FLETCHER – Fletcher Elementary School (FES) third grader Will Mauck says he wants to protect life under water.

“I care about the fish,” he said. “We need the fish to survive because some people eat fish, and we need the water.”

To his left stood fellow third-grader Josie Riggo, who told the Messenger she doesn’t “want anybody to be hungry… [or] not have enough food to feed their family.”

The two students, though young, were referring to two of a loftier set of goals established by the United Nations (UN) called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a grid of generalized ideas promoting everything from a cleaner environment to combatting poverty and systemic hunger.

Recently, the Franklin West Supervisory Union (FWSU), of which FES is a part, began tying the ideas promoted by the SDG into lessons at every level of their student body with the hope that, according to FWSU superintendent Ned Kirsch, students can add meaning to their classwork and develop as critical thinkers.

“As I looked into them, I thought about our schools and what we do, and the internal question is ‘why are we learning this?’” Kirsch said. “[The SDG] give us a really big ‘why’ to what we’re doing in our schools as we try to make education relevant.”

The SDG were developed by the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) to identify global challenges – namely those propagating poverty – and provide a framework for addressing those challenges by establishing certain development and policy goals.

Some of the SDG are geared more toward environmentalism, such as those asking for preservation of “life below water,” “life on land” or climate action. Others might be more oriented toward equity, such as those asking for gender equality and more inclusive political institutions.

The list’s top row is led by token development goals like “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” and “good health and well-being.” It was these goals that Kirsch would point to when asking, rhetorically, “who wouldn’t want these where they live?”

The individual SDG themselves are further divided into more tangible goals, some of which might be more localized than others. “Zero hunger,” for example, asks that communities preserve small scale, family farms, while also asking that national trade barriers related to the movement of food over borders be lowered.

At their most basic level, however, the SDG are just vague enough to where educators and advocates can easily connect the SDG to localized lessons and initiatives. In schools, “zero hunger” might instead translate to a class visit to a farm or orchards rather than a discussion of the food trade, or it might lead to a schoolwide food drive for a local food pantry.

FWSU can also anchor those ideas to Franklin County, something noted by both Kirsch and FES principal Chris Dodge. “Zero hunger” was reportedly salient among early elementary students at FES who, Dodge said, didn’t know before discussing the SDG in class that some of their classmates might not have access to three meals a day.

“We certainly have students that certainly experience food insecurity,” Dodge said. “We have other students that have absolutely never heard of that before and they didn’t know that there are people not only in our own town but across the globe that don’t have enough food on their table.”

FES fourth grader Ava St. Pierre studies the SDG during her class’s introduction to the development goals. (Courtesy of Chris Dodge, Fletcher Elementary School)

 “Think locally, act globally”

Superintendent Kirsch picked up on the SDGs through social media channels, where an educator he followed took on a role as “SDG ambassador” and began promoting the goals at the education level. Kirsch soon joined that educator, becoming a fellow ambassador before eventually promoting those goals at the supervisory union.

The program is relatively young in FWSU. Aside from a few flirtations with the SDG in the past, this year was the first year to see the whole of the supervisory union explore the development goals and attempt anchoring programs to those goals.

“The first year is really figuring it out,” Kirsch said. “We’re learning as we go.”

Kirsch insists that they’re not replacing class content with the SDG, but that they’re using the SDG to connect classroom topics to goals related to sustainability and social welfare. They function more as an “underpinning,” he said.

It means that a classroom field trip to an area farm might instead be framed according to certain sustainable development goals, rather than simply a discussion of the farm itself, Kirsch explained, citing a trip recently taken by FES third graders where students connected practices like gleaning to SDG concepts like “life on land.”

In that light, it applies a tangible meaning to some of the lessons in the classroom, Kirsch said.

“Why are we studying what we’re studying in science? Well, here’s five reasons why,” Kirsch said. “We want to build sustainable communities. We want to have clean water and sanitation. We want to focus on quality education.”

Those lessons are shared among the whole of the supervisory union, as well, though the conversation might change depending on the grade level.

Dodge, who led FES’s classroom introductions to the SDG, had different introductions prepared for different grade levels. At higher elementary grade levels, he designed a sort of auction where students would bid on certain development goals and have to explain why they prioritized those goals.

“The auction is a mechanism for starting a conversation,” Dodge said. “All of a sudden, that has made meaning for the kids. It’s not abstract anymore.”

Fletcher Elementary School fifth grader Justus Cota prepares a bid for one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) during a class “values auction” meant to introduce the SDG. (Courtesy of Chris Dodge, Fletcher Elementary School)

With younger students, Dodge introduces the more basic goals: “no poverty,” “zero hunger,” “good health and well-being,” “life below water” and “life on land.”

It was during these introductions that Dodge said students made connections to more local food insecurities. He said he was taken aback by how upfront some students were about those connections and about how quickly some came to understand that hunger meant something more systemic than “wanting a snack.”

“We really underestimate our students,” Dodge said.

Elsewhere in the supervisory union, those connections are being formed differently. True to the more globalized nature of the SDG and modern education as a whole, Kirsch said students at Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax have been contacting students at other schools across the world.

In particular, Kirsch cited a virtual exchange with a private school in Kenya, with whom BFA students reportedly discussed agriculture and water quality.

“We both have issues with clean water,” Kirsch said, citing one exchange. “They discussed how they’re addressing it.”

He suspects that every kid in the supervisory union from fifth to 12th grade has participated in a similar virtual school of sorts, where students meet with overseas counterparts over social media applications like Skype.

Kirsch said he hopes students can start localizing those connections to Franklin County, where there are serious questions related to food insecurity, poverty and conservation.

“It’s about making sense out of our world here in Franklin County,” Kirsch said.

“We want them to think locally and act globally,” Dodge agreed, explaining that he’s heard some of their school’s SDG conversations spill out into the wider Fletcher community.

Kirsch said those underpinnings to the SDG are likely to continue into the future, with the supervisory union continuing to explore ways to connect the development goals to their programming.

School staff have taken to the SDG pretty well, Kirsch said, but it was the students who managed to inspire optimism in their superintendent.

“We have rural kids who are reaching out to the rest of the world,” Kirsch said. “We have kids currently in our system who are going to change the world.”

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were created by UNESCO to set guidelines for addressing issues related to poverty and climate change. (en.UNESCO.org)

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