It began as a simple project to learn about what happens to garbage. It ended up as a rallying cause for Dayna Darby's first graders.
The teacher helped a class of 6- and 7-year-olds investigate how their peers were using recycling bins, measure how much clean paper went to landfills rather than recycling centers, and finally, push administrators to adopt a schoolwide recycling program.
For her work at Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy, Darby has earned a 2009 Kohl McCormick Early Childhood Teaching Award. She is among five winners who will each receive $5,000, plus $1,000 for their schools.
"That experience — doing the project and watching them take the learning into their own hands — did make me extremely proud," Darby says. "I never thought it would turn into what it turned into."
At the start of the project, Darby says, she expected her students might make art from recycled trash. But as the children picked through classroom bins, they noticed plenty of clean paper was going to waste.
"They found a stack of three feet of clean paper in one hour," Darby says. "When they saw that, it kind of hit home."
So the students wrote letters to principal Craig Benes and the school's janitors. Darby says Benes let her students, with the help of the student council, go to each classroom and teach their peers how to sort the trash.
"I respect less what people say, and more what they do," Benes said in a statement. "What Dayna does has inspired our whole school.”
The award includes a graduate course at Chicago's Erikson Institute. Darby says she plans to take a class related to her ultimate goal: running her own school.
Other Kohl McCormick award winners in Chicago were Elizabeth Goss, a second-grade teacher at Legacy Charter School; Camia Hoard, first-grade teacher at Frazier Preparatory Academy; and Lourdes Molina, a bilingual-preschool teacher at Belmont Cragin Early Childhood Center. Patricia Twymon, a home day-care teacher at Wee are the World Day Care in Calumet City, also earned an award.