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Earth Day at Fifty: April 22

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This post was written by Amara Alexander, the 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin called for a national day to highlight environmental concerns and our planet, and that day was first observed on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed later that year and legislation passed to increase recycling and conservation efforts. Of course, recycling was happening long before that legislation passed. To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, introduce students to some of the history of recycling and encourage them to apply design thinking to materials available in most homes.

Save scrap for victory! Save metals, save paper, save rubber, save rags.

Chicago (north), Illinois. Children bringing scrap to the block Office of Civilian Defense headquarters

This photograph features children collecting scraps. Ask students to observe it and describe what they see. What materials have the children collected? Invite students to speculate: Why are the children collecting scraps? Encourage them to explain their thinking by asking questions such as “What makes you say that?” Introduce the caption of the photograph and ask students how it changes their understanding. What new questions do they have? Between 1940-1945, Americans were asked to collect scraps to assist with the war efforts. Neighborhoods across the nation worked together gathering products made out of rubber, newspapers, and metals for salvage disposal. Invite students to think about how this practice continues today. 


“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” the 3Rs, is a catchy phrase to remind us of environmentally-friendly practices. Ask students to divide a sheet of paper into three columns, with one of the 3Rs written as the header of each section. Discuss the meaning of each ‘R,’ and then invite students to analyze this image and jot down items in the appropriate category. Encourage students to brainstorm additional items not shown in the images to add to their graphic organizer. Allow students an opportunity to report on their ideas and update their graphic organizers. 

Encourage students to draft possible ways they can repurpose cardboard tubes from toilet paper and paper towels, such as a tower of rolls, a bridge, a butterfly, or a phone holder. Empower students to use their imaginations and sketch out their designs. Allow time for students to collaborate with others and build upon ideas. After time for drafting, designing, and constructing, students can showcase their repurposed rolls. 

Other ideas for learning about and celebrating Earth Day:

  • Create a new slogan,
  • Rewrite the lyrics of an old song to highlight Earth Day,
  • Create an Earth Day poster,
  • Research environmental issues and compose a list of solutions.

Since the first Earth Day, communities and organizations around the globe highlight environmental issues on April 22, reminding us to preserve and protect planet Earth. How are you celebrating Earth Day? 


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