Roland Park Country School students build a bench to help save the earth

Baltimore Messenger
New bench at Roland Park Country School sends an environmental message

Every courtyard needs a nice sitting bench, and the one in the Centennial Courtyard at Roland Park Country School is a doozy.

About seven feet long and three feet deep, it's a so-called bottle-brick bench, one of only two in Maryland, made by students from sand, clay-like soil, straw and other environmentally friendly materials.

But it's also made of an estimated 400 plastic water and soda bottles that students filled with non-biodegradable trash that couldn't be taken to landfills, and so hardened and compacted that they're as tough as bricks.

The bench, which the school named the "Peace on Earth bench," contains more than 1,000 colorful, glazed tiles, some with artwork of bears and birds, and others with written messages such as "Save the environment," and "We are beautiful in every way."

The bench also contains photos taken of students as they were in the process of working on the bench.

The bench is much more than that, students, teachers and administrators say. They say it's meant to bring the school community closer together, to reuse trash and be environmentally conscious, to keep trash out of landfills and oceans, and, according to an exhibit in the school about the project, "to have fun."

The bench project is part of the international Peace on Earthbench Movement, or POEM, whose mission is to empower youth around the world to transform waste into a community place, according to its website, http://www.earthbench.org. The only other such bench in Maryland is in Black Hills Regional Park in Montgomery County, and was built by middle school students in that area.

All of the school's 670 students spent the better part of two years bringing bottles and trash to the school and staging it in various classrooms.

"It was weird at first," said fifth-grader Charlotte Corcoran, of Roland Park. She said much of the trash that she and her classmates brought in was stored in a corner of the fifth-grade homeroom, and some of the trash blew away.

"We kept finding pieces in desks," Charlotte said. "We constantly had to pick up trash."

"And clean the classroom," said classmate Katie Rodgville, of the Elkridge area.

"We still do," said Charlotte.

Most of the students who were heavily involved in the project were fourth- and-fifth-graders led by Martha Barss, Roland Park Country's environmental education and sustainability coordinator. who called the bench "locally sourced."

Toby Rivkin, the Upper School ceramics teacher, helped direct students in the design and construction of mosaics that decorate the bench. Students submitted proposed designs and "all of the designs are in the bench," Rivkin said.

Partnering with the school on the project was The Harvest Collective, whose mission is to educate and provide programs that empower students to develop a deeper connection to their food, community, health, and habitat, according to school spokeswoman Nancy Mugele.

The bench was built over three weeks, starting April 25. Many students used their bare feet to mix soil, sand, water and trash, like candy bar wrappers and packets of chewing gum. The bench has a base of gravel, for drainage, and "urban rubble," organizers said.

Last week, seven students sat together on the mostly finished bench, which sat in the courtyard near the lower school playground. When asked if it was comfortable, they all said yes in unison.

Fifth-grader Erin Hoskins wasn't at all worried about the bench not being strong enough.

"The straw makes it really sturdy," said Erin, of Mount Vernon.

The bench will be coated with a natural sealant next week and is already covered by a wooden shelter with a "green" roof, on which vegetation is growing.

The bench also contains a "truth window," in which several trash-filled bottles are displayed, "to show the truth of what's in this bench," Mugele said. "It shows that we're incorporating trash that can't go out."

The bench sends an ecological message.

"It means we are stewards of our environment," Mugele said.

The message is one reason why junior Ava Mandel, of Sparks, made a tile with a bear and another with a bird of unknown species.

"It's like a phoenix," fourth-grader Josie Kalbfleisch said admiringly.

Several graduating seniors also were actively involved in creating the bench, including Madeline Kim, also of North Baltimore, who wrote a blog about it April 2.

"Starting at the end of April, students from all divisions will be working together to stick what appears to be mud on a heap of trash near the swings in the big playground," she blogged. "Fear not — this is not some bizarre, hands-on urban survival class that was somehow added to the physical education curriculum, but a community art project that will involve the entire community in saving our planet."

Senior Caitlin Curtis, of Guilford, who took a ceramics class as well as a Sustainable Design and Engineering class, was also involved in building the bench.

"I really like it," she said. "We're not just saying we're doing something" to protect the environment. "We're actually doing it."

Carla Spawn-van Berkum, assistant head of school for academics, said the project also served to foster community spirit.

"This was like a magnet," she said, noting that many students have stopped to admire the bench and teachers are using it as a teachable moment. As she spoke, Lower School science teacher Janet Aldrich walked a group of second-graders over to the bench to see and talk about it.

Rivkin said parents have stopped to look at it, as did grandparents on the school's Grandparents Day on May 8.

The bench also came together at an important time, with many Baltimoreans on edge as unrest turned to rioting in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. The first day of the bench-building was April 25, the first day of the riots.

"This was healing for our whole (school) community," Spawn-Berkum said. "You could see people just relax into it."

That's what Roland Park County School graduate Grace Macfarlane was feeling Friday as she cleaned tiles on the bench while visiting her alma mater.

"It's kind of meditative," said Macfarlane, of Roland Park, now a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who is majoring in illustration with a concentration in printmaking.

Mandel is looking forward to sitting on the bench next year before she graduates.

"If it's nice weather, why not?" she said. "Go out and enjoy it."

Curtis won't be able to use it as a student much longer. She graduate in June. But she sees it as partly her legacy and hopes that she and other seniors will use it when they come back to visit.

"We're leaving it behind," she said. "It'll be here for year and years."

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