Jiwon Kim and Christine Grabowski
We live in one world. What we do affects others, and what others do affects us, now more than ever. To recognize that we are all members of a world community and that we all have responsibilities to each other is not romantic rhetoric, but modern economic and social reality (McNulty, Davies, and Maddoux, 2010). If our neighborhoods and nations are both affecting and being affected by the world, then our political consciousness must be world-minded (Merryfield and Duty, 2008). A sense of global mindedness or global awareness must also be promoted in elementary school, but many educators still find it challenging. The purpose of this article is to explore how we engage elementary students in learning global issues and to examine how introducing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to the elementary classroom helps young students develop their interest and understanding of current issues in the world and become active citizens.
Global Citizenship Education and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Scholarship on globalization suggests that new forms of democratic citizenship and politics are emerging (Andreotti, 2011; Davies, 2006; Gaudelli, 2016; Myers, 2006; Oxley & Morris, 2010; Parker, 2011; Schattle, 2008), and this demands critical and active global citizenship education. As Myers (2006) indicates, however, “while a global perspective is often incorporated into the curriculum and courses, the concept of global citizenship, suggesting a commitment and responsibility to the global community based in human rights, is less coherent” (p. 389).
Citizenship is a verb – learning about our nation and the world, thinking about dilemmas of equality and equity, and acting on issues of collective concern (Boyle-Base and Zevin, 2009). Therefore, Global citizenship relates to important concepts such as awareness, responsibility, participation, cross-cultural empathy, international mobility, and achievement (Schattle, 2008). From this perspective, global education should be global citizenship education. Understanding and concern for such issues should lead to action, and local, state, and global studies should be used as a “springboard for deliberation, problem-solving, and community action” (Boyle-Base, et al. 2011). Boyle-Base and Zevin (2009) propose a three-part framework of citizenship: Young citizens of the world (and their teachers) should be informed, reflective, and active. This model means (1) becoming informed (about ideas, events, and issues); (2) thinking it through (presenting fair and balanced views), and (3) taking action (teaching deliberation, decision-making, and civic action) (Boyle-Base, et al., 2011).
We adopted this
model in order to engage elementary students in global issues, by introducing
the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to an elementary
classroom. The Model United Nations is well known with many students
participating in this program, but few realize that the UN SDGs are designed to
educate our society and transform the world.
SDGs, officially known as ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development’ is a set of 17 Global Goals around world issues. On
September 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, the Paris Agreement on
climate change entered into force, addressing the need to limit the rise of
global temperatures. Governments, businesses, and civil society together with
the United Nations, are mobilizing efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development
Agenda by 2030. Universal, inclusive and indivisible, the agenda calls for
action by all countries to improve the lives of people everywhere. Each goal
has specific targets to be achieved. The 17 goals are as follows:
The UN and UNESCO explicitly support these goals and resources that are useful materials for global citizenship education. While global citizenship is geared towards older students, there are many ways that elementary school teachers can apply these goals and resources within their classroom. For example, the World’s Largest Lesson, which is a website created in partnership with UNICEF and UNESCO, introduces the Sustainable Development Goals to children and young people everywhere and unites them in action through various projects. If educators are planning an assembly or a lesson to introduce the Global Goals, there are a lot of resources listed on the website and educators can choose them based on the specific goal (http://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/). These resources include training courses, activities, books, films, games, lesson plans for each grade level, decorations and posters, as well as support for students’ action and change project. Materials are available in English and nine other languages. Students can share their work online and help create a map of the world, for instance, that reflects why Goal 5, Gender Equality, is so relevant worldwide today.
Mrs. G, an elementary school teacher leads a multi grade third and fourth grade class of sixteen students. This unique style of teaching embodies project-based learning with one to one Chromebooks for the students. They are not seated at traditional desks; instead students are seated at whiteboard tables with rolling chairs for flexible collaboration and learning. Self-driven students who take initiative in their own learning, had become integral parts of how this exciting project about the UN SDGs had grown and developed.
The UN SDGs
lessons started out as requirement for the preservice teachers of Monmouth
University that were presented in the third and fourth grade classroom. As the
interest piqued in the classroom, Mrs. G decided to capitalize on students’
enthusiasm and design classroom activities to address the UN SDGs at their
developmental level. The goal was for the students to become more globally
aware about issues in the world, while honing their reading, writing, research,
and presentation skills. This unit project addressed multiple NCSS standards
and C3 Framework.
Table 1: Social Studies Standards Addressed in This Unit Project
| Social Studies Standards |
Addressed in This Unit Project
|1. CULTURE |
2. PEOPLE, PLACES, AND
3. INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT
4. INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS, AND
5. POWER, AUTHORITY, AND
6. PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION,
7. GLOBAL CONNECTION
8. CIVIC IDEALS AND PRACTICES
|D1.2.3-5. Identify disciplinary |
concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question that are
open to different interpretations.
