Sunday, July 8, 2018

Building a better world - 6 strategies for engaging the SDGs in the classroom

by Jennifer D. Klein, Gimnasio Los Caobos 
There is an increasingly diverse, passionate network of educators around the world who are using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a foundational framework for global education in their classrooms. By themselves, the SDGs may seem too complex and abstract for students, particularly at the younger grades, but they provide a roadmap toward global understanding for any classroom that engages them authentically. By coupling the SDGs with pedagogies that put students at the center of investigating, educating and solving, teachers can engage the SDGs across the curriculum in meaningful ways that connect to our academic disciplines and foster 21st century competencies while involving students in local and global change making.
Explore the intersections between the subjects you teach and the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s surprisingly easy to find connections between the SDGs and every content area we teach in schools, regardless of where students live; in fact, solving global challenges like No Poverty (#1), Quality Education (#4), and the three goals connected to environmental protection and sustainability (#11, #12 and #13) requires all of our disciplines in concert. Interdisciplinary approaches to SDG projects don’t just allow us to meet the curricular requirements of our given district or country, but they allow us to put our disciplines into an authentic context. Using algebra to understand poverty or science to address our energy crisis helps students see how our disciplines matter beyond the schoolhouse walls. And when students see the relevance, they engage more deeply—students rarely ask why they need to learn our content if they can see clearly how it connects to real problems, both locally and globally.

Build deep insights into the Sustainable Development Goals through global and local partnerships that connect students to people experiencing and working on the topics they’re learning about. It can be life-changing for students to meet and ask questions of individuals experiencing the complexities behind the global goals, such as people without access to clean water, girls who are unable to complete their education, communities experiencing armed conflict, or refugees in our local communities. As Jim Shapiro notes in a blog about connecting his students with a Syrian refugee, “This was not a class. This was life and death. This was about a journey that spanned an ocean and linked worlds.” It’s also powerful to create opportunities for partnerships with people working on the issues students are exploring in class. Think about what is possible when we ground student inquiry in conversations with people in the field, working to eradicate poverty and disease; not only will students see what action might look like, but such partnerships can help young people identify purpose-driven careers they might one day pursue themselves. People who live and work from a deep sense of passion and purpose are often willing to Skype into classrooms because they want the next generation to become passionate about the very same topics. In fact, SDG #17 focuses on building the partnerships needed to accomplish the other 16 goals. If teachers engage SDG #17 by building partnerships for the classroom, the concept of multi-lateral solution building will be the natural response of a new generation who have seen that considering multiple perspectives leads to better solutions.

Use the Sustainable Development Goals for the development of global competencies and asset-based global citizenship. Working to understand and help solve any one of the SDGs can help develop global competencies in your students, particularly if students partner with other young people in the world. In The Global Education Guidebook, I write at length about projects in which two classrooms either focus on a global goal they have in common, sharing ideas and co-creating solutions, or solve unique local problems with the feedback of their global peers. If we want the development of solutions to start from the best ideas of the people experiencing the problems, it is important we do not solve problems we don’t understand for communities we don’t live in. Instead, students should learn from the world they don’t know and solve the one they do. These kinds of global experiences develop the kind of asset-based thinking about global engagement and citizenship that helps build a world of equity, reciprocity and collaborative development.

Connect the Sustainable Development Goalsto local issues and challenges as much as global ones, so that they are real and relevant for students. particularly for younger learners, “global” alignment makes the SDGs less abstract, allowing students to understand how our biggest challenges exist across borders and contexts. Poverty, for example, is an abstract concept, humanized significantly when students meet people facing economic challenges in their own backyards. Doing “glocal” investigation also keeps students from abstracting such issues as someone else’s problem, and helps eat away at the “us vs. them” mentality that sees poverty, for example, as an African or Asian challenge. Most of the SDGs are borderless challenges that face all nations across the planet, if in different ways. A project grounded in locally-present SDGs also allows for a powerful alignment between global understanding and local action and service, which helps students feel less paralyzed and become true protagonists for change in their own communities.

Use the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for student choice and affinity grouping. In classrooms using Project-Based Learning, student choice is an essential feature, and many non-PBL teachers understand the power choice has to increase engagement and achievement. The SDGs provide a meaningful framework for such choice, as students can choose their focus from all or a limited number of content-relevant SDGs—and then teach each other about what they’re learning. For teachers interested in creating “affinity groups,” student groupings based on student interests, affinity mapping protocols allow all students to think deeply about each global issue—its importance and its potential solutions—while simultaneously giving students a chance to decide which issue they are most interested in engaging more deeply (see affinity mapping protocols from the National School Reform Facultyand the School Reform Initiative).

