no—more to do! I was a little overwhelmed, but Kizzy from EcoRise was there to help me figure out bumps in the road every step of the way. With the impact these projects had in the lives of my students, and the school community, the effort was totally worth it.

Q: How did students help this project evolve over time?
A:
This idea has gone through many iterations. At first, we were going to make homemade soap and have the kids bring it home as a Christmas gift. When I realized I didn’t have enough time, Kizzy suggested we tackle an Eco-Audit.

Bruce-Monroe Students making natural cleaning suppliesAfter we did the Eco-Audit, I talked with the students about what wasn’t working well for air quality in the classroom. They said, ‘our classrooms are dusty.’ What can we do about it? ‘We can use different cleaners.’ Then we looked at different cleaners, and they said that chlorine wipes made the room smell “clean.” I explained that the smell came from toxic chemicals, so we looked up ingredients from the chemical cleaners we had and we researched their purpose and health side effects. That’s when the kids wanted to clean the classroom differently. The kids decided to make natural cleaners, and they made their own labels. They called it APC—All Purpose Cleaner. Each class made its own scent—lemon, tea tree, lavender.

We decided to give it to teachers as a gift. The kids want so much to be able to give something, and I wanted to help them be able to do that. We filled a bucket with APC and tied a big wraparound bow around it to give to their homeroom teachers. In one class, the kids all came around their teacher screaming with excitement, and they hugged her and gave her the bucket.

Now the teachers have an abundance of chlorine wipes collecting dust in their classrooms because the kids refuse to use them. If a teacher pulls one out to use it, the kids say, “you’re ruining the IAQ.”

Then we thought, if we’re going to do a product run, why don’t we do a really big run and raise additional money for our field trip? We’re going to a local cosmetics factory and hear from industry experts on the importance of clean and natural products. I want them to be exposed—to see that people are out there and doing something that matters. I want them to know that even on a small scale, they can do something that matters, like using soaps that are good for the water.

Q: When did you see things click with the kids, when did you know you had made an impact?
A:
The impact that the first few lessons had on the students was huge. With the project-based learning (PBL) and hands-on involvement, the kids took it and leaped forward with it. PBL is so different because it’s student-driven, which makes it hard to plan ahead. I mean, I knew where I wanted to drive it and what resources I could use but based on their interests I needed to adapt. The kids really directed the way the project went and how we did it. That’s exciting!

Now, with the IAQ project, they are advocates telling anyone who will listen. Today we’re finishing a speeches unit, and many kids chose to write about air quality and toxicity. They’re trying to pronounce common chemical names used in cleaning products and saying, ‘if you have anything that has any of these ingredients, you should throw it out and buy our APC.’ If you teach somebody, you have learned something. And to see these students teaching their parents, siblings, and teachers what they have learned about IAQ and cleaning products is amazing. Even students who aren’t academically strong, in the traditional sense, have really gotten into this. They feel there is a serious problem and they want to do something about it. That’s the exciting part.

Q: How did the Eco-Audit impact the community?
A: 
We’re planting the seeds for change. I had a mom who cleans houses say, ‘my son won’t let me use products I’ve always used!’  I invited her to come in next week and we’re going to go through cleaning-product recipes. Other parents got involved, too. The spray bottles for the cleaner were too expensive, so the parents found cheaper bottles and donated them. Parents donated towels to use instead of paper towels, and a parent volunteers every Friday to take home a bucket of towels, wash them, and bring them back. Students interviewed the custodial staff and showed them the data from the Eco-Audit to convince them to use healthier cleaning products. Now the head custodian is adopting natural cleaners for his staff whenever possible. That’s community buy-in!

Bruce monroe students making natural cleaning supplies

Q: Have you encountered any pushback?
A: 
When something is different and new, and when people don’t know what you’re doing, it pushes some buttons. The Eco-Audit project has gotten a lot of focus in our school although not everybody was on board with it in the beginning. Sometimes it’s hard to be the first person doing stuff. Other people don’t understand the value of what you’re doing, but as long as the kids are getting something out of it, it’s OK. This was meaningful for the kids.

Q: What advice would you give to other teachers applying for an Eco-Audit Grant?
A: 
Commit to doing 1-2 EcoRise lessons because you’ll see the impact it has. Take full advantage of the resources and support from EcoRise. Meeting with Kizzy helped streamline and align with scope and sequence. Experiencing a lesson or two with the kids helped me realize how good the EcoRise curriculum is. There’s so much hands-on experience and the depth of conversation between me and the kids was so much better. They saw that math and science are not stand-alone subjects. They advocated for themselves. They learned about natural and healthy alternatives to cleaning products they are used to seeing (like wipes)—and that they could save money using healthier products. They learned about improving the environment and how they can make a tangible impact.

EcoRise is accepting Eco-Audit Grant applications on a rolling basis through April 5! Learn more about EcoRise’s comprehensive K-12 Sustainability and Design curriculum, teacher training and support, and the Eco-Audit Grant Awards here.