Go green in your class

How to ‘go green’ in your classes with the SDGs

So far in this series, we’ve examined the connection between English teaching and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how projects can be leveraged to let learners explore the SDGs for themselves.

In this post, we focus on the SDGs that concern the climate and biodiversity crises, such as SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy), SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production), SDG 14 (Life below water) and, of course, SDG 13 (Climate action).

We ask: How can we address environmental SDGs and make our classes greener?

To answer this question, we need to first recognize some teachers’ understandable objections to presenting learners with subjects such as global heating and biodiversity collapse.

“It’s terrifying! I don’t want to aggravate their eco-anxiety.”

“My learners don’t want to discuss heavy, boring issues. They want a bit of fun in their last lesson of the day.”

“I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything about climate change.”

“It’s not relevant where we live.”

“It’s not my job. I’m an English teacher, not an ecologist.”

“My goal is to get learners speaking English. What do they have to say about climate change?”*

Stop reading for a minute to identify which of these concerns you share. Take another minute to think what you would say to a teacher who expressed any that you don’t agree with.

To answer these doubts, below are some of the guiding principles for creating lessons that concern environmental sustainability. As you read on, refer back to the common complaints to see which are being answered by each principle. Throughout the list you’ll see links to websites that illustrate these principles in action. At the end of the post, you’ll find links to another project from the Voices program that does the same.


  • Teach hope

There’s no point telling learners there’s nothing we can do. Yes, the situation is incredibly serious, but by focusing on positive solutions, especially on things the learners can do themselves, we point to the hope in the situation and suggest ways that learners can become climate changemakers themselves. Eric Liu said that “To be optimistic is to assume things will work out. To be hopeful is to realize things can work out if you work at them. Hope requires responsibility and agency; optimism relieves us of both.

So teach neither optimism nor pessimism; teach hope.

  • Private action and public action

Environmental action happens on multiple levels, from the personal, such as cycling instead of driving to work, to the communal and public, like raising awareness, protesting, and calling out greenwashing. Reversing global heating will require major changes in society, so restricting lesson outcomes to individual action alone is likely to create a sense of powerlessness and anxiety. Explore the range of levels of action with your learners and don’t be afraid to give them a voice in their community.

  • Let the learners speak

Be careful not to slip into ‘lecture mode’ and explain it all to your students. As with all effective communicative lessons, we must avoid this by providing learners with plenty to say and the space to do so. In this lesson on getting around town, role-play and discussions are the biggest, most important stages, where the learners express differing viewpoints to reach a solution.

  • Go ‘glocal’ and personalize

The climate emergency is a global problem, but melting glaciers in faraway lands won’t have the same emotional impact as, say, an article on how athletes of sports the learners play are suffering from heatstroke. Making connections between these big issues and the students’ lives, for example, by exploring the consequences of our behavior as consumers, focus on the ways climate breakdown is impacting the learners’ local area, or how their local area impacts on it. Think global, act local.

  • Teach English!

Never forget the need to teach language in all of this. Make sure students come out of classes not just a little smarter, but a little more able to communicate their smarts in English.

  • Integrate

‘The Environment’ shouldn’t be boxed into one unit in a course book; it’s related to all aspects of life, work, and leisure. Give every lesson a sustainability ‘twist’ : an extra question to discuss after a reading, for example, or a news slot where the learners take turns to present some environmental news they find interesting.

  • Don’t be afraid to tackle complex issues

The most productive and engaging lessons are often those where both teacher and learners are on a journey of discovery together. Understanding concepts such as deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions are fundamental to our understanding of the issues we face, and our classes can be an ideal space to explore them through research, discussion, and action.

In the project below, one of twelve that accompany the Voices course, the class designs a social media campaign to raise awareness of environmental degradation.

*These quotes have been created/invented to reflect the common reasons given for avoiding environmental issues in the classroom.

Illustration from Voices Project

Author: Daniel Barber

Daniel Barber is a teacher, trainer and writer based in Cádiz, Spain. He’s taught classes of all types and ages over more than twenty years as well as tutoring and directing Trinity TESOL courses and managing his own school. He is an author for National Geographic Learning’s secondary series Perspectives , Look, a series for young learners of English and, most recently, Voices. His interests include motivation in learning, coaching approaches to teaching English and the science of learning and the brain.

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