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We don't need no education

I got asked today about how to deal with school booklists. This is a tricky one. As a teacher, I never want to compromise on education, however, booklists are one of the most wasteful lists in the world.

When I was young, I remember when the booklist order forms came out and mum used to sit down with us and we would discuss how many glue sticks we had used. How many display folders we had. Whether we had any spare books left. Mum only ever ordered what we needed. We reused and reused and I still think I have a folder that I use regularly that says ‘Alice Foddy 1M’ on it from 2001. I never even grew out of my scissors into adult ones because I have tiny hands. And my calculator went strong for 10 years.

There is a lot to be said about the way booklists are done. 4 packets of colouring pencils a year I always thought was a tad excessive, yet we never had enough tissues in the classroom. But not only are the amounts of what we need wrong, the whole attitude is wrong as well. Teachers, I believe, need to do a lot more work to develop learning activities that have minimal impact on the environment.

High school is easy. If you have a biro, a calculator, a ruler, a laptop and some books you can generally survive. But primary school isn’t so easy. This is a general list

Pens, pencils, coloured textas, coloured crayons, colours pencils, sharpener, ruler, erasers, display folders (or binders with protective sheets), calculator, pencil case, geometry set, glue sticks, scissors, whiteout, notebooks, grid books.

Now a lot of these comes in single use plastic packaging. Some are made from plastic. Some aren’t. Some are reusable. Some are consumable.

So for each one, I am going to break down your alternatives. Bear in mind, some of the alternatives can be expensive, but some aren’t.

Pens – This is a major consumable past grade 5. You have a few options. 1. Get a fancy refillable fountain pen like mine (not recommended unless the kid is extremely responsible and can refill without making a mess.. possibly ok for a year 12 student). 2. Buy pens made from recycled paper. You can get them at places like officeworks quite easily. 3. If you have to buy the biro, make sure the kids bring them home and you dispose of them at Biome in the red cycle thingos. 4. Use a pencil (except for exams).

Pencils – mostly ok. Consumable. Comes in a carboard box that can be recycled. Try and get the nonpainted ones. When sharpening, keep shavings as they can be used in compost from memory.

Coloured textas- this is the hardest. I am yet to find a refillable option or a non-plastic option. Why do we even use them anyway? Artistically they are mostly useless. And the black always ends up looking purple. And the highlighter yellow always ends up looking black…. If you can though, reuse from previous years until completely dry.

Coloured crayons. – not going to lie, as a kid I used to love the twisty ones, and if we weren’t using them, we were using the cheap red/yellow/green/blue packs dad brought home from work that smelt awful. I don’t recommend those now though. If you can, Biome has some wax crayons that aren’t wrapped in a paper. I don’t believe that paper is either compostable or recyclable because it is waxy. Again, like textas, I’m not a big fan of crayons.

Coloured pencils – this is where it is at! Again, like your regular graphite, comes in a carboard box which can be recycled. They tend to last over a year anyway. If you can get non-painted outsides, that helps. Shavings can be composted too.

Sharpener – get a 50c stainless steel one. Lasts forever. Only ever need the one. Can be recycled at the end of its life or passed on to a younger fam member. Don’t get it wrapped in plastic, that is just useless.

Ruler – go wood. The bendy ones that used to be the rage are the most useless rulers in the world. Plastic is plastic. Wood is much better. Lasts for ages too normally without the paint coming off as you see in the plastic ones. Again, if you see it wrapped in plastic, that is insulting.

Erasers - I find mostly useless. Just cross it out and move on. Its better to remember your mistakes.

Display folders and binders – surely there are enough display folders and binders in the world that we should never have to buy any again? Also, tip for teachers, have a policy of either gluing it in or putting it in a display folder.. not both. Like I said earlier, reuse reuse reuse. I am yet to find a non-plastic alternative.

Calculator – unfortunately all of the scientific ones are made of plastic. I do recommend though casio not sharp as a brand. It is way more user friendly. These are non-consumable. Kids should be able to look after a calculator for a long time and replace the battery when needed. This is the type of item though to ask any year 12s if they want to hand down because if they aren’t an engineer, accountant or scientist, they aren’t going to use it much.

Pencilcase – if you want to DIY from an old t-shirt or some leftover material that is an awesome way to customise a pencilcase. Pinterest is full of designs. Or kids could use a cool wooden box or something similar. The thing with pencilcases is that each kid wants to feel individual. Which is fair enough, it is one of the only ways they can show their personality at school. If might be a fun activity for the kids to choose some fabrics or something to help make it. Pencilcases can have a long life, but kids tend to want a new one once they grow out of ninja turtles or elsa.

Geometry set – similar to calculators. See if you can scab an old one from a family friend or ex student.

Glue sticks – these are consumable. Unless a teacher is willing to DIY some glue, there really is no getting out of this one. One of the things that you can do from memory is drop them to a red cycle box at biome at the end of the life. This is one of the items that clever teacher planning can avoid using. But there are some seriously good learning activities to be done with glue.

Scissors – again, 1 pair per child. You could steal from an ex student. If you get an entirely stainless steel pair, they can be recycled at the end of their life, but I have only seen those types of scissors come home from James’ work in his pockets used for wound dressings. Try avoid buying them wrapped in plastic.

White-out - see erasers.

Notebooks and grid books – pro tip. 2mm grid paper is gold. Anything different is mostly useless. The tearable sheets are also the best unless your child is in primary school. Grid books in any other form always end up in the back of the cupboard. Don’t cover them in contact. They don’t even really need covering. At the end of their life, tear out the leftover pages for drawing and other shenanigans. And recycle or compost the rest.

Other tips

Always ask around to see what other parents have. Or people who have just left school that have 1000 folders and books that they will never use again.

Avoid thinking that kids need to have ‘new’ every year. That is not the case. A pencilcase is a pencilcase, just fix the zip if needed. Or make a pencilcase with no zips. Scissors and scissors and calculators are calculators.

For teachers, I like the idea of the sharing model, where kids bring in a tonne of stuff at the beginning of the year and the teacher distributes as necessary. I’ve seen it work well in prep.

Give. If you can any leftovers.

Generally speaking there does need to be a system wide overhaul of how booklists are done and how teachers manage resources in a non-wasteful manner.

There is also a lot more I wish I knew. For example, where does the wood from pencils get farmed or sourced and is this sustainable?

I know this list isn't perfect, but neither is the system yet.


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  © Alice Carwardine 2020 from Overturn the Tables.