Elementary Students May Well Save the Planet

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Each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance, Spanaway Elementary School hears the “Green Fact” coming over the Public Address system: “Good Morning, this is Davarius, your Sustainability Chairman, with today’s GREEN FACT: We throw away enough aluminum every month to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet…. So, let’s remember to recycle those pop cans at lunch everyone.” Students and staff have been submitting “green facts” like this to share with the school, but just hearing figures like this aren’t enough for this school of 440; these kids like action.

Spanaway Elementary School boasts the title of “Bethel’s Greenest School”, not just a self-proclaimed honor, but a daily goal. Twenty-eight members of “The Green Team” lead the school in assemblies, take mini-lessons back in their classrooms on exactly what to put into recycle bins, and set more and more challenging environmental goals for the school.

The “Green Team” is not without staff support, three advisors: Karen Marchesini, Community Liason, Kim Nichols, sixth-grade teacher, and Anu Chapin, librarian, work closely with principal Kim Hanson and the ASB. “Since we have started our project, I get two to five e-mails a week from other staff members sharing new ways to be environmentally conscious, related articles, and kid-friendly things to try. Everyone is very excited, this seems to be on the minds of everyone right now. Our custodial staff has been so supportive, and I really hope that in the end this helps them to have an easier day,” said Kim Nichols, one of the advisors who is starting a water collection system for the school garden.

“There have been so many ways this has changed how we do things.” Karen Marchesini says, “By November we had already DOUBLED the amount of paper we recycled during all of last year!” But is takes more than just collecting paper, “we are thinking about things differently since our waste audit”, stated Chapin. Pierce County helped Spanaway to audit every piece of garbage in one day from every part of the school. “Our playshed was filled with blue tarps and trash was piled everywhere. Then we weighed each pile. Now we have a goal to reduce each number by the time we have our next audit in March,” said sixth-grader, Lauren David.

Recycling isn’t just for kids. The Spanaway staff room has two miniature garbage cans to collect food waste from coffee grounds to banana peels used in the school garden’s compost. “Everyone seems to be finding a way to do a part,” said Kim Hanson, who has personally sewn every staff member their own cloth napkin. “We started getting kids involved, and it has just snowballed with their enthusiasm.” Additionally, Hanson has gone to e-mails for school newsletters and flyers and is now 75% paper-free. “Parents have had a lot of positive feedback about getting an e-mail versus a flyer for event reminders, late starts, and messages. It’s really easy for parents to hit “return” and send us a little note back, so I think communication has truly improved with this plan.” More and more people are finding that “going green” can save both money and energy.

Green Team members meet regularly to keep up the “green momentum”, some of their upcoming events include: challenging staff members to “a day with their own coffee mugs” instead of paper coffee shop cups, an “oldest lunch bag contest” to challenge students to reuse their old bags, and inviting everyone to a “Waste Free Lunch” where nothing would need to be thrown in the trash after the meal. Reusing is contagious, this year Spanaway’s Read Across America event will be done using “no new waste”, meaning all hand-outs and bookmarks are left from previous events, and decorations are made with recycled materials. According to Chapin, “We have ordered a number of “green books because there has been so much interest since the “Green Team” has started. We challenge the other schools to create their own Green Team”.

“The community has rallied around this program,” said Marchesini, “we have had help getting cardboard cages from the LeMay Corporation, we are collecting plastic bags that Walmart will pay us for, and the Pierce County Public Works and Utilities group has helped us with money for field trips, audits, plus lots of collaboration. The kids have found some wonderful mentors in that group.”

Fifth-grader Justin Long sent a letter and received a response from the President about the state of the environment. As Justin says, “We have to do something right now or we are not leaving a very nice planet.” If the Spanaway Elementary students continue in this way, it will be a much better planet if they have anything to say about it.

NOTE: (March 2011) Since this article was printed in our district newspaper, we have continued to make significant progress. Each day in the cafeteria our students now pour out their liquid from milk cartons that now goes down the drain instead being thrown into the garbage bags. This is close to 55 pounds a day that would otherwise be carried to the dumpster by our custodians. There are collection sites in each building for aluminum cans and paper recycling in every room from classes to closets. ASB members survey the building for recycling and each has a designated pick up site they are responsible for. Additionally, our school is now participating in a program with Terra-cycle that pays us for sending them certain packaging materials. We have been collecting: Juice pouches, potato chip bags, empty glue sticks, and “Lunchable” plastic trays. Our first check came in the mail in December and we were able to announce to the students that we received $55.34. Not much money, but money for garbage kept out of the landfill and most importantly, our kids are constantly thinking about ways to be more environmentally careful. We are amazingly proud of our students. It has restored my faith in humanity a bit.


