I don’t remember the year I heard about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—whether it was 2017 or 2018. I do remember that I was hanging out somewhere at an educational technology conference after a day of sessions, listening to a colleague excitedly explain the progress her students had made in an on-going class project. I recall being impressed at the awareness of her high school students toward environmental justice, then being blown away by the optimism, vastness, and limited time frame we had to accomplish these SDGs as she explained her inspiration for the facilitated projects.

My next thoughts were a bit more negative: Once again, another thing to add on my teacher plate. Nevertheless, the excitement of positive change and student agency that can grow through the exposure of these goals drove me to jump head in. 

In 2015, the United States and other United Nations Member States adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030” (https://sdgs.un.org). These goals, led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), seek to help countries that suffer the most poverty, hunger, and discrimination against women and girls with their pledge to “Leave No One Behind” (https://sdgs.un.org).

Photo Credit: UN SDG Communications Materials

“I would like to think of these goals as practices 

to be adopted as lifelong habits.”

Achieving these goals start with all of us—educators around the world. With a 15-year plan, we could, technically, have students be exposed to and experience working on projects that support the SDGs through every stage of their academic career, starting at the kindergarten level. Furthermore, I would like to think of these goals as practices to be adopted as lifelong habits, if possible. With our plates filled as they are with assigned curricula and necessary benchmarks, perhaps the thought of another thing to include into the daily routine is daunting. However, inclusion of these goals could be possible without too much extra effort when we are strategic with planning and instructional shifts.

Moreover, changing our educator mentality from social media as a space outside of the classroom, it would make sense to integrate our students’ interests with global movements that we can teach within our walls. With our world becoming more connected with the ubiquity of smartphones, Internet, and WiFi connection, the impact our students could make with a tweet, a hashtag, a photo, or a video can easily create a movement. The trick is getting their buy-in through understanding the why, planning for the when, and knowing the how. Without reinventing the wheel, we can follow another educator’s steps or be adventurous with testing our own ideas after reading about others’ experiences.

As a middle school French and STEM Project-Based Learning teacher, I organized student learning and exploration into units. My students were used to diving into various concepts while learning language and culture in the French class or working on projects that helped them apply various scientific concepts in the STEM PBL class. For my French students, after watching a video with students eating in the cafeteria, not only did they observe other middle school students’ eating habits from a different country, they were shocked by the use of reusable trays, plates, silverware, and glassware.

Discussing the cultural differences with respect to food, we segued into the environmental impact of disposable trays and plasticware used on our campus of almost 900 students. This discussion tied in nicely with the STEM students’ observation of waste and concepts of upcycling. For a whole week, each student collected data for the waste that they generated. In class, they entered their data into a Google Form that asked about their trash gathered throughout the past 24 hours. The item counts were separated into four categories: food packaging, product packaging, food waste, and other. The French students paid attention during lunch time to estimate the number of disposable trays and plasticware their peers used on campus, while practicing big numbers and unit vocabulary. The results surprised many of the students as they had never thought of the combined impact they had or the amount of trash the school created as a whole in one day—which they felt to be exponentially growing over the span of a week.

“The options are endless when it comes to efforts toward a reduction of waste.

The importance, however, is getting our student buy-in and involvment

where they are the ones making changes and differences.”

While the concept of a zero waste lifestyle à la Lauren Singer (TEDxTalk) was difficult for the middle schoolers to accept (many claimed “fake news” upon the first view of the video), as the week progressed they witnessed the amount of trash they were generating that could potentially be eliminated if they made alternative choices. In a final reflection after the unit, a few students decided to make changes in their daily habits. For example, one student made sure I noticed his use of a reusable bottle instead of purchasing a plastic bottle every day at lunch. Another decided to take a set of plasticware or a disposable tray only if she needed it.

​In retrospect, there were many missed opportunities where the lessons and activities could have had a bigger impact. I could have had students take pictures of the piles of lunch trash and create a hashtag to possibly start a comparison with other middle schools across the United States. Or I could have provided an opportunity for students to research common hashtags on social media, find actionable items that are feasible in their living situation, and contribute to that hashtag with their efforts. The options are endless when it comes to efforts toward a reduction of waste. The importance, however, is getting our student buy-in and involvement in a situation where they are the ones making changes and a difference.

A kindergarten teacher at heart, I never forget the delight, optimism, and happiness that these future leaders can achieve. Reflecting on my experience with the middle schoolers, I wonder how I could embed the concepts of SDGs in a young learners’ classroom in an age appropriate manner. Thinking of goals three, four, and five—good health and well-being, quality education, and gender equality, respectively—I turn to a wide selection of read alouds and classroom culture development that can include these topics.

With the pandemic, everyone is hyper-aware of sanitation, hand washing, and healthy habits. I am reminded of various hand washing songs such as The Singing Walrus’s Wash Your Hands, Jack Hartman’s Wash My Hands rap, Preschool Popstars’ Wash Your Hands, and Music with Sara’s Lavarse las manos in Spanish. In learning about our school community, we could look at schools around the world and notice who has the opportunities to go to school and how the students get to school. It may not be evident right away, but our young learners are more observant than they let on. They may start asking questions that we could answer in connection with the SDGs.

Expanding our school community to community helpers, we could ensure that there is equal representation of male and female role models in all professions. I would particularly reach out to the school and parent community to find adults who may not have the typical career for their gender. In my community unit, where we finished with planning a city after learning about people and things that make up a community, I was amazed by the thoughtfulness to include artist ateliers, dog parks, various types of living environments, and multiple modes of transportation. Our young learners are impressionable, with equality, fairness, and justice as their guides. We could celebrate their privileges, while encouraging them to be the activists and change-makers they can be to have a brighter, more sustainable future.

In any case, the incorporation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will hopefully become an integral part of every student’s educational journey in the coming months. As a reference for getting started, Božica Borbaš came up with 10 easy lessons to introduce them to students while TeachSDGs.org has projects that connect teachers around the world and lessons that can be used.

​Here’s to happy exploration toward a better tomorrow for all of us. 

Integrating the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in our lessons and activities




Valerie Sun, Ed.D. is a multilingual, progressive, techy, dual-immersion educator since 2005 in private and public schools across elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education. As a life-long learner, when she is not working, she is providing professional development at EmpowerED Consulting, traveling, reading, cooking, dancing, hiking, or sleeping.