ADD trash to the curriculum?

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

Looking out my living room window, I see five large trash receptacles on the four corners of the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 79th Street that our east side Manhattan apartment overlooks. And, probably as a consequence, there’s very little garbage on the street and sidewalk.

In fact, most intersections in my neighborhood seem to have a trashcan on each corner, something I have been aware of — and grateful for — when I walk our yellow Lab in the morning and at night.

But when I was visiting a school in the South Bronx last week, I couldn’t help but notice that sidewalks and streets were littered and there weren’t very many public trash receptacles. Just one per intersection, not the four (or five) in my neighborhood.

Now, a couple of casual sightings and an anecdote do not constitute data, but this is a great opportunity for social studies teachers to use technology to enliven their classes, energize their students, and perhaps provide real life lessons in how cities distribute resources.

Here’s what I envision: Working in teams for efficiency and safety, middle school kids could use a phone’s camera to ‘map’ their neighborhood intersections with photos that answer one question: is there a trash can on the corner?  Share the data, and not just with classmates but with other middle school classes around the city.

(I live in New York and took these photos with my phone, but this could be done in cities everywhere.)

Will patterns emerge?  Do well-to-do neighborhoods like mine have many more places for residents to put bags of dog poop and other garbage?  And are those streets cleaner?

Trash Can
A trash can in my neighborhood.

A more complex project would involve determining just how often those trash receptacles are emptied, but that could be done with the cooperation of local businesses or apartment doormen.

My hunch is the students will find that this resource (call it ‘cleanliness opportunities’) is unevenly distributed, but is it by income or some other criterion?  At this point, students will probably have questions for urban leaders, another valuable exercise in learning.  They may discover that leaders don’t like to have their established practices scrutinized, but that’s tough.  After all, we are supposed to be preparing youth for life in a democracy. What could be better than actual participation?

Calling this a ‘trashcan curriculum’ is both inelegant and inaccurate.  I need help with the former, but here’s why it’s inaccurate: There are many other small but real issues to dig into.  For example, the state of Texas has about 4,000 miles of fast-running water (I’m not counting ‘turtles’ like the Rio Grande here).  I think that every high school class within reach of one of those rivers ought to be going to the water’s edge and taking measurements of acidity, alkalinity, speed, amount of detritus and so forth.  Analyze the data. Share the results with other high school students around the state.  Where there are anomalies, dig deeper.  Ask for explanations.  Publish the results.

Maybe this curriculum is really not about trash cans and rivers, but about democracy.  Practicing democracy is necessary, because it’s not a natural act.

It would teach other lessons as well: information is power, collaboration produces strength, social policies have consequences, and they themselves are not merely numbers or test scores but sentient, thinking individuals with potential.  They matter.

If administrators object to these ‘field trips,’ then kids should measure air quality instead. That’s something students can do on the steps of their schools, and the shared data might raise a lot of interesting questions.

Technology makes all this possible, but I think it’s imperative on at least two levels. For one thing, much schoolwork today is hopelessly boring regurgitation, whereas this is real work in uncharted territory. For another, we need our young people to be in the habit of asking questions and searching for answers.

I am sure other ‘units’ belong in this trashcan/river/democracy curriculum. Perhaps some teachers have already been down this road. Please share your thoughts here.

25 thoughts on “ADD trash to the curriculum?

  1. This reminds me of two of Dr. Zimbardo’s experiments in the 60’s. In one, he gave students a flyer (or something they would need to throw away) and had them walk through an alley with graffiti and trash. In the other he gave the students the same thing but then had them walk through a clean alley. Then he measured how many fliers became litter.

    He also did an experiment where he “abandoned” a car in Palo Alto and one in the Bronx.

    I couldn’t find a link for the first experiment, but it could be interesting to have students replicate his experiment.


  2. John, It is a meaningful suggestion and psych departments probably have dozens of experiments like it to measure participation. Boy scout troops would do it in the suburbs, etc. The problem is leadership of small groups which are not regularly thrown together. Asking school teachers to mount such an effort is probably beyond any call they have to keep someone else’s neighborhood clean. I give money to “Ready, Willing and Able” for the obvious reasons and it works. I had a Dept of Parks license to prune street trees for a number of years, but under every tree is a parked car so what to do? The power of the phone/camera is very impressive and it wouldn’t take much for any MOTIVATED neighborhood to document the problem and turn the evidence over to the authorities. If you ever find that a small cash prize for a good effort at evidence that gets results would be helpful, you may come back to me. Jim Neff


    • We may find out whether some teachers are reading this blog, Jim. That cash prize might draw some folks. I’d love to see some teachers organize to have their classes take this project on. It’s not necessarily about cleaner neighborhoods, more about equitable distribution of ‘cleanliness opportunities.’

