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Prioritizing the planet

Brooklyn educator practices what she teaches about sustainability
New York Teacher
Seanelle LeeSang
Bruce Cotler

Under the guidance of Seanelle LeeSang of IS 68 in Canarsie, Brooklyn, the students on the school’s Eco Team learn about growing plants, including air-purifying plants such as peace lilies.

Teachers often go above and beyond for their students, but for Seanelle LeeSang, teaching is an opportunity to go the extra mile for the planet, too.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment, and it’s part of my responsibility as a science teacher to teach kids about taking care of the environment,” said LeeSang, who has taught for almost 22 years at IS 68 in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

Rulers in a cup

As part of the Eco Team’s fabric waste project, students transformed plastic containers into fabric-lined jars for school supplies.

LeeSang is a sustainability coordinator at IS 68 and co-leads her school’s Eco Team, a group of students that pursues sustainable practices, including gardening and recycling.

A big focus for the Eco Team has been the implementation of a recycling program, said LeeSang. Each year the students learn how to sort waste and recycle and how to reuse plastic and repurpose old water and soda bottles as plant pots for gardening, she said.

The Eco Team applied to the city Department of Education’s Service in Schools program, which provides resources to schools to promote community service.

“We were accepted and chose to focus on fabric waste because we had been focused on plastic waste for a while and wanted to do something different for the kids,” LeeSang said. Last school year, the Eco Team reused fabric to make a variety of objects, including vases, pencil cases and tie-dyed clothing. The students participated in the Service in Schools’ Race Against Waste program and won in the middle schools category.

Gardening has been a big part of the Eco Team’s work as well.

“Kids learn about growing plants, including air-purifying plants such as peace lilies,” LeeSang said. “They go from room to room, water the plants and make sure they’re being taken care of as part of their duties” as Eco Team members.

The Eco Team also has been popular among the staff. “My colleagues are extremely supportive,” LeeSang said. “Anything I need, they work with me and provide support.”

Fellow teachers at IS 68 say it’s easy to be supportive of LeeSang’s work.

“I came here last year, and she was so welcoming and warm,” said Isadora Francois, a speech pathologist at the school and the other co-leader on the Eco Team. “She came to my room and asked if I’d like to be part of the Eco Team. I have a brown thumb, but she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.’ That’s just who she is!”

Phobe Luke, an English language arts teacher, started working at IS 68 at the same time as LeeSang and found herself getting involved with her sustainability projects early on.

“She was working with 6th-graders at the time, and she did this activity where students used foil paper to create ovens that cooked marshmallows,” said Luke. “I thought it was so fascinating that just sun and foil could cook something. I jumped on the bandwagon.”

LeeSang first thought of giving her students hands-on environmental projects in 2012, when she participated in the New York Hall of Science’s Design Lab, which offers STEM and project-based learning activities.

“I’d been reading about coastal cities flooding and how they’re redesigning the infrastructure to float and prevent damage,” she said. “The thought came to me that maybe I could have my students build model floating cities as a part of their next project.”

By coincidence, Hurricane Sandy descended on New York City and her school’s shoreline neighborhood of Canarsie that same year.

LeeSang became co-leader of the school’s Eco Team soon after.

“This is meaningful to many of our kids,” she said. “I honestly believe, for some kids, it will determine which career path they follow. Some kids are interested in the clean energy industry; they may become architects or engineers.”

LeeSang participated in a climate jobs roundtable discussion with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in July 2021 and has become active in the Carbon Free and Healthy Schools campaign.

This year, the Urban Green Council honored LeeSang with the Héctor Figueroa Leadership Award, which is given to change-makers and sustainability champions.

LeeSang said she was “incredibly grateful” to receive the award because Figueroa, who was the president of 32BJ SEIU when he died in 2019, was a “leader who cared deeply about the environment and fought for those who didn’t have a voice.”

Even better, the Urban Green Council has offered to work with the Eco Team at LeeSang’s school.

“I was able to meet so many engineers who wanted to work with our kids,” LeeSang said. “To be able to establish those relationships is going to make everything I’ve been doing here even more meaningful because the kids are able to see the real-world aspects and meet people designing buildings that are using renewable technology.”

Some of her new contacts are professionals of color. “Seeing people who look like themselves in those positions — it’s going to have a lasting impact on my students,” she said.

Related Topics: Environmentalism, Science