I Know a Great Teacher

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Sure, it’s fun to bash teachers.  Everyone knows of a bad one.  But recently I had the chance to write on behalf of a teacher who is nominated for teacher of the year.  My task focus was “Community Involvement”.  I think everyone should know about good teachers.  So here’s my letter about a great teacher.

[Carolyn Gordon – Community Involvement]

To Whom It May Concern:

It is my honor to write about what I know of Carolyn Gordon’s community involvement.  I have worked with Carolyn in one capacity or another for over 15 years in the Bethel School District.

I have found Carolyn to be one of the most compassionately involved teachers I have met.  She has made herself available to the community through her evening reading clubs that benefited both her students and their parents.  She has provided unique opportunities for her families such as evening barbeques, math game nights, science fairs, study sessions and tutoring long after the last bus has pulled away.

Outside of her own school, Carolyn has been an active participant in the PTA’s for her own children at both Bethel Junior High and Bethel Senior High.  Carolyn can be found at many nighttime music performances of her students both past and current.  I have shared a few cold evenings with her around a baseball field or on the sidelines of a muddy football field supporting the children of our district.

Carolyn has served as a March of Dimes: Walk America leader helping her school to have one of the highest turnout rates in the district.  She has shared her talents by assisting at camp counselor training and volunteering for YMCA camps.  Carolyn willingly takes student-teachers under her wing and develops life-long friendships with them.  Many still visit her frequently as her mentoring has no end.  With Carolyn, they seem to be afforded her expertise for life.

It probably goes unnoticed that Carolyn looks for many unique ways to help students connect to our community members.  She has worked with the Pierce County Environmental Education team to help her students better understand sustainability in the community and learn of indigenous rain gardens.  When Carolyn takes her class on a field trip to a Puget Sound beach, she recruits professional divers from the community to meet the class group.  The divers then pull up unique and hard to find sea creatures that no doubt thrill the kids in this once in a lifetime event.

Knowing Carolyn for 15 years, I feel I have a unique position to shed light on how she truly impacts our community far beyond what is recorded on TRI forms and resumes.  I was there when Carolyn tutored a dying child who was no longer able to come to school.  I was there when Carolyn arranged a community-wide garage sale to help cover the child’s medical expenses that had long before run out.  And I stood next to Carolyn at this young boy’s funeral.

It is this kind of community involvement from Carolyn that I am most proud of.  Sure, Carolyn is at every Tech Fair and school open-house.  But, Carolyn can also be found singing at a former student’s wedding, playing in an all-teacher band, or passing out programs at the funeral of another teacher who passed away suddenly.  These events are never recorded on district forms, and this compassion is rarely, if ever, viewed by people who aren’t close to her.   Carolyn is a humble and gracious giver, not one to look for recognition.   But it is exactly these community ties that are both the fabric of who Carolyn is, and the definition of community involvement.

I am eager to answer any further questions you may have.


Kimberly Nichols

6th Grade Teacher

Spanaway Elementary

Worst Field Trip Ever

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Worst Field Trip Ever


During my student teaching days I would try to visit as many classrooms as I could so as to absorb what elementary teaching was really going to be like, as opposed to the silly anecdotes in my glossy college books and artificial labs that I was certain were not realistic.


A good friend from college who had recently been hired as a fifth-grade teacher invited me to spend the day in her classroom in a sleepy river town near the foothills of the Cascades.  I was excited to visit a great friend, watch an enthusiastic teacher, and even count this as “observation hours” for some meaningless course.  It had the makings of a fun day.


Five short minutes after I arrived at her school, a principal’s booming voice came onto the P.A. system to inform all staff that there was going to be a spontaneous field trip for the entire school that would be departing within ten minutes of when the kids arrived on campus.  In all my life in a public school system I had never heard of a “spontaneous field trip”, nor an all-school trip, and especially one that did not require formal signed permission slips printed on goldenrod paper.


Immediately after morning lunch count and attendance was taken the buses were boarded.  Our loud lumbering yellow bus convoy traveled just ten blocks or so through a “declining neighborhood”.  The bus had to stop in the middle of the road since there were many fire trucks now blocking our way.  In the middle of the road, the bus driver killed the engine and I began to realize that the black and charred ruins of a house clumsily surrounded by emergency vehicles was actually our destination and not the obstacle.