      A classic Upper East Side woman saw me snapping photos of trash cans and asked whatever was I doing. She said, essentially, ‘of course we have more cans, because we use them.’ That logic escapes me, but there you are.


    • This seems pretty much classroom-based and traditional, though admirable. I am arguing that today’s technologies allow some really innovative stuff to happen.


  3. John,

    I love your idea!!

    It’s the sort of creative, thought-provoking idea that used to be the stuff of Science Fairs, which blossomed after Sputnik.

    But as the NY Times reported, science fairs are on the decline:

    In our Nation’s Capital, where I now live, the DC School system last year abandoned the DC Science Fair entirely. The reason? “No budget” The only reason it was held this spring was because of a few dedicated volunteers and a small grant by INTEL. Next year, who knows.

    As you correctly point out, the sort of science and math “trashcan curriculum” you envision is what leads to deeper, critical thinking.

    So, in the shadow of the White House and the Capitol, they end the one opportunity for low income kids to experience the excitement and inspiration of science.

    And there goes another Sputnik moment…


  4. Let’s make a film together!! BTW, learned a lot from “The Finland Phenomenon” and enjoyed having my friend Tony Wagner as my guide. Congratulations on another contribution to the cause


    • Thank you for the compliment on The Finland Phenomenon, John.

      I would be delighted to collaborate on a film.

      Next week Tony and I will be in Singapore.

      He was invited to speak on 21st Century Skills – the Singaporeans, like the Finns, are looking to take their schools systems up another notch in the decade ahead.

      Meanwhile, I’m researching ideas for my next film while we are there.

      BTW – I produced a short of Tony and Roger Bybee explaining the differences between PISA and TIMSS:



  5. One of my most remembered mentors was Louis Hacker, who began as a socialist in pre-WW I New York, became a Republican at the end of the New Deal with his famous “Triumph of American Capitalism,” and, by the time he taught me in the 1960’s, was mellow enough to remember both with a – by then – characteristic fondness. One of his other memories was dropping out of Columbia in the early 1920’s to work with Charles A. Beard – who himself left in disgust at the beginning of WW I and Nicholas Murray Butler’s conversion to the war. For the then Bureau of Municipal Research (now the loftier Institute of Public Administration) Beard had Hacker counting and mapping fireplugs to see how poor neighborhoods compared with rich ones for safety and security – much like, it would seem, you’d have this generation match trash cans. I think, on the whole, Beard’s metric was probably better, but the test would have to now include the water pressure.


    • I hope lots of teachers are reading this, because this is another great idea AND evidence that there’s no new thing under the sun. What is different, however, is the power of today’s technology to make these projects far-reaching.
      As I write in ‘The Influence of Teachers,’ schools need to adapt to new ways of ‘socialization,’ and this would be pretty close to an ideal way for young people to ‘socialize.’ Far better than a lot of the mindless texting and the cyber-bullying, of course


  6. You’ve got at least one (Canadian) teacher reading, and trying to wrestle with the differences between an ideal education system, and my imperfect, daily reality.
    Love this idea for using technology to take our learning out into the world. One suggestion and one caveat:
    – Avoid transportation costs and prickly administrators by using more technology — google earth and google streetview allow you to gather data like these almost anywhere. Compare rural vs. urban, more and less affluent communities, different states.
    – Gathering data on how governments behave is an excellent way to engage students in the electoral process, and for them to begin to see how it affects their day to day lives, so that they may one day take seriously their own obligations in the system. However, teachers are rarely thanked for engaging in conversations that may be seen as biased in the classroom — even when we’ve gathered data to support the bias.


    • Good suggestions and a useful caveat. If you cannot do this under the radar, then it makes sense to do it in groups. And the first efforts ought to be both interesting and non-confrontational, if that’s possible. The goal is to engage students in productive work, not to enrage. Nice bumper sticker: “Engage, not Enrage.”


  7. The rewards from meaningful civic participation are substantially greater than any book learning at a more theoretical level. Your commentary and the subsequent comments have reminded me of the materials associated with what was called “Common Fire” a while back. I have those materials some where and intend to find and revisit them; as I recall, it talked about civic responsibility and engagement at all levels. Ring a bell for anyone else?


  8. There’s another nuance to your suggestion which is worth noting. In his The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto Polar describes the value of micro-enterprises and deeds in empowering the poor, particularly in developing countries. The key to such deeds is rural surveying, and distinctive boundaries for properties formerly held without title. Title makes them transferable, bankable, and justifies an entire law-and-order preservation of rights.

