Recycle & Ruminate. Resourceful Classroom Practice. (Amy)

Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps a songbird will come. ~Chinese Proverb

Amy and her mom (1972)

I was a child of the 70s and I had the wardrobe to prove it. Not only were many of my clothes made of brightly colored polyester prints, but thanks to my mom’s sewing abilities, my baby dolls often sported matching attire.  She made my prom dresses when I was in high school and in 2004 she made the wedding dress that I wore on the beach in Jamaica when Mike and I married.

Karen Armstrong's Canning

My mom, Karen Armstrong (Puskala), is the most resourceful person I know.  Growing up in a large Finnish family in Iron River, Michigan she learned how to be creative and thrifty. Armed with a fierce work ethic Mom decorated birthday cakes, cooked delicious meals from scratch, kept the sewing machine humming, clipped coupons, picked berries, gardened and always managed to preserve the year’s harvest in canning jars.  To this day every fall her kitchen vibrates with the aroma of spices and bubbling stock pots.  Dill from her garden graces cucumbers and beets and I have come to acknowledge the smell of vinegar as autumn’s rite of passage.  Mom knows how to nourish loved ones and through family recipes she links the past to the present. My grandfather, the late Thomas Puskala, always requested Mom’s baked beans for family gatherings.  When my husband Mike was in Iraq, Mom carefully nestled canning jars of antipasto and pickles into his care packages.  Mike said her taste-of-home was a huge hit and he shared the bounty with his buddies.  She always tucked inside the boxes clever little handwritten notes and “coupons” he could cash in when he arrived home for “Karen’s homemade ravioli dinner” and other such delicacies.     

Amy's 70's Quilt

Not only is Mom an amazing seamstress and master cook, but she always has been a woman ahead of her time.  She recycled before it was trendy or hip.  Saving remnants of fabric from the clothes she created she stitched charming and functional patchwork quilts. My favorite was fashioned from my prefered childhood colors, pink and purple. As a little girl I loved to identify the fabric squares with the outfits I wore.  We affectionately dubbed Mom’s creation the “70’s quilt” and laughed at the indestructible polyester fabric.  Thirty years later the quilt still warms me and it recently traveled with Mom, Mike and I on a Labor Day picnic to the Mackinac Bridge. 

I know that my love of cooking and gardening was passed down from Mom. Much to my dismay I still have not tackled canning.  Every year I promise that I will stand side-by-side with her and learn how to brine her famous pickles.  Yet, each year the school year hits with intensity and I never get to Crystal Falls to learn her tricks of the trade. Though all through the winter I savor her canned goods, share the treasure with friends, and I always find ways to channel Mom’s energy and share stories about my childhood with my students. 

In August of 2001, Heather and I began our teaching career at Gwinn High School and were excited to begin our journey.  We found ourselves in the Gwinn area attending the annual UPWP retreat and decided to stop into school to inquire about our classrooms. We found it quite amusing when the secretary confused us for high school students. To this day we chalk it up to the fact that we were wearing street clothes, since that summer we had celebrated our 30th birthdays.  We were also delighted when the secretary offered us an armload of school supplies and told us to let her know about any other materials that we would need. We marveled in the abundance of markers, drawing paper, post-it notes, glue, pens and pencils we were afforded and how they would help us engage our students in meaningful classroom activities.

Ten years later we look back at our first few years of teaching and realize that we must now make do with fewer supplies. I have spent the past couple years adapting to this reality in my personal life as well.  In recent weeks Mike and I have had to tighten our purse strings a bit more due to unexpected vehicle repairs. I worry about the approaching high heat bills, our retirement accounts, and how I will pay tuition for the six college credits that I need to accrue to keep my professional education certificate current. We have also made a concerted effort to try to shop local to support local farmers and businesses and try to reduce our carbon footprint. Mike and I carefully analyze our spending and try to isolate the difference between want and need. I try to translate this philosophy into my classroom practice.

I think that my personal checkbook has made me more aware of the issue of shrinking school budgets and supplies. A couple of years ago I would have simply gone to Target or Office Max and replenished my colored paper and purchased a stash of poster board, markers and other odds and ends.  However, my own financial crunch does not afford me this opportunity.  Instead of feeling held back by this deficit I try to tap into my mom’s spirit of thriftiness and become more resourceful.

