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How to Implement Fun Earth Day Projects to Teach Functional Level Students Vocational Skills.

Updated on September 25, 2014

Teach them to be employed and kind to the planet, all at the same time.

Sit back and watch them bloom.

By the time developmentally disabled students reach high school, teachers are running full tilt to catch up skill gaps in relation to all core subjects. Add to that the stress of mandatory transition plans and teaching vocational skills, and teachers really have their work cut out for them.

This lens will detail projects and activities that center around an Earth Day theme, but still primarily focus on teaching vocational skills. For Earth Day, let's think about work habits we can instill in students that are kind to the planet. Just as plants need sunlight, little minds and hands need constructive activities.

Every child eventually becomes an adult. Vocational skills training affords developmentally disabled students opportunities for increased outcomes of independence and greater self efficacy when they reach adulthood. By the time they hit high school, we can all hear the clock ticking. Time is running out.

Never miss out on a chance to decorate.

It keeps them interested. They know a change in d├ęcor means something new is coming.

With any holiday, for any class, I like to set the mood through classroom decoration.

Earth day is no exception.

When teaching a functional level population at the high school age range, I have to place the vocational above the holiday. Keep in mind, functional students are legally entitled to stay in public schools until they are 22.

I refuse to give up on either opportunity, so here is a way to bring both the worlds of work and holiday together in harmony.

Differentiating Learning Differences from Disabilities: Meeting Diverse Needs through Multi-Tiered Response to Intervention
Differentiating Learning Differences from Disabilities: Meeting Diverse Needs through Multi-Tiered Response to Intervention

Each student is different and each will require a detailed plan to reach successful outcomes. Use this book to provide the tools needed in various presenting situations.From physical challenges to cognitive and behavioral disabilities, this comprehensive resource gives valuable insights into designing the best outcomes for all.


Autism is a communication disorder. - Pictures are much clearer than words.

Complete Pictures Kit for Autism Communication: 120 color PHOTOS, 120 dots, 12 strips, 4 pages and folder (pics are compatible with PECS (picture exchange communication system) & ABA
Complete Pictures Kit for Autism Communication: 120 color PHOTOS, 120 dots, 12 strips, 4 pages and folder (pics are compatible with PECS (picture exchange communication system) & ABA

PECS is the most widely used graphic communication system for teaching students on the autism spectrum. This, because it works with PECS, is a fantastic resource for both teachers and parents.Any non-reader can benefit greatly from graphically supported communication.


First, the basics of functional level, vocational classroom decoration.

Everything centers around the work world.

To simulate a real world environment, set up a punch in time clock and sign in station.

Because this is a functional class, be sure to post the day, and date in both pictures and words above the station.

Further, provide basic graphically supported instructions for clocking in everyday.

This can be a simple chain of pictures in order, such as a time card, a hand grabbing the card, the card going into the machine, followed by the card going back into the card holder.

Many recommend real photographs for this.

Considering the age of the population in question, I do not agree.

At this age, we have to start pushing for generalization, or we will never achieve it before the student ages out.

I have used basic black and white clip art with the age group for years. You have to verbally walk them through the chains the first several times.

Very quickly they start catching on.

One day soon, you will put up a new chain, and before you can turn around they will tell you what it means.

Pyramid Technologies 1000 PTI 1000 Digital Time Clock/Payroll Recorder for up to 50 Employees
Pyramid Technologies 1000 PTI 1000 Digital Time Clock/Payroll Recorder for up to 50 Employees

How can we ever expect our functional level students to do something in the real world we have not simulated to the best of our abilities in the classroom? The easy operation combined with a table position as opposed to a wall mount make it wheelchair and C.P. friendly.


For any class, good teachers know to surround the students with visuals.

I like to do work behaviors that I want to promote. For non-holiday visual decoration, people in work attire do very well. Under a picture of a fireman, have a short description of the job. The same for policemen, vet techs, disk jockeys, any job you can think of.

Use cartoon word bubbles by the pictures of people to promote good work behaviors. For example, by the nurse you might insert a cartoon bubble talking about how important it is to have good hygiene for work. You get the idea.