Partner with organizations working to connect the Sustainable Development goals into classroom curriculum worldwide. There are many excellent organizations offering curriculum, professional development and other educational resources with a specific focus on the Sustainable Development Goals, so teachers don’t have to start from scratch unless they want to. Following are a few outstanding examples:
  1. Teach the SDGs was started by a small group of educators who helped to motivate the United Nations to make a more intentional effort to involve K-12 students in solving the world’s most pressing problems. Today, almost 800 educators from across the planet have pledged to bring the SDGs into their classrooms, and to make sure that the world’s youth truly contribute to change in their communities and beyond.
  2. The World’s Largest Lesson introduces the Sustainable Development Goals to children and young people everywhere, uniting them in education and action. With resources for a variety of age groups, this organization offers comprehensible curricula and projects teachers can incorporate easily into classroom learning.
  3. TakingITGlobal is one of the oldest organizations connecting youth to help them create change in their communities and beyond. In partnership with organizations like iEARN and the Centre for Global Education, TIG offers projects and opportunities that unite students in addressing the global challenges addressed by the SDGs in meaningful and action-oriented ways
  4. Participate offers several professional development e-courses, resource collections, and other tools to support teaching the Sustainable Development Goals. They recently developed a set of SDG Playing Cards for download, for example, which can be used in a variety of classroom activities. They have also started a Professional Learning Communityaround teaching the SDGs.
  5. Building Utopia 2.0: In 2010, I wrote a piece of curriculum called Building Utopia, an activity designed to scaffold the Millenium Development Goals, for World Leadership School student and teacher programs. I revised it for the SDGs in 2015; you can download the instructions and the materials. In my experience, this activity is as powerful for teachers as it is for students, especially if followed by a chance to talk about how activities like this might serve to scaffold and/or evaluate students’ global learning.
  6. Global Oneness films provide a powerful window into the specific circumstances of local and global cultures through stories that humanize the global issues students are learning about in school. With films that focus on the stories of individuals, under the themes of Migration, Climate Change, Vanishing Cultures, Nature, Inspiring People, and Creativity, these films can humanize global issues in classrooms engaging the SDGs.
  7. SIMA Classroom is an excellent resource for SDG-aligned short documentary films. Describing their content as “A current-affairs media treasure for educators,” SIMA Classroom strives to “educate, active and inspire the next generation of global citizens and changemakers.”
  8. NewselaThe Global Times, and other age-appropriate news sources can go a long way to helping students of all ages understand the global challenges our SDGs seek to improve, as well as offering inspiring stories of people dedicating their lives to solutions they believe in. 
At Gimnasio Los Caobos, my new school in Bogotá, Colombia, students are engaging the SDGs through Project-Based Learning across the grade levels. Junior school students are exploring SDGs #11, #12 and #13 by finding ways to make our facilities more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Middle school students are engaging SDG #9 by developing innovative entrepreneurial projects designed to improve lives. High school students are engaging SDG #16 by grappling with how best to build sustainable peace in Colombia, making current events and Colombian history relevant through the opportunity to participate in constructing a new identity for their community and country. Rather than feeling like it’s an “add-on,” teachers are reporting that the SDGs weave into existing curriculum naturally, serving to increase students’ sense of relevance and involving them in meaningful action.

The need for the SDGs are challenges born largely out of our collective history of racism, colonization, and inequitable thinking. They supersede borders and nations, though some nations are certainly more at fault for creating these problems to begin with. Borderless problems require borderless solutions and intercultural collaboration on deep levels. While I love Model UN and ran it for years in my school, it is too easy for activities like MUN to remain abstract and actionless, more of an intellectual exercise than a means of authentic engagement. To turn inquiry into action, schools must find ways to connect their students to the world, to create spaces for collaborative solution building and real participation that start from an asset lens about what all voices bring to the table. From the youngest student to the most experienced teacher, from the most marginalized to the most empowered, we all have an opportunity to become protagonists in reshaping and rebuilding our communities and our collective planet. The question is no longer if you want your classroom to connect to the world; the question now is simply when.

Jennifer D. Klein taught college and high school English and Spanish for 19 years, including five years in Central America and 11 years in all-girls education. As a writer, speaker, and bilingual workshop facilitator, Jennifer strives to inspire educators and shift practices in schools around the world. Her first book, The Global Education Guidebook: Humanizing K-12 Classrooms Worldwide through Equitable Partnerships, was published by Solution Tree Press in June 2017. Jennifer is currently Head of School at Gimnasio Los Caobos, a project-based preK-12 school outside of Bogotá, Colombia.