Have you noticed changes in your natural environment over time? When I was a child, we lived in the middle of the woods in Louisiana, and my siblings and I spent most of our time outdoors there. I was very interested in birds (I wanted to be an ornithologist) and observed and drew them from life whenever I could. Looking back, I remember robins, cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, wrens, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, kingfishers, ducks, red-winged blackbirds, and many more birds I hardly ever see now.
Despite the numbers of birds around us then, I became aware of environmental dangers to them when I found a female shoveler duck in the woods who was clearly sick. After she died, I wrote the Audubon Society to learn what might have caused her death. They actually wrote back to me, saying that the duck probably died from lead poisoning.
We have now lived in New Mexico for five years, and I can see the numbers of birds declining every year. We certainly don’t have the variety and numbers of birds I saw in my younger days. Our environment continually becomes hotter and drier, affecting everything that lives here. Our world is in trouble, and our young people today are in the best position to do something about it.
There is a worldwide effort to address such problems and provide resources to help. In September 2015 at the United Nations, 193 world leaders committed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). These are a series of ambitious objectives to end extreme poverty and hunger, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.
A major resource from this effort is a film by Richard Curtis, Nations United: Urgent Solutions for Urgent Times, which features, among other notables, the UN Messenger of Peace, Malala Yousafzai. This thirty-minute film is suitable for upper elementary, middle, and high-school students (and ends with Beyoncé singing at the UN). It is available here.
Of special interest to younger students is the UN’s Climate Action Superheroes program, aimed at encouraging children under twelve to recycle and to save water and energy. Recycle Ranger is one such program, available here.
To see an example of how one art teacher used the UNSDGs to develop a project, read Maria Burke’s article, Sustainability through Art, on page 32. The UNSDGs offer many choices for big ideas or themes for your students to engage in meaningful expression of their concerns and issues about the present and the future.
The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
Art teachers highlight environmental issues and encourage sustainable practices through a variety of meaningful lessons. Kindergartners upcycle discarded materials into humorous robots; elementary students investigate the negative effects of plastic on the environment and create detailed compositions of the Long Island Sound; middle-school students illustrate cartoons that document life as a young person in the time of COVID, high-school students create larger-than-life portraits on reclaimed cardboard; and more.