Communities as Classrooms

“You can not change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.” – Grace Lee Boggs

Local engagement is at the core of Education for Sustainability. Schools should be the heart of our communities, providing students the platform to interact and work with diverse community stakeholders. This provides fresh perspectives and insights to our students and increases a sense of belonging for everyone involved.  Most importantly, students are capable, contributing members of their communities and we need their voices, passion, point-of-view, and expertise in community endeavors. Everyone benefits from student engagement and contribution.

Thematic lessons and projects can and should address local issues and invite experts and businesses for support. Schooling can encourage stewardship of the natural surroundings and civic engagement through real challenges and successes confronting our community. Here are some ideas on how to make your community your classroom:

Water: Study your watershed. Find a place where the water is above ground and make maps to track where the water flows under the streets. Learn about the source of your water, use a sustainability lens to brainstorm and research local water issues. Invite local experts to engage with your students. Write letters and encourage students to crusade for local “water is life” campaigns. Where I work and live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I love to recommend and use  Save the Bay‘s bank of curriculum and resources.

History: Make sure students know the story of the land that the school and community is built upon. Research the events that have led us to where we are today. Learn about the indigenous people of the region. Try to have a local representative come to discuss current issues related to their communities. Empower students to stand for indigenous sovereignty and justice. Always highlight the people and movements working on these issues. This guide from Indian Country today is a great resource to insure that you engage in best practice when addressing Native people’s history and culture.

Geography: Have students create maps of the neighborhood. Perhaps there is a local issue, like garbage piles, invasive plants, or even stray animals that can be surveyed and mapped. Use the data in Math class. National Geographic has some incredible lesson plans on teaching 21st century skills through cartography.

Interviews: Create ethnographies. Have students interview people in the neighborhood to tell their life stories including culture, hopes, fears, observations, impressions, tragedies and successes. Here is an inspiring article by Ann Pryor on putting culture at the core of curriculum.

Flora and Fauna: Study native plants and animals. Have a local expert take students on a nature walk to identify these plants. For those in North America, here is a great resource from the National Wildlife Federation that helps identify and gives information about species in your region.  And don’t miss Cornell University’s incredible contribution to us all:  the world’s largest natural sound archive of animal noises from all corners of the Earth.

Careers, Current Events and Local Heroes: Have a weekly class where selected parents come in to tell students about their jobs and how they contribute to the community and how students can get involved. Read local news to students, have them identify local issues and bring in community members who are finding solutions to these problems.

Stewardship: As a class, adopt a section of a nearby park, or even part of the school. Have students tend to this area for the entire school year. Pick up garbage, plant native plants, observe the changes of the seasons. Perhaps students want to build a bench or bird feeders to add to this location.

Please contribute your own experiences and ideas on the discussion board below.  This content was adapted from our online teacher training programs. If this subject matter interests you, we have more resources to dig deeper.  Go to to get our free Educator Pack and find out when our next cohort begins for our transformative online course in Educating for Sustainability.  Work with a group of Educators from around the world and two Green School mentors to ground your teaching practice in sustainability and creating a world that works for all.

If you can make it out to Bali, join one of our incredible Green Educator Courses at the Green School campus.  This is a life-changing experience and inspirational professional development for anyone wishing to dig deep into EFS.

Don’t forget to connect to our facebook group and join our lively conversation.

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