TNCS Elementary Talks Some Serious Trash!

. . . Litter-ally. Last month, Baltimore artist and activist Bridget Parlato, a.k.a., “the RecyQueen,” paid a visit to The New Century School at the invitation of TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali. Ms. Parlato gave a salient and illuminating two-pronged presentation on what trash does to Baltimore neighborhoods and waterways as well as how plastics harm the health of our global environment and the health of Earth’s inhabitants—including us.

Conservation Conversations

Ms. Parlato graciously shared select slides from her presentation to give Immersed readers an idea of what she teaches students. (Click the pause button on each slide to allow yourself time to read all of the alarming but critical facts.)

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Of the event, Ms. Danyali said, “The presentation was wonderful—eye-opening to the realities we face and inspirational.” A few days after the RecyQueen’s presentation, Ms. Danyali visited elementary classrooms to gauge their impressions of the “Trash Talk.”

The “circling” technique she uses in the videos below was detailed in TNCS Brings It Full Circle with Restorative Practices, and you can see it being used here in a novel way, that is, to give students the opportunity to share something they found surprising about the presentation and/or something they found to be inspirational.

It’s abundantly clear that Ms. Parlato’s presentation struck home with them, from the scary new oceanic feature called “gyres” (swirling vortexes of microplastics such as what is found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) to the physical harm and disfigurement done to aquatic animals who encounter plastic trash. The studnets began to grasp how vast the plastic problem is in terms of scale and of impact. The fact that plastic never breaks down but simply gets smaller and disperses more widely (and consequently does greater harm) was something that got them thinking about how to dispose less and re-use more. They learned about the dreaded bisphenol A (BPA) contained in plastics that disrupts the human endocrine system with downstream impairments in neurological, cardiovascular, reproductive, and metabolic systems. (By the way, the recent “BPA-free” label sported by many plastic products these days probably means very little—manufacturers have likely just substituted bisphenol S [BPS], the effects of which are as yet unknown.) These problems do not have quick fixes, which makes the RecyQueen’s crusade to educate children so important. It will take a concerted global effort to prevent further harm.

They learned some good news, too, in that a brilliant young inventor named Boyan Slat has engineered a machine to help rid the oceans of trash through his organization The Ocean Cleanup. And shout-outs were, of course, given to Baltimore’s own water-cleaning wonders Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel.

About the RecyQueen

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Merging her two vocations, Ms. Parlato uses art to convey her important messages about trash and sometimes even uses trash to make art. (And then there’s the royal recycled regalia she designed entirely out of would-be trash—bags and boxes held together by tape, paperclips, and string—that is not only thought-provoking but exquisitely beautiful as well.) She explained that RecyQueen and her community organization Baltimore Trash Talk (BTT) are “offshoots” of her career as a graphic designer/artist at her studio Full Circuit Studio. She also happens to really love nature, so finding ways to protect and preserve it come, well, naturally, to her. She describes how she brings all of these threads together, starting with discovering her inner artist:

Most of my family is creatively gifted in some way. My mother went to art school. My father was a woodshop teacher. However, it was a teacher I had both in grade school and high school that helped direct my life. She even scheduled my interview and loaded me into the car and took me to Alfred University where I got the last spot in my class. I have a BFA and an MFA in fine arts concentrating in graphic design and sculpture (ceramics) as well as minors in writing and literature.

The tools, programs and social media I use as a freelance designer are heavily used for Baltimore Trash Talk. I love the idea and concept end. My past experience in writing is utilized all the time—coming up with campaign themes and writing my own copy for posters and print materials. My MFA in sculpture (as well as past job experience in events) has helped when thinking through installations.

I am also a person who feels like we should always be growing and learning, so as often as time permits, I try new stuff.  I just won a small scholarship and a month of studio time at Baltimore Jewelry Center. It is pretty exciting to think of how I can apply what I am learning about metals to my previous training in sculpture.

One such installation, well known to many in Baltimore was the River of Recycling, which grew out of her keen belief that we should be throwing away less stuff, such as by encouraging “bottle bill legislation.”

