Appreciating Earth Day in the English Language Arts Classroom
April 16, 2021
All of the sustainable lifestyle choices that I’ve incorporated into my life stem from the lessons that I learned in school; my teachers shared these lessons with me years ago, before we knew what we know now about environmentalism and sustainable living. The context was not what mattered – what mattered was the compassion, responsibility, and sense of global citizenship engrained in their efforts.
Reducing, reusing, and recycling were habits that were embedded in our daily routines: we had recycling bins in every classroom and practiced up-cycling in art class. We would study weather patterns and life cycles of living organisms in science class, illuminating the delicate and awe-inspiring design of our planet. We would read biographies about Jane Goodal and David Suzuki and admire their efforts in hopes that someday we’d also have the opportunity to make a positive impact on our earth.
But the real MVP might have been that one teacher in high school who was brave enough to teach a class of teenagers about menstrual cups.
Studying our home planet involves more than just a study of geography; this is why we don’t need to limit the celebration of Earth Day to science-based courses. There are so many Earth Day activities for ELA too – here are a few of my favorite activities for Earth Day in the English classroom:
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1. Earth Day Documentaries
A great way to hook your students on environmentalism is to explore one of the many documentaries highlighting climate change and unsustainable consumption habits. National Geographic’s Before the Flood is narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio and examines the environmental impact and ecological changes caused by fossil fuels. Both Kip Anderson’s Cowspiracy and Netflix’s Seaspiracy explore how agricultural farming and overfishing contribute to environmental degradation. Andrew Morgan’s documentary, The True Cost, highlights the moral and environmental dilemmas of the fast fashion industry. All of these documentaries were filmed and produced within the last decade and are sure to strike a chord with your students. It is worth mentioning that claims presented within each documentary have been refuted – some more so than others; fortunately, this invites meaningful discussions about the strengths and limitations of each film. For a persuasive writing extension activity, have students develop an argument in which they support, refute, or qualify the claims presented in one of the documentaries.
2. Earth Day Debate
One of my favorite Earth Day activities for ELA is to host a debate on an environmental issue. There are several Earth Day debate topics you can choose from, including banning single-use plastics or enforcing animal rights. For a more relevant and timely topic, you can also have students examine the relationship between the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic to consider the effect of lockdowns on pollution or deforestation on the spread of disease. I’m a fan of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format; the structure of this debate offers equal opportunity for both opinions and seeks a resolution instead of determining a winning and losing side. Mondays Made Easy offers a resource that outlines the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Format and includes graphic organizers and moderator scripts in order to conduct this style of debate in your English classroom.
3. Environmental Research Essay
A great Earth Day idea for English Language Arts is to have students research a topic independently and write a persuasive research essay. This is the perfect option for AP Language and Composition or senior-level English Language Arts classes (especially those writing the College Board SAT exam) – since students can expect to engage with topics related to environmentalism in post-secondary education and on standardized tests, having them develop an opinion on earth-related topics provides valuable practice. Mondays Made Easy offers a persuasive writing bundle to scaffold the persuasive writing process.
4. Reading Comprehension Passages on Plastic Waste
This free reading comprehension passage and worksheet for middle and high school explores the harmful effects of plastic waste on the environment and our health. Promote environmentally conscious choices while improving literacy with your students using this secondary reading passage. This package features the “Outline Method,” a reading comprehension strategy to help students summarize any text. This reading framework is an acronym that students can use to prompt them to search for relevant information in any text; it also scaffolds what to include in a proper summary paragraph. The provided article, “Why is Plastic Harmful?” is an informational text with provided space to summarize the information using the Outline Method. You can have students complete this as pairs or in small groups if you wish.
5. Inspire with Relevant Role Models
I loved learning about Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees when I was in grade school – like most kids, I was drawn to the idea of working with animals, and the fact that Goodall was a woman really resonated with me. With climate change emerging as possibly the largest concern for our future generations, there is no shortage of activists and philanthropists to inspire our students. Your students have likely heard of Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, who serves as an inspiring role model for young people and neurodivergent students alike – but have they heard of Isra Hirsi, Autumn Peltier, or Bruno Rodriguez? Encourage students to explore the work of other youth eco-activists to ensure that every student feels represented by the role models they come across in class; CNN, Euronews, and Climate Reality Project have all compiled the efforts and achievements of several young climate activists worth noting. Students can develop their speaking and listening skills by delivering a short presentation on the activist that resonates most with them. For practice with inferencing, Mondays Made Easy also offers a nonfiction close reading passage about Greta Thunberg with associated worksheets and activities.
