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Did you notice how you reacted to that word?  Are you, like the students in Opal 3, noticing that word in many places right now and wondering what it means or whether the people using the word know what it means?

The students in Opal 3 have been wondering about the word sustainability since we finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and we are still working on understanding what it is, why it’s important, and how it connects to us.

In this blog post I will take you through the journey we have been on so you can see where our thinking and exploring has led us.

What is Sustainability?

I posed this question to the class on 04.12.11, and we had a science talk to share our schema and initial thinking on the question.

PK:  Being able to keep something or being able to keep something supported – they are kind of the same I guess.

AW:  Keep it balanced.  It’s sort of like being able to keep it in the middle, not overpopulated or make it too much of something.  If you need more you make it up somewhere, like a balance on a see-saw.

EY:  Keeping it there.  Keeping it balanced so it can’t go over or under.

AW:  It’s a thermometer in the green, in the middle.

MC:  To sustain something is to be able to hold it.  If you were to say the world can’t sustain the larger creatures, you would be saying that the world can’t hold them.

MD:  It’s like keeping something in control, in balance.

RC:  I see that word a lot with organic.  Maybe it’s local?  Like farmed well?

MM:  At the grocery store I see “sustainable organic food.”

MC:  RC is saying it’s not that processed, it’s not going to hurt you.

RC:  At New Seasons inside the walls are yellow and in big letters it says sustainability and there is the dictionary definition of it.

AW:  It means, Keep It.  Keep the animals healthy and sustained and growing.

MC:  And the grass.

AW:  And the humans that eat them.

MM:  You can sustain something – control it but not entirely.  Keep them in control while at the same time not really.  Let them agree to it, not really ignoring them but dealing with them.  Decide what to let go, like, ‘I’ll be okay with it, but…”

PK:  The interdependence that they have on each other!  The animals need the grass, the humans need the animals…

MM:  Depending on something, interdependent – depending on more than one thing.  They depend on each other.

PK:  It’s a web, like in a spider web.  If you take one piece away it will fall.

MC:  Like Jenga blocks.

The next day, on 4.13.11, we revisited the question, “What is sustainability?”  These quotes stood out from the conversation:

AW:  Keep going all of it!  It could be anything:  the cycle of a flower, the ecosystem, human, soil, sunlight, even a community.

PK:  Keep going that circle of interdependence.  That circle – needs – I think it’s kind of fascinating that they need each other so strongly or they wouldn’t be the same.  I am wondering about what AW said about how communities can be sustainable.

What does the state of Oregon say about sustainability?

Did you know that the state of Oregon has an official definition of sustainability?  We were looking for ways to build our schema about how other people had defined sustainability so that we could make better sense of it.  We started with our state’s official definition:

By Executive Order 00-07, signed by Governor John Kitzhaber in May of 2000, The State of Oregon adopts the following definition of sustainability:

Sustainability means using, developing and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs.  Sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, economic and community needs.

How did Opal 3 students react to this definition?

MD:  I agree with not using everything up.  Then there will be enough for future generations.

KU:  I like how they talk about needs.  It’s kind of the same like how they all need each other.

TW:  It seems to me that they’re the same needs.  People in the future will still need water and animals and grass so they should still have them.

DO:  If you don’t use everything up it will keep everything going.  Like you need the trees to get seeds for new trees.

GM:  I am wondering about the repairing of it.  How big is it?  How, if it breaks, how would it be repaired?

AR:  The word, “developing” confused me.  Using materials but not using it up?  So you have to keep developing?

CA:  Not use everything up.  Save or preserve.

TW:  The circle keeps going around and around and around.

Now we were ready to dig in and ask, “Why is sustainability important?”

This is the transcript of our science talk from 05.02.2011.

DO:  If nothing was sustainable then everything would just fall apart.

Levia:  What do you mean by “fall apart”?

PK:  Like Jaden did last year when she built the Kapla structure that represented the community.  When you pull one key block out of the bottom the whole thing falls apart.  Be nice and respectful.  If it falls apart then you don’t know what you can depend on anymore and everything changes, like when to plant your crops or who your best friend is.  It could turn out for better or for worse – you might get a new crop or a new best friend.

MC:  It will not always fall apart depending on ONE block.  It will make it vulnerable, but not fall apart.

MM:  Like if there are two people in a pointless argument, like, “blue is better than orange.”  It would break down the system.  They would start out mad but then they would just start joking around and it would be okay.  A big rumor might break it. 

Levia:  So are some resources more important or crucial than others?

MM:  In the sustainable farm the grass is more important.  If there was one year where you dry up all the water – like it didn’t rain

?:  You could use hay.

AW:  It’s like the bottom of a standing human.  If someone is mad it takes away a foot or a let.  The body falls apart as the community breaks.

MM:  It’s a mannequin, right?

AW:  Yah. On the farm the water is the leg, the grass is the arm.  The animals all can’t rely on hay – the chickens can’t.  Then the farm is done for.

Levia:  Forever or just for the season?

AW:  Just for the season.  Well, you could just go and buy chicken feed, because you cant’ rely on hay, then next season if you used all of your money up on chicken feed and hay you might not be able to start over.

Levia:  That’s how it might work in the farm model.  What about the community?

CE:  If people run out of tolerance and they say it’s a big problem for them and not the other person. 

Levia:  You are making me think of the word “resilient” (writes it on the chart).  Does someone have schema for what this word means?

AW:  It’s like there was a big bush and it freezes during the winter and it looks dead but then next spring it has buds again

Levia:  What makes it resilient?

TW:  The water.

PK:  But no one makes it resilient…. ?

Levia:  What makes communities resilient?

MM:  Class meeting, the script, an intervener

MD:  We did the play with Jacob – someone was mean to him and he came back and stuck up for himself.  Jacob was resilient.

Levia:  So, why is sustainability important?

AR:  It’s kind of like important.  If it’s not sustainable you don’t get what you need and other people won’t get what they need.  You might use up all of your resources.

MC:  It’s funny, but it’s kind of like the Death Star.  It was destroyed, but then they were able to rebuild it.

Levia:  How did they do that?  How were they able to rebuild the Death Star?

PK:  You have to have the idea, the plan of how you want it to look so the community is safe, or a map of the farm or a plan of the Death Star.  Then you have a good idea of what you have to do.


This conversation took place after Judy came to talk to our class again about Group Dynamics and we had the chance to explore our own metaphors about what that looks like.  In this conversation, something amazing happened!  The students were able to talk about sustainable farms and sustainable classroom communities pretty seamlessly were able to compare and contrast them and make sense of what makes them sustainable and resilient.  They are also realizing that sustainability has everything to do with systems – that any system has the potential to be sustainable.

Now the students are working on the following prompts:

  • What systems can we examine through the lens of sustainability?
  • How can you show what is in the system and what makes it sustainable?
  • If the system is not sustainable, what changes would you make to steer it toward sustainability?

Some of the systems they are examining are:

  • Colonial America
  • Plastic
  • The Lumber Industry
  • The Oregon Zoo
  • Our classroom community
  • Trash
  • Polyface Farm
  • The Death Star
  • Recycling

We are all excited to see where this thinking will lead!