For Middle School Tours, Students Make the Best Teachers

Two eighth-grade tour guides are quizzing a visitor on what the back of a bench outside the Sidwell Friends Middle School looks like. The visitor’s guess is a whiskey barrel, but she doesn’t want to say that, because what would a whiskey barrel be doing on a middle school campus? So she pleads ignorance.

“It’s a wine barrel,” reveals Richard ’24, one of the Sidwell Friends students who takes students, faculty, staff, and visitors on tours of the building. “It’s good material for outside because it’s already been treated so that water won’t bother it, and it’s another way that the school uses reclaimed material, which is more sustainable.”

Richard, like every Sidwell Friends 8th grader, has learned how to lead tours of the Middle School building, which became the first K-12 school in the world to earn LEED Platinum certification after it was completed in 2006. The source of the training? Science class.

“The building really is the teacher,” says Margaret Pennock, one of the Middle School science teachers. “The building illustrates so many of the physical science concepts that they learn throughout the year, and then they get to see how those physical concepts live in a building setting.” 

The tour begins in a hallway with an introduction to the emphasis on sustainable materials; the floors are easy-to-replace linoleum, and the bulletin boards are built of used wine corks. Then the tour heads up to the roof, where solar panels share space with a garden that both protects the roof from rain and provides habitats for birds, bugs, and other animals. Then visitors head downstairs and into the outdoor wetland that is part of the closed-cycle water recycling system that enables the Middle School to treat and reuse its own waste water (be sure to ask your guide about the “Tanks of Doom”). Highlights also include a trip to the basement to see parts of the ventilation system that helps the building heat and cool itself, and then back into a classroom to show off the skylights and large windows that allow students and teachers to work largely without electric lighting. The guides are familiar with all of the green features of the building, from the showiest to the smallest.

It was important, says Pennock, that students be the tour guides. “There’s nothing like kids being given opportunities to share what they know,” she says. “Once they’ve learned about the school building, they’re proud and they’re excited to share. They just love the opportunity to step up to the plate.”

For both Richard and Viv ’24, another one of the guides, stepping up to the plate as tour guides means issuing a call to action to those whom they’ve taught.

“Most people when they think about trying to save the planet, they think about how they can do some big thing, but just doing one thing to help the environment really helps,” says Viv. “I think it’s super-important that people know you don’t have to do a big action to make a difference.”

“I think one thing people should know is it’s pretty easy to adopt a lot of these things into their houses,” says Richard. “Maybe when you build your house, you’ll put in some bigger windows or a skylight. It’s just a hole in a roof and a piece of plastic, but it helps.”

“Like with the green roof—people think ‘planting a garden; what does that do?’” says Viv. “Well, a lot.”

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