by Linda Ruas
images by Franco Fontana


Sustainability in the classroom

Well, I also try to teach them how to think, and feel –show them inspiration, aspiration, cooperation, participation, consolation, innovation… help them think about globalization, exploitation, confrontation, incarceration, discrimination, degradation, subjugation… how inequality brings poverty, how intolerance brings violence, how need is denied by greed, how –isms become prisons, how thinking and feeling can bring about healing. Well I don’t know about that… Maybe you should stick to language, forget about anguish. You can’t change the world. But if I did that, I’d be a cheater, not a teacher.  

Alan Maley



The poem above, from the introduction to Maley & Peachey, 2017, shows how all-encompassing our role as English teachers can be. Of course, we could simply stick to the grammar and teach structures without meaningful content. But there might be better ways of helping our students with their future in this complex, ever-changing world.

Are you worried about what’s going on in the natural world? Desperate to do something about the climate emergency, and for governments, businesses and people to become more sustainable before it’s too late? Or are you vaguely interested, or feel it’s your duty as a teacher to cover the topics related to sustainability in case they come up in the test?

It can be even more difficult with teenage students, who are often resistant to mainstream ideas. They are rightly needing to choose their own passions, rather than being told what to believe and fight for by older teachers. To get started, you could try a one-off lesson about a special day, for example:

  • World Water Day on 22nd March
  • Earth Day on 22nd April
  • World Car-Free Day on 22nd September
  • World Vegetarian Day on 1st October


Resources and tips
The IATEFL Global Issues Special Interest Group website has a lot of free resources. You might enjoy working on something so real and so important. The students might enjoy it too. They might feel empowered to get involved in campaigns or issues and create real change.
Here are some tips to help engage your class with sustainability:

Franco Fontana, Puglia, 1978. © Franco Fontana.

Franco Fontana, Puglia, 1987. © Franco Fontana.

Franco Fontana, Basilicata, 1995. © Franco Fontana.

Start with getting students interested – e.g. What are the Extinction Rebellion protests all about? Why is veganism becoming so popular? What do we mean when we talk about our “carbon footprint”?

Uncover secrets and investigate the truth behind everyday objects. What do your students have in their pockets? Where were their clothes, their phones, their pencils, make-up, trainers or earrings made? What can they discover about the supply chain? What can you find out about the history of chewing gum, the bottle of Coke or the sandwich they had for lunch and its sustainability or environmental impacts?

Set an example for your students – young learners are often inspired by teachers. You could:

  • Run a sponsored race for Greenpeace
  • Do a recycling project in class
  • Persuade the school or college to invest in solar panels
  • Reduce your paper use
  • Wear sustainable fashion
  • Cycle to work

TED talks to inspire you and your students. Have you seen the one about 14-year old William Kamkwamba from Malawi who built a windmill to power his family home? You could play one every lesson as a warmer/conversation starter. You could also use part of one for dictation or get students to write reports on the ideas. Perhaps flip the learning by getting them to watch one before the lesson.

Ask questions and get students to ask questions. You can start with a picture from Climate Visuals and ask about what the guy is doing (harvesting wild honey in Indonesia), how dangerous it is, why he’s doing it, who it benefits, how bees help us, etc. Or get students to write their own questions about the photos, and swap and research answers.

Introduce them to real people they can identify with. Greta Thunberg and her passionate speeches spring to mind (“plan a similar speech about something you’re passionate about”) but might have been overdone already. How about trying to organise a short Zoom chat with one of these African teen climate activists at Greenpeace, or simply read and talk about them?

Name-drop – maybe teenagers will follow the example of their celebrity heroes like Joaquin Phoenix on veganism or the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation funding forest fire-fighting. Or their football heroes like Peter Crouch on climate change, or David Beckham on malaria.

Amaze the students with game-like technology. Try this interactive “Save the Planet” ThingLink with video and multiple scenes.

Bring in personalisation wherever you can. Find out how they feel about cycling, flying, solar panels and wind turbines, mass extinctions and the very last Northern white rhino on earth, and get them to work out their carbon footprint online.

Imagine you’re a forest, a mountain, a coral reef, an ocean or the sky, then play these amazing short videos from Imagine Nature, to find out what nature could really be saying to us.

Localise – find out about local animals or insects that are endangered or need protecting and what your class can do to help; investigate the air miles of food they eat, and how you can all eat more local, seasonal food; green your classroom and your school with recycling bins; re-invent the “nature table”, start a small windowsill garden and collect rainwater to water the plants.

Involve creativity by reading about positive solutions, then plan and discuss inventions for a more sustainable future. Find examples like the Ooho biodegradable water pouches. Or eGlu reverse glue for recycling electronic devices, in the “Designs for the Future” lesson on the New Internationalist Easier English wiki.

Train students to recognise fake news and awaken their criticality by discussing and researching stories on social media or in the news, e.g. Does British grocery store Harrods really sell Arctic ice water for £80?

Yell! – try this “Radical Phonology” practice task, getting students to decide on which sustainability issues they feel passionate about, writing a protest banner, practising the pronunciation, and then chanting it! You could even organise a local climate strike.  

Franco Fontana is one of the most outstanding masters of contemporary photography. He has had more than 400 solo exhibitions and has contributed to magazines such as Time, Life and Vogue. His work, influenced by abstract Expressionism and minimalism, focuses on form and color to explore the world around us. Thus, these images offer us the beauty of nature from a vibrant palette that invites us to enjoy it. www.francofontanaphotographer.com | Instagram @francofontanaphotographer

Linda Ruas teaches ESOL and CELTA and has been working voluntarily with teachers in Africa over the last 3 years. She writes teaching materials, presents at conferences and works on social, environmental and educational projects through her charity, Action Guinea Bissau.

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