Surround them in images of people doing a vast array of jobs. - Remember to have males and females along with representatives from multiple races displayed.

Poster #268 Career Education Posters for K12 Students: Chef, Cook, Culinary Arts, Imagine You Here
Poster #268 Career Education Posters for K12 Students: Chef, Cook, Culinary Arts, Imagine You Here

Many functional level students are good with their hands and enjoy food service jobs.Be sure to laminate all your posters when you get them so you can reuse them over time. When not in use, store upright to keep from getting permanent creases. I found hiding them behind filing cabinets kept them out of the way while not in use. It kept them standing up. too.

Poster #267 School and Classroom Vocational, Job Training, Career Ed Posters, Technicians, Imagine You Here
Poster #267 School and Classroom Vocational, Job Training, Career Ed Posters, Technicians, Imagine You Here

These kinds of jobs are in demand and appeal to male students who are not looking to go to college upon graduation.Pairing such visual with posters and material from technical programs for post secondary certifications provides a valuable connection and keeps transition in the forefront of student minds.

Poster #264 Career Education Posters, Series of Voc Ed, Job Training, Educational Posters: Imagine You Here
Poster #264 Career Education Posters, Series of Voc Ed, Job Training, Educational Posters: Imagine You Here

This is a rapidly expanding field that many of our students don't know about. The man in the image looks like someone students would want to emulate. He's fresh and approachable looking, cool even. This type of figure can inspire a student who might not be inspired by a more traditional looking worker.

Poster #269 Military Career Poster for Students, Voc Ed, Imagine You Here Series of Posters
Poster #269 Military Career Poster for Students, Voc Ed, Imagine You Here Series of Posters

Many functional level students have family in the military and enjoy learning about the job. Realistically, some will not be able to join the military. That doesn't mean they can't get a civilian job on base. My developmentally disabled cousin has enjoyed being a floor technician at just such a base for going on three years.


How on earth does this tie into Earth Day?

It's as easy as pie, organic and Gluten free, of course.

Just pull down the word bubbles, and change them out for Earth Day types of information. For example, the nurse could say, eating less meat helps you stay healthier. That is good for the planet.

Be sure to use graphic supports for all bubbles. Point them out and read aloud often. Take advantage of the holiday to pull down a few older pictures that you feel the children are no longer interested in, and put up some that have to do with environmentally friendly jobs, such as solar shingle roofing specialist, animal rescue worker, or zoo keeper.

Keep the worker theme for the vocational component. Bring in the bubbles for the holiday part.

Examples of workers and bubble text:

  • Fireman - "Shredding paper makes for good compost which will help your plants. Large stacks of newspapers around the house are a fire safety issue."
  • Air Conditioning Technician - "Only let a licensed A.C. professional work with the cooling chemicals in your air conditioner. They are dangerous to the environment. They are very dangerous to you."
  • Chef - "Grow a garden. The food tastes better. Food we buy at the store has to be transported. That means more air pollution. Help everyone breathe easier by planting your own."
  • Makeup Artist - "Never buy products that were tested on animals. Buy lotions, soaps and cosmetics with only natural ingredients. Better yet, make your own from things found in your kitchen and garden."
  • Veterinarian - "Thousands of animals in America end up in shelters with no one to love them. Be a responsible pet owner. Always get your pet spayed or neutered."

Communication aids - Students can't do what you want if they don't understand what that is.

PECS 151: 1 3/4" Symbols for Picture Exchange Communication System
PECS 151: 1 3/4" Symbols for Picture Exchange Communication System

When doing projects with young children, slow readers, or the developmentally disabled, always use pictures. PECS is a well made, professionally designed program that is used in schools and community support settings across America.

Schedule Board Kit: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Schedule Board Kit: Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

This is so useful for making quick picture chains. It's great for chore lists, grooming routines and schedules.Lightweight, durable and easy to clean as well as move and mount makes this a classroom essential.Better still, because it but houses the visuals it can be used over and over for a multitude of lessons from any subject area.


Holy Cow, Bat-teacher!

Two curriculum covered in one decorating scheme. Woot woot!

