FirstWorks EarthFirst

By Deborah Drew

Months ago, as national leaders announced news of the COVID-19 pandemic threatening our country, many educational-focused organizations found themselves faced with extraordinary challenges and quickly learned that they would have to rapidly pivot to continue to provide educational programs to the children and students they serve.  The impact ran the gamut from schools and universities to day cares, after school programs, college preparatory mentoring programs, and much, much more. 

Enter stage right: FirstWorks, the Providence, RI based arts and education organization that engages diverse audiences with world-class performing arts experiences.  Founded in 2004, last year FirstWorks attracted 140,000 participants across festivals, performance and education.  FirstWorks has collaborated with more than 100 community organizations on projects that highlight extraordinary artists and reach diverse audiences. Central to its mission is a powerful, accessible, and equitable arts-integrated learning program benefiting low-income students in Rhode Island’s under-resourced schools.

Three years ago, support from the National Grid Foundation was instrumental in establishing and growing Earth First, a unique, thought-provoking program that utilizes the arts as a catalyst for environmental education, stewardship, and climate change awareness. The program covers professional development workshops for teachers to embed the arts as a learning strategy in both Providence and Central Falls schools, and a roster of artists, thought leaders, and films to engage youth and the larger community in learning about sustainability, climate change, and environmental stewardship in conjunction with the arts. Under Earth First, study-guides, developed in partnership with scientists and science teachers, have been created and used in schools to reinforce the educational component of environmental stewardship and sustainability. More than 40 schools and 5,500 underserved students have benefited from Earth First.

Early this spring, with the backdrop of the pandemic that has forced social distancing and the closing of schools and programs, the FirstWorks team set about a solution: How to deliver performance-based, arts education for students, teachers and parents alike?  Backstage, the creative forces behind FirstWorks rose to the occasion, and currently are presenting and providing for both teachers and students  an amazing assortment of enviro-education solutions.

Taking center stage in March 2020, FirstWorks inventively piloted its virtual learning series that brings the arts and academics into the homes of students during this challenging period of distance learning. It now is offering a full “cast” of virtual programs covering students in Grades K-12, along with lesson plans, resources and activities for teachers to share. FirstWorks is partnering with Steer, a mission-driven multimedia studio that works globally, to deliver the exciting, visceral content on the FirstWorks website and through social media platforms. World-class artists, who are part of the FirstWorks “family” continue to be at the epicenter of this virtual learning opportunity.

Several Earth First programs and artists are spotlighted with special live-stream performance events and conversations so that students can explore climate change, sustainability, and environmental stewardship in conjunction with the arts. 

Animator Miwa Matreyek weaves surreal and poetic narratives around the conflict between man and nature and communicates compelling ideas around environmental stewardship through the arts.  The take away for students Grades 5-12,  and teachers, are lessons called “Global Temperature Changes: Plastic Waste” and “Greenhouse Effects: Gasses” that combine science, mathematics, language arts, art activities and bonus activities such as deep-dive research.

Click on the image below to explore animator Miwa Matreyek’s Lesson:

Puppet artist Heather Henson also is featured in the series.  She focuses storytelling around endangered species and the symbiotic relationship between indigenous people and the land. FirstWorks’ website features video excerpts of the performance, showcasing beautiful and imaginative animal puppetry.  The lesson plan for this environmental message for students K-6 covers bird migration, turtle conservation, a weather journal, and for older students, a research assignment around Rhode Island’s turtle population.  Not to be outdone, there’s even a template for younger students to draw and create “crane puppets.”

Click the image below to view the lesson with puppet artist Heather Henson: 

With the COIVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, and no fail-safe solutions in site for the re-opening of schools and educational programs, it’s hard to envision FirstWorks’ Earth First environmental education program taking a curtain call.  That said, the imagination, tenacity and dedication to the Rhode Island teachers and students in over 40 schools across 13 districts using this on-line learning certainly deserves a standing ovation.


About National Grid Foundation:

National Grid Foundation is a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to improving the quality of life, economic strength and environmental stewardship in National Grid’s service territory. The Foundation’s mission is to create opportunities for solutions to today’s educational and environmental challenges. By awarding grants to non-profits, the Foundation inspires and serves as a catalyst to a shared future, ultimately impacting and improving lives of the underserved in our neighborhoods.

In December 1998, KeySpan Energy formed KeySpan Foundation to enhance community giving efforts. Now known as National Grid Foundation, the organization has provided more than $27 million in grants to more than 1,000 organizations in local communities.

To find out more about the National Grid Foundation visit:

To learn more about the Foundation’s partner organizations and how they have persevered during these unprecedented times, visit Destiny Newsletter.

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