Austin Jewish Academy (AJA) Fifth-Grade Sustainability Curriculum

By: Karen Hidalgo
from Austin Jewish Academy

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Computer Science, Economics/ Business, Engineering, English/ Writing/ Language Arts, Halacha, History, Math, Mishnah, Philosophy/ Values/ Ethics/ Hashkafa, Physical Education/Health, Science, Social and Emotional Learning, Social Studies, Tanach, Technology, literature

Blended Learning, Design-Thinking Model, Flipped Learning, Hevruta Learning, IBL - inquiry based learning, PBL - project based learning, Social and Emotional Learning, Soulful Education, UBD - understanding by design, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
5, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
4, 5, 6, Elementary school, Middle school

As part of AJA's commitment to educating life-long environmental stewards, Ms. Hidalgo developed a reproducible model curriculum to teach sustainability through opportunities for real-world learning. Her program involves innovative classroom study and school-to-farm service learning and has an extraordinary impact on her students and AJA community.

Entry Narrative

AJA Fifth-Grade Sustainability Curriculum is described in the following sections of this narrative:

Curriculum Goals and Development

Project-Based Learning

1) Eco-Cooking

2) School-to-Farm Service Learning project

3) Eco-Advocacy

Teacher Reflections

Community Reflections

Student Refections

Impact on Students


Curriculum Goals and Development

It is the vision of the Austin Jewish Academy (AJA) “to inspire a community of students to transform the world.”  Four years ago, teacher Karen Hidalgo developed a curriculum to teach the theory and practice of sustainability to her fifth-grade students at the AJA. Mrs. Hidalgo created this curriculum out of her desire to for students to become life-long stewards of sustainability through engagement in tikkun olam, primarily for Austin community members experiencing food insecurity and homelessness. Her curriculum, which has been successfully implemented each year since its inception, can serve as a model for other teachers and schools seeking to teach sustainability through classroom and real-world experience.

Note from the Teacher Innovator:

“I believe that teaching about sustainability is not only important but necessary, in order for students to take an active role in making a difference for our planet. They can be changemakers today and future environmental Jewish leaders of tomorrow. I believe that by giving students real world applications on sustainability issues, they become environmental advocates in their everyday lives, leaving footprints of positive and lasting change.

Overarching Questions Addressed by the Curriculum:

  1. What is sustainability?  How does sustainability align with Jewish values and traditions?
  2. How can students become aware and possess the knowledge about environmental concerns that impact our world today and in the future?
  3. How can we inspire students to become environmental and social advocates to lead their generation and future generations to a more sustainable world?


Curriculum Goals:

  1. Connect Jewish values to sustainability in a current, relevant manner.
  2. Develop writing skills through persuasive letter writing.
  3. Understand and use technology in project presentations.
  4. Develop engineering skills including creativity and innovation in the design and modeling process.
  5. Use critical thinking skills in lab experiments and model hydroponic farming.
  6. Develop language arts skills through conducting interviews and creating video presentations.


Project-Based Learning

The curriculum is project-based, involving three related, but distinct projects that integrate classroom learning with community engagement. The three projects are described in detail below: 1) Eco-Cooking, 2) School-to-Farm Service Learning at Green Gate Farm, and 3) Eco-Advocacy.

  1. Eco-Cooking

Students interview chefs from farm-to-table restaurants in the Austin community to better understand their menu options.  With newly acquired knowledge from these interviews on the benefits of using local produce, students plan and prepare an eco-friendly menu and then present their creation in video format.   As part of the overall unit, students also learn about fair trade. The Jewish studies teacher incorporates the resource, Jewish Food Rules published by the Jewish Farm School (Sustainable Agriculture Rooted in Jewish Traditions) studying relevant texts and food ethics.  Students learned the laws of Kashrut and the concept of Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, “pursue justice” and how it relates food justice and economic fairness.



