Campus Composting + Community

"Can I go compost? I finished my lunch,” a third grader asks. Other students hear and eagerly jump up. “Oh yeah! Can I go, too?” In a matter of seconds, they’re out the door, running to their assigned classrooms for afternoon pickup. When they return, we hear comments like, “Just apples today. Why do we always get apples?”

Third graders at GUS have an important job—composting. Early in September, students learn all about composting—how to compost, what materials can go into compost, the benefits of composting. They quickly learn the system for picking up and dropping off the collection bins around our campus. Part of their excitement is being out of the classroom on their own, without teachers, but another part is their sense of being responsible for an important community service—a responsibility they take seriously.

When I first arrived at GUS in 2015, the idea of students running around the school composting sounded intriguing, but also daunting. Would third graders really be able to do it? What connections could it have to classroom learning? How could we ensure that the activity had residual impact and didn’t become simply a chore? At the time, I knew very little about composting. But, I decided, in class we teachers jump into projects with students all the time, focusing more on the process than the outcome, so we could approach this challenge in the same way. We gave the students some introductory guidance and gradually let them take over. It’s so rewarding to observe children working together and taking on projects like this. The enthusiasm and devotion they’ve shown for their composting job is admirable (even when the compost bins are overripe).

We study communities in third grade, starting with the classroom and the school community. Yes, we learn about community through read-alouds and group games, but we found that the students also learned a lot about participating in a community through their composting efforts. They were proud to realize that they provide a real service that benefits and improves the GUS community. The work the students perform gives something positive to the school. It is authentic, it is student-led, and it serves a worthy purpose.

Recognizing how composting connects to our study of community, we decided to explore other connections that composting might offer beyond GUS. This year, we visited a composting facility in Hamilton called Brick Ends Farm. Brick Ends was founded in 1975, with the goal of restoring fertility to worn-out farmland. They also supply GUS, among other customers, with compost, mulch, and soil.

Brick Ends Farm has massive piles of “cooking” compost, in which temperatures can reach up to 160 degrees. Our guide invited the children to dig their bare hands into one of the piles to feel the heat. When they got about elbow deep, students quickly yanked their arms out. “Ouch! That’s hot!” Truly a hands-on learning experience! Students witnessed the process of making compost from beginning to end. We learned about bacteria called thermophiles and the science of compost. We examined a garden where various compost mixes were being tried to see which batches were best for growing food. We even learned that Brick Ends had recently composted an entire beached whale.

Our trip to Brick Ends Farm did much more than expand the third graders’ understanding of compost and composting. They were able to connect their daily tasks for the GUS community to Brick Ends’ efforts to reduce and recycle waste and improve and expand healthy food production for the North Shore community. Further, the third graders could connect their learning to a worldwide project to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and to nurture and value the bounty of the land.

This year, the city of Beverly launched a Citywide Composting Program with Black Earth Compost, which is based in Gloucester. GUS is proud to be part of this initiative. Prior to our involvement, we were limited in the items we could collect; however, since joining the curbside pickup, we can compost paper towels, meat, cheese, tea, all the coffee packets and pouches from the school’s coffee machines, and much more. Once a week, a truck arrives to pick up our waste and transport it to their facility, where it is turned into rich compost.

Some third graders’ reflections on their composting experiences:

Q: What is composting?

A: “Take something that is organic, that can be decomposed, that can decompose in a giant pile of compost, that can be used for soil or dirt.”

A: “Something nice that we do to help out our community.”

A: “Soil, it makes soil. It makes soil healthier, more nutrients.”

Q: Why compost?

A: “To help the environment.”

A: “You’re not throwing away food and putting it in a landfill. If you put it in the garbage, it can get into the ocean or other places.”

Q: How do you feel about composting?

A: “It’s kind of fun.”

A: “Yeah, it’s kind of fun, but it’s really stinky.”

A: “It feels good because we do something good for our community.”

A: “I like it because we get a break from the classroom, and I like doing things for other people.”

Q: What’s the grossest thing you found in your bin?

A: An avocado.

A: An apple and orange that combined.

A: Moldy pizza.

A: Edible seaweed, it really smelled.

A: Ms. Buck’s leftover salad.

A: A whole bunch of grapes, but it was really old. They were already raisins.

Join us at GUS on Wednesday, January 17 at 6:30 p.m. for a special screening of the documentary "Wasted! The Story of Food" and a community sharing opportunity with partners Backyard Growers, Black Earth Compost, Beverly Bootstraps, Beverly Waste Reduction Committee, Change is Simple, The Food Project, The Garden School, and The Open Door. They will share resources for making a difference in your home and community by establishing gardens, creating a sustainable food system, and diverting compostable waste from landfills.

Christopher Doyle