Material saving tip:

To keep from having to make new bubbles every time you want to change things out, simply laminate before ever printing on them. Use dry erase markers. For a really polished look, stencil in the letters. Tape the stencil directly onto the bubble where it hangs and start coloring.

Always actively model teaching conservation of materials through doing it yourself.

Cricut 29-0001 Personal Electronic Cutting Machine
Cricut 29-0001 Personal Electronic Cutting Machine

This thing is Christmas and Easter with chocolate all wrapped up into one! There is no end to what you and the students can create. This machine cuts any shape, font, pre-made labels, box cuts outs already perforated, and much more than I can list.

I liked it so much when the school got one for the class, I asked for one for my birthday. You have to love mom!

It's useful for everything from making greeting cards, to scrap booking to making labels for canning and gift boxes for party favors.


On to the projects.

Let Earth Day be the inspiration for your entire year.

Earth Day is all about recycling, reusing, and reinventing, among other things. All of these can be utilized to teach vocational skills such as production, acquisition, sorting, and the inventory skills. Turning the supposed trash into marketable treasure, now, that's the essence of business. Marketing it successfully is another lesson in vocational training.

1.) Start an aluminum recycling program specifically through your class.

Advertise to parents, teachers, administrators and the community you are in business.

Many people sell cans. Many more throw them in the trash where the metal contained is just wasted. I did this program with my class for two years. Every week they would go sell the cans. It started slow with cans just trickling in until we did two things. First, I called all the coaches and got permission to collect all the cans from after school hour sporting events. Then, since I have to have a night off sometimes, I coordinated with student clubs to collect the cans after the games and bring them to my class. My students could not do this part due to transportation issues after hours.

They still learned plenty. They crushed cans learning to stay on task for a specified amount of time, usually to music and grins. They weighed cans and estimated earnings. They used calculators to check their estimations on how much money they would earn. They made real live phone calls to the recycling center weekly to check the prices for aluminum.

As the year wore on, we got smarter and set up bins in strategic locations. More staff and students started hopping on board, and before we knew it we had bags of cans waiting for us to come get in rooms every day. That was another good lesson. I had the students organize the pickups and do the transporting.

They raised a lot of money selling those cans. I can't tell you how many pizza parties and trips they got out of their own budget. That's another thing that is great about it. You can use the money for Community Based Instruction, (CBI). Districts will pay for these, but there is a budget. Such projects as this ongoing recycling one beefs up the budget, and takes it from funky sandwiches at the park to pizza and cookies after the zoo.

2.) Start a school store or business. Make a product and sell it.

Give new life to old trash by bringing on the bling.

To focus on Earth day, start by having students bring in things from home that normally end up in the trash can. You're looking for old laundry boxes, shoe boxes, coffee cans, glass jars, and glass bottles. Call parents and send home a letter at least a month ahead of time. It takes time to build up enough for everyone to have a project to work on. Currently, my garage is full of such items. I learned a long time ago to save them. Routinely doing so allows that I have enough on hand for any projects I might want to tackle at the time.

Always know and follow district policy.

Get permission in writing beforehand.

Districts have legions of policies about taking money. Teachers must follow the policies of their own district. To make this process go more smoothly, approach your principal or district level special needs department head with the idea first. I found walking in with a batch of cupcakes and a plan usually got me what I needed. Tell them what you want to do. They will love the ideas, but be spooked about the money end.

I had the funds from recycling routed to the student's grocery budget. This was a huge selling point. It saved the district dollars while affording the students and I great opportunities to do real life budgeting. All funds from the sale of student made items went to the student minus a dollar for materials. This got sticky because the students were not technically employees of the district. It was overcome by working with our local Association of Retarded Citizens (ARC) chapter. All monies were deposited through a student account ARC set up. They cut the commission checks back to the students.

It is important to note ARC is currently undergoing a name change due to negative associations with the word "retarded." The old terms mentally retarded and life skills classroom have been updated to developmentally disabled and functional level classroom.