  1. Students create a list of questions and interview local farm to table restaurants to learn about local and organic menu items and what effect it has on the restaurant. The following is an example of the questions in a questionnaire created by a student:
    1. How long has your restaurant been in business? Is this your main job? What was your inspiration-why did you decide this career path? What is your favorite part of your job? Did you start for…. Family? Economic? Personal?
    2. What inspired you to start a farm to table restaurant?
    3. What makes your restaurant special? Unique?
    4. Does your menu change? (DAILY/WEEKLY/ANNUALLY/NOT) Why or why not?
    5. Where do you purchase/buy the majority of your ingredients?
    6. Would you buy from large farms or do you only support local?
    7. In your opinion, how local is LOCAL? What does buying LOCAL mean to you?
    8. What are your views on GMO’s?
    9. Do you use GMO products in your menu? Is it hard/easy to avoid?
    10. Do you compost your waste or reuse in any way within your restaurant? Why or why not?
    11. How does your restaurant incorporate sustainable methods? Do you use green electricity? Solar panels? Wind energy? Cooking techniques? Etc.…Elaborate…
    12. How do you keep your ingredients FRESH?
    13. Are all of your menu items ORGANIC? Which ones?
    14. What is your view on the treatment of the livestock from your buyers? (Whole Foods Scale)
    15. What are some of the challenges your restaurant faces?
    16. Do you see faults in the way that an average American eats?
    17. In your eyes, are things changing?
    18. Have you seen a higher/lower demand for farm to table on your products in the last decade/years? Yes…..
    19. Additional important facts or comments you want the public to know about your restaurant.
  2. After conducting these interviews, the students create an environmental cooking show that connected their restaurant interviews, trend mapping, and ingredients from a local working farm, Green Gates Farm to build their own menu.
    • Students are then tasked with preparing a meal from the menu they created and serving it to four people. The students interview those people who ate their meal using their prepared Eco-Cooking Creation Questionnaire.  The following is an example of the questions in a questionnaire created by a student:
      1. What part of the dishes (taste/menu idea/presentation) did you find creative and why?
      2. Do you think these dishes could be served at a local farm to table restaurant? Why or why not?
      3. How did this meal experience from your student chef teach you about the local food movement/incorporate their learning from school?
      4. Do you think this meal was ‘kid-friendly’? Explain.
      5. Did you feel that the chef preparing the meal had a good understanding of cooking with local ingredients? Why or why not.
      6. On a scale from 1-5 on overall taste of the meal, what would you rate it and explain your answer.
1-Incredible meal! 2 3 4 5-Did not connect with my taste palate
  1. Did the flavors of the meal work well together for you? How?
  2. Did the ingredients of the meal taste fresh? Explain.
  3. In your honest opinion, did you taste a difference with this local focused meal compared to one that is not? Explain.

See the following YouTube video to see an example of what one student learned from his interview and the meal he made:


  1. School-to-Farm Service Learning at Green Gates Farm

Students visit a working farm one day each week for three months. Mrs. Hidalgo and the farm educator jointly created the curriculum for students to learn about the five critical components of a successful farm enterprise which include: fertility, composting, planting, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) support, and sales and marketing. This unit focuses on Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayyim, preventing animal cruelty using various texts.



  1. Every Friday for three months the fifth-grade class use Green Gate Farms as a real-world classroom. We partnered with Erin Flynn (co-owner of Green Gate Farms) to develop curriculum blending science, math, health, sustainability, art and Judaic principles. AJA is proud to be the first school to have participated in the New Farm Institute’s School-to-Farm program. Each week the students focused on a different topic, spending an entire day working and learning on the farm.

Photo of AJA students at Green Gate Farms:

  1. One year, as part of the School-to-Farm program, the fifth-grade class were challenged by the farm’s owners to design and construct a lightweight mobile coop with capacity for up to 50 pastured birds using repurposed materials. Students created their own set of guidelines addressing functionality, engineering, sustainability, aesthetics and messaging incorporating Judaic elements. The students then worked as partners to create their own unique designs. After constructing models of their designs, the students presented their creations to the farm’s owners, Erin and Skip Flynn.  The farm owners then selected one of the models for the students to design and the farmers to build (because of time constraints).

