Sustainability as a Vehicle for Language Learning: A Sample Lesson in Persuasive Writing

Kerima Nashat

Cairo American College

 

 

Abstract

The choice of relevant and meaningful content is necessary for the successful teaching and learning of language and concepts. Education for sustainability encompasses current economic, social, and environmental issues that have a direct effect on the lives of future generations. This subject is of extreme importance and can easily be used to teach language, while exploring pressing issues that directly affect all students’ lives and futures. This paper gives an example of how a simple authentic opportunity related to sustainability was used to teach persuasive writing and components of the six traits in an intermediate level Middle School ESL class at Cairo American College. It concludes with the benefits of this lesson, some suggestions for improvement, and some goals for future lessons.

 

Keywords: Sustainability- meaningful content- six traits of writing- persuasive writing-writing process

 

 

Sustainability means taking care of our needs today, while protecting the needs of future generations. It involves understanding the dynamics between the environment, society, and the economy as well as the urgent need to solve global issues such as conflict, overpopulation, and poverty. The teaching and learning of this subject to students of all ages is essential for our future, as it is the youth of today that will soon be making the decisions of tomorrow and are therefore the true vehicles of change on this planet.

As an ESL teacher, teaching middle school students at Cairo American College, I view education for sustainability as the perfect medium for teaching both content and language concepts. Evidence (Krashen, 2009), shows that language should be taught through comprehensible and meaningful content, as the choice of relevant material maximizes learning. Introducing the subject of sustainability and global issues in the ESL class is meaningful and authentic and is therefore an excellent medium for language learning.

Cairo American College has education for sustainability as one of its major goals.  Apart from weaving this subject into the curriculum, there are the many activities such as Community Service, the Peace Program and Model United Nations, that are all part of education for sustainability. The Green Team, which is composed of a number of volunteer high school students and teachers, is another extracurricular activity working towards this goal through various endeavors on campus such as paper recycling, refilling printer cartridges, and the introduction of water osmosis fountains all over the campus.

Since the production and distribution of bottled water wastes resources and since the bottles cause a recycling problem, the Green Team at CAC has also been promoting the use of reusable water bottles, which are on sale at the school store. Most of the elementary and middle school students are well aware of the negative effects of water bottles on the environment and have stopped buying bottled water and are drinking from the filtered water osmosis fountains. However, many of the high school students have returned to buying bottled water. The high school students on the Green Team explained that this is probably due to a number of factors such as many students’ distrust in the quality of the water at the water osmosis fountains, the inconvenience of carrying a reusable bottle, and also because of peer pressure, as owning a reusable water bottle might not fit with the “cool” image many high school students wish to portray.

The fact that most high school students still continue to buy bottled water, despite the efforts made to teach and model sustainable solutions for the environment, suggests that there is still a lack of awareness of the responsibility that each individual carries towards a sustainable future. Since explicit teaching of the detrimental effects of bottled water on the environment has not had a lasting effect on many of the students, the Green Team and the school administration were considering taxing the bottled water sold on campus with the aim of reducing sales, particularly in high school.

When the issue of taxing bottled water was being discussed, my intermediate middle school ESL class had just finished reading a short biography of Nellie Bly, a female pioneer in journalism, and had learned the meaning of editorials. This was a serendipitous event, as I needed to teach the genre of persuasive writing, give the students more practice with the writing process, and introduce some writing traits (Six Traits of Writing; Northern Nevada Writing Project, 2001). It suddenly dawned on me that I could do all this and give the students an authentic writing task that would create an awareness of the detrimental environmental effects of the consumption of bottled water. So using the RAFT strategy (Santa & Havens, 1995) I assigned the following writing task to my students:

 

Role : CAC student

Audience: the Green Team and members of the administration

Format: an editorial

Topic: Do you agree with the idea of taxing bottled water on campus?

 

The first step was to work with the students on background knowledge. Using talk as a bridge to writing is a very effective way to brainstorm ideas and to prepare the students for writing (Gibbons, 2006, pp. 43-53). We did this through a discussion of the pros and cons of introducing the tax and by watching a short film entitled “The story of Bottled Water” by Annie Leonard. In order to scaffold learning through this fast- paced film, the students watched it twice. The first time it was played straight through in order to get the main idea. The students contributed their opinions enthusiastically when we watched the film for the second time and stopped for discussion and clarification. They also took notes throughout this process, using a plus/minus graphic organizer. On the “plus” side of the paper, students wrote down all the reasons why taxing bottled water would be good. On the “minus” side of the paper, they wrote down reasons why taxing bottled water would not be a good idea. Developing background knowledge through the discussion and film allowed them to make an unbiased decision about the efficacy of taxing bottled water at school. It also allowed for authentic listening and speaking practice.

The next step required introducing the genre of persuasive writing, which was done through a variety of exercises taken from the SRA High Performance Writing  (Dodds, T. 2005) to show the organization and register of this genre as well as the need to include logical reasons and support to back an opinion. Students also learned to distinguish different types of support, such as expert opinion, numbers or statistics, experience, and the difference between true and false facts.

The students were then ready for the pre-writing and first draft stages, which were both done with peer and teacher guidance, role modeling, and the use of graphic organizers. This process took more time than expected as some of the students showed they could immediately apply the strategies taught in their writing while others needed more guidance and practice before being able to do so. This meant additional time spent in peer review, and in rewriting outlines and revising first drafts. However, they never lost their enthusiasm and motivation throughout this process.

