Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

How We Learn: Tackling Global Issues in Early Childhood Classrooms

August 9, 2022

Renee Richardson SDG how we learn ed

WHO: The 150 pre-K and kindergarten students of Althea Gibson Academy in East Orange, New Jersey, led by Principal Dr. Renee Richardson (NJ '08)

WHAT THEY'RE DOING: A yearlong exploration of "Life on Land," the 15th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) from the United Nations (scroll down to watch a video showcasing students' work during the 2021-22 school year). The 17 SDGs are the fundamental building blocks of the U.N.'s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015.

WHY: Renee had immersed herself in SDGs during her doctoral work and wrote her dissertation on the impact of secondary education in achieving SDGs in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2019, before taking the helm at Althea Gibson, Renee started a specialized middle school program structured around problem-oriented learning, where students worked together to propose solutions to global issues like clean water, sanitation, eliminating poverty and fostering world peace. "If we achieve the SDGs, the world will be a better place," Renee says. "Life on Land" was a tangible concept for Althea Gibson's young learners, who were already familiar with recycling and other ways to protect the environment.

HOW: Some teachers expressed concerns that the yearlong "Life on Land" project Renee had outlined was too difficult and complex for three-, four- and five-year-olds, so the principal began with professional development. To prepare teachers for the instructional shift, Renee started the planning process the previous spring, creating a professional development plan that focused on providing developmentally appropriate rigor across all content areas through problem-oriented learning and the United Nations SDGs, with emphasis on SDG 15. To increase staff buy-in, Renee collaborated with her instructional coach, a pre-K teacher and a kindergarten teacher to create an SDG handbook for the school, which provided examples and resources related to "Life on Land" and showed the alignment between New Jersey's Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards and Student Learning Standards, as well as district and state mandated pre-K curriculum.

To ensure transparency and clear communication, Renee made sure the SDG handbook also included timelines and rubrics for deliverables. Teachers had opportunities to work as an entire group, within their grade levels and as teaching teams to brainstorm, develop, refine and implement strategies to support learners. If teachers raised questions about students' ability to meet Renee's expectations, she pulled up videos on YouTube showing similar projects from students in other countries. "You can’t place limitations on what kids can do," says Renee. "The expectation is whatever you set. Kids will rise, but they have to have the proper support."

The entire process, from introduction to final presentation, was student-driven, a non-negotiable for Renee. Teachers started with an introduction of SDGs, talking about what "Life on Land" meant. The theme permeated every content area and all aspects of the school community throughout the year. By mid-fall, each class had chosen a theme: recycling, preserving green space, protecting endangered species, etc. By the December holiday break, classrooms had identified their goals, objectives and possible outcomes. Then, starting in January, smaller groups started brainstorming about their proposed solutions and designing prototypes of devices to capture runoff, campaigns to discourage poachers and more. The process stressed cooperation and collaboration and culminated in a daylong celebration where students presented their work to families and community members, including district officials and East Orange's mayor.

WHAT HAPPENED: "All of the kids were super excited—you could feel the energy coming from the teachers and students," says Renee. Working collaboratively meant that all students were immersed and well-versed in every aspect of their presentations. One child seamlessly stepped in to present her group's work when the student who was supposed to deliver their presentation got sick.

It was clear that the concepts were sticking. "The kids were really in tune with what was happening and taking ownership," says kindergarten teacher Rosalyn Stewart, whose class focused on soil. "We talked about how soil degradation and erosion affects farms here and in other countries. When we would go for a walk, students pointed out every bare spot on the land." Parents, too, reported that their kids were constantly talking about what they were doing in class. "One dad told me that every night he and his daughter talked about how we're destroying the planet, with complex vocabulary and support for her positions," notes Renee. Many families used dinnertime as an opportunity to learn together and look things up as they talked about the class projects.

WHAT'S NEXT: The school is re-upping the "Life on Land" project for the coming school year. The rising kindergarten students who first experienced SDGs in pre-K will have another opportunity to work on preserving, protecting and communicating the message of sustainability to their local and global community. Pre-K3 and pre-K4 students will build their advocacy skills while learning about the world around them and their place in it. 

"The success of this yearlong exploration would not be possible without our dedicated teachers and support staff," notes Renee. Teachers are already making plans for the second round: "I have lots of ideas for how to do it better next year, incorporating things I learned along the way," says Rosalyn Stewart. Renee sees tremendous long-term benefits to problem-based learning and standards-based teaching for all involved. "Learning this way is setting these kids up to learn to think critically about issues that affect all of us," she says. "They're learning that they have a voice and can do big things even though they’re small." 

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