As an ESL teacher, I often bring this idea of looking critically at our everyday actions into my classes. Some people are wary of bringing environmental issues into the classroom, believing that to address them openly is to overstep one's bounds as a language teacher. At the same time, every lesson we teach, whatever the subject matter, exhibits an orientation toward the environment.
For recommended Earth Day articles, books, and websites, see the resources below!
How many times have we used materials that show people having fun shopping? Or ordering a hamburger? Or planning an around-the-world vacation? Covering topics like shopping, food and travel while ignoring the environment models a very strong stance. By doing this, we demonstrate to our students a belief that we need only consider the environment when we're doing a unit on recycling.
Instead of relegating the environment to one specific class or unit, I favor activities that to draw students' attention to the myriad connections between the environment and everything we do.
Everyday Action Project
With that in mind, I'd like to share one of my favorite activities. I call it the Everyday Action Project. My students are mostly college-aged, but this project could easily be adapted to work with younger folks. Similarly, I've used it in ESL classes, but it would work in a variety of content areas, including science, business or social studies. I hope my approach will be clear in my discussion of the activity, but let me make it explicit: It is not my intention to convince my students to adopt particular environmental beliefs or practices. I do not believe that teachers have the right to impose their views on students. At the same time, it is entirely appropriate to ask students (or anyone else, for that matter) to look critically at the consequences of their own actions.
Step #1: Choosing a Topic
The Everyday Action Project is partially a research project. Students begin by choosing an environmental issue that interests them and finding out some more about it. The key here is specificity. In my experience, 50% of the students say "global warming" when asked to choose an issue, and most of them aren't actually interested in that. Thus, I do a series of brainstorms and freewrites to help students find something that engages them. The great thing about the environment is that virtually everything is connected to it.
Thus, if a student is interested in sports, or cars, or business, they can find a related environmental issue. For example, if a student was interested in professional sports, they could do something on waste disposal, water usage or even air travel. Whatever topic they choose, I work with students to draft precise research questions, helping them discover information that truly matters to them.
Step #2: Actions
The second part of the Everyday Action Project is a combination of action and reflection. Each student comes up with an action (or set of actions) that directly relates to their issue. The goal here is for them to come up with ways to have a positive impact. Again, specificity is crucial. Students come up with specific, everyday actions that they themselves can do. I try to give them ideas with readings and examples from previous classes, and I also steer them away from special events.
For example, if a student were interested in water pollution, I'd rather them do something like not eat meat for several weeks or change their laundry habits than participate in an annual, one-time beach cleanup. The goal is to find actions that strengthen the connection between our everyday lives and environmental issues. This empowers students, showing them ways in which every one of us can make a difference. This is very important. If we stop at raising awareness, students can get discouraged and depressed. Environmental problems are many, and they can easily seem overwhelming. By offering opportunities for positive action, we help our students have hope.
I firmly believe that the importance of raising awareness and inspiring action on environmental issues cannot be overstated. I believe it is much too important to be relegated to the occasional unit or poorly attended elective. The environment is a thread that connects all that we teach and helping students see should be one of our prime objectives. We should be mindful of the attitudes and behaviors we model in our classes when we ignore the environment. To truly educate our students as whole people and give them the tools they need for their future, we need to include critical environmental literacy. And by introducing students to opportunities for positive action in their local communities, we can both raise awareness of important issues and offer hope for the future.