    One of the most exciting applications of the same smart phones you’re suggesting to map and capture garbage cans is to capture the palm tree on the edge of a lot, as well as it’s geo coordinates, and thereby create capital in developing nations. Much like mapping where street crime occurs, locating where 911 calls have the slowest response, and similar – fairly obvious and pretty simple but critical metrics, that can be done by kids on the street and in any town – these are the tools of deep and lasting social, cultural, economic, and … educational change.


  9. John, your piece got me thinking a little bit this week. I love reading about and participating in innovative curriculum such as the one you propose. I believe these curriculum can turn a classroom into wonderful place and create teachers out of “yard cops” (as I called myself when I worked as an after-school educator). Almost all teachers innovate in their own classrooms. The corollary of course, is that all teachers don’t innovate in the same way. Sometime, we don’t have all the technical-skills necessary to pull off a unit like this. I’ve built a professional reputation on my blend of engineering knowledge, curriculum innovation and software skills. I’m confident I could teach students many science & math concepts while they count trashcans, analyze locations and publish the results through a Google Maps mashup. My teaching would halt on the steps of City Hall, as I don’t have connections or knowledge of the local civic system. Of course, I could simply partner with another teacher – which requires a different level of resources, brings in different motivations and skill-sets. Success can become harder to attain.
    I listen and discuss educational and curriculum reform over and over again. It sounds easy, connecting learning between classrooms the way a spider builds a web. I would just like to point out, the logistical challenges inside the classroom happen to be more intractable than they first appear.
    I love the idea the idea, especially the zooming around on google earth to gain access to other places. Personally, we’ve been working on the wetland version of this at work.


  10. Imagine a “cleanliness opportunity project” like this, spearheaded by an enthusiastic new teacher intent on making this opportunity cross-curricular throughout the school. PE students could take the photos while on a run (their smartphones knowing where the photos were taken, of course). Leadership students could reach out to leadership students at other nearby schools to enlist their help with the project. Math/science students could work on the existing density of trash receptacles, and analyze needs. Language arts students could draft a letter to the powers that be – civics students could determine who the powers that be may be and learn how local government works. Art students working with Language Arts students could create the basis for a marketing plan (a mosaic of the digital photos of the trash with some clever slogan?) engineered to get the community involved in the effort.

    Imagine the potential energy that projects like these could unleash…not just in the students, but in the older teachers who really need a jump start and could learn a thing or two from the young whipper-snappers!

    There will be naysayers of course who will say – “can’t spare the time – got to teach to the tests.” I’m not a teacher, but it seems to me that opportunities like this don’t have to take a lot of time, just a little imagination and a person to spearhead. The payoff in engaged students, re-engaged teachers, and the collaborative effort within the school would be worth the effort. effort.


    • This is just wonderful, exactly the sort of responses I hoped the piece would produce. Now, how do we get lots of teachers to read and think about doing this? Or students? There’s no recipe for ‘going viral,’ but it seems to me that this idea deserves to. Your thoughts?


  11. an interesting title (you have that) and facebook is the fastest way I know to encourage viral….I’ll repost to my wall and challenge all who have replied in this string do the same!


  12. There are way more older, experienced, innovative (and still whippersnapper) teachers who are doing all they can to jumpstart an administration that restricts us on how we spend our teaching time. I take offense at the assumption that older teachers are not the innovators. We are that and more.. mentors, collaborators, and our experience and strength to endure should not me dismissed in such a cavalier way.
    The collaboration between art, pe, language arts, math, social studies, and science requires planning and all activities must be justified to be in accordance with state mandated learning standards so that students can be evaluated on their success to this worthy project on an excel record. That is just the way it is. We need 36 hours in every day.

    I respect all the great ideas in this conversation, but how many of you have walked in the shoes of a teacher?


    • I have walked in those shoes, although it was many, many years ago. And I think some of those responding have as well.
      It will take whippersnappers of whatever age to push for this sort of activity, but it can happen. Teachers need to work together to do stuff like this, and not just the teachers in a particular school, but teachers around a city or across a state. There’s strength in numbers


    • Man! It is like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some imgaes to drive the content home a bit, besides that, this is helpful blog post. A great read. I will certainly return again. Wishing you Happy New Year!


  13. Love this idea! I’m a former teacher and now the parent of a school-aged child. The carpool line at my kid’s school is a NIGHTMARE. I said, “Let the kids figure out a solution.” They could launch a walk/bike campaign complete with promotional videos, partner with Clean Air Campaign, conduct a walk/bike audit to identify safety concerns, lobby the city for sidewalks, evaluate the air quality, research the environmental and health impacts of all those idling cars… Instead, my kid comes home with drill-and-kill worksheets and I sit in a carpool line for 30 minutes. (I’ve volunteered with the PTO to help find a solution… but the KIDS could do it and learn so much.)


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