A Distance Learning Lesson On—Paper Towels?

Andrea Kingman

Executive Product Marketing Manager • Social Sciences, Humanities, Health Science • National Geographic Learning | Cengage

As I looked out my home office window, I noticed a piece of paper towel gently billowing along the deck on a breezy, sunny March afternoon—left over from grilling outdoors the night before.  I sat up straighter—paper towel? I immediately went outside and grabbed it.  I knew I’d use it for something.  It had been outside, but I couldn’t see it going to waste.  Paper towel—gone from all the shelves in my community grocery stores, gone from the normal online ordering channels, and almost gone from my own pantry. Perhaps I could use the one piece of paper towel for cleaning or dusting.  I immediately retrieved it from the deck and set it aside.

Is there an opportunity now, in this time of an unprecedented pandemic, to create a lesson about sustainability? Is there a teachable moment to focus on developing a conscience so we are more aware of how and what we consume, usually without a moment’s hesitation?  Commodities like paper towels are taken for granted in U.S. households, in schools, restaurants, and grocery stores.  Americans use close to 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year or 80 rolls per person per year—most of which ends up in a landfill.  Once in our landfills, our serious methane, waste and pollution problems continue to grow.  (The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels, durafreshcloth.com/881-2/; Copyright c GLOBECOMAINE 2015 [email protected]; March 20, 2020)

For a distance learning lesson, why not challenge students to create a personal story.  When do they usually reach for a piece of paper towel? What could be used instead that is easily be found in the house? And on an annualized basis, how many trees might be saved?  How many trees might be saved by the time they graduate from high school? Have students think of other metrics to present.  What are other ways students can reduce use of paper or plastic?

Suggest that each student develop his or her own sustainability story and include songs, photos, or even poetry.  Ask students to create a short video, if possible, documenting their case study.  Set up a panel of judges and different categories—or even extra credit activities.  Online research sources are plentiful—and students will feel in control in a time of such uncertainly.  Their ideas or stories may even be submitted to their local newspaper.  A seemingly small contribution on how to conserve our planet’s resources starts within their family and could extend to their community. This small inquiry lesson could be fun, engaging, and rewarding.

If you are a high school teacher, the lesson above could be turned into an economics lesson on supply and demand.  Ask students to identify a commodity that is in short supply—and high demand–and turn this into a simply supply and demand research project.  Paper towels, hand sanitizers, and even spring water are good examples.  Do prices change in relationship to supply and demand? As the daughter of an economist, this was one of the lessons I learned about economics.  Now is the perfect time to illustrate how the concept of supply and demand plays out in unusual times.

Students and families are adjusting to new ways of living and new routines. Encourage your students to experience the satisfaction of being at the center of a lesson—and at the center of their own learning. 

Resources and help for those affected by COVID-19

We’re monitoring the spread and impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on K-12 schools across the country. If you’ve been affected by Coronavirus and are experiencing a school closure, we’ve collected resources for educators that may help.
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