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Voyager Students Say Yes! to the Earth Charter

This past year, 1st – 6th grade students at Voyager Montessori school eagerly saved enough pennies and dimes to fund two free teacher subscriptions to YES! Magazine. Find out how YES! inspired them to bring to life values of social justice.

Voyager students plant strawberries. Photo by Kim Corrigan.
Voyager students plant strawberries.
Photo by Kim Corrigan.

A small strawberry patch, nestled below pine trees on Bainbridge Island, WA, embodies a story of collaboration, community, and hope for a better world. The strawberries are planted on the cozy grounds of Voyager Montessori Elementary School, just up the road from the YES! Magazine office. Teachers at Voyager were inspired by a YES! workshop on the Earth Charter to develop year long school curriculum that would empower their students to learn and take action for sustainability and social justice.

Rene Kok, head of school, realized the principles of the Earth Charter fit perfectly with the foundational values of Voyager Montessori. The four pillars of the Earth Charter are: 1) respect and care for the community of life; 2) ecological integrity; 3) social and economic justice; and 4) peace, democracy, and nonviolence. The values of Voyager are rooted in self-empowerment, compassion, respect, and stewardship of the land.

The year long project began in the fall by asking the students how they thought they could make the world a better place. An eclectic stream of ideas flowed from the circle of students, including “Don't do yucky stuff” and “more dogs, no hurting animals,” eventually transforming into a conversation focused on taking better care of the environment.

Teaching students the importance of composting. Photo by Kim Corrigan.
Teaching students the importance of composting.
Photo by Kim Corrigan.

Kok proposed an idea to illuminate sustainability: remove all garbage cans from the school, and for 24 hours have the students collect and carry all their garbage in re-sealable bags, to be measured the following day. The response from the students was immediate: “Are the teachers going to do it?” “Clam chowder might squirm around in your pockets.” Lastly, one student suggested wisely, “If no one wants to do this, just bring all recycling.”

This garbage consciousness project led students to begin mastering the art of composting. Simultaneously, parents and teachers began inquiring into the history of the land on which Voyager is built. They discovered that in 1933 Teruso Jimmy Oyama, a Japanese strawberry farmer, purchased the land. Teruso and his family tended strawberries on the land until World War II, when they were removed during the Japanese internments. Members of Voyager decided they would honor the family by replanting strawberries where they once grew, and record the story of their unjust removal from the land. The small strawberry patch was planted from the same type of seeds, and grows in the same furrows that the Oyama family once used. A panel of photographs and a brief written history of the family are also displayed inside the school.

Kametaro Oyama and son, 1924. Courtesy of Voyager Montessori.
Kametaro Oyama and son, 1924.
Photo courtesy of Voyager Montessori.

The students continued building their ecosystem by planting blueberries, which are natural to the land and climate, and installing bee boxes for mason bees to pollinate their plants. They also wanted to do more to help their human community and decided to hold a book and coat drive for Helpline House, a hub for community service on Bainbridge, providing support to those in need, including food, clothing, job training, and domestic violence treatment. The students held an arts and craft sale to support their own school. They harvested local flowers to create lavender sachets, made note cards from recycled paper, and made wrapping paper from a teacher's old packing materials.

The most powerful outcome of these projects was the lessons and values these students learned in the process. They learned that what you need is all around you – local flowers and old packing materials were just as good as expensive bouquets or art paper from a retail store. Instilled in the students was a deep sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment - so deep that a collective gasp was uttered when a parent visiting the school threw paper that could be recycled into the garbage can. They were also empowered to take action, to not be overwhelmed by the seeming immensity of problems, or by their own youth or inexperience. One student, dismayed by the war raging in Iraq, decided he could make a statement just as John Lennon did during the Vietnam war – refrain from cutting his hair until the war ended (and saving his parents the costs of going to a barber).

Making mason bee boxes. Photo by Kim Corrigan.
Making mason bee boxes.
Photo by Kim Corrigan.

Kok admits that doing these projects took a huge commitment from Voyager's teachers. But allowing the time and space helped the students develop genuine self confidence and a healthy sense of pride because they participated in projects from start to finish – from imagination to reality. Kok is also incredibly grateful for the land that Voyager has. Initially seen as a liability and something to be grudgingly maintained, the land became Voyager's great asset and basis for the Earth Charter curriculum. Kok realizes that not all schools are so fortunate, but genuinely hopes and believes that any school can use the Earth Charter in some way with the resources they have.

>Like Kok, YES! Magazine also hopes and believes that stories like Voyager's can be inspiring and motivating to other students and teachers. The teachers at Voyager were ultimately most grateful to YES! Magazine for being a witness to their work – that we care about them and the positive change they are making. We want to keep telling and sharing these stories with people interested in creating a better world. The students at Voyager, wanted to make sure we can share these stories as well, so much so that they raised enough pennies and dimes to fund two free one year subscriptions for teachers. With their efforts, and the efforts of students and teachers everywhere we can indeed help create a more just, sustainable and compassionate world.


Andy Davey. Photo by Justine Simon
Andy Davey is the curent YES! Education Outreach Intern. He arrived at YES! after three years of living, working, and learning with people with developmental disabilities at L'Arche Noath Sealth. Upon finishing his internship he plans to work in education and/or community building in Seattle. Email Signup
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