D2.Civ.2.3-5. Explain how a
democracy relies on people’s
responsible participation, and
draw implications for how
individuals should participate.
D2.Civ.6.3-5. Describe ways in
which people benefit from and are challenged by working together,
including through government,
organizations, and families.
D2.Civ.7.3-5. Apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school
D2.Civ.10.3-5. Identify the beliefs, experiences, perspectives, and
values that underlie their own and others’ points of view about civic
D2.Soc.3.9-12. Identify how social context influences individuals.
D2.Soc.6.9-12. Identify the major components of culture.
D2.Soc.7.9-12. Cite examples of how culture influences the individuals
characteristics of groups, as well as the effects groups have on
individuals and society, and the
effects of individuals and societies on groups.
D2.Soc.16.9-12. Interpret the effects of inequality on groups and
D2.Soc.18.9-12. Propose and
evaluate alternative responses to
D4.3.3-5. Present a summary of
arguments and explanations to
others outside the classroom using print and oral technologies
(e.g., posters, essays, letters,
debates, speeches, and reports) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary)
D4.6.3-5. Draw on disciplinary
concepts to explain the challenges people have faced and
opportunities they have created, in addressing local, regional, and
global problems at various times
D4.7.3-5.Explain different strategies and approaches students and others could take in working alone and
together to address local, regional, and global problems, and predict
possible results of their actions.
D4.8.3-5. Use a range of deliberative and democratic procedures to make decisions about and act on civic
problems in their classrooms and
This was accomplished through a multifaceted project that included learning about the UN Sustainable Development Goals through reading, research, presenting a goal, and sharing. Additionally, there was discussing information through a class blog, and leading and participating in service projects. This project continued in the successive school year due to the success and interest in the project.
Part I: Becoming Informed
Reading and Research
While introducing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, one challenge was to ensure that elementary students could understand these complex concepts. In the beginning, students were introduced to two brief videos that gave an overview of the UN Goals in terminology that was easier for them to understand. Next, each of the sixteen students was assigned one of the goals to research in depth. They were given a rubric with specific items that needed to be included in their presentation. The students were required to include: the name of the goal, the definition of the goal, why the goal is important, and three interesting facts.
The next step was to research the goals to truly understand the meaning, decide why it would be an important goal for citizens to be aware of and potentially take action. The UN website offers articles, video clips, facts and a plethora of additional information about the goals, but can be difficult for elementary students at various reading levels. The paraprofessional and teacher engaged individual conferences for each student to ensure that there was an understanding of what the student was reading, as well as recommendations of particular parts of the site to focus on for their research. The seventeenth goal, which was not assigned to a student, was completed together as a group. Using the classroom SMART board, Mrs. G led the class in modeling how to find appropriate research, navigate the United Nations website, and make decisions about information that was pertinent to present on the visual document.
To further develop their reading and research skills, Mrs. G used Newsela, a large database of current events articles that are written at specific Lexile levels. Articles that related to the UN Goals were assigned to the students. They decided which articles to read to assist in gaining more knowledge and understanding of their specific goal. This platform worked well, because it is tailored to the student’s independent reading level, which aids in comprehension of the material. Some students worked with partners to help mitigate difficulties in reading articles and participated in discussions together, in order to better understand the topic of study. Individual conferences with partners and the teacher or paraprofessional were essential in supporting the students in tackling very advanced concepts. Goal 9- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure was an especially challenging concept for a young elementary student and required a good deal of discussion with the teacher to ensure understanding of a complicated topic.
Reading informational text in social studies is the perfect way to enhance learning. However, when the vocabulary and content was above level for many of the students involved in the project, the teacher and paraprofessional met individually to read with students to ensure comprehension of the literature regarding the goals on the UN website. This one on one time was helpful in making sure the elementary school students understood their goal, and were equipped with the knowledge to become experts and explain it to others.
Part II: Thinking It Through
Presenting, Sharing and Discussing Information about the Goals
Next the students created a visual product to communicate
the required information about their goal using what they have learned through
reading and researching their assigned goal. The students created posters in
the first year when the project was implemented, and in the next year they used
Google Slides to present information about the goal. The expectations on the
rubric were the same for both the poster and the digital presentation.
