Educating students about sustainability and empowering them with the skills and knowledge required to act as agents of change is a critical tool in addressing the impacts of the climate crisis. As an educational community, we recognize this, and teachers wanting to integrate sustainability concepts into classroom teaching will find an increasingly broad offering of material available. However, choosing the right approach and learning tools for your unique classroom can be challenging.
I tell students about my personal experience. I tell them my own story, including how difficult it is and how I sometimes get tired or discouraged. I remind them, as I remind myself, though, that I do it for future generations, my children, and our collective future.Francisca Alcántara
To better understand how educators are approaching this daunting yet critically-important task, we spoke with Francisca Alcántara, an MYP/DP Spanish Teacher at Munich International School. Since 2005, Francisca has been working with young people to bring the Spanish language to life through topics like mindfulness, sustainability, and sharing the planet. She was generous enough to take the time to explain some of her strategies for inspiring students, keeping things positive, and how to lead by example.
When did you become aware that you wanted to integrate sustainability into your lessons? How has the curriculum involved?
Initially, my subject was more specific to the language structure and Spanish culture. Therefore, we primarily covered topics like food, clothes, and traditions when discussing other parts of the world and the value of travel.
That has changed a lot as we have started to focus more on how our actions impact those who live in our home communities and how they affect people around the world. Now when we discuss traveling and other cultures, we focus more on topics like the environment and how to travel sustainably. We also discuss being open to different cultures, people, identities, and experiences in new places.
I emphasize how the opportunity to learn a new language benefits personal development, but also how it can empower students to take better care of the planet and each other.
That is a compelling mission. What is your personal approach to keeping students engaged in the classroom?
The students are already very engaged in discussing these topics, so I try to tap into that. We do a lot of interactive discussions and exercises. For example, we will watch a video or read something together and discuss the material as a group. When we watch something about climate change and global warming, I see that the students are eager to share their thoughts, learn more, and find ways to help.
I imagine providing actionable solutions is essential, so students do not become too discouraged or overwhelmed.
Absolutely. I remember one time we had an artist come in to talk about the art he was making from the plastic in our oceans and how much our consumerism was devastating our planet. He discussed how the sea birds and animals were eating all the plastic and dying.
The students were heartbroken to see the animals dying because of our actions. But the ultimate message he gave us was also inspiring. He reminded the student that we can always use our unique talents to do something—the way he used his art. It is critical to offer solutions or point them in the right direction to think of their own.
What are your strategies for helping students think through and actualize their own sustainability action plans?
We have a unit in my tenth-grade class, for example, called “Saving the Planet.” For the final project, we make posters using their Spanish language skills to share ideas about saving the planet and implementing solutions.
This is always a successful activity that allows students to learn from and inspire their peers. I also constantly remind them that even simple actions like organizing a cleanup around campus can have an impact in making others take sustainably seriously and think differently about their own patterns of consumption.
Of course, changing these patterns can be complicated. How do you address a situation when students might receive mixed signals regarding consumption habits from home or other environments?
You have to show, not tell. When I went to Borneo on a student trip, I saw students eating packaged food and water because they thought it was safer. They were just so used to behaving this way.
So I need to demonstrate to them through my behavior and continue explaining why it is okay for them to do the same. Sometimes they know the theory, but old habits can be difficult to break. If they see you doing something, it will sink in more deeply, and they will remember these lessons.
Do you have any tips for teachers looking to integrate sustainability into their lessons?
Through developing themes like “Sharing the Planet,” my colleagues and I work hard to illustrate how these crucial issues span all subjects. I see more and more students looking to find solutions for themselves and use opportunities like service projects to make an impact on the environment around them.
I have seen students initiate cleanups and make educational posters to share the messages they feel are essential to their peers. They have also created labels for our various recycling bins on campus and assist the student body in cultivating better habits. It is really about encouraging any ideas they have and making time and space for these ideas to be implemented. Once they have thought of something, you can help them unpack how it relates to other components of their studies.
It sounds like a big part of your role is helping students understand how their unique skill set could be applied to sustainability initiatives.
Yes. I have also found that having guest speakers who can inspire the students is imperative. For example, we had visitors from a women-run NGO of scientists and sailors traveling around the globe collecting samples from the oceans and providing evidence of how this plastic affects us.
Bringing people in always serves as an inspiration and gives students ideas for ways they can use their interests and passions to build sustainable practices and help protect the planet.
There are so many ways to get involved. The opportunities are endless. Do you have any final words of advice regarding integrating sustainability?
I think that part of true sustainability integration is being honest with students about the fact that it is not always easy and convenient. It can be tough. We must tell students that and inspire them to believe it is worth it despite the struggle.
I tell students about my personal experience. I tell them my own story, including how difficult it is and how I sometimes get tired or discouraged. I remind them, as I remind myself, though, that I do it for future generations, my children, and our collective future. I tell them that my conscience will be clean when I leave this world. And I think these messages do resonate, even if it remains passive for now.
I also explain that they do not have to be perfect and that it is okay to make exceptions. I tell my students, for example, that I am vegetarian, but sometimes you need to be flexible. While traveling in Borneo, our host family killed one of their chickens to share with us. At his moment, it was teachable to show my students that I wanted to accept this gesture of generosity and that I would eat the chicken.
I try to teach them that it is all about finding balance so they can continue making a viable and long-term effort toward sustainability.
A huge thank you to Francisca for sharing her inspiring approach to integrating sustainability! You can learn more about our own commitment to sustainability here or get in touch to see how we can help you bring this critical topic into your classroom through student challenges and responsible school travel.