At the beginning of school year as I wrote my annual letter home to parents I included that this year a major theme in my 9th grade English classroom was RESPONSIBILITY.  Not only do I want my students to enter high school with a vested interested in their education, but I want them to ponder deeply their role in the world.  I encouraged my students and their parents to rethink how they look at school supplies.  While I want them to have a three-ring binder for my class, I suggested that they recycle one from a previous year.  I also recommended that instead of using a mountain of poster board for visuals they could create art from recycled materials.

Our secretary Nancy Machalk has long encouraged our students to donate their gently used school supplies instead of tossing them in the trash during locker clean out at the end of the year. At the beginning of this year Heather hauled a huge box of binders, that Nancy had rescued, down to her classroom.  Heather’s students were thrilled to find out that many of binders were brand new.  At a recent staff meeting our principal implored us to use our teaching skills to go beyond our content area.  He wanted us to remind the students who have given up on the semester that they still have time to pull themselves up.  He was right.  This year I am more aware of how these life lessons can apply to the environment and even learning how to live more frugal in these tenuous economic times.

When in the computer lab printing out research or essays I insist that my students print work double-sided and I no longer hand out assignment sheets for every task in class.  Instead I house my assignments and handouts on-line on my MOODLE page.  Not only does this allow parents to access our daily activities and assignments, but it makes the students accountable for their work. When I give an assignment instead of creating 130+ handouts I use my projector to transmit the information to the students and they must be responsible for taking notes on requirements and deadlines. If they want a hard copy of the assignment sheet they can print it out in the computer lab or consult the information on-line.

My attempts to reduce the amount of paper that is used in my classroom may not have a huge impact, but it is a start. If every teacher in our district practiced this method how many reams of paper and much money would we save?  Would it be enough to purchase a classroom set of novels?  Would it supply a couple new computers?  How many graphing calculators could the math department acquire?  I challenge my fellow educators to seek the answers and become more resourceful.  Debbie Clark’s students have been providing and weekly emptying recycle bins for many years now.  Kristy Gollakner’s middle school students received a Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant to build bins to recycle. Shannon Ruiz encourages her students to type our research papers using an ink saving font.  I am curious about the many things that educators do to help save resources.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that asked the simple question, “What are you doing to make a difference?”  I have a long way to go. I still give comments and feedback on writing assignments on a hard copy printout. In the future I hope our district allows our students to have more access to the technology which would allow teacher to make comments on student work using Voice Thread or Google Docs.

This year I was brainstorming writing prompts that I could use in my creative writing class.   I instructed each student to bring ten items to school the next day.  These items should be things that they wanted to recycle.  The next day the students came with a wide variety of artifacts.  Assembled into groups of four they spent the class period creating pieces of art from their collections.  The next day I brought the students down to the library where they participated in a Gallery Walk and let the art pieces inspire writing.  They rotated around the room taking time to pause and write at each art display.  It was an engaging activity that allowed us to leave the confines of the classroom and sparked their creativity in multiple ways.

After reflecting on my students ruminations I think my mom would approve of this lesson. 

Amy and her mom: Christmas 2009

She would have made a wonderful classroom teacher and I know she would find countless opportunities to create life lessons with her spirit of resourcefulness.  I am thankful for the wisdom she continues to instill in me and next summer I am going to learn how to can her famous pickles.

The following are a few pieces of writing that my students generated on their Gallery Walk.  Permission was granted to share their work.

 Silly Me

Everyday my eyes take in the view
Young couples in a thing we call love
Who knows if it’s real or just a crush
But let the truth be told, it probably won’t last
I go through the day with wonder and amazement
My eyes glued like macaroni and glitter, puppy love.

Hearts dance around my head
I need to get my feet planted on the ground
Feel the ambiance of love, too deep to climb out
I’m stupid to do this again, I know I am
But staying away just isn’t possible.