Photo of chicken coop designs:

Chicken coop rubric:

  • Mrs. Hidalgo felt that the most powerful piece of the students’ sustainability studies was that “their connections with the chickens on the farm drove their process” designing the coops. The level of creativity and thoughtfulness in their designs was impressive. One team designed a transformer style retractable roof that opens and closes for shelter and protection. Another team used straws in their model intended to funnel and capture water. Another student was able to share photos and anecdotes about his grandparent’s own chicken coop they built at their home. The student’s presentation gave his classmates concrete information and elements to consider in approaching their work at Green Gates Farms. Ultimately, Mrs. Hidalgo believes that the “learning experiences so connected to the earth has brought something out” in the students.
  1. Students read the Seed Savers books by S. Smith, a series about a dystopian world where families are not allowed to grow their own food. In the books, the characters become involved in an underground movement that collects and grow seeds and learn about how citizens lost the right to produce their own food.
  2. The students also study the fair-trade movement and analyze four different chocolate companies. Asking questions such as whether it is worth spending the extra money for these types of products inspired the students to begin a letter campaign using persuasive writing to ask local businesses to carry these fair-trade products.
  3. A hydroponics unit incorporates aquaponics, the process of using fish waste as fertilizer in hydroponics. This first year incorporating aquaponics revealed that the fish could not survive the cold temperatures in the classroom tanks, a great learning experience for the students and information for Mrs. Hidalgo to incorporate next year.


  1. Eco-Advocacy

Students learn about topics affecting sustainability, such as global warming, resource management/mismanagement, and conservation.  Students learn about farming in the future through hydroponics systems, composting, propagation and cloning plants. In addition, they are introduced to the concepts of wick-fed gardens, liquid nutrients, the life cycle of plants, and the water cycle.  In the study of Sukkot, students learn the importance water plays in the Tanakh and in Israel today.  Students explore the meaning of, Ein Mayin, Ein Torah and the prayer for rain.  Students engage an in-depth study of texts related to water.  Food security is addressed through the parshot of Yosef and reimagining the story had there been an abundance of food. Throughout this unit, students develop their critical and creative thinking skills to become advocates for the planet.



  1. What is Sustainability?
Sustainability Types of Resources (focus on water, fossil fuel-petroleum)


Resource Management (recycling, landfills) and Mismanagement (oil spills, global climate change)

Hydroponics (prefaced with photosynthesis-Science Fair)

Food and Green Living

How can resources be managed and mismanaged?

What are sustainable solution to environmental


What are different types of resources?

How can residents of Austin be sustainable using local resources?

How can hydroponics be a sustainable

growth source for the world?


  1. Natural Resources-Oil Spill Lab

Students work in cooperative learning groups as ecologists to investigate and recommend cleaning agents for an oil spill.


Accessing Prior Knowledge:

  1. What is an oil spill?
  2. How do oil spills occur?
  3. What type of oil is involved in them?
  4. What is the impact of an oil spill on the environment?
  5. How are they cleaned up?
  6. Who is responsible for cleaning up oil spills?


Which clean up strategy works the best for an oil spill occurring

  1. In an open ocean
  2. On a sandy beach
  3. Along a rocky coastline

Students are reminded to consider factors such as ocean currents, surface area, weather and wildlife habitat.


Open Ocean
Sandy Beach
Along a Rocky Coastline



As an ecologist, you are hired to investigate and recommend a cleaning agent for oil spills. The task involves investigating the absorbent products provided as a team, with the final recommendation done as an individual.



Contain the oil spill and separate as much oil as possible from the water, with the least amount of money spent.


Photo of students Oil Spill Lab:



  • Climate change and its connection to sustainability.  Students create Global Warming Commercials to focus on resource mismanagement.  They create a survey to evaluate their projects.


Global Climate Change WebQuest:


Global Climate Change Commercials Survey:


Student resource websites:

  1. Farming for the future – Future Farm Fun

The students use the Wild Science Future Farm (by Wild Science and purchased on Amazon) as a learning tool for this project.  With this kit, students grow plants inside a clear dome mountain.  Students learn how to plant, use hydroponic systems, compost, propagate and clone plants. In addition, students are taught even more about sustainability by being introduced the concepts of wick fed gardens, liquid nutrients, the life cycle of plants, and the water cycle.