Table 2: UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric
Please include the following on your slide:
- Name of goal
- Definition of goal
- Why important
- 3 Interesting facts
UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric
|Name & |
|The correct |
name and an
|The name or |
|The name and |
|Why Important|| A clear and |
explanation of why the goal is
important in the world
|Attempts to |
explanation of why the goal is
important in the word. May have some ideas that are correct
|Does not include why it is |
important or it
does not make
|3 Interesting |
|3 appropriate |
facts about the
|3 facts that are |
not relevant or
just 2 facts are
|Did not include three facts|
|Design of Slide||The pictures |
and design are
related to and
goal. Is well
|The pictures |
|The design does not relate to the goal, is |
The students reflected upon their presentations and completed the rubric self-assessing their work. The expectation was to either draw or find photos that represented the theme of the goal. When making posters, the required information was verbally presented in a recording that eventually was combined with other students using the DoInk app. They used the green screen to record and uploaded the recordings to the app to create a video. The other option was to use a shared Google Slides presentation where each student created one slide to represent their goal and provided the required information.
Each student took a turn presenting their visual poster or Google Slide to explain and teach the class about their specific goal. They utilized speaking and listening skills to effectively communicate the information that they researched and engaged in question and answers from their classmates. Mrs. G could also further assess their learning by observing how well they could answer questions about their assigned goal.
Deliberation through Blog Session
Next, the students participated in blog sessions to further discuss the goals, their thoughts and opinions. The blog is an effective tool and another way of assessing the students’ critical thinking skills, knowledge of content, and how they communicate. Google Classroom has a feature to “Create a Question” that allows students to respond to each other. These questions were posed to the sessions:
- List your goal and write an interesting fact that you learned about your goal.
- Explain something that surprised you about the goals. Why did it surprise you?
- What can you do to help achieve the UN goals?
The explanation of something surprising from the students was enlightening in providing a student perspective at their developmental level. The following is a sample entry with responses:
1. My goal is Quality Education. One interesting fact about my goal is more than half of children that have not enrolled in school live in sub Saharan-Africa.
2. Something surprising I learned from this lesson is that, Goal 16 Peace, Justice, and Institutions is that people all over the world do not have the freedom of speech for their rights. I feel that is devastating to live under rules that are hardly even thought about just made a law. They live under circumstances that are very sad, and that is very careless of people.
3. To help these goals we need to supply things that are needed. Americans can provide books all over the world for Quality Education, We can provide vaccines to needed, we can give food and vitamins needed to people in need.
Student “C”: Also, for every 100 boys enrolled in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s only 74 girls!
Student “A”: Where is Saharan-Africa? What is it?
Student “J”: Who tells them that they can’t go to school and why don’t they?
Student “O”: Saharan is basically all the countries of Africa except the three at the top.
Student “O”: They can’t’ go to school because some people (dictators, presidents, kings or queens) think that school is a waste of time. They rather kids go and work the fields and harvest crops
Student “J”: Thanks for the answer
Student “S”: It is very sad that people don’t get to go to school, but at the same time it might be fun to not go to school for a couple of days but never going to school would be hard. But everybody needs education.
Student “C”: It’s not fun. The reason they avoid school is to make the kids do work. And they have to work on the fields, harvesting, growing, and taking care of crops ALL DAY, until night!
Student “E”: How many school houses are in Africa?
Student “O”: Would it really be fun not to be able to read, write, and say the right words in a sentence? What would you do if you couldn’t read or anything? Would you ask your mom to teach you? What if you don’t have a mom? Put yourself in other people’s shoes.
Student “C”: It wouldn’t be fun at all not to be able to read or write. If we couldn’t read or write, we couldn’t blog now!
Reading the responses of the students allowed Mrs. G to capture a conversation that the students might have in a group discussion in the classroom. It was determined that Student “O” understood that students in Africa and other parts of the world do not have the same opportunity for education that children in the United States are afforded. The student expressed empathy for children who cannot attend school, and Student “C” even responds stating that they would not be able to blog if they did not have an education. When the students blogged, there was silence in the classroom because they were all actively engaged using the technology in a meaningful manner. Mrs. G expected the students to answer the three questions and then thoughtfully responded to at least five students in the class with comments and insight. She accessed all of this and could comment on Google Classroom to leave feedback for students. The use of technology like Google Classroom allowed the class activity to become more student-focused. By assigning students different UN goals, the students were able to take ownership of their own topic and became the class expert who is accountable for discussion on the goal. This enabled the teachers to see the student’s ability to comprehend the UN goals as well as to apply that knowledge gained to form a discussion with their fellow peers. This deliberation process helped students think about higher-order thinking questions beyond immediately noticeable facts. Students sometimes left with some simplistic and self-oriented/US-centric views of the world. Therefore, it was important for Mrs. G. to capture a troubled conversation and follow up as a group discussion in the classroom.
