TEACH THE SOLUTION
It's lunchtime at Santa Monica High School. Science teacher Benjamin Kay steps onto an empty table to address his crowded classroom.
Wait... it's lunchtime?
While most kids at the school are off socializing and grabbing a bite, Mr. K's classroom is a beehive of activity. The excited chatter of science students echoes from aquarium walls lining lab stations around the perimeter of the room.
These kids aren't here for extra credit; just for "the love of science," says Mr. K.
Q: Do they come here with a goal and idea for their own projects?
A: For the most part, the projects are really dictated by what's going on in the community and where the need is. Some of the students are very connected with the major issues that we are focused on. But our big ones are plastic pollution and climate change.
THE EARLY YEARS
Growing up in the Santa Monica Bay area, Benjamin Kay was your average surfer and fisherman. His mother instilled a conservation ethic which he surmises was engrained from her childhood growing up on a North Carolina farm.
"She was big on conservation and frugal, resourceful living," Ben said.
But it wasn't until Ben was a Senior at Palisades Charter High School that he began to form his own sustainability-minded roots.
"Mr. Mullett taught my Marine Biology class senior year. And it was this combination of my setting, upbringing and mentorship by my mother and Mr. Mullett that really kinda pushed me into sustainability. I began thinking with a conservation effort in mind,"
Mr. Mullett put Ben to work all around his Santa Monica community; attending beach cleanups and volunteering with local non-profit organizations.
"He was big into hands-on learning and experiential learning," Ben said as he garners another big smile.
Q: That sounds a lot like you in your classroom from what I've observed?
A: Well, I guess you could say he groomed me a little bit for sure. What was inspiring was that we wouldn't just talk about say- ocean water quality. He would have his students actually go down and take water samples and test them for various pollutants and take data. So it was that hands on piece of real world, authentic education that my other teachers didn't engage me in that way.
Q: How was that experience so meaningful to you as you reflect now in your role as a teacher?
A: Well that worked well for me so that's one piece of his teaching that I'm still carrying forward. I think making it real, relevant and meaningful- that's important for teachers to do if they want to help mold their kids into a sustainability mindset.
Q: How did your graduate studies in Australia effect your career path?
A: While at grad school in Australia I was studying the Great Barrier Reef. It all kinda came together, not in a single ah-ha kind of moment but I got to see that the coral reefs were dying.
Q: What year was this?
A: In early 2000. The reefs were already severely degraded from global warming and ocean acidification and other anthropogenic impacts. So I started to kinda piece the oversumption and human activity together. And that's when I really kinda said we really gotta do something about this.
Q: How did that steer you towards becoming an educator?
A: Since I'm so passionate about education, I see the classroom as a way to help mitigate and remediate all the bad stuff that's going on.
THE GROWN-UP YEARS
If opposites attract, I was curious if this science holds true for marital attraction?
"Yes, my wife is an environmentalist. She definitely is," Ben said chuckling whole heartedly from his desk. His laughter echoes inside the empty classroom. It's after 4pm.
He continues to laugh and have fun as he jokes, "there was no convincing that had to occur."
I learn Ben and his wife agree on three environmental points when it comes to childrearing.
1. Cloth diapers are the way to go.
2. Used toys (Non Plastic) are preferred.
3. All waste (electronic, battery, compost, medicines, oils, etc)
should be disposed of properly.
"We wanted to make sure that our children have the lowest possible carbon, waste, water footprint. Therefore minimizing their impact on the planet," Ben says.
He goes on to tell me a funny side note about the day he knew he loved his wife (then girlfriend).
"A year into us dating she says, 'you know, I'm thinking of getting an electric car.' And I didn't know she was so quick to pull the trigger but she sends me a picture of her jumping up in front of a fiat 500e all electric with the keys and the lease already signed, and I'm like, geesh, didn't even need me for that one," Ben says with a big look of admiration.
