EFS: Striving for Civic Engagement by Erica Zimmerman

Teachers exploring a living machine, a model aquatic ecosystem, in South Burlington.
An approach to Education for Sustainability SSP has developed with our partners.

EFS: Striving for Civic Engagement
by Erica Zimmerman, former SSP coordinator

Our sense of education for sustainability has evolved over the five years we have worked alongside Vermont’s classroom teachers to make this big idea, this most “essential question” of sustainability come alive for our children. There are many definitions and frameworks that outline the important kinds of learn-ing that support improving our communities’ economic, ecological and social quality of life. Recently, we have come to embrace youth civic engagement as the keystone of all our work—helping our youth become aware, motivated and active in improving their communities. This approach unites our overarching goal of sustainability, our context of place, and our strategy of service-learning. Successful youth civic engagement depends on three essential elements.

Understanding connections
First, students need to understand that the world is built of connections. By seeing all the interconnections within their community, students better understand the complexity of the human and natural systems around them, and their learning gains more meaning and depth. When fifth graders learn about where their food comes from, and the economic and ecological forces behind those places, they can better consider multiple variables when deciding what food to eat. Integrative curriculum—even when not interdisciplinary – can develop the foundations of the systems-thinking our young citizens and our communities need.

Connecting to place
Side by side with understanding interconnectedness is understanding place, the natural and human systems that make up our local communities. In Vermont, we are fortunate to have abundant resources for studying our local ecology and history. Now many of us are collaborating with local community planners to develop resources for studying local economics and patterns of change. When we bring our students into the context of their community, we find motivation soars and opportunities abound for meaningful projects where students can develop and apply their academic skills. At the same time, students become literate in their local place. They gain names and stories for the world around them—the source of their water, the long-ago business owner who built the big brick house, the name of the bird that sounds their wake-up call. With such knowledge, they have more reason to care for this world and become stewards of it.

 

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