Part III: Taking Action
Leading and Participating in Service Project
Each year of implementation of this project has led to the students taking action to address the UN SDGs. In the first year, the class was saddened and upset to see the prevalence of poverty and hunger in the world. Through a class discussion, they decided to take action and have a food drive to support a local food pantry. Mrs. G led a discussion on local organizations that helped the poor, and ultimately the students decided to support St. Vincent de Paul Pantry at a church that some students attend. They gathered information from the church bulletin, organized a collection based on the pantry’s needs, created flyers and made announcements daily to the school promoting the food drive and giving the school community facts about hunger and poverty. The students used Google Sheets to collect data and provided updates to the school community about the number of items collected. The young learners took ownership of the whole project and completed it to its final steps of packing the donations and sending thank you notes to the St. Vincent de Paul members for their service to the poor. The class felt proud of themselves for spearheading this project that would align with the UN SDGs.
In the following school year, the service project that the class decided to organize was related to recycling and saving the environment. The students collected plastic film to be sent to the Trex Company, which uses recycled materials to make composite lumber. Many schools compete against each other to recycle the most plastic film and Mrs. G’s multi grade class took a leadership role with this contest. The students created a Google Slides presentation, developed flyers to be sent home with students in the school, and visited all of the classes in the school to explain what can be recycled, where the collection bins were placed and all of the details about the project. They weighed and packaged the plastic, as well as recording the data for the competition. The students were proud of their contribution to the UN SDGs and helping the environment.
Service projects such as these were a wonderful way for students to feel empowered as elementary students. It started with one student stating in class, “People are hungry, we have to do something to help!” Through this experience, they realized that their small contribution to helping the poor and hungry, or recycling to help the environment were ways that they could join people all over the world to obtain the UN SDGs. They were able to recognize their power as citizens of a global community. It was important to reflect and determine if there was a lasting impression made by studying the UN Goals.
Results: Impact of the Project on the Students
Mrs. G polled her students with Google Forms at the end of the school year to assess the impact that this project had on the students. There were seven questions ranging from how important are the goals to written responses about how they can be global citizens. One student wrote, “The food drive helps the people that are starving and have no money so they get food that is donated from other people. Then they can have food to fill their stomachs.” Another student commented, “Doing Trex made us global citizens because we helped by recycling. So the world won’t be filled with plastic. Also because we can reuse it.” Some even commented about the Marker Recycling Program that was underway in the school, or about the garden at their school. They were applying the knowledge that they had gained from the project and analyzing how activities conducted by other organizations relate to the UN SDGs.
By exposing the elementary students to the UN SDGs, they were given an awareness of the world around them, beyond their community, state, and country. While engaged in this project, most of the students were shocked to hear some of the statistics. Student “S” wrote in her blog post that some people in the world live on $1.25 a day and it elicited quite a discussion. One response from Student “G” was that “People in North Korea and most of Africa live a daily life of poverty.” The class discussion was facilitated by the teacher to assist in explaining different cultures, religions, governments and such in terms that were on the developmental level of the children, including censoring material that would not be appropriate for discussion at their age. Students were more interested and empathetic towards the issues that were associated with their age group children, such as not going to school, than other issues, like living with little money and resources. Also, their understanding of those problems and causes were sometimes limited. This confirms that the blog session is a good tool to promote students’ learning, to assess their understanding, and to inform teachers what they need for the next instruction.
These UN SDGs are global objectives that are being addressed by corporations, governments and even students. By teaching the children as young as elementary school, they are being provided with information, facts and statistics that reach beyond “their world”. One young lady wrote a very impactful statement, “We can make our world a better place to be by making these small donations and commitments, but in reality, that can make a lifetime difference.” Empowering young children to believe that they can have an impact will cultivate adults and forward thinking global citizens.
The project can be easily adaptable for multiple grade levels to provide elementary school students a creative and interesting way to learn about global issues and give them a lens into other countries and ways of life. Any classroom with Internet access and devices to utilize Google Classroom or other online program such as Otus, Kiddom, or Edmoto can apply the principles of this multifaceted project.
The three-part framework: (1) becoming informed (about ideas, events, issues); (2) thinking it through (presenting fair and balanced views); and (3) taking action (teaching deliberation, decision-making, and civic action) effectively engaged elementary students in learning global issues. The UN SDGs were a good source and tool in carrying out this model.
While there are few studies and practices of teaching the United Nations and global issues in elementary level, this classroom practice provides a good example of how it can be successfully done and build young learners’ global awareness and active citizenship. ELA, science, math, and the arts can be integrated in addition to Social Studies as well as the skills of reading, interpreting, and presenting can be taught in this unit project learning. Because it deals with subject matter that is of immediate interest and bridges school learning with life outside school, it is highly motivating to critically think and take action. It provides elementary school students with information that they have not been exposed to and helps them build a knowledge base for understanding current and future problems.
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