We were then marched single-file through where the front door had recently been.  The immediate attack on my senses made me nauseous.  Along the walls, three feet up from the floor, a precise black line had been created by the smoke from the house fire.  Everything below this black equator was as pristine as before the fire.  Everything above the line was a black melted mass covered in a matte finish.  A clock was melted to the wall, and some plastic figurines had dripped over a wooden shelf.


I looked at the faces of the 5th graders, my companions in this house of horrors.  Most of them walked with eyes and mouths wide open, as if frozen in a night terror.  I looked to my friend, but I could not get eye contact, it was obvious she was both stuck in her own thoughts of this tragic present moment and of the future aftermath when we would return to school with both children and questions.


We walked slowly to the kitchen while remaining on the plastic runners set down for us.  It was here we were told that the fire had been started.  Rumors traveled down the line that it started when a child was using a deep fat fryer to make dinner for her siblings.  The child was a student at the school, which seemed to make this event even sadder.  Everyone had gotten out of the house except for the family dog who had perished.  The new smells forced my nose to retreat toward my weeping eyes.  Everywhere was the smell of burnt hair.  As a child I had read that burnt hair was the identical smell to the putrid scent of burnt flesh.  More nausea.


Firefighters with bright headlamps stood in the smoky hallways as if guards over this blackened disaster.  We traipsed silently through this gruesome site, eager to leave.  Water still dripped from the ceiling and pieces of smoldering furniture forced us to look at the only things moving in this otherwise still house.


As I walked out the back door and into the yard, I gasped greedily for fresh air and felt both dizzy and disoriented.  The sun was now shining and the contrast of colors was bright and vivid compared to the musty, dark shell of a home.


We walked in slow-motion back toward the cruel bus that had brought the fifth-graders and me to this hell.  Our zombie ride back to school was quiet and surreal.  When we arrived back to the school, another teacher beckoned his 5th graders to exit the bus first.  The children passed us quietly through the narrow aisle while we waited, still stunned, in our seats.


A taller boy in a torn ski parka and the start of pre-teen acne was one of the last to pass us.  He glared at the girl sitting in front of me as he sauntered by.  He paused before her, raised his voice at her and said, “Nice Job, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”


It was then that I realized the young girl who’d accidently started the fire was on the bus with us.  She’d ridden among us.  She’d toured her own burned house and sniffed the remains of her dead dog with us.


I’d forgotten how cruel some fifth-grade boys could be in their failed attempts at humor.  All that consumed me was a series of rapid questions marks.  Why?  Why would that boy say such a thing after walking on top of the ashes of her young life?  Why would the principal think this was more benefit than traumatic for all who visited?  Why didn’t the veteran staff members speak up about his horrible judgment in making a decision to tour the house or bring the victim along?  Why?


For my own 23 years in teaching, I have thought carefully about all planned field trips and their purpose.  Additionally, I’ve never gotten on a big yellow bus with the din of excited kids without first thinking of the worst field trip ever.





Parent Notes I Keep on the Fridge

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Notes On the Fridge

Frequently parents send in notes with their child.  In 23 years of teaching, there have been a few favorites.  I’d like to believe they are all written while the parent is still asleep.  But after parent conferences my illusion is sometimes broken.  These notes adorn my refrigerator and I thought you might like to see them.


Jackie left her work at school.  You should probably have her do it sometime.

Thank you,


(note: I think I speak for all teachers when I say this is the type of home support that incredibly beneficial in helping the children get ahead.  I’ll bet the same note would work on the SAT’s)


Please excuse Kenny on his boat today as we didn’t have a ruler at home to measure with.  As with any scale, every measurement is critical.

Thank you,

Charley Brown

(note:  No,  I don’t know what boat needed a ruler.  Self medication is not an HMO)


Miss Nichols,

I really like being your student.  To tell you the truth I’m scared to go to Jr. High.  Happy Valentine’s Day.



(note: This was hand written on the back of a Valentine’s Day card, apparently Hallmark had no such sentiment already prepared)


Dear Miss Nichols,

Kenny is sick because I can’t make him wear his coat.  Can you please get him to wear his coat so he doesn’t get sick?

Kenny’s Grandma

(note: This reminds me of the parent who called before school to ask if I could keep the child in for recess because Althea refused to take the garbage out)


Miss Nichols,

Candice had a hard time with her spelling crossword.  I myself SUCK at puzzles and had a hard time helping her. Thank you.

Ms. H.

(note to self – offer after school help on Puzzles for Parents who Suck)


To Whom it may Concern

Yesterday I picked Charles up from school his tummy hurt, I got him home and he got out of the car and through up  a bunch of  stuff.