At the beginning of this activity, the students were made to understand that they could write either for or against the tax and were being evaluated on their organization and the strength of their ideas.  They were urged to write sincerely and were encouraged to speak their minds. One student wrote against the tax on bottled water, but he made it clear that his objection was based on what he considered to be the futility of this endeavor and the inconvenience it presented to the students rather than his own point of view, which was that bottled water was an unnecessary burden on the environment. The rest of the students were for the tax as they thought it would really stop students from buying bottled water and would help the environment as well as encouraging the students to save their money.

After working on their ideas and organization, the students spent more time on two of the other conventions of writing: sentence fluency and word choice (Six Traits of Writing; Northern Nevada Writing Project, 2001). The students projected their work on a document camera and took turns giving and receiving advice and suggestions. For sentence fluency, they expanded their sentences, added transitions, and made sure that their sentences were not all similar in structure. For word choice, they searched for repetitions and replaced them with synonyms; they linked pronouns to antecedents, and replaced vague words with stronger more precise alternatives. This was done with peer and teacher support and guidance in an atmosphere of collegiality. When the papers were finished, the one student who had written against the tax did not want to present his writing to the administration for fear of giving the wrong impression. I tried to explain that his ideas were all valid and that they would help the administration in making an informed decision. I did not manage to change his mind, so we reached a compromise that we would present the papers as the work of the Intermediate ESL class without adding the individual names to each paper. While I thought this might detract from the value of their work, I felt that it was important to stick to our agreement in order to keep the trust of the student, as establishing trust is a necessary foundation for any learning environment (Given, 2002).

I do not know if the Green Team and the administration will truly be swayed by these editorials, but I do know that writing them has made a big difference to the class. Apart from a feeling of true accomplishment, the students have shown that they mastered the required language goals for this unit and have discovered an interest in sustainability that will hopefully grow with time. I intend to continue teaching English through education for sustainability by using many more lessons and activities as well as a hands-on project based on materials from different resources.

As I planned this teaching activity, I neglected to include structured group work and did not set clear expectations for cooperative learning. This would normally have been a drawback as before the beginning of this unit, the students had difficulty working together respectfully and cooperatively. However, by the end of the unit there appeared to be a strong bond and trust between the students. They listened and respected each other’s ideas and worked towards helping rather than competing with each other. I do not know if this positive behavior will continue, or how this occurred, but can only assume that working together, on an authentic task and a topic that is directly related to their lives, has had this effect (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 2005).

If I were to repeat this activity, there are certain changes that I would make. First, I would definitely include explicit instructions for group and pair work, instead of leaving it to chance (“Using Small Group Work”, 2006, pp. 54-58). I would also have the ESL students expand their writing by including suggestions for other non-punitive methods to encourage high school students to stop buying bottled water. This would best be done by having the ESL students conduct a survey of the high school students to find out why the majority would not drink from the water osmosis fountains. The results would have provided a good basis for suggesting alternatives as well as an authentic opportunity for the ESL students to practice speaking and listening.

While this activity was, on the whole, successful, it had some limitations. The first limitation is that the peer editing and revising was time consuming and would have had to be adjusted for larger classes. Also, while the students showed a good understanding of the main teaching points, the activity did not include any form of summative evaluation. In order to make ensure true learning, the students still needed to show that they could apply the concepts taught in different contexts. Finally, while the topic of the detrimental effects of bottled water was a convenient introduction to the topic of education for sustainability, it is truly just the tip of the iceberg. It has worked, however, as an important first step before introducing other even more pressing environmental, social, and economic issues to capture students’ interest and to serve as meaningful content for language skills practice and development.

 

 

 References

 

Dodds, T. (2005). SRA High-performance writing a structured approach: persuasive 
            writing
. Columbus, OH: McGraw Hill.

 

Given, B. K. (2002). Teaching to the brain’s natural learning systems. Alexandria,VA: 
            ASCD.

Krashen, S. (2009). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. The input 
            hypothesis
. Retrieved from http: 
            http://www.sdkrashen.com/Principles_and_Practice/index.html

 

Leonard, A. (2010). The story of bottled water, The story of stuff project. Film retrieved 
            from http: http://storyofstuff.org/bottledwater/

 

Nothern Nevada Writing Project. (2001).  Writingfix, Six traits materials. Retrieved from 
            http: http://writingfix.com/traits.htm

 

Santa, C., & Havens, L. (1995). Creating independence through student-ownedStrategies: 
            Project CRISS. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.

 

The State of South Australia, Department of Education and Children’s Services. (2006). 
            Teaching ESL students in mainstream classrooms: Language in learning across the 
            Curriculum. Hindmarsh South Australia, Australia: “Using small group work”

 

The State of South Australia, Department of Education and Children’s Services. (2006). 
            Teaching ESL students in mainstream classrooms: Language in learning across the 
            Curriculum. Hindmarsh South Australia, Australia: Gibbons.

 

Zemelman, Z., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. (2005) Best Practice: Today’s standards for 
            teaching &learning in America’s schools
. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

 

 

Kerima Nashat is an ESL instructor at Cairo American College. She is especially interested in education for sustainable development. She can be reached at knashat@cacegypt.org.