A Better Way To Teach Sustainability

Teaching about sustainability and including sustainability activities in middle school and high school can impact current and future students.

An important part of any science curriculum that promotes student engagement is real-world connections. Finding ways for students to understand their new knowledge and apply it outside of our classrooms is incredibly meaningful. Teaching about sustainability is one option to get students to actively engage with a lesson and use their knowledge in the wider world.

I think we all know that there simply isn’t enough being done to make our world sustainable, but highlighting what IS being done will help prevent despair for ourselves and our students! That’s the goal of these sustainability activities in this post – to give students options to make change in our world!

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is about meeting peoples’ current needs without compromising what future generations might need for their survival.

You have likely heard the saying that we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors rather we borrow it from our children. This saying is at the heart of sustainability. 

The best way to ensure that current needs don’t compromise what future generations might need is to get the future generation involved now. By teaching about sustainability directly and incorporating sustainability activities in our classrooms and lessons, we can encourage generational change.

Teaching about sustainability and including sustainability activities in middle school and high school can impact current and future students.

Teaching About Sustainability

There are many ways to teach about and put sustainability into action in your classroom, school, and the wider community. 

Options to be more environmentally friendly on an individual level include riding your bike or carpooling, eating locally or growing your own vegetables, hosting a community clean-up, or even volunteering with groups that promote environmentalism (or even starting such a group at your school!).  

You can also teach directly about sustainability in your science class, whether it’s a unit in your middle school science course or a full course devoted to environmental science. There are many options to bring these lessons to your students.

This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of teaching about sustainability in your classroom. Next up: A BETTER WAY TO TEACH SUSTAINABILITY: PART II

Using Fiction and Pop Culture

Some of the best options to teach about sustainability are through stories and movies. Using pop culture with a purpose is always an excellent way to increase engagement – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! 

These teaching tools provide narratives that students can connect to because they’re familiar from other areas of study and their lives outside of school. Students can organize their thoughts around stories rather than focusing solely on scientific and informational texts or textbooks.

One option is using the 1971 book The Lorax by Dr. Seuss and/or the 2012 film adaptation of the same name. The main character, the Lorax, “speaks for the trees” and must defend the land from entrepreneurs seeking to destroy everything for profit and growth. The story is a cautionary tale about taking responsibility for the stewardship of the environment. As a result, it’s an ideal text to introduce and explore sustainability that works for middle school and high school.

Give students the chance to dive deeper into the book or movie and its connections to sustainability with this two-week-long low-prep unit featuring an introduction to the topic and activities for the book or movie with a full answer key. You can even extend students’ learning with a differentiated assignment, including a rubric for easier grading, based on the book/movie.

Using Nonfiction for Teaching About Sustainability

Nonfiction and informational texts are not just an alternative to fictional and pop culture texts, they work well as complements to them. Pairing the two types gives students a chance to make connections and therefore achieve an added depth of understanding. 

For example, you could pair your lesson on The Lorax with an examination of US environmental economics and policies. Use this series of lessons to present an overview of economics and policies, then have students practice working with the big ideas and key terms, before applying their knowledge to analyze the Seuss book or movie adaptation.

Once students have a grasp of what sustainability is they can examine what is currently being done to create sustainable living. This can be done through further discussions of environmental policies at the US and international levels. Searching online using terms such as “NEPA – National Environmental Policy Act” or “climate justice” will bring up a ton of current and historical options to use in class.

Add this bundle to your curriculum now!

Another option is to use texts and activities like those in this bundled unit about land usage, environmental economics and policy. This unit ensures students understand how sustainability is affected by economics and how environmental policies actually protect the environment. There are lessons about US and international environmental policy as well as the tragedy of the commons, which is a term used in ecological and economic circles for when individuals act in their own interests rather than the common good when it comes to resources. There are student choice-focused projects about land development related to habitats as well as researching environmental legislation.

A Final Word on Teaching About Sustainability

Lessons that are educational and actionable beyond the classroom increase student engagement. When students are able to see the ‘value’ in a lesson they invest in it. Since that’s the case, let’s make the most of this by teaching about sustainability! Such lessons can make a significant impact beyond the classroom and on future generations!

What tips do you have for teaching sustainability in your class? Share them with other teachers in the comments below.



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