Thank you,


(note: This is the same parent who told me at conferences that she was a black belt in Judo/Kung Fu/Karate and that she was “allergic to human hair”)


Miss Nichols,

Please excuse Ron yesterday, he had the Hershey squirts.

Mrs. Caldwell


Please excuse Carla from math homework, the cat peed on her pencil.

Ms H


Not everyone has time to write a note.

When one child was about 45 minutes late one morning, his mother threw open the classroom door and shouted to me across the room full of 30 6th-graders… “Sorry John’s late Miss Nichols! Both the washer AND the dryer went tits up today!” ( I guess that was best said in person).



Sailing the Mayflower to West Seattle

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Sailing the Mayflower to West Seattle

By Kim Nichols

Last week, at the age 46, I was prescribed glasses for the first time. Not Walgreens reading glasses, but “you’re-getting-older-and-can’t-see-very-well” glasses.  I have spent seven days trying to get used to my new “progressives”, which I think is a diagnostic term meaning: “lot’s of the world will be blurry, but some parts will be clear”.  As I drove through the “Big Junction” as we used to call it (the “Little Junction” meant California Avenue at Morgan Street), I began to see things I hadn’t seen in a while.


I stopped reading the neon signs and just started to imagine many of the old businesses that I had known as a child in West Seattle.  These places are more a feeling than a vision.  I noticed an enormous mortar “bucket” with its moving pestle high above Morton’s Drugs where Easy Street now stands. As a child I missed many light changes by staring at that giant piece of “marble” go round and round grinding up an imagined powder.


From there it’s only a glance across the street to the north east corner of California and S.W. Alaska, and I can see the wonderful windows of La Grace.  Behind the large picture-windows was a march of monochrome mannequins all wearing knit dresses and hats; all of one hue, usually in red or pink.  I was too young to shop there, but I knew it held an important place in the junction’s landscape.


A couple of doors to the north and the “Center of the Junction Universe” comes into view- it is J.C. Penney.  This was a mandatory stop for excited children in September before school started, this was us anxiously waiting at the Dutch door to pick up brown packages in December.  It was here we picked up our swim suits in late spring;  this single building that promised us so much, including an impending warm summer at Alki or the Colman Pool.  Now, do I actually remember the cashier up in the loft of J.C. Penney’s who would send us back our change through a simple pulley-system?  Was that my own memory or was it borrowed from my mom and grandma who reminded me of it during every visit? No, I hear the bell from up in the loft so clearly, I know this memory is my own.


I travel around West Seattle as the images come into focus again… pink donut boxes on the counter of Blake’s Bakery, The Junction Feed and Seed where the Tru Value sits now, Shakey’s Pizza welcoming you to West Seattle with a flurry of banjo players on stage.


I’m spinning now, me and my poor vision, and things aren’t where I remember them; Groucho’s Burgers seems too close to Pizza Pete’s, and there’s a hospital both above the People’s Bank and also on 35th Avenue.  The West Seattle Hospital, on that chunk of land just before the hill on 35th gets fun, where we would try to get air in our first cars and lift our stomachs into our throats.  That’s it, right near the cannon that’s aimed at my dentist’s office.  Here I would peer over my Highlights Magazine as I studied Goofus and Galant, so hopeful that the cannon would not go off before I got my “sucker on a string” for a dentist visit well done.  That’s right, dentists gave out candy, back in those times.  Right?  That was real, right?  Wasn’t it?


Now I’m remembering how there was a strange breakfast place in West Seattle about a block or so south of the five-way stop at Erskine Way and California.  My sight is blurry, was it an odd pink building? Yes, and I remember being perplexed by the little boy on the sign who was chasing a tiger while balancing a plate of flapjacks, or was the tiger chasing him? I rarely use the phrase “politically correct” because I can’t understand what is “political” about Jim Crow Laws, sexism, or any other prejudice.  I didn’t know much as a kid, but I did know that eating at a place called, “Lil Black Sambos” was something not to mention on Monday at school.  Up until the end of my grandfather’s life, he and I could find very little to agree on, politically or otherwise.  But, we both loved the outdoors, pancakes, and crisp bacon.  And so, as we ventured toward our outdoor trips, we would share a secret breakfast at a very peculiar “concept restaurant”, and then be on our way, not speak of it to others.