I see the worry in all their eyes
They fear the inevitable, the truth
Rumors float from mouth to ear
But I won’t believe them, I just won’t.
Instead of jumping into love, to fall right down
I’ll fall into like with that silly boy.

~Alex Pastor (September 16, 2010)

Thank you, Mike!

It’s almost as if someone’s creative, yet slightly twisted mind has been spilled out and displayed for us to see. A canvas covered and tattered for all to interpret. What is the artist trying to say? Many won’t even try to find out, but everything has to have a meaning, right? Perhaps the Blistex placed in the Frappuccino hints that they have chapped lips, the coffee a sign of their favorite drink. The many endearing, encouraging words hint at power, will. Inspiring words that urge others to create art like this.

In all honesty, maybe the point of this is to show that you don’t need much to make a point across. You don’t need money, fame and fortune. You just need a strong heart, determination and a loud voice that can reach out to others. A heart and a soul – that’s all. Understanding, an ear that’s willing to listen to anyone who has anything to say. If we really want to change how this world is today, this could be a great example. Most people don’t really get art, so why don’t we hide hidden meanings in them? Secret messages for those who get the drift, who completely understand that this world is not the way it was meant to be. The majority will just scoff, say that it’s worthless and throw it out. Another problem with today’s society is that hardly anyone is open-minded. Close-minded and the stubborn ones are the hardest to get a point across to.

This art was simply made out of recycled things that no one wanted anymore. Imagine what we could do with a whole junkyard? We could build houses and recycle more often. I’m sure that our Earth would appreciate it. Why destroy something and then not make something beautiful out of it? Like the saying goes; one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Simple little quotes like that should be followed more often. We should stop making war and start creating.

~Onyx Nelson (September 16, 2010)

Thank You, Mike!
My watch stopped at 12:50. I don’t know if that’s am or pm, but it’s always 12:50, not matter where or when I am. I guess it’s not that bad of a time, if you like things that aren’t quite, or things that are almost.

I’m a lot of not quites. A lot of almosts.

But if you like that sort of thing, I guess we’d be friends.

They think it’s silly that I still wear this watch and sometimes I still check it, like by some miracle the hands will start moving again. Like time will stop standing still. Except it doesn’t stand still, only in my watch. It’s frozen around my wrist and it doesn’t make sense and I like it.

I could change the battery, fix the hands, and go forward. But I’d rather keep time on my veins as it was when my watch died. It’s not quite one, but that’s okay. There’s nothing particularly exciting about one O’clock. Besides, it’s 12:50. Sounds so official, so spot on, even if it’s just almost.

Almost is okay.

Not quite.

The hands are red and numbers are silver, blood pointing at twelve moons, but mine stopped pumping at the moons stopped changing. A broken heart.

When I touch the surface of it, my fingerprint clings to it. The unique swirls of my skin hugging the glass makes me feel a part of time that way. Like I am 12:50. That my time and that time is me. My fingertip. My broken heart.

They say it’s just a stupid, broken watch and even if they are not saying it, they are thinking it, and just because people don’t say things out loud, doesn’t mean they’re any less mean. It’s mean, but true – it is just a stupid, broken watch. It’s my little slice of time. I should probably go to bed, but it’s only 12:50.

~Amber LaFavre (September 16, 2010)


Sometimes I get inspired by a piece of art. To write about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes words, phrases, sentences, they grow inside me, struggling to find a way out onto the pages of my notebook.

Sometimes the artist in me comes out – sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes even the simplest things in life can create the most complex ideas in your head, that is if you know how use them to inspire you.

Sometimes things like bottle caps, flowers, Band-Aids, and pencils are united in a single piece of art, and sometimes you have to learn how to appreciate what life gives you and just go with it.

~Kaileena Haralson (September 15, 2010)

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1 Response to Recycle & Ruminate. Resourceful Classroom Practice. (Amy)

  1. I truly enjoyed reading your post! I also enjoyed reading the pieces written and created by your students, especially the last one on the page, “Sometimes.” It’s true; sometimes- in fact, probably many times!- you just have to take what you’re handed and “go with it.” Thanks for posting all of this! I retired from classroom teaching after 22 years, but I’d love to visit yours someday!

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