Inspired by an article he read in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Peter DiMaio decided he needed to go to Vermont (see A Standard to Sustain, from the Fall 2003 issue).
"I'm reading this article, and the more I'm reading the more passionate I'm getting," recalls DiMaio, an 8th-grade Spanish teacher at Octorara Middle School, just outside Philadelphia. "I got so excited I jumped out of my chair and said, 'This is it.'"
"This" was an article on the efforts of Harwood Union High School in Vermont to implement the teaching philosophy of sustainability in the classroom. While there is no standard definition of sustainability, teachers applying it in the classroom link their subjects — such as Spanish, government, science and English — to ideas about protecting the environmental, economic and social resources that future generations will need.
The grandchild of Italian immigrants, DiMaio said he had long practiced the ideas of sustainability — but didn't have a word to describe it — or know how to bring it into the classroom. After reading the Teaching Tolerance article, however, he was inspired enough to plan a trip to Vermont to bring sustainability to Octorara.
"I went into school the next day and ran into one of my co-workers, Amanda Keiffer," DiMaio said. "We looked at each other and at the same time said, 'did you read that article in Teaching Tolerance?'"
From there, the two teachers discussed the possibility of actually going up to Vermont to meet the educators featured in the article. They finally were able to accomplish that goal in March 2004.
"We met a lot of incredible people up there, like Jean Berthiaume and others who are teaching sustainability," said DiMaio. "We were accepted openly and lovingly. It was a truly great experience, and since that time my rural school district has embraced sustainability at many levels — environmental, civic, social, cultural and economic."
Teaching Tolerance program director Jennifer Holladay says experiences like DiMaio's are one of the goals of the program.
"One of the great things Teaching Tolerance does is highlight some of the incredible work that educators are doing in classrooms across the country," she said. "And the value of what those teachers are doing only deepens as they inspire their peers."
DiMaio says the word "inspiration" is an apt one to describe his experience.
"I would say about every seven years or so a teacher needs to put a new log on the fire, so to speak," DiMaio said. "The fire, the passion, begins to burn a little low. But I think sustainability is a new, much larger log that I don't see burning out any time soon."
Some of the programs that DiMaio and his peers have done include service-learning projects, tying in the wisdom of elders with Spanish, Earth Day gardens with science, Mix It Up Day with social connections and use of classroom literature with Rwandan genocide.
"For myself and for my colleagues this has been an invaluable experience. Teaching Tolerance and the people we have met, have helped bring the passion back to teaching."