I planned and executed two grant-funded bottle deposit events. All the items were assembled into a River of Recycling in Patterson Park and then taken to the recycling facility. The data from my events was used to support a bill that was being considered at the time. Sadly, it died.

But, the River of Recyclables went on to happen at JHU, Artscape, and Loyola University. The JHU River was a partnership with MICA grad Chris Beer for his curatorial thesis. His event was on a work day so drive-up item return was going to be low. We utilized can/bottle drives at area schools for our recyclables. In return, schools got a small stipend and a presentation. Waterfront Partnership/Leanna Wetmore provided the stipends, and I presented at the schools.

Pickups of trash are great but never ending. Hitting trash from top down (legislation) or bottom up (education) is going to have bigger impact. I have had my hands and head in the policy end and continue to do so. In fact, it is through support of bottle bill legislation that the RecyQueen program started. Bottle deposits exist in 10 states—a 5–10-cent deposit is paid on a can or bottle and received back when the bottle is returned.

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“Hey, Let’s Teach More Kids!”: Further Outreach

Ms. Parlato’s cause has so far been funded entirely by BGE, but she has to find more grant money to keep going and must reapply regularly (“keep your fingers crossed!” she urges). In the meantime, though, she is eager to get the word out in as many ways as possible to as many students as possible. “Learning about sustainable practices and how to battle litter and how to keep our water clean can happen in so many ways. Let’s partner,” she says. (Click Baltimore Trash Talk schools to learn what is covered during a BTT school presentation.)

She also is willing to meet students off campus for special tours, projects, trips, etc. She has “canoed and scooped” with students from Bard Early College, taken a trip to Annapolis to support policy with Western High School students, and acted as teacher/student guide to American Visionary Art Museum for a Loyola University STEAM project.

She is actively looking for schools, organizations, or clubs to present to throughout the summer and into the fall. Contact Ms. Parlato if you want a presentation!

She also attends festivals where she educates about litter or makes art out of litter—or both. Got a festival coming? Contact her!

“As a result of Baltimore Trash Talk,” she says, “my freelance work has really become far more cause-related. Purpose is good—not always lucrative, but rewarding in other ways. One particular project that would be really really useful to any of the readers is the Baltimore Clean City Guide. Please check it out—there are all sorts of good pointers in there, from reporting 311 issues to bulk trash to recycling and rat abatement quick guides.”

New Century School (2)In keeping with TNCS’s commitment to community and environmentally related service, Ms. Danyali hopes to welcome Ms. Parlato back soon to work with students: “I thank [the RecyQueen] for sharing her important vision and mission and hope to continue the conversation for possible initiatives with TNCS students before the school year ends,” she said. For her part, the RecyQueen also wants to stay connected with TNCS, saying “Presenting at TNCS was such a lovely experience. What a great school. It really was a great morning and I left feeling really happy. I would love to do something else with the school—let’s think about other projects!”

Don’t forget to like Baltimore Trash Talk on Facebook to see how Ms. Parlato tackles trash problems through political, artistic, and social engagement.

TNCS Elementary Attends Healthy Harbor 2015 Report Card Release!

tncs-elementary-healthy-harborLast month, The New Century School‘s lower elementary class took a walking trip to Columbus Park to visit the pumping station for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where the annual “Healthy Harbor Report Card” was being released. This is the second year that STEM teacher Dan McGonigal has incorporated this special event into his curriculum. Taking care of our local waterways—how to keep them clean, why they are so critically important, and what responsibility Baltimore citizens individually should assume regarding these bodies of water—is something that is near and dear to his heart:

I really embrace problems in the environment and how we can find new solutions to old problems. I think this comes from a high-school teacher who I really connected with. He was really passionate about the some of the issues going on concerning the environment, and I liked being outside, so I sort of went along with it. But then when much of what he said was going to happen has come true, I realized we really are headed in the wrong direction with the choices we make and what’s going on in the world. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to instill the value in being stewards of our environment. We should appreciate the natural world and study how to take care of it by making better choices to lessen our impact as much as possible.