Now I begin to realize that my childhood memories of West Seattle are like my eyes, sometimes clear yet other times dilated and blurry.  Could there really have been some Paul Bunyon-sized jeans hanging up at the Wigwam?  Wigwam?  My friends and I have a rule about “in-jokes” so that no one ever feels left out. We may tell all the in-jokes we’d like, but if just one new person is present at the group, the rule is: “it must be explained”.  Many is the time that the person who explains the joke the best and with the greatest enthusiasm and flair, was not even there at the joke’s inception.  That’s the point, a person gains immediate “membership” once they are told the story.  My dad, George, calls this the “Mayflower Effect”.  He maintains that if all the people who claim to have relatives that sailed over on the Mayflower really and truly did, then there would have been an armada of 2000 vessels at Plymouth Rock.  That’s how it seems when you live in West Seattle, once you’ve lived here, you are a part of the collective memories.  If you know any part of the history, either with clear or dilated eyes, you are a member.  You were with us on the Mayflower.

Lincoln Park in the 70’s: Our Playground

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Lincoln Park in the 70’s: Our Playground

By Kim Nichols


The tree-lined coast of West Seattle from Brace Point to Pt Williams was originally called Fauntleroy Park.  When the city of Seattle bought it in 1922, during a time much closer to the Civil War than we are now, they renamed it Lincoln Park.  Surely the Duwamish before them had their own names for this forest of cedars and firs along the Puget Sound.  But in the 1970’s, my brother Troy and I just called Lincoln Park – “freedom”.


I can’t apologize for growing up in simpler and somewhat quaint time, where kids were free to roam Lincoln Park all day long as long as we were home before the street lights came on.  We were explorers, and there was much to be discovered.


Our first order of business was to ride bikes to our favorite forts and hideouts in the park intent on stopping for candy on our way home.  But try as we might, our bicycles always forced us to stop at the optimistically named Lincoln Park “Grocery” before we ever got to the park.


“The Little Store,” as we called it, sat just off Fauntleroy Way and was the size of a kid’s bedroom.  It was packed floor to ceiling with three rows of, well, I don’t know really because we never went beyond the candy aisle.  The candy greeted us at the door and we froze, staring at an array of sugary choices: “penny candy”, nickel candy that included York Patties and Big Hunks, and alas, the dime candy, or as it was known, to us “expensive candy”.  This included the elusive Three Muskateers and Snickers Bars.  And there we would stand, paralyzed by indecision, the mere choice of TWO Bit-O-Honeys vs. one Milky Way was enough to overwhelm our pre-frontal cortex and render us silent.  This was back when a store was a reflection of the people who ran it, and the kind grey-haired man who took our money treated us as if this were his most important sale of the day.

Properly fortified with sweets, we were now on a mission to Lincoln Park to check up on our hide-outs, forts, and all the places we were sure that only we had ever ventured to.  Based on the beer bottles from the night before, we were wrong about being the only ones to know of this site, but since we never saw any other people, it seemed more like spirits had left us these artifacts.  Troy and I collected the Lucky caps left behind because they contained little rebus puzzles inside, many of which we didn’t have the background knowledge to understand but we kept them like a code from the Rosetta Stone only to be cracked later.  We’d stash the caps and our other treasures away under roots like squirrels.


It was then that we’d go to the northernmost trail of the park to the fish pond.  We knew these fish were ours alone, and we often worried who would take care of them when we were not around to feed them a steady diet of sticks and fir cones as we did.


Most of our transportation in Lincoln Park meant we rode as hard as we could for 100 yards, then we locked up the brakes in order to skid for 20 yards.  This method would take us down the steep cliff where we would skid all the way to Colman Pool to check the water level.  Climbing up to see over the plywood window covers would get our blood pumping enough to begin our dangerous feats of balancing bikes on driftwood logs.  We knew this was deliciously dangerous and not something to bring up when we got home.  Lincoln Park was a child’s wonderland and not something to be shared about too much with adults.


After moving great logs around to create a cozy cabin of driftwood, we would sneak inside and watch the waves.  Sometimes our fortress was carpeted with bleached orange crab shells, at other times our furniture was old metal pieces that    the tide had left decades ago; a giant pile of tetanus.


At the end of the day we dragged ourselves home along Lincoln Park’s waterfront and through Loman Beach.  Here we could steal a sweet and salty drink from the fountain and swing wildly with our legs kicking toward the Sound.  We reluctantly pedaled toward home, happy in our vast new knowledge of our world, unaware of the dangers that haunt children’s lives today. We were sunburned because we didn’t know about SPF or we were drenched through because we didn’t have Gortex like those West Seattle Mountaineers, the Whitakers.  Our parents didn’t raise us indoors so we never knew boredom. But, in Lincoln Park, on any given Saturday, in the 1970’s – we just knew we were free.