Future Farm Fun Rubric:


Resources used in the Future Farm unit:

Hydroponic systems – Meet me at the Corner: Hydroponics for Kids

Life Cycle of Plants

Questions posed after National Geographic video:

  1. Why are plants such a crucial part of the web of life?
  2. How did the monkey’s help in the reproduction process of the plants?
  3. Can Hydroponics Solve World Hunger?

This is the writing prompt used to create a persuasive paper about how hydroponics could be a catalyst to ending world hunger.

Everyone has heard the saying that “if you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime”. This saying has been around forever and shows that hunger has been around as long as people have. It also demonstrates that there are ways to end hunger by giving people long-term solutions instead of short-term satisfaction. But, not everyone is able to fish to provide for themselves. So, is there another way to help end world hunger that can be used almost anywhere in the world regardless of whether there are fish available? There is another way to save the world-Hydroponics!


One year, a class parent was a raw foods chef. This parent was invited to come to class and do two lessons, where she prepared food, alongside the students, sharing how sustainability was connected to cooking and the foods we eat. This was a great addition to homework.

  1. Cooking and sustainability – Homework


Students use EDMODO (Google app for education) for the following videos and then discuss their responses in class.

“Holy Crap!”  Turning public waste into growth.

  1. How does this video show how people are taking charge of their community and practicing sustainably in their community?


Environmentalism on the Halfshell

  1. How does farming help sustain oyster populations?
  2. How does this video relate to sustainability?


Ecuador Conservation

  1. How was Ecuador’s land suffering? Give evidence and support your claim with details.
  2. How were conservationists able to work towards ‘practicing conservation while still meeting the needs of the people’?
  3. How were their efforts practicing sustainability?


  • Students write and prepare TED talks along with writing persuasive essays to various business and organizations.  They utilize PREZI technology to create and present.


Persuasive Paper rubric:

Photo of student practicing ted talk:

Photo of resource lab:


  • Students make Landfill Pizzas to learn about resources and waste.


Landfill pizza photos:





These are reflections made by Mrs. Hidalgo about her experience as a teacher and the experiences of her students:

“I learned that the best gift you can give a student is an opportunity to make their learning (presentations, reading, and writing) come alive, by providing out of the classroom, real world applications of the knowledge acquired. I also learned that pre-and post-reading on concepts of our work, were a great addition to the service-learning plan of the day, and served to both compliment and more deeply delve into the issues of our work and discussions while working on the farm.”

“This service learning experience, wherein the students used voice recorders as one method of capturing the student learning, went beyond my greatest expectations! Although, as all educators do, we did tweak our final project, choosing to create and build chicken coops instead of create TED TALKS. The depth of which my students connected to their learning on the farm and in the classroom, was a true testament to the power of this experience. The students presented their chicken coops to a panel of adults, which spotlighted their learning of this 10-week service learning work. In addition to this, the students gave tours of the farm to 50+ students from the Magellan International School, where any onlooker would have seen the extent and depth of the knowledge gained while working at Green Gate Farm. They each took a final written exam as well, covering the scholastic objectives of the work, where the class as a whole received outstanding marks.”



Parents have provided positive feedback about the education received by their children in Mrs. Hidalgo’s sustainability curriculum.

“As parents, we could not have been more impressed or amazed by the structure, thoughtfulness, complexity and connectivity of our son Nathan’s experience in Karen Hidalgo’s fifth grade class. The service-learning project conducted in collaboration with Green Gate Farms was definitely the highlight. Nathan took great pride in learning about and participating in the business of the farm, from the science of farming, to the economics of agriculture, to the bio-ethics of GMOs and organic production. This connection with food extended past the physical work on the farm itself, as we as a family began to discuss local and organic produce and Nathan took on a serious interest in cooking. A keystone project during this part of the curriculum involved planning a menu using local ingredients and a cooking show style video production of cooking the menu, complete with descriptions of the origins of the food, the decisions made related to local vs. organic ingredients, and the seasonal modifications to be used during other times of the year. The class also split into teams and interviewed chefs and managers of farm-to-table restaurants in Austin, truly understanding how that kind of project could be scaled into a full business model.”