Cutting right to the chase, our waterways received another overall failing grade for 2015; however, the purpose of the Healthy Harbor Report Card Release event is really about highlighting signs of improvement, explained Mr. McGonigal. Gwynns Falls, which got the first-ever passing grade in 2014 with a D– has improved to a D, for example.

You can learn more about the Healthy Harbor initiative by reading last year’s Immersed post on the subject, including all about the truly innovative Mr. Trash Wheel. Invented by Baltimore resident John Kellett and his company Clearwater Mills, this revolutionary water wheel intercepts hundreds of tons of trash before it reaches the Inner Harbor. (Good news on that score, too, by the way—as hoped, Canton is getting its own Trash Wheel!)

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The water wheel in all its glory—Fun fact: trash picked up by Mr. Trash Wheel generates power for Maryland homes!

Basically, though, the Report Card is a tool that helps track progress toward the goal of making the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, a goal established by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore together with Blue Water Baltimore. You can read the 2015 Report Card here. Said Mr. McGonigal:

There were generally very poor scores along the way. As you get further away from our waters and closer to the Chesapeake Bay, scores improve. It’s really our local waterways that show major problems. The amount of fecal matter and other contaminates show us that it’s not yet a swimmable area. Yet, there is good news, and the Report Card is better than last year’s. There are a lot of people here from all over the city and state and different parts of the government that are really trying and really have some buy-in into the future of the Patapsco River, the Inner Harbor, and the Chesapeake Bay. There are people working to make things better. There is a lot of passion there.

What did the 2nd/3rd-grade class take-away from this experience? “They were able to reiterate that even though things are bad, people are working to make it better. That was my main goal. I didn’t expect them to understand every word of the speeches being delivered. The overall message is that there are a lot of people watching this, and it does matter. It’s not just me telling them—this is coming from some very important people,” said Mr. McGonigal. Such stakeholders include Blue Water Baltimore Executive Director Halle Van der Gaag, Waterfront Partnership Board Chair Michael Hankin, Director of Baltimore City Public Works Rudy Chow, Maryland State Delegate Brooke Lierman, Congressman John Sarbanes, and Baltimore Councilman James Kraft, all of whom were also in attendance for the Report Card Release.

The best part for the class was touring the inside of the works, during which they began to realize how much is involved in keeping our water clean, regarding how to maintain the structures that are in place now and keep things going in the right direction. Said Mr. McGonigal, “They were enthralled by that and even got to turn on the pumping machine.”

As with last year, the field trip was a tie-in with other class themes. “Earlier in the year we studied the ecosystem and some of the major problems in the area, which led to our rain-barrel painting project—our primary ‘action project’,” said Mr. McGonigal. Other mini action projects grew out of their task of picking an environmental problem and determining how they would solve it. These ranged from measuring water usage in the home and encouraging their families to use less to examining leftover food at grocery stores and its ultimate fate to organizing pollution pick-ups at church and educating parishioners. They were also asked to incorporate math to calculate, for example, how much water was saved in a day, then a week, then a year, and on. “They learned that small changes really can add up and began to think about what we could accomplish if we all did these things,” said Mr. McGonigal. Some students even took an engineering approach to solving their problem. The culmination of these projects was in the form of Glogster digital presentations of their problems and individual solutions.

BALTIMORE_FLOATILLA-MAPAs for ongoing Healthy Harbor initiatives, don’t miss the inaugural Baltimore Floatilla, which is a 5-mile kayak paddle from Canton Waterfront Park to the harbor to rally for clean water, followed by an afterparty with food and live music back at the park in Canton. It’s happening Saturday, June 11th!

TNCS Elementary Attends Healthy Harbor Report Card Release!

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TNCS upper elementary enjoyed their last field trip of the year that was fun and educational. (Photo courtesy of The Daily Record.)

On June 4th, The New Century School‘s upper elementary class took a walking trip to Harbor East to attend Baltimore’s annual “Healthy Harbor Report Card 2014 Release”. This field trip was the culminating event of STEM teacher Dan McGonigal’s yearlong in-class exploration of our local waterways—how to keep them clean, why they are so critically important, and what responsibility Baltimore citizens individually should assume regarding these bodies of water. It was an ideal theme, inviting exploration from many STEM angles, and it also set the tone for Mr. McGonigal’s extremely successful first year at TNCS. From the STEM Fair, to Earth Day community outreach in the form of storm drain stenciling, to attending the Health of the Harbor announcement, TNCS elementary students have made a deep connection with Baltimore’s very special natural environments this year.