The vocational skills learned through such a program are innumerable. Students learn about production and payment. They learn very fast that if they don't produce, they don't get a check. That single motivating factor works wonders. I have seen faces light up to rival the sun over a ten dollar commission check. It's worth the work. Students learn all about budgeting, inventory, advertising, writing receipts, customer service, any skill used in most retail ventures.

What kinds of trash can students grow into dollars?

Laundry soap and shoe boxes become gorgeous custom storage pieces.

We have all seen the new trend of matching storage containers for office items at the local stores. I love the look and idea, but they can get expensive.

How about making them ourselves?

Laundry soap boxes make really good organizational storage. But, who wants to look at four laundry boxes prominently displayed on the office shelf for storage? Anyone, once they see how it can look with just a little love and attention.

This project is simplicity itself.

What do we need?

Not much.

1.) Laundry boxes

2.) Glue

3.) Rulers

4.) Scissors

5.) Felt (optional)

6.) Contact paper, wrapping paper or fabric.

7.) Bling - ribbons, sequins, whatever you decide to use to fancy it up.

8.) Exacto knife - WARNING - Do not give this to a functional level student without having first taught them how to use it and done repeated skill trails. Stay right beside them if you let them use it. It's not always needed, but you may need it for the fine cuts around box top handles.

Essentail supplies for teachers, crafters and those looking to create -

Stanley GR20K Trigger Feed Hot Melt Glue Gun Kit
Stanley GR20K Trigger Feed Hot Melt Glue Gun Kit

Stay age appropriate by going with this over a model that looks more childish. This one is sturdy and will hold up to industrial strength teenage usage.Always be sure to teach tool safety before providing students with the tool.Even when they have it down, reminders before beginning a new project are always a good idea.


What do we do?

Have fun, learn, watch students make money.

* Step one is to think about how the box should look when done. Pick the color and materials. At first, the teacher should assign this. As students get familiar with the process, let them start designing their own. Always remind them this is to sell. Their favorite movie hero may not appeal to buyers. Many people will not want to buy a box covered in a montage of the Incredible Hulk from cartoon strips that has been decoupaged. Surprisingly to me, many people did. People bought them for their kids and little sisters and cousins and so on to store comic books in.

Who would have thought it?

* Step two is to completely dust out the inside of the box.

* Step three is to line the inside of the box. I found if allowing students to do the outside first, they were often very happy with it, and did not want to line the inside. Unlined boxes look too homemade for my tastes when teaching making products that sell. Have them do the inside first. Because laundry boxes come in a few standard sizes, this allows for teaching mass production.

Students can and should cut the materials selected for lining the bottom, sides, and inside of the lid all at one time. They can build up a surplus of ready cut liners over time allowing for speed in construction in the future. Inside liners should match the outside, though not necessarily be the same pattern. For example, if covering the outside in a pink checkerboard contact paper, consider doing the inside with a solid pink fabric. You get the idea. Glue all of it down really well.

A tip for working with contact paper -

Don't peel and stick it if you don't think they can pull it off well. I have a hard time with it! Cut it to the desired shape and size with the backing still affixed. Glue the entire thing to a piece of construction paper. When dried, glue the whole thing down as the liner. It makes things so much easier. I like contact paper for all the patterns, the price and the durability. The same principles apply to gift wrapping paper, though it should be sealed immediately as opposed to contact paper.

* Step four is to do the outside of the box. Students could use the same ideas applied to the inside for the outside. This is the easiest way to do it. Or, they could do a decoupage thing. Covering in a bandana gives a really cool look that teens go for in a big way. If using a bandana, line the outside with a solid matching color construction paper first, so students won't have any box labeling show through on the finished product.

* Step five is to bring in the bling. Fancy up the outside of the box by giving it some trim. If doing the bandana covering, consider a simple ribbon edging in a coordinating color around the box top lid. Consider using a hot glue gun to affix a metal piece sign to the front. Old barrettes make stellar ornamentation when the backings are removed. Old broaches and pendants work great, too. Wooden letter blocks or refrigerator magnet letters are easy to affix and look really good. Be sure to cover the handle with wound over color coordinating ribbon.

*Step six is to seal the product both inside and out with a generous coating of Stiffy. This is the coolest stuff. It gives a great seal that lasts and strengthens the box.

