I start the lesson by conducting a demonstration to help students appreciate the earth’s limited natural resources at our disposal. I present a good-sized apple to the class and explain that the apple represents the earth.
First, I cut the the apple into four pieces and discard three of the pieces, which represent saltwater oceans, (75% of the earth).
Next, I slice the remaining piece of earth in half and discard one piece to represent land which is inhospitable to people (such as deserts).
I slice the remaining 1/8 of the earth into four sections and set aside three of the sections to representing areas too rocky, too steep, or too cold to produce food.
Next, I carefully peel the skin off of the remaining 1/32 slice of the apple.
This represents the surface of the earth in which humanity depends on. I explain that the earth’s topsoil is only about five feet deep and produces a relatively fixed amount of food. Over-farming and erosion take away 24 billion tons of topsoil per year. Each inch of topsoil requires 100 years to form. I think this really helps to demonstrate and provide a visual to students that despite how large the earth may seem, the amount of land available for people to use is limited and we must use it carefully.
Next, I pass out the What is Sustainability reading passage and have students read through it independently, highlighting key information as they read. We discuss the article and brainstorm some ways people can be more sustainable in their daily lives. At this point, I like to read through some examples of sustainable living with the students. We discuss whether or not these are practical and could be repeated in our own lives to help reduce the amount of resources we take from the environment.
Now that students are both interested and familiar with sustainability, I conduct a read-aloud of Dr. Seuss’s book, The Lorax*. This book depicts what can happen to an ecosystem when natural resources are harvested unsustainably. In this story, Once-ler learns too late that without the Truffula Tress, he is also without the Swomee Swans, the Brown Bar-ba loots, and the Lorax, resulting in the far end of town being a grim and lonely place.
I love using this book, because it provides a very clear description of what can happen when one takes from the environment without giving back. The language is simple so that students can focus on content rather than comprehension, and the rhyme / rhythm keeps students listening attentively.
Before reading, however, I hand out the Lorax and Sustainability packet and read through the first page with the students. We discuss the four elements of sustainable development. Under the element descriptions, I have students draw examples of each. (For example, under "technology needs, one may draw a crop duster or computer.) I choose a few students whom I know have drawn good examples to share with the class, so that others who struggle may benefit from their ideas.
(An alternative to reading the book is to play the video. I prefer the original version, which much more closely reflects the book, rather than the 2012 motion picture, which is longer and contains more "dramatic effect".)
After hearing or viewing the story of the Lorax, I have students complete the second page of the packet on their own. The questions on this page are mostly at a recall/understand level. Students should be able to be answer them completely without much support. We discuss the questions after all have completed the work, making sure everyone has a good general understanding of the story. I make sure to provide enough scaffolding (paraphrasing student responses, eliciting additional ideas or perspectives, etc) until I feel as though all students have a good grasp of the story.
Students need to understand the story and how it relates to the environment before moving on to the next page, which involves deeper level questions. If I feel some students are struggling with the main idea of the story, I may review parts of the book and/or video, or pull aside a small group to revise responses and work on the next activity together.
Once I feel students are ready, move them on to the next two pages. These require students to analyze and evaluate the story and relate it to real-life scenarios. I have who students choose to work alone or discuss the questions with a partner for support. In this case, I require that they must write an answer that is different from their partner, meaning they must put some of their own thought into the responses they craft.
Now that we have analyzed the effects of unsustainable living in a fictional situation, I want to provide a learning experience that demonstrates the effects as it relates to a real-life scenario. I play a clip from the movie, Night at The Museum, and ask the students who remembers this scene:
I ask them to tell me what they know about the statue in the clip and elicit responses from the students. I explain to the students that this statue, known as a Moai from Easter Island, has a very significant connection to the idea of sustainability, as they will learn from the Earth as Our Easter Island video we are about to watch.
After watching the video, I direct the students to the final page of their packet. On this page, they create a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the main idea and details of The Lorax to the situation that occurred in Easter Island. Graphic organizers are powerful ways to help students understand complex ideas. By adapting and building on basic Venn diagrams, you can move beyond comparison and diagram classification systems that encourage students to recognize complex relationships, such as the cause/effect relationships that occur and result in negative human impacts on our planet.
As an alternative to the paper Venn diagram, interactive Venns are always a great way to lesson your paper load and reduce paper consumption. Please view the video below to learn about an excellent electronic Venn option:
As a final assessment, I have the students complete a quick-write before leaving for the day.
Now that you have a better understanding of sustainability, what steps can YOU take to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
I like to end lessons like these by getting students to think about their own personal habits and how they can take accountability for being more environmentally-conscious. The material I am teaching is not meaningful if it does not change student behavior, so I want that to be their last thought before walking out the door!