“Nathan is now in seventh grade at the Austin Jewish Academy and the impacts of this curriculum and his experiences in Mrs. Hidalgo’s class are still visible. Nathan returned to Green Gate Farms the past two summers to serve as a junior counselor for their summer programming and has chosen to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah on the farm this coming April. Nathan deepened his love for cooking, maintaining a mentorship with the chef he interviewed during the Farm-to-Table module, and submitting an application for a kid’s national cooking show under his guidance. His enthusiasm for food has been contagious, and his siblings have eagerly joined him in the kitchen and have joined Nathan during the summer programming at the farm. The experience also created an appreciation and deeper understanding of the business of food and the challenge many face to have access to fresh and local food. He and we know how privileged he has been to have had this experience and we can’t wait for his brother, Levi, to get that experience next year when he starts 5th grade at AJA.”

“My son had an amazing experience in his 5th grade class with Karen Hidalgo. He was taught all about organic farming and had the opportunity to work on a local farm with the class. They had lessons on Bees, Organic Foods and Growing, Animal Care, Non-GMOs, Sustainability, Use of a Greenhouse and a whole lot more. These things are not traditionally taught in a classroom. He is now making healthier choices in the foods he eats and strives to teach others as well. This would not have been possible without the hands-on experience at Green Gate Farms with Mrs. Hidalgo.”


Rachel Blalock, the educator at Green Gate Farms, wrote the following letter to the parents of the AJA fifth-grade students who worked at the farm:

One farm worker said:

“Students in the 5th grade at AJA have had an amazing opportunity to have a service learning experience at Green Gate Farms. At the farm each Friday, students have learned about a wide array of areas from seed saving, to permaculture, to biodiversity and much more! Their learning has included working in composting centers, feeding and caring for animals, gathering manure, planting seeds in the greenhouse and in the fields and getting CSA (community-supported agriculture) baskets ready for the members that come.”




Paper written by student Lue Coplin:

“I personally believe that I more understand conventional farmer’s point of view now that I have seen the struggles of farming. I feel that if I were not given the education to know the things that will happen if you bring chemicals and genetically modified organisms into farming I would choose to use chemicals because they would solve my problems of my plants getting eaten and beaten up in the trucks. I really feel that farming will become a race between science and planet earth and Mother Nature. Scientists are always trying to make a chemical or change a seed so it will withstand the bugs and not get eaten but in a couple of months the bug has built immunity to it and the scientists have to make a new chemical. This never-ending race leaves a trail of destruction because it gets into the soil and makes the crops less sweet and contaminates the water that the good bugs drink so they cannot eat the bad bugs. It goes to show if to break earth’s cycle you break people who are part of that cycle. This idea will stay in my head forever and I will never buy conventional because it is killing Mother Nature’s way.

I think my favorite farm station is fertility because when me Roy and Isaac collected white gold (AKA chicken poop) I felt like I really made a difference in the farm because the room we were cleaning was cleaner and the compost piles grew which means I started the working system of making soil. The main jobs I did in compost and fertility was turning compost which gives air to all the living ecosystems in the pile so they do not suffocate and transporting this compost around the compost corridor. The compost corridor is a long path that has three sided cubes on either side so it is easier to move and organize the compost. I think this station really shows how the farm cycles work because you collect care use as in you collect the poop then take care of it till it turns into soil that is super nutritious and good for plants so you can grow more then feed your animals and the cycle starts all over again.

