By Paris Gramann and Julie Knutson
Originally posted by the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators
It’s April 7, 2021 — just after spring break — and, because of COVID-19 precautions, our students zoom into our virtual classroom from kitchen tables and bean-bag chairs. The dynamic duo of Ziya and Izzy takes to the screen in a well-choreographed Google Classroom presentation titled, “The ABCs of the SDGs.” As they wrap up their overview of the United Nations’ (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they linger on a screen titled, “How You Can Help!”
Here’s what they had to say:
They have already been doing their part to spread awareness about the SDGs by telling their own friends and peers. Our students have spread the word not just about the Global Goals, but have also profiled the Goals’ urgency, calling attention to the different ways that people in their community experience the goals and how they act to bring them to reality.
We co-teach a 6th grade course at Springside Chestnut Hill (SCH) Academy in Philadelphia, PA. Nested within the school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, the focus of our trimester-long class is on social impact. We aim to get students to think about the broader implications of their decisions as both consumers and makers, and to think of themselves as agents who can design solutions to social, environmental, and economic problems.
Our course is framed around the UN’s SDGs, 17 goals for “people and the planet,” which range from “No Poverty” (SDG 1) to “Gender Equality” (SDG 5) to “Sustainable Cities and Communities” (SDG 11). For kids, tweens, teens, and adults, these problems can seem massive and incomprehensible. That’s where this project comes in: by focusing on local contexts, students come to see that people in their everyday lives — parents and grandparents, older students and neighbors — are both impacted by the goals and often work to create positive change through their careers and civic engagement. We strive to show students that even if someone doesn’t know about the SDGs, they might be working to enact them already. Their community members might be “SDG Heroes,” even if that heroism manifests “quietly.”
By tapping into their local contexts, our students have variously profiled community members like beekeepers and muralists. We have even found that some of our class’s community members work in such fields as vaccine development, antiracism activism, LGBTQ(AI+) housing rights, animal rescue, and teen social entrepreneurship. Sometimes, the students’ profiles center on a community member’s experience of the SDGs (e.g., the impact of water pollution on fish populations in Wissahickon Creek). Other times, students find depth in exploring “why” an action is imperative to the community’s overall well-being. The profiles also might focus on how the interviewee is working to make change in a target area, like “Good Health and Wellbeing.”
Overall, as new teachers to Social Impact in 6th grade, we have both been excited to see the curiosity our students have shown when venturing into their communities, understanding GLOBAL sized goals, and helping one another find footing in the exploration of these sometimes overwhelming issues.
Through class discussion and project work, the students are seeing how all of the goals are interwoven. It doesn’t matter where you start in your social impact, the best thing you can do is just start!
Read on to learn more about the process that underpins the course.
At the outset of the course, we pose a series of questions to students:
What is social impact?
What is microlending?
What are the SDGs/Global Goals?
While we as teachers provide a holistic overview of these topics, the students quickly embark on a research project of their own. Each is assigned a different SDG, which they research and present to the class. Each student also reflects on which SDG is most important to them at this juncture in their lives, and how they might act on it day to day.
Next up: we introduce the interview project. To make the project concrete, we invite virtual guests to the class to talk about their work— most recently, a researcher on educational inequity and a duo who works to address teen mental health. Each teacher interviews a guest, modeling how to develop and ask questions around the SDGs. Students assess the teacher-led interviews and then identify someone in their own lives who they’d like to profile.
After that, they draft interview questions and set a time to speak with their interviewee.
Before the students have their conversation, they brainstorm protocols for making the experience a positive and comfortable one for them and for their subject. Students have developed the following tips and tricks for the process:
Be prepared to introduce the SDGs if the person they are interviewing isn’t aware of them.
Ask for permission to record and permission to share this person’s story.
Honor the person’s privacy and level of comfort with being public about their statements (e.g., make sure you have permission to use their name and any affiliations).
Ask “thick” (“Why and How”) questions — as opposed to “thin” (“Yes or No”) questions. With your questions, try to get people talking about motivations, challenges, etc.
Review key take-aways to ensure that you have an accurate understanding of the person’s story.
As the course has evolved, so too has the approach to student products. Initially, each student made their own digital book that recapped the full narrative of their profiled person. In its current iteration, students work in Canva, locating a graphically-appealing template out of which they can craft a one-page narrative. Next, the raw material from the interview is finessed and transferred into a comprehensive one-page story that highlights how their interviewee interacts with the SDGs.
The final step is compiling all student work into an anthology. We as teachers combine each of the students’ one-pagers into a single PDF e-book. This “product” amounts to a collective biography showcasing the strength, range, knowledge, and experience of our students’ communities. The PDF anthology is available for sale through the CEL website, with all proceeds funding Kiva microloans (this practice was initiated by former SCH teacher-librarian Rene deBernedis, who introduced 5th and 6th graders to global microfinance!).
With their profit from the class e-book sales, our last trimester’s students chose to fund projects in Cambodia, Guatemala, Kenya, Nicaragua, Tonga, and the U.S. In the process, students continue to reflect on what SDGs are being addressed through the lending process.
With this course, our students have learned to see the SDGs as real issues — experienced in various ways by the people all around us — everyday. It’s an opportunity to get students to break down school walls, initiate conversations with family and friends, and educate the broader community about the local, as well as global, impacts of the SDGs.
Interested in launching an SDG Heroes project with your students? Visit our course website — or contact Paris Gramann and Julie Knutson — for more information.