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Blog post of the month: How an award winning elementary school teacher is solving environmental equations using the bicycle

Leszek J. Sibilski's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In April 2016, the featured blog post is "How an award winning elementary school teacher is solving environmental equations using the bicycle" by Leszek Sibilski.

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” - Albert Einstein
When I wrote, “How the bicycle can drive green development on planet Earth” last year in March 2015, my hope was to raise awareness and encourage a few bicycle enthusiasts to further promote the use of the most efficient tool ever designed by the human mind and hand. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that this blog would inspire an environmental education teacher who teaches grades K-5, Jenna Shea Mobley, from Springdale Park Elementary School in Atlanta to use the material presented in the blog as the impetus for her project that went on to receive the 2015 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators!
In her interdisciplinary curriculum design she combined lessons from science and math to help students focus on the effects of pollution and the human footprint on the environment. Math allowed her students to use multiplication and division to solve word problems and create models to form equations that represented the problem. I must admit, as a teacher, I like to dream big from time to time, but I would have never dreamt of integrating math, science and a pinch of social science into lessons that used the bicycle for children in third grade.
Ms. Mobley’s curriculum also included a component that encouraged social action.  Her students were encouraged to write letters to Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, asking him to reduce air pollution around Atlanta.

Most of us who blog put our thoughts into writing after our normal work hours have ended. Often our weekends are lost to the time that it takes to write a blog that we hope will make a difference for the betterment of mankind.
Besides being a blogger, I am also an educator and former member of the Polish Olympic Cycling Team. Given that perspective, I understand very well what it takes to design a project that does not come from a textbook or an instructor’s manual. There is something special about teachers. They know that if they can make a project work, another teacher may emulate it in his/her classroom without ever recognizing who created it in the first place. However, when an innovative project fails, the students, parents, and perhaps even the principal will let the teacher know right away where they’ve fallen short. Still, there are many of us out there, who— no matter the risk— will seize the opportunity to enhance the classroom experience of our students.
Ms. Mobley and Springdale Park Elementary
The multitalented Ms. Mobley, I have learned, is an avid bicycle enthusiast who loves to explore the Virginia Highlands on her bike, and she consistently encourages her students to use the velocipede, too. She is also passionate about music and photography. One of Ms. Mobley’s colleagues, Ms. Elizabeth Chalpan, believes that, “She is doing tremendous work of preparing young global citizens who respect and care for the earth. Each July, Jenna is the first staff member to arrive back to school to begin the academic year to prepare the garden for the 700 students who will soon be back to care for it. Springdale Park’s “green” mission makes our school unlike any other, and Jenna is the face behind the mission.”
Springdale Park Elementary (SPARK) where Ms. Mobley teaches is quite unique. It is part of Atlanta's Public Schools, and it embodies environmental responsibility in everything from its green-friendly construction to innovative classroom learning. Students participate in recycling and composting, as well as a farm-to-school program in which food is grown and harvested on both the school’s roof-top and land-based gardens. In 2010 and 2011, SPARK received a platinum award from the Governor of Georgia’s Office of Student Achievement. The current Principal: Ms. Yolanda C. Brown stands firmly behind the mission statement of her school: “We are cultivating a community of innovative thinkers with a commitment to personal, environmental, and social responsibility where a love for learning is inspired by passionate student-focused teaching, based on the highest standards for academic excellence and creativity.” 
Importance of educators who care
As teachers, we constantly seek ways to encourage our students through positive reinforcement and innovations that we hope will help them to stay balanced and moving in the right direction. Cycling is a unique activity in that it has the potential to stimulate us physically as well as intellectually.
When we think of the Brookings Institution, not many of us would readily think that a third-grade teacher would be tapping into all-Brookings priorities for her students, including the study of growth through innovation, opportunity and well-being, sound energy and climate policy, and how to manage global change. To see primary school teachers utilizing the knowledge from think tanks such as Brookings to enrich a student’s classroom experience should cause us to look forward with optimism to the forthcoming national priority of STEM education which is often linked to a nation’s future economic prosperity. Policymakers at every level must be aware that new educational successions are coming, and they are coming from within.
As someone who was fortunate enough to have had great teachers in primary school, I fully appreciate the value of Ms. Mobley’s efforts to inspire her students, and I applaud her innovative approach to teaching. It is clear that she believes in the importance of giving children the opportunity to discover their own individual passions and interests so that they will become productive thinkers and contributors as they mature.
It’s paramount in higher education that before, during, and after a Ph.D. candidate’s dissertation and completion of study that he/she be advised by someone who is a not just a great scholar, but also a renowned member of academia. Yet, it may even be more crucial for a student to have had a passionate, positive, and professional primary school teacher who took the time to initiate the process. It is those teachers in the primary grades who I feel are our society’s unsung heroes. Day in and day out they must teach not only the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic; they must also instill in children a life-long love for learning and promote the fundamental educational survival skills and habits necessary for the challenges of the 21st Century. In many cases it is the effectiveness of those teachers that determines how youth will perceive the boundless kingdom of education. Unfortunately, this is not a secret of Polichinelle! The question for every educational institution specializing in pedagogy should be: “How can we train, attract, keep, and amplify the gifts of young people like Ms. Mobley within the system? How can we support them and make them feel that their work is not being done in a vacuum or without appreciation?”

Springdale Park, an Eco Friendly School

Way to go, Ms. Mobley!
Ms. Mobley’s work was recognized in a White House Ceremony and she was given a prestigious award from the United States Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Let me be transparent and tell you one reason why this story is important to me. Moments before I was blessed to have discovered the article about her award, I felt like I was at one of the lowest points of my teaching career. I had had a bad day at school, and I was in need of miracle to cheer me up. I needed something special to rekindle my passion and renew my inspiration. It came in the form of an article about Ms. Mobley and her students. It was this discovery that delivered the impetus I needed to be brought out of my doldrums. Indeed, I am grateful as it provided me with a very tangible ray of hope.
When teachers try to solve environmental equations through that “freedom machine,” we call the bicycle, the potential is there for a great number of students to become not just recipients of a creative endeavor but also beacons of creativity who will multiply such educational miracles over and over into the future.

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Submitted by Leszek Sibilski on

I must express my additional gratitude to two of my mentors at the Brookings Institution. A heartfelt thank you is extended to Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler). It was their belief and guidance in my effort that resulted in me having this opportunity to express myself in Future Development.

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