Sure, you’ve heard of recycling, but have you heard of upcycling? Strictly defined, upcycling is what you’re doing when you take an old item that was intended for one purpose and turn it into something new. It’s different than recycling, in that the item at hand is not taken apart at the level of elements and chemistry, with its ingredients turned by manufacturers into a new item entirely. Rather, with upcycling, the item itself retains somewhat of its original form (though “edits” to the item can range from tweaks to overhauls), but takes on an entirely new function. Upcycling also occurs at the individual level, rather than in an industrial plant.
If you’ve ever gone to a funky café and worked beneath the light of a spoon lamp, rested your mug on a coffee table made from old bicycle wheels, or turned an old set of bookshelves into under-bed storage, you’ve experienced upcycling in action.
In truth, upcycling as a concept is nothing new. It’s what your grandparents who lived through the Depression do when they take apart that rickety old dining room table and turn it into seven different pieces of furniture. What is new is the movement that’s been growing around this concept, as pushback to our society’s seemingly exponential hunger for all that is new, new, new.
It just so happens that kids, just like your grandparents, are natural upcyclers. They’re the ones, after all, who remove the pots, pans, and wooden spoons from the cupboards, and turn them into drum sets. To kids, the world of objects isn’t set yet, with singular identities and purposes. That makes upcycling an exciting and creative project for the classroom. It’s an urgent one, too, both as we seek to lessen our impact on our planet, and as we try our best to keep on nurturing a creative mindset, despite the pressures from an increasingly metrics-based educational system.
Let’s take a deeper look at just what upcycling is and how it can be used in the classroom.
There are number of excellent lessons that upcycling projects can teach your students:
Upcycling would make a great jumping off point for discussing the threat our consumerism poses to our planet. Likewise, upcycling also provides an excellent opportunity to unveil the secrets behind a product’s lifecycle, which is often invisible and mysterious even to adults.
When you’re searching for a way to test your own or a student’s creativity, you will be continually directed toward the Brick Test (also known as the Alternative Uses test). It’s a simple concept, which asks the subject to imagine as many creative use for a common object, like a brick, as possible. You could, for instance, suggest smashing the brick up and uses the pieces to make a mobile; turning the brick into a projectile for breaking a window; if the brick has holes drilled in the center, you could use it as a planter in your front yard; and so on and so forth, for as long as you can go.
Developed by J.P. Guilford in 1967, this tests fluency, originality, flexibility and elaboration. It just so happens, the test is pretty much the definition of what upcycling is. As such, upcycling is a fantastic way to keep those creative skills sharp, so that students continue to look at the world as if it is full of creative potential – the key to maintaining an innovative mindset as they age.
For students who have grown up with tablets in their hands for as long as they can remember, the digital world may seem like the only world. There are many benefits to this, but it can also make the physical world feel ephemeral. This can further foster a lack of understanding of the role and impact of the physical objects around us. Upcycling helps focus that attention back on the physical, and fosters a love for the creative potential that is latent here.
If you follow my Twitter feed, you know that I’m a big fan of the folks at Upcycling Textbooks, an organization that encourages followers to rescue those mildewing textbooks from the back of the classroom and turn them into something new and cool. Like, for instance:
The organization’s admirable mission is to rehabilitate the textbook as a learning tool – just a different kind, and one that can be used in conjunction with a move towards a much needed streamlining of learning materials into the digital format.
If you have old textbooks you’re no longer using, haul them back out to the front of the room, get out a big pair of scissors, and let the kids have at it. Whether you take a moment to brainstorm ideas first, or simply let ideas come together as they go, kids will have a ball folding and taping and reshaping, until they’ve made, oh, I don’t know, the coolest textbook-fedora-necklace-bow-tie-plant holder around.
You could also give students art supplies, and have them draw on textbooks to illustrate what’s on the pages, whether directly or at the emotional level:
Make sure to upload student pieces to the Upcycling Textbooks site or share them on the project’s social media accounts so that your students can see their textbook creativity featured on a worldwide stage. The site also features tutorials, so getting started is a breeze!
You’d think that young children, who may still be developing their object permanence, would be the only ones who assume that products magically appear in front of them without much happening to make it so, but adults are pretty bad at grasping the concept of the industrial production process as well. And how many of us are guilty of throwing items in the trash or recycling bin and never thinking about them again?
In truth, the life of a product is most often a fascinating one, with the potential to teach students not just about where the objects that surround them come from, but also about the way our economy and marketplaces work as a whole.
One great place to start in teaching this is the podcast Planet Money’s t-shirt project. On the site, students can trace the entire life of a t-shirt, from conceptualization and design to picking out the right materials abroad to working with manufacturers to shipping it to consumers. There are numerous podcast episodes tracing this journey as well, which would make for great listening on the school bus.
For a more environmental angle, students might enjoy the 21-minute documentary, The Story of Stuff. Here, students will trace the life of a product, and will therefore see the true impact of each item they buy. From here, you might ask your students what problems they spot along the way, and have them brainstorm ways to fix them.
Either of these activities would work as the setup for an upcycling project, as students will be motivated to make new use of the old objects that surround them, thereby interrupting the path to the landfill.
With strapped budgets to contend with, educators try their best to reuse old materials as much as they can. But every classroom will need to get rid of items at the end of the year. It just so happens that this coincides with a more general yard sale season, meaning that many students’ families will be looking to clean out their homes.
Together, that could make for a great class yard sale (though I would suggest items should be offered for free) and school wide upcycling project. Gather items on the sports fields, and have kids pick out whatever they need to create their most creative imaginings. You’ll be giving old items new life, getting those ancient clunkers out of your classroom, and making art that will truly spice up the school hallways and student homes.
Not feeling the yard sale option? No worries. Just make this into a “How Many Ways?” project. Take your students on a spin through a good upcycling Pinterest board, have them bring in a few objects from home (or you can collect some on your own), pile materials on the floor, and let them go for it!
Upcycling individually is fine and dandy, but how about collaborating on a class project, like making a class throne to place up at the front of the classroom? This could be used to encourage students who are usually shy to come to the front of the classroom to offer up their knowledge or answer questions. Alternatively, you could place an upcycled chair into a reading nook, and rotate who gets to sit in it when. You better bet they’ll be motivated to read when they know they’ve got their upcycled leisure chair to look forward to.
Several months back, teacher Sherry Fisher let me in on just about the coolest writing project ever: blackout poetry. The project is much like it sounds: students take old textbooks and blackout the majority of the words, leaving just the few they want for their poem. This activity can be done on its own, or as a way of demonstrating deeper understanding of a text. You might, for example, ask students to blackout their favorite page from the Shakespearian play you’re reading, and to do it in a manner that reflects the emotional tone of that scene.
Many educators are familiar with upcycling because they’re already using it as a way to organize their classrooms. Just take a look at a few of these great ideas from Pinterest.
An old sweater adds some new life to a crayon-storage can. Tin cans with their bottoms cut out are mounted to the wall and used to store worksheets or magazines. A dishrack holds picture books. And the list goes on.
To say that the “possibilities of upcycling are endless” wouldn’t just be cliché, it’d be redundant – because, really, creating endless possibilities with everyday objects defines what upcycling is. This means upcycling is a great lesson and even more fun not just for the kids but for you, too. And it just so happens, there are powerful lessons to learn about environmental stewardship, industrial production, and creativity along the way.
Please share with us your greatest upcycling ideas, projects, and photos in the comments below, and by pinging us on twitter!