Innovative Ed Mailbag: Sustainably Yours

From the innovativeEd mailbag: Sustainably Yours

This week, something new for us: a letter from our mailbag. While we aim to help everyone on a regular basis, it’s always exciting to hear directly from our readers. In this case, we try to provide a little context-setting for a reader who goes by the handle, “Sustainably Yours”.


“Dear InnovativeEd,

I’ve been teaching about climate change and the natural world for quite some time, but I’m not sure I’m really hitting the mark in terms of truly empowering my learners. We grow a school garden, and we go outside and we think about climate change together, but how can I take it further? (Does this connect with PLPs??) What am I missing? How can I tie it to equity efforts in my school? And how do I ensure I’m doing right by my learners?


Sustainably Yours”


Dear Sustainably Yours,

How fantastic that you’re already engaging your learners in such relevant and meaningful learning! You are asking some great questions here, and to answer them I have a few questions for you!

When I hear you talk about climate change, school gardens, and learning outside, what this means to me is that you’re interested in sustainability.  My first question is the big one: What’s your why? Why do you, as an educator, want to engage your learners in these types of experiences? What types of skills, attitudes, knowledge, and understanding are you hoping to cultivate through this work? What are your hopes for this learning?

For me, the why is about nurturing the development of citizens who are engaged in creating democratic and sustainable communities. And I believe that through

  • rooting students to the natural and human communities that they are part of,
  • developing their capacities as systems thinkers, and
  • helping them develop agency through engaging in meaningful learning that makes a difference in our community, here and now (not in some distant, “grown up” future)

through experiences like these.  We are well on our way!

This approach is known as Education for Sustainability (EFS) (or Education for Sustainable Development internationally) which is “learning that links knowledge, inquiry, and action to help students build a healthy future for their communities and the planet.”

And EFS addresses your question about dismantling inequity as well. Because ‘sustainability’ lies at the intersection of social, environmental, and economic justice, a sustainable approach, by definition, must disrupt inequity. In other words, a ‘sustainability’ perspective must consider social equity, economic vitality, and ecological integrity.

So what do school gardens and climate change have to do with equity?
Lots, it turns out.

First of all, school gardens can help learners understand food systems and equity of access or even serve as a metaphor for equity versus equality.  And using an equity frame to explore climate change can provide powerful insight on fairness and responsibility. In any context, using the ‘lens of sustainability’ will help you explore the ecological, economic, and social considerations at play in each of these issues.

Now, I noticed you asked specifically about addressing equity in schooling, and how you might truly empower your learners. So I’m wondering what kind of role your students have in designing the learning? How do you — or might you — involve students in co-planning meaningful learning experiences rooted in place?

Negotiated curriculum is an approach through which teachers partner with students to explore their questions about themselves and the world, and use those questions to design curriculum. Check out these Climate Resilience Case Studies for examples of what this looks like in practice.

Plus, pairing this approach with the UN’s 17 Goals for Sustainable Development is a great way to empower students to take local action on sustainability issues with a global impact. This positions students to be part of the collective impact of folks all over the planet working toward these shared goals for our future. Students have tackled local hunger, explored the power of partnership for change, and even built sustainable campus. Powerful stuff.

Finally you asked if PLPs are a fit.
I say: always.

As John Dewey says, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And whatever you call them (portfolios, anyone?), documenting learning goals and processes, and reflecting on learning become even more powerful when paired with such impactful and empowering experiences.

In my first few years in the classroom I was trying to engage students in these types of learning experiences. But I kept feeling like I was missing my mark. Now I realize it’s because I wasn’t yet clear exactly on why or how. I also discovered a whole community of educators who shared this endeavor. And now you can too: Shelburne Farms and the University of Vermont are excited to be partnering on summer professional learning courses for educators. Check out our offerings here (Full disclosure: I’m one of the instructors!) I really hope you join us!



What do you think?