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Making the SDGs Relatable Through Literacy

Guest post by Katie Gourlay, a Participate Learning Teacher of the Year.

Whenever I introduce a lesson incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in my classroom, I always begin with the question “What does sustainable mean?”

As the classroom full of 3rd graders raise their hands, a student inevitably replies, “Sustainability is a solution to a problem that will last forever, even when you’re not there anymore.” I credit this knowledge and awareness with using literacy to make SDGs relatable to my students through literacy.

By incorporating the Sustainable Development Goals into my classroom, that is exactly what I hope to achieve; by giving students the opportunity to investigate and explore the 17 SDGs, they can understand the impact that their own actions have on the world. This creates a meaningful connection that will be felt long after they have moved on from my classroom.

One of my students’ favorite ways to learn about Sustainable Development Goals is reading stories about other students, just like them, around the world. The SDGs offer an excellent opportunity to bring investigative and engaging global learning into the classroom.

Below, I share some of our favorite stories with you and how we have used them in the classroom to further our investigations of the SDGs.

“Rain School”

SDG 4 Quality Education, SDG 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

“Rain School” by James Rumford, is the story of school children in Chad, Africa. Because no physical school existed in their community, students first had to build one in order to attend class. This story helps my students understand the barriers that impede education throughout the world.

As we take a deeper dive into “Rain School,” students learn the innovative methods that some children around the world have to utilize in order to learn. With this text, we were able to look at the cause and effect relationship of overcoming barriers to education.

Additionally, we were able to apply lessons learned in “Rain School” to our math unit. We incorporated the concepts of area and perimeter by having the students imagine what it would be like to have to build your school before being able to learn.

Students used these concepts to design their school and furthered their understanding of multiplication by calculating the resources required to start learning.

Additional resources for SDGs 4 and 9:

  • “Off to Class” by Susan Hughes
  • “Nasreen’s Secret School” by Jeanette Winter
  • “A School Like Mine” by Penny Smith and Zahavit Shalev
  • “Beatrice’s Goat” by Page McBrier
  • “I am Malala” by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai
  • “My Name is Sangoel” by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed
  • “Tomás and the Library Lady” by Pat Mora

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”

SDG 1 No Poverty, SDG 2 Zero Hunger, SDG 4 Quality Education, SDG 13 Climate Action

Among our most popular classroom books is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. The story is about a young boy, William Kamkwamba, who endured a widespread drought in Malawi in 2001.

After having to drop out of school, William continued to visit his local library and taught himself how to build a windmill. William’s windmill subsequently generated enough electricity to irrigate his crops and ultimately saved his family and his village.

My students looked at how climate change has affected subsistence farming — when farmers grow crops or food to feed themselves and their families. Students found that changes in climate are making it harder for subsistence farmers to predict rainfall, and this affects their harvest for the following year.

My students also had an exciting opportunity to interact with a farmer in Malawi through Skype. This farmer was able to explain the process of subsistence farming directly to our class. That real-life connection was incredibly meaningful for everyone involved.

We were able to make connections with William’s story and our Energy Conservation and Transfer science unit. The students brainstormed ways to harvest the natural energy of the earth, sun, wind and water, to create clean and sustainable energy. They made pizza ovens, solar powered toys and water heaters.

Perhaps most importantly, students learned that when we persevere, put our mind to it and work together, we can always find ways to solve problems that we encounter. Of note, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will be released as a movie on Netflix on March 1, 2019.

Additional stories to support SDGs 1, 4, and 13:

  • “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia” by Miranda Paul
  • “Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah” by Laurie Ann Thompson
  • “Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace” by Jen Cullerton Johnson
  • “Who Will Plant a Tree?” by Jerry Pallotta

“One Well: The Story of Water on Earth”

SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 13 Climate Action, SDG 14 Life Below Water

In “One Well: The Story of Water on Earth” by Rochelle Straus, students learn how our water sources are interconnected. The non-fiction text explains supply and demand and how overpopulation is affecting access to water. By examining water use around the world, students learn the lengths that other children have to go to in order to access water in their daily lives.

After introducing students to water supply issues around the world, we were able to relate the lessons from this story across the curriculum. As part of our Measurement, Weight and Capacity unit, students collected rainwater and conducted experiments in order to further understand just how difficult water access can be in relation to SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation.

In one experiment, students measured five liters of water into a bucket. We then calculated the distance from the end of the playground to our classroom. Students carried their buckets across the distance while trying to keep as much water as possible in them. In the end, we calculated the amount of water lost in transit. My students clearly grasped just how difficult it would be to retrieve and transport their own water.

In looking at SDG 14, Life Below Water, students studied the text to learn how water pollution is affecting the world’s people and animals. Students took a walking field trip to their nearest water source. Students surveyed the water to note any pollution, such as litter, discoloration of the water or traces of chemical pollution.

After our walking field trip, we partnered with a classroom in Malawi, via email who also surveyed their local water source. By completing this study together, students were able to understand that water pollution is both a local and global issue.

Through SDG 13, Climate Action, students began to find ways to improve water quality. They researched ways to create a water filter that would purify the water. Students also created persuasive posters to encourage others to be aware of how water pollution affects our local and global environment.

Additional stories to support SDGs 6, 13, and 14

  • “A Drop Around the World” by Barbara McKinney
  • “Sacred River” by Ted Lewin
  • “The Water Princess” by Susan Verde
  • “Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World” by Christy Hale
  • “World Without Fish” by Mark Kurlansky
  • “The Water Hole” by Graeme Base

Implementing the SDGs into your classroom can seem daunting, initially. Once you have an opportunity to investigate and connect with other teachers, you’ll find that there are countless resources available at your fingertips to help you implement these 17 concepts in ways that are meaningful, clear and most importantly, fun for your students!

For more information on teaching the SDGs, read this blog post.

Katie Gourley, Participate Learning Teacher of the Year

Katie Gourlay is a 3rd Grade teacher at Stough Elementary in Raleigh, NC and Participate Teacher of the Year 2018. Originally from Scotland, she is passionate about teaching Global Citizenship through the Sustainable Development Goals.