I think GGF (Green Gate Farm) is a really great place that shows you the process that makes our earth work. In a perfect world, nothing would be wasted or polluted. Before there were factories, cars, and things like that, things worked like a farm. Animals produce waste which makes compost or super soil which you can grow food then feed the animals again. This ecosystem never runs out and never wastes anything so even though we cannot fully go back to that way of life we can strive for a perfect world and do the best we can. When you use this way of life you build a community that works together in harmony picking each other up not putting them down like GMO’s and chemicals do to bugs that are innocent living creatures. When you put down one friend, you start a chain reaction and put down those good friends too. Once you kill one person you are not sustaining but breaking. Sustaining a life is not just living but living in harmony with everybody so they will give you back that peace and harmony. All these things we learned really helps me understand earth ships and the precious life and recourses we have access to. When I started learning about sustainability, something clicked and without that click, I would not have understood earth ships, eco kibbutzim, and green week.

After I learned the importance of buying local and organic and knowing your growers I have looked for local stickers at my local grocery stores and made sure I was buying things close to home and organic. I have also been seeking out fair trade items and looking to see the cool things available with this special seal. I think my family too has become more watchful about what we are buying and are now thinking about buying from the farm more often than once. I think this experience will last with me forever as well as whom I tell and I will be better to the earth and more educated because of it. I hope I will be a part of generation that people will remember for the things that it did that helped our world not hurt our world. I think with this knowledge that is possible.

I think this outdoors experience was beneficial because it made those entire lessons in class come alive. We could see exactly what farming is like and how everything works together like clockwork. I think this opportunity really made the learning more fun as well because we were given the freedom to ask questions, we were treated not like the 5th grade class we are but like workers, and I felt we had a purpose. There is a real difference talking to your teacher and talking to a farmer. A teacher can teach it all and explain it till its crystal clear but when you talk to a farmer you hear all the times they failed and failed again and never gave up. You can hear the passion and that I think is what makes a class listen. I think freedom to mess up, do trial and error is the best way to learn, and that is exactly what Green Gate Farm provided.”


Mrs. Hidalgo has taught this curriculum for four years and has had a significant impact on the students and school. AJA students who have taken her class as fifth graders have gone onto AJA Middle School and successfully implemented several programs, including a composting system for lunchroom food waste, a recycling system for classroom recyclable waste, and a chicken coop.


Photo of student-initiated composting system:

Photo of student-initiated chicken coop:



Last year, the students decided a campus greenhouse would close the ‘sustainability loop’ by allowing the use of composted material to produce food for the community. As a result, students raised just enough money to build a greenhouse structure. The greenhouse building is now complete, and the students are engaged in transforming it into a functioning greenhouse that can provide produce for the community. Specifically, students are championing projects to ‘outfit’ the greenhouse with growing platforms, irrigation, cooling, and other necessary systems to create a functioning greenhouse. Students will then grow food for students and needy community members: 50% of the produce will be used in Austin Jewish Academy school lunches and 50% will be distributed to members of the Austin community who need food.


Photo of student-initiated greenhouse building:



The activities of these graduates of Mrs. Hidalgo’s fifth-grade curriculum are a testament to its extraordinary impact. The students have clearly learned how to apply their learning to real-world problems and create sustainable solutions.



Entrant Bio(s)

Mrs. Hidalgo holds a Bilingual Teaching Certification from the University of Texas along with Gifted and Talented (GT), English as a Second Language (ESL) and Bilingual Certification. She has 15 years of teaching experience in grades 3rd-6th, with most of her years focused in 5th grade. Mrs. Hidalgo has appreciated the uniqueness of the Austin Jewish Academy, where fifth grade highlights have included Environmental TED TALKS, working for an extended period of time on a farm, as well as having an annual 5th Grade Poetry Slam. With relevant and meaningful themes each year, Mrs. Hidalgo is committed to providing a differentiated, stimulating and rigorous instructional approach in which she infuses technology, and inquiry based exploration as her tools for learning. Mrs. Hidalgo is fluent in both English and Spanish and is also a certified yoga instructor and mother of three girls. She graduated on the Dean's List with a Bachelor degree in Family Studies from the University of Arizona and then went on to the University of Texas to receive her teaching credentials. She is happy to be entering her 6th year at the Austin Jewish Academy and always excited for all that her future students will accomplish.