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Online Earth Day Programs for 2021

The busiest time of year for an accountant is the lead-up to April 15th. For a florist it is Valentines Day. But for Bash the Trash our crazy time is always Earth Day.

When is Earth Day again, I hear you say? That’s the line that we often hear from our school contacts. They know that Earth Day is sometime in April, but not the date. Since its inception in 1970, inspired by peace activist John McConnell and put into motion by UN Secretary General U Thant and US Senator Gaylord Nelson, April 22nd has always been Earth Day. 4/22 has since become an annual worldwide day of events and action demonstrating support for environmental protection. For example on Earth Day 2016 over 120 countries signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming.

In a normal non-Covid year Bash the Trash would send out over a dozen musicians on Earth Day to perform in schools. reaching somewhere around three to four thousand school-kids with our songs, science demonstrations, and music using instruments built from trash.

But of course in a pandemic world everything is different, so in 2021 we are presenting online streaming shows to schools all around the country. For only the second time in 30 years - the first being the initial quarantine of 2020 - Bash the Trash will not be in front of school kids and families giving live in-person performances and workshops.

But actually, virtual programming is nothing new to Bash the Trash, and indeed 2020-21 is the fourth time in 20 years that we have explored online and streaming possibilities.

In 2000 I was named “Distance Learning Coordinator” for Carnegie Hall Education Department. My role was to take live in-person educational programs - for kids as well as professional development for teachers - and transform those programs into “distance learning events”. The technology back then was entirely dependent on infrastructure-heavy studio equipment - big humming machines, immoveable workstations and hard-wired connections. While some universities and private schools had access to this level of funding, it was clear that true “distance learning” had to wait for a technology that was more commonly available to organizations without deep pockets. But for me, all was not lost. Despite the disappointment of the technology, the deeper concepts of what I learned of the art of presenting dynamic and interactive online programs turned out to be the foundation for all of our work in 2020-21….

The second time that Bash the Trash made a fitful jump into the digital world was back in 2008. Although it’s hard to remember these things now, that spring there was a gas price crisis, with prices at the pump spiraling up to well over $4 gallon nationwide. As we approached our busy season of Earth Day performances that spring, Bash the Trash co-directors Carina Piaggio and I looked grimly at how our travel expenses were skyrocketing, and hypothesized how we could adapt to a future of sky-high transportation fees. The only feasible alternative was to move to online performances. (You’ll see that line again…) So we tested the available technology, and explored possible connections with a tech-savvy school client who was as interested as we were in pushing the envelope. But after a number of failed attempts, and some others that worked but were less than satisfying, we finally abandoned the attempt as being too glitchy and undependable. …And then the Great Recession hit and within five months gas prices plummeted to historic lows… and thus ended our second digital exploration.

Over the next 12 years we dipped in and out of the digital world:

We connected by videoconference with schools and classes in Washington State, Wyoming, Louisiana and Arizona

We experimented with our distant performers attending NY-based in-person rehearsals (although like everyone else we learned that the technology wouldn’t let us play together…)

We explored how to bring our in-person performances at Carnegie Hall’s biannual Family Day to a live-streaming audiences

We posted a series of instrument-building instructional videos on our Bash the Trash YouTube Channel which were viewed close to a million times

And finally, a favorite project of mine, a well-intentioned if slow-moving campaign to develop a video series of real-life science-based instrument-building adventures from conception to performance was in the works and footage was accumulating…

But the truth was that we were always embarked in a never-ending succession of live in-person performance projects like our biannual Carnegie Hall Family Day madness; and our usual round of school performances and residencies. There was never any time to go any deeper into what was soon to be known almost universally as “Virtual Learning”.

Then came March 13 2020. Like everyone else, we saw our entire performance year crumble away in one brutal week of cancellations.

After 30 years of navigating the educational world Carina and I had become excellent prognosticators, and our gloomy Nostradamus-ish predictions on that fateful week were all too prescient. Even on March 13, we felt that the very earliest that things might open up again (if the vaccines were available) would be Fall of 2021. And that seems to have been correct…

But in the interim, from March 2020 through Spring of 2021, it was clear that the only feasible alternative was to move to online performances. (There, I promised you’d see that line again.)

And we quickly found that we possessed the exact seemingly random jumble of skills necessary to bring our programs and presentations online almost instantly; a combination of tech-savvy, ingrained do-it-yourself insistence, and flashy yet educational showmanship; always tempered with those early experience of the nuances of onscreen presentation.

Bash the Trash is blessed with a crew of innovative, quick-thinking and adaptable educator/performers, and by the following Thursday March 19th - six days after the quarantine - we invited all of our partner schools to tune in to a fun, free live-streamed program. This became the first of many free performances at our Bash the Trash YouTube channel, a short but simple show all about building some simple percussion instruments at home during the pandemic.

Over the next 7 weeks Bash the Trash presented a series of twice-a-week free live-streaming shows on a wide variety of subjects including visits to the studios of instruments builders; how kids can meditate with art and music during a pa

ndemic; how to photograph your food; and a special two-part program on Earth Day. Many of those programs are still on our YouTube channel for anyone to watch.

And so by this convoluted path we return to virtual programs for Earth Day.