Mr. McGonigal said that in addition to closing out the water theme of the 2014–2015 school year, he also wanted “to make the end of the year productive, but also fun for the students.” Achieved in spades if these photos are any indication!
And it’s no wonder—Baltimore has achieved something unique with its concerted efforts to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Swimmable?! Fishable?! You read correctly: Healthy Harbor is an initiative of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, and the Report Card, which is ultimately a tool that helps communicate the swimmable/fishable goal and track progress, is the result of the Waterfront’s partnership with Blue Water Baltimore (whom you may recall donated TNCS’s storm drain stenciling materials).
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The water wheel in all its glory—Fun fact: trash picked up by Mr. Trash Wheel generates power for Maryland homes!

To meet this lofty aim, which many once deemed utterly impossible, Baltimore installed the Inner Harbor Water Wheel at the end of the Jones Falls in May 2014 to intercept trash (which everyone who has ever laid eyes on the Inner Harbor recognizes as its biggest current plague). Invented by Baltimore resident John Kellett and his company Clearwater Mills, the water wheel has gained worldwide fame and provided the inspiration for similar water clean-up initiatives to be proposed globally, from Rio De Janeiro to Rotterdam. 

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The ingenious design of this water wheel is a “game-changer for trash in urban water bodies!”

“Mr. Trash Wheel,” as the water wheel is now known, has accomplished some pretty extraordinary feats, as his Facebook page and frequent tweets attest (#MrTrashWheel). As of this week, in fact, Mr. Trash Wheel has intercepted 205 tons of trash before it reaches the Inner Harbor in its first year, and a whopping 45 tons from this past Monday’s storm alone! This more than doubles Mr. Trash Wheel’s former single-day record of 19 tons! Read more about the water wheel.

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Mr. Trash Wheel’s first year of very hard work was commemorated with the world’s most disgusting-looking cake!

Healthy Harbor showed its appreciation for Mr. Trash Wheel’s hard work at the Report Card Release by celebrating his first birthday with a cake made of refuse—Mr. Wheel’s preferred intake, of course. And there was certainly cause to celebrate, because the Report Card—for the first time ever—showed a passing grade for Gwynns Falls! That the grade, a D–, is only barely passing is not the point. As one TNCS student remarked, “even though things seem bad, they are getting better.” That’s exactly right! Baltimore waterways are moving in the right direction. The plan is working, as presentations by representatives from the various stakeholders, including District 46 Delegate Brooke Lierman, clearly demonstrate.

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Featured on the Report Card’s cover, these John Eager Howard elementary students are part of their school’s Green Team and gave a lovely speech on cleaning up the harbor.

Delegate Lierman (and TNCS parent) said of TNCS’s attendance at the event: “Involvement by students, like those at TNCS and John Eager Howard, is instrumental in helping us to ensure that Baltimore residents of all ages are invested in and working together to create a cleaner harbor! I’m so glad that students from both of these schools were able to attend the Report Card Release to learn firsthand about the need for advocacy and involvement to bring about positive change in our City.”

Afterward, Mr. McGonigal voted the walking field trip, “an awesome experience” and was very proud of his homeroom students who were respectful and focused during the speeches and presentations. “We learned a lot about the efforts in place to improve the health of the Baltimore Harbor and other area waterways. We also learned that there is a great effort by many people who are trying to help improve the situation. I hope we as a school can get further involved in projects related to the health of the harbor,” said Mr. McGonigal. He invites your suggestion and ideas for continued work by TNCS students.

In the meantime, you can read the 2014 Report Card here. Need still more good news? It’s here—officially announced just yesterday, Canton may be getting its very own water wheel! Also visit cantonwaterwheel.com for more information and to donate in support of Baltimore’s second water-powered trash interceptor.