Elementary Teacher Leverages Science to Change Kids and the World
By: Elizabeth Hudgens
If you ever get the chance to sit down and chat with Richelle Gittens, take it. An engaging combination of positivity, down-to-earth charm, and utter competence, Richelle will keep you laughing and learning along the way just like she does with her students. She teaches fourth grade at Queen Palmer Elementary in Colorado Springs and has run their YES Club by Catamount Institute there for the past 8 years. The school has, she says, “free and reduced lunch [rate of] about 95-97%.” As she tells me about the challenges the students face, it is undeniably apparent how much she cares for her students and their ability to succeed in both school and life. One way Richelle inspires her students is by providing after-school enrichment programs throughout the year that focus on students’ exposure to opportunities in the community; one of these is her YES Club. It is for this club that Queen Palmer Elementary has been nominated for a Greenie Award this year.
Greenie Awards “recognize Colorado Springs’ greenest businesses, organizations, schools, communities, and individuals.” This is the tenth year that VEDA Salon has been awarding Greenies in conjunction with their annual fashion show that features recycled and up-cycled creations. Once a person or organization has been nominated, it is up to community members to vote for the winner.
When Richelle initially got involved with YES Clubs 12 years ago, she was the teacher sponsor at Lincoln Elementary. And while YES Clubs are an amazing opportunity for all teachers, Richelle notes that she was not always comfortable with science. “My first year of teaching,” she tells me, “I didn’t teach science. That was 18 years ago. And didn’t feel guilty about it.” With a combination of influences–her professors at Colorado College while completing her master’s, experience teaching other teachers about the district’s sciences kits, and even her encounters with YES Club–her whole outlook shifted. “From the person who didn’t like science to the person who ended up training it. But then that just became who I became. Now I teach all the science in 4th grade, and it’s not scary anymore. I didn’t realize that I liked it or even loved it until I just kinda got thrown into it…I just see connections that are scientific now that I probably would have missed had my lens not been opened. You know? And now it’s just…it’s natural.”
Knowing that teaching comes with so many demands on time, Richelle’s commitment to YES Club–13 weeks each semester–indicates just how important and impactful she feels the program to be. She cites two main reasons for her continuation: opportunities for the kids and the preparing kids to be the upcoming stewards who improve the planet. “I know it’s an awesome opportunity for them,” she says, “And I think especially when you work in a place like this [Colorado], it’s taken for granted that all kids get to do certain things and all kids are exposed to certain things. And they’re not.” In Richelle’s YES Club, learning is infused in everything they do–and it’s not limited to science content knowledge. Richelle is a repository of inspiring stories: students’ growth and change and confidence and awareness because of her program. She shares about one girl overcoming her painful shyness in order to share her Symposium project with a judge, and kids learning about perseverance while doing trail work and mitigation. Beyond that, Richelle genuinely believes that her YES Club is playing a role in the creation of a new generation of environmental stewards.
We have a responsibility to the people coming behind us. I kind of feel like that’s my responsibility to get them out there thinking about it, and it’s their responsibility to carry it on…We can damage things, but we can also bring them back. And they have to feel empowered that they have that ability to bring things back, not just to damage things, but to fix things, too.One of her goals is to use their experiences together to share with students her fundamental belief: “We have a responsibility to the people coming behind us. I kind of feel like that’s my responsibility to get them out there thinking about it, and it’s their responsibility to carry it on…We can damage things, but we can also bring them back. And they have to feel empowered that they have that ability to bring things back, not just to damage things, but to fix things, too.” With that, she recounts more stories she’s collected of students’ development of a greater awareness of their own ability to improve the world around them: kids who ride their bikes to school and can explain this change in terms of carbon emissions rather than just fun factor; two YES Club students beginning their own quest to raise awareness online and in school to protect endangered species, like the vaquita; students sharing their knowledge of water and energy conservation with fellow classmates; members enjoying conservation projects in their community. Queen Palmer’s YES Club is not only creating waves, they’re also creating ripples outwards: kids learning and growing, sharing and changing the world.
Feeling inspired? Want to make your voice heard? You can vote for Queen Palmer’s YES Club online! Voting and ticket purchases are both available at www.coloradoveda.com. The group featured in this blog post can be found in the Schools section; they’re listed as Queen Palmer Elementary School. Voting takes place until April 21st at 11:59 pm, and you can attend the fashion show on April 29th at the Colorado Springs Auditorium. (While you’re there, our very own executive director, Christopher Aaby, has also been nominated for a Greenie, too!)