It’s Earth Month: Classrooms Convincing Communities to Cut Phone Book Waste

April 3, 2011 at 12:07 pm Leave a comment

posted by Ted Wells ‘07, 4th grade teacher at The Park School, Brookline, MA

Are you a 5th to 10th grade teacher who’s annoyed by the 540 million yellow phone books littering our doorsteps each year? Concerned about the environmental costs of such waste? Looking for a green, service-learning project for your classroom that gets students involved in civics? If yes, join us and teach the five lessons below and help try to rid your town of these annoying yellow bricks! It’s a free and fun Earth Month project.


Download our Teacher Pack that has a parent letter, sample survey, lessons instructions, readings, sample charts, and more. Collect several phone books.

Prepare this four-question chart in advance to guide your lesson. Question 1: “What do you know about phone books?” Start by showing a phone book. Ask what is it for? How do you use it? Show me! Order a pizza or look up your school.

Question 2: “Does your family use phone books?” Take an informal survey. More than half my class families recycled them on the day they got them. There are “apps for that” now, and the Internet is easier for most.

Question 3: “What environmental problems do phone books create?” Prompts such as “What is a natural resource?” (Trees, water, land, pasture, fish, animals, minerals, coal, or oil.) Followed by, “What natural resources go into phone books?” (Trees, water, and fossil fuels that cause global warming.)

Question 4: “What can we do about this problem?” See what your kids come up with! One of my students nailed it and actually said, “We should write letters to our town government to pass a law so they only give phone books to people who want them.” Some kids will focus on recycling or calling and canceling individual phone books, but this project aims higher. We’re asking local leaders to change the law to heal a broken phone book system. We’re doing something better than recycling, we’re reducing or “pre-cycling.” Citizens are in charge in a Democracy. This is a chance for our students to try on this role and to know they have a part to play. They can make a difference!

Lesson Two: READING
After a short vocabulary lesson, have small groups read the Scientific American article (in Teacher Pack). Have them circle the three most persuasive facts to use their letters. End by sharing The Seattle Times “opt-out” success story (in Teacher Pack) and see if the class wants to work for positive change in your community!

Lesson Three: MATH SURVEY
Have students create a survey, or use the one in our Teacher Pack, to gather public opinion data from residents in your town (at malls, your school lobby, busy sidewalks, or neighborhoods). After a week of collection, tally, then graph the results with your class to use them as supporting arguments in their letters combined with their research from Lesson Two above.

Hone your class’s big request in a discussion. “Class, what are we asking our leaders to do?” Discuss and decide on a plan. If kids are uneasy about writing a letter in any way, they should not have to. This step is optional.

Figure out, are you asking the town to “ban” phone books (too aggressive), or create an opt-out registry (not strong enough), or an opt-in registry where people sign up to receive phone books (just right!). Maybe keep it simple and simply ask that large piles could be left at local grocery stores, libraries, and post-offices where people take them if they want, but 80% of them wouldn’t need to be made and dumped at our homes. See what other ideas your students have!

Time is tight in our rooms, but teaching your class civics is a great tie in for this project if you have time. Discussing the three branches of government at the federal, state, and local level is relevant for this project. Know who your are writing letters to and how a law is passed in your town.

Work on possible hands on art projects such as a pyramid of 500 phone books, photos of the pyramid, videos, raps, research reports on the paper making process, or such projects that might help convince your town to pass a law trimming back the number of phone books distributed.

Report Back:
Finally, send us a short post for our blog  – – to share your story, results, and a photo, and we’ll send you bumper stickers of our banner for each student who wrote a letter. If your town passes a law slowing down the flow of phone books, we’ll send you our custom “Phone Books Are Dinosaurs” trophy (photo coming soon) for your school!!

“We love our books, just not the big yellow ones!”

Visit to find out more about how classrooms can convince communities to cut phone book waste. Ted Wells teaches 4th grade at The Park School in Brookline, MA. He has written other posts for the Alumni Blog, including Six Earth Day Activities for Your Classroom.

Entry filed under: classrooms, community, curriculum, democratic education, dialogue, environmental education, integrated curricula, literacy, math, service learning.

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