I won’t lie to you, we had some big plans for the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day last year in 2020. Like a lot of other environmental education organizations, the administrators, performers and educators of BTT saw Earth Day’s 50th anniversary as a way to celebrate our environmental advances while simultaneously sounding the challenge for a renewed push to fight against fossil fuels and plastic pollution.

Covid trumped everything, and on Earth Day of 2020, instead of reaching thousands of kids in live in-person shows, we reached a few hundred in a program for an online school - and considered that to be a victory, given the circumstances.

But, in a harbinger of the digital world that was to come, on Earth Day weekend of 2020 we also hosted a live virtual Earth Day program for the American Museum of Natural History that had over 2700 total viewers during the one hour show…!

Fast forward to today, early March of 2021. As I sit writing this in our “digital studio” (formerly Carina’s and my son’s bedroom), Bash the Trash is gearing up for a strange new Earth Day season unlike any we have every seen before. I would guess we’re all sick of that particular cliche, but this *has* been a year of superlatives…

During the past year Bash the Trash has presented close to 100 online virtual streaming events of all kinds, including professional development sessions for arts educators and performers, performances, residencies and workshops for students both in-school and in pods at home, and virtual events for museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions. We’ve brought in as co-presenters our amazing crew of veteran performers; plus musicians, artists and educators from around the world, giving children unprecedented access to experiences about global culture, music and the environment.

Ultimately we feel that we have pioneered a new way of presenting to children, families and educators. Rather than looking on the virtual world as a detriment and an impediment to getting our message across to kids and adults, we have excitedly explored a rapidly-developing new technological frontier.

Ok, I’ll admit that at first it was creation mostly driven by Panic…. but that has long ago melted into a true appreciation of the theoretical reach of this new medium… vast… !

While we can’t say that we have truly broken new ground - there have been many great educators using the digital media before us - it’s possible that my experiences at Carnegie Hall have given us a deeper understanding of the conceptual work behind creating new and innovative programs. That depth of conceptual thinking, combined with Bash the Trash’s inherently playful, improvisational and modular approach, has enabled us to create virtual programs that are fun, educational, interactive, and ultimately inspiring.

I’m especially proud of the way that we have kept adding new programs over the past year. Our most recent show “BTT Lost At Sea”, premiering this spring, is all about climate change and plastic pollution in our oceans. Created by one of our veteran performers Rohin Khemani, and featuring Caitlin Cawley and Sam Kulik, BTT Lost At Sea is a break from our usual demo-and-music related programs. Khemani has crafted a narrative tale told through a unique virtual combination of animation, song, and live demos, as students travel with our musicians on a fact-finding mission to the Pacific Garbage Patch, are shipwrecked on a desert island, and have to use their ingenuity and problem-solving abilities to escape.

As I start to bring this essay to a close, some questions stand out:

  • How do you talk about climate change with students?

  • How do you talk about plastic pollution with students?

These and other related subjects are going to become increasingly important to our students, our citizens, our country and our world, and if the current models are correct, sooner rather than later.

Where Bash the Trash starts is with the science. We keep abreast of new studies and new developments, and never rely on single sources. Science develops, and as the science behind climate change develops Bash the Trash continues to refine the message. That is why our shows are constantly evolving and changing as well. Climate change is a rapidly changing situation, so we need to be able to emphasize the need for flexibility in our students and in their response to environmental issues.

Likewise with plastic pollution. We are only now beginning to discover how much microplastics have permeated our biosphere - inside us and all around us. But how much of this do you talk about with a kindergartener? How much do you talk about with a 5th grader? What about a high school or a college student or adult? At what point can we talk realistically about the challenges facing our world, and not sugarcoat things? This is the true challenge of environmental education for children… and adults…

Below we’ve parsed some of the basic ingredients we feel are necessary to create a truly immersive virtual Earth Day program for a school or other institution. Let’s break it down:

  • FUN - Ok, we’re working with kids, and this is the most important way to open doors for new information

  • ENGAGEMENT - Q&A sure, but we’ve developed a way for kids to building instruments during many of our shows using very simple materials

  • NOT TOO DORKY - you have to strike a nice balance between the science and environmental content you want to get across without killing the fun

  • GOOD USE OF MEDIA - not too much of any one talking head, cutting to other presenters, changing views, sharing photos and videos

  • GOOD ENVIRONMENTAL INFO, BUT NOT TOO GLOOMY - studies show that people tend to withdraw when confronted with too much bad news, so it’s important to:

  • HIGHLIGHT THE PROBLEMS but don’t get super-graphic with the images;

  • OUTLINE SOME ACTION POINTS THAT KIDS CAN DO - A three-level action plan with something that the kids can do today, tomorrow, and in the future.

Note that these ingredients above are not just written for virtual presentations, and not just for performances. Really these ingredients are for any environmental educational effort, whether on on institutional level, or in a classroom, or around the dinner table.

Finally, how do you celebrate Earth Day during Covid? Sure, we’re all exhausted, we’ve been pushed to our limits, we miss seeing our loved ones, and we’ve all lost a few loved ones as well. But it is important to remember that when Covid is over, and the pandemic has ebbed, climate change will still be here. Let’s continue to prepare our children for the challenges that face them - and the entire world.

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

March 8, 2021


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