It's done! The same thing works for shoe boxes.

Have students make a fun and easy project using glass jars and bottles

This is really fast once they get the hang of it.

What do you need?

Very little really.

* Clean glass jars and lids

* A strip of wood such as a 1 x 2

* Paint

* Screws

* A power drill

* Labels, ribbon, bling, all optional.

Make undercabinet mount storage strips.

Make something useful, teach, have fun.

* Be sure all the jars are clean and dry.

* Paint, stain or seal the wood to get the desired decorative look.

* Position the lids on the strip of wood with the top laying flat on the bottom side of the wood. The top side will be mounted under shelves, cabinets and such.

* Drill a screw through the lid affixing it directly to the wood.

* Swirl paint into jars and let dry

* Bling up the outside of jars if desired.

* Screw the jars onto the lids.

SAFETY TIP - Teach the tool before presenting the tool. Always be right there to assist. Only allow actual tool usage after you have reasonable evidence the student will be aware of safety issues. Power tools are fun and students love them. They are also dangerous if not handled with respect.

When using power tools in functional level classrooms, always go cordless. Seriously. People trip over the cords when moving around.

Classrooms are crowded and kids get excited. Toss the cords.

Makita BTD142HW 18-Volt Compact Lithium-Ion Cordless Impact Driver Kit
Makita BTD142HW 18-Volt Compact Lithium-Ion Cordless Impact Driver Kit

Teachers, get your district to P.O. this, or do a fundraiser. This one is the best for functional level students because it's so easy. Often functional level students may not have the strength required for other drills. This one does the "pushing" for them. Have cheaper drills on hand for stronger students of course, but for your students suffering from Cerebral Palsy (CP), and other debilitating conditions, have one of these.My husband has one of these as well. He has burnt up many a drill in his profession. He hasn't had to replace this one.


Possible uses for student made under cabinet mount storage strips:

Storage strips are useful. They save space and help keep people organized.

* In the garage, for storing nails, screws, washers, and all the other little tiny things you can never find when you need them. Label these jars or make some strips that leave the jars clear for this one.

* In the kitchen, for storing spices, cake frosting tips, bread ties and twisty ties and all manner of stuff that clutters up drawers.

* In the office, mounted under shelves for storing office supplies such as paper clips, staples, and so forth.

* In crafting, for sorting and storing beads, sequins, rhinestones, pendants and so much more.

Let Earth Day be every day in your classroom.

We only have the one planet. Our job as professional educators is to teach. Why not teach vocational skills and lessons that help preserve the only home we have, if for no other reason than for our students? If children are our future, we better start teaching them to save it.

All original acrostic art, dividers and word art are American made by Vix at cooltext.

Everyone can overcome.

This video shows a montage of successfully employed people who over came disabilities, while overlaying inspirational and poignant quotes.

How do you plan to celebrate Earth Day?

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    • Rhonda Lytle profile imageAUTHOR

      Rhonda Lytle 

      4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @Heidi Vincent: Thank you so much :).

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 

      4 years ago from GRENADA

      This is an exceptionally great lens, poetvix!

    • Rhonda Lytle profile imageAUTHOR

      Rhonda Lytle 

      5 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @SteveKaye: Thank you for saying so. I taught this way for years. It's not the norm. At the time, I had a truly supportive administration. It didn't hurt that districts can triple dip on the monetary end for such programs. They can and do bill for attendance, special education hours and vocational training and that's not to mention SHARES billing. Pointing that out helps convince the higher ups to jump on board. Many districts fear such programs because they are different. I had my students cooking daily, using tools and making things every day. There are many safety components to consider hence some districts fear of implementing such hands on transition programs. I contend, and sold this idea to my district with the following facts. All children grow up, functional level students too. Everyone needs to be valued, contribute and able to take care of themselves to the best of their ability. How can we expect them to learn if we don't let them do? Thank you so much for taking the time to read and leave such a kind comment. God bless you and happiest of squidding.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Outstanding lens with a beautiful design. Thank you for publishing this lens. I hope many use these ideas.


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