Performance Art Inspires Passion and Empathy in the Environmental Education Process

Stephen Ringold 

I work with a theater company named, The Grand Falloons.  Our experience bringing the arts to elementary school environmental education over the past 17 years has brought environmental stewardship into the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids, a generation of students, across the northeast.

The Grand Falloons arrive at a school about an hour before showtime. After getting through the rigorous security and speaking with the principal, we load into the auditorium, the gym, the cafetorium, the outdoor playground, or whatever is available. No matter the space, within 30 minutes, we transform it into an extraordinary location.  An ordinary location the kids see every day that now has something a little bit extra. The magic of theater.

The audience visits a world of classic vaudeville, with live music, singing and dancing, juggling, call and response stories, magic, bubble sculptures, plate spinning, hold-your-belly humor. All these classic skills are used to illustrate the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nature of atoms and molecular structure, photosynthesis, and climate science. It’s a place where they learn every step along the way in the waste stream, where litter goes after you throw it on the ground, and how important sustainability is to keep those cycles healthy. It is all done through joyful play and direct interaction.  After all that we pack up and are out of there in 30 minutes, leaving a cloud of (biodegradable) confetti and our memories behind!

What just happened??!!  What was that??!! 

Reports of:

Kids dragging their teachers out to the playground to lead a litter pick up. 

Children dancing through the hallways for the next week singing the old sea chanty…

Hey Ho! Let’s Recycle!
Hey Ho! Let’s Recycle!
Hey Ho! Let’s Recycle!
Earl-ie in the Mornin!

…the teachers will tell you, that it is a very sticky tune!

The older kids learn and recite a pledge, the one we end every show with, in the form of one of our favorite poems, by the beat poet, Gary Snyder.

I pledge allegiance
To the Earth
And to all trees outstanding
One eco-system
Under the sun
In diversity
With joyous air and water for allllll!

Compost and recycling containers filling up to the brim in the cafeterias for the first time the teachers can remember. Even on Taco Tuesdays! Kids making teachers aware of the proper use of recycling containers in their classrooms. 

This is anecdotal evidence, but we have seen the passion we have left behind in many schools. Often, when we return to a school, we are met with cheers when we arrive. This is a clear indication that they remember us, and are more likely to remember our message.  

Reinforcement in the classroom is needed for that passion to last. Students will seek knowledge on subjects for which they feel passionate. My five-year-old boy knew more about pirates than I ever knew there was to know!  After seeing our work, the kids are ready to listen, they are hungry to know and be a part of it. That is what the arts do.

They provide passion and empathy to the educational process.

It all began when I heard an interview on NPR with a representative from the DSNY Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability, Ms. Mary Most.  She was speaking about the difficulty they were having reducing waste in the NYC Public Schools because of the unpredictable element of the kids. 

School waste is a huge problem. Corporate America is largely beginning to clean up its act, i.e., General Motors has 131 landfill-free facilities worldwide that reuse, recycle, or convert to energy all waste from daily operations (thanks to efforts and threats by the NRDC). [1]

However, a study was done in the Minnesota public schools and found the public schools in that state produce more than 483,000 lbs. of waste a day and there are upwards of 35.6 million students in PreK–8 public school classes across the nation and an additional 5.2 million in private elementary and secondary schools.[2, 3]

I thought, "We know how to reach them!"  

Studies have proven that appropriate humor (of which the Falloons have plenty) and music lead not only to a community sensibility but an actual dopamine release that can improve retention and increase goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory. [4]  As in how the singing of words or concepts can make them easier to remember. The simplest example of this is the alphabet song.  A tune most of us learned in first grade that to this day will still crop up unexpectedly at the oddest times!

Differentiated instruction is an educational philosophy that represents each new concept in a variety of ways to reach a broader range of students and their different ways of learning. One kid gets it by repetition, another by mental exercises, another by movement, another by imagery, rhythm, or tone. We use one character, Mr. Meatloaf, as a vehicle for this style of teaching.  Another character, The Professor, has to try many ways of illustrating each concept before Meatloaf is able to grasp it.  We not only repeat each key concept in many faceted ways but do so with spiraling excitement, accompanied by very specific, repeatable gestures and rhythms or music. The next time that same issue is brought up, half the kids in our audience are conducting the hand and body gestures with us and singing along.  They continue singing along long after we leave.

Intellectual stimulation with experiential repetition, muscle memory, and imagery built on shameless curiosity equals the joy of learning. That is what the arts bring to any subject matter. The most important of which and least accessible of which is joy.

Perhaps the greatest addition the arts make to education in general and environmental education, in particular, is that with good art no one is telling you what to feel, think, and do—just TO feel, TO think, and TO do. The audience experiences the work and becomes a part of it. The work does not exist without the audience. The greatest lesson of our shows and of arts as a tool in environmental education is nature is not something you look at, not something you drive an hour out of the city for, nature is not something other. WE are nature. What we do TO nature, we do to ourselves.

So far, the effect of the Grand Falloons’ work has been purely anecdotal, but we are doing a quantitative analysis come this next semester collaborating with Passaic County Municipal Utilities Authority and the Graduate School of Environmental & Biological Sciences @ Rutgers University to actually put numbers to the effect of our work on real-time waste reduction in the schools. So, say tuned!

The Grand Falloons

[1] General Motors Waste Reduction Fact Sheet

[2] School Waste Study 

[3] School Statistics 

[4] Humor, Laughter and Those Aha Moments 

Dopamine, Learning and Motivation