6. Write an Appeal
Conduct an audit of your school by inviting your students on a walk around the campus; encourage them to consider the ways in which their school is supporting sustainability initiatives, as well as the areas that require improvement. For example, students can visit the school cafeteria and consider any waste management systems, as well as the packaging of food products or available meal options. They may also want to consider what types of environmental clubs, events, or initiatives exist within the school community. From here, students can begin to consider improvements that can be made and can use these ideas to write a proposal or appeal to the school principal. Some ideas include starting an environmental club, organizing a local clean-up, or developing a partnership with a nonprofit third party like Habitat for Humanity.
7. Teach Younger Students
Let your students become the experts and encourage them to share their knowledge within the school community. This Earth Day idea for high school students is especially beneficial for your English Language Learners, who will receive the opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills in a low-risk environment. If you teach in a K-12 school, reach out to a lower school teacher to see if they’d like to have some guest speakers in their classroom; if not, there are opportunities to collaborate virtually or by arranging a field trip. Your students’ Earth Day lessons could involve reading a story they’ve written or illustrated about the environment, or even a trivia game about local recycling guidelines that they’ve created themselves.
8. Model Sustainable Choices
When I lived in Asia, I was determined to live waste-free; in order to do so, I purchased a lot of products with a premium price tag. I shared this journey with my students because I wanted them to keep me accountable, and I wanted to show them that this type of lifestyle is possible. I quickly realized that this was the wrong way to model sustainable lifestyle choices to my students: a few of them came back to me a few days later to share that there was no way their allowance could cover the cost of Lush hair products, or that they weren’t the ones making the choices in their home. This goes for every suggestion within this article: your students’ cultural and economic situations deserve consideration – especially when it comes to food choices or material goods. With that said, there is nothing stopping you from making sustainable swaps that fit within your budget. By integrating these into your classroom in a seamless way, you can avoid attaching any judgment or opinions to the use or consumption of other products and food groups. Here are a few of my favorite sustainable resources for the classroom:
Swedish dishcloths: These reusable alternatives to disposable dishtowels are great for just about everything – I use them for wiping down my classroom, cleaning up spills, and even for my whiteboard. These towels are generally made from a blend of cellulose, wood pulp cloth, and cotton; they are super absorbent but also dry quickly. When it’s time to wash them, simply throw them in the laundry. I love Superscandi Swedish Dishcloths because they come in a neutral grey color that still looks great after a few uses (steer clear of lighter colors and patterns).
Reusable paper pile: Encourage students to repurpose paper by contributing to a gently-used paper bin. I’ll often use this paper to print single-sided worksheets or handouts. If your school has a coil-binding machine, you can also create notebooks out of them. Bonus: when students need something to write on, they’ll know exactly where to look.
Refillable dry erase markers: I can’t count the number of dry erase markers I’ve thrown out. The great thing about refillable dry erase markers is that they smell better and last much longer than their disposable counterparts. The Pilot V Board Master is made from recycled materials and is easy to refill with pilot ink cartridges. These cartridges do unfortunately contain plastic but are the seemingly lesser evil in comparison to disposable expo markers.
Non-chemical cleaners: I use Dr. Bronner’s castile soap as a versatile cleaner at home and at school: just dilute a small amount into a spray bottle of water and have it on hand for classroom spills or for cleaning desks. I used to use a mixture of vinegar and water before I learned that some students really can’t stand the smell; now I make sure to use the unscented version of this castile soap for students with allergies and scent sensitivities.
Concerns surrounding climate change continue to grow. Earth Day offers us the opportunity to start meaningful discussions and create sustainable changes within our school community while instilling a sense of stewardship in our students. Your students will love these Earth Day ideas for ELA as they all share the same objectives: to frame environmental issues in a forward-thinking light, and to demonstrate the power of innovation and commitment in working towards a sustainable future.
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