TEACH FROM THE HEART
"Is Mr. K the cool teacher?," I ask a group of students congregated at a lab station strewn with notebooks and sack lunches. A few wry smiles and nodding heads affirm my gut instinct upon walking into the class. The students here skipping lunch in the quad once a week, are Team Marine, the school's award-winning marine science club.
"Yea, Mr. K is cool," says Katie Osaki (Jr). "He makes me feel excited and curious about the environment."
I later learn Katie has been selected along with two other Team Marine students to present their recent sustainability projects to Dr. Jane Goodall who will be attending Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, CA.
I ask Team Marine Co-Chair, Sixtine Fucoats (Sr) to share with me her thoughts on Mr. K.
“I had Mr. K. last year for Marine Biology in 11th grade. Sometimes when he would start off with notes and then sometimes he would get so caught up in the material that he was talking about that he would just stop doing the notes and just talk for the rest of the class period. He’s so passionate about what he does. ”
TEACH BY EXAMPLE
Drawing from his learning experience from Mr. Mullett, Mr. K pays it forward by engaging his students with guest speakers and community outreach opportunities.
Team Marine member, Amanda Samimi (Jr) explained to me how students discovered Samohi custodians weren't separating the trash and recycling at the school. "We are kinda in thimble of a trash audit. We will do a scientific study on it in a few weeks"
This type of student engagement is what Mr. K says will "mend the achievement gap," a popular term used by education administrators. But there are conflicting opinions on whether Mr. K's style of teaching actually accomplishes this.
Q: What are a few challenges you face as an educator with your engagement approach to teaching?
A: Well, I have to say that not all my higher ups understand how engagement works. And so over the course of my career I've come across certain administrators who don't always understand what Im doing or why I'm doing it. Or maybe they misinterpret what I'm doing and I've had to cut through a lot of bureaucratic red tape.
Q:Does that frustrate you?
A: The part of my job that I dislike is having to work with people that don't see the big picture as to what's happening to the planet. And convincing them that this is the right pathway to educate kids and engage them. It seems that a lot of the time my superiors get caught up in things like mending the achievement gap, not realizing that we have to engage kids in real world issues if we are going to instill a higher sense of purpose.
Mr. K's curriculum requiring student engagement out in the 'real world' has had its fair share of teaching moments.
Back in 2008, Team Marine students rode a bus down to Long Beach with Heal the Bay, an ocean conservation non-profit located in Santa Monica, to testify at a hearing in support of establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in California.
Fishermen in opposition to the legislation wore black. Team Marine wore blue. Mr. K recounts how some fishermen gave dirty looks and made unfriendly, intimidating comments to the students in the bathroom.
"The fishermen were telling the students that they were ruining the lives of the fishermen economically and they [the students] didn't understand the ocean. But it's been nice, that's real world," says Mr. K.
Mr. K is heavily involved in seeking learning outside learning opportunities for his students. Persistance with his connections in the sustainabilty scene have enable him to offer unique opportunities such as this; presenting school projects to Dr. Jane Goodall, a world-renowned Chimpanzee expert and cultural icon in the environmental protection movement.
His Team Marine students had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jane Goodall and hear her inspiring story on March 20, 2017 at Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, CA.
Team Marine Co-Chairs Zoe Pareills, Sixtine Fucoats and Katie Osaki present to Dr. Jane Goodall
Q: What did your students say to you after meeting Jane Goodall?
A: High school students aren't usually that expressive. They usually package it in words like "Awesome, Amazing, Wonderful." These are the words they used. It was a once in a lifetime experience for some of them.
INSPIRE THE SOLUTION
Mr. Kay says thankfully in Santa Monica we are at the hub of environmental non-profits and scientists from surrounding universities.
Q: What kind of teacher do you consider yourself?
A: I'd say I'm an average teacher with a very important message. By being consistent with that message in the way that I'm engaging students, they may just remember. The only have to remember one letter - K."