Saturday, 26 September 2009

English teacher's environmental week

While autumn is splashing all its colourful palette around me, this week, for me, has been mainly dominated by one colour only: GREEN. I have often commented on the wonderful serendipity of online connections and discoveries, and this week seems to have been filled with them. Or is it rather that once your attention is drawn to something interesting, you easily start to notice it all around you? Whatever the reason, every day this week I have come across various environmental issues, most of which have been directly or indirectly linked to the threat of global warming.

I try to be environmentally aware, and I also try to model responsible behaviour in my own lifestyle. I believe it's my duty as an educator of future generations to bring these issues up in my English lessons, too. English, after all, is the language of most global cooperation, when solutions are negotiated to our huge common problems.To be honest, though, I must say the emphasis here is still on the word TRY. But it seems this week made me stop and think what my tiny role in all of this might be.

Fair trade Monday

On Monday our topic for one group's English lesson was 'fair trade'. We studied the related text in our textbook and then watched this Oxfam video clip. It tied in nicely with the text recycling the key vocabulary and also visualizing the conditions of the farmers in the developing world.

During the ensuing discussion, I was surprised to find that none of my students' families bought any fair trade products. Unfortunately, fair trade is still in its infancy in Finland, as the choice of products is very limited compared to many other countries, but it is gradually getting better. I must say I was rather taken aback at the seemingly indifferent 'I couldn't care less' attitude of many of my high school students. Did I manage to arouse empathy and global responsibility and awareness in any of them? I have no clue. Probably I only managed to sprinkle some seeds of ideas amongst them, and can only hope that some of them will fall into fertile ground and take root one day in the future.

Mind you, I am not making much better progress among my colleagues on this front. Somebody threw out the idea of only buying fair trade coffee for the staff room at the beginning of the new school year in August. We all bring a couple of packets of coffee every so often to keep us well stocked in order to avoid ever facing the catastophe of coffee running out in the middle of a busy school day. I took the suggestion seriously and started buying the more expensive fair trade coffee for school, too, only to realize that most of my colleagues refuse to follow suit, for some reason. What a pity to lose one opportunity to model some concrete action to our students.

Carfree Tuesday

On Tuesday this week, as every year on September 22, it was the World Carfree Day. Cycling for me, and tweeting about the day was my contribution, but sadly, it mostly looked like 'business as usual' in my town. Mind you, I cycle on other days, too, and sometimes ask myself whether these annual one-off theme days really make any difference in the big picture.

Other Newspaper headlines also brought up the consequences of climate change. Apparently, winters are predicted to get gloomier and gloomier here in Finland increasing the number of SAD sufferers. Bad news for people like me, who are already seriously affected by the dark winter blues. Other than moving to a sunnier climate, is there anything else I could do to mitigate this phenomenon?

Informative Wednesday

Interestingly, both English magazines that I read featured the environment on their covers in their articles this week. Serendipitously, Time had an article on fair trade, presenting rather sceptical and pessimistic views on the future of the fair trade model. Some more reading on the topic for my students.

Even more environmental content for this week, when I stumbled upon the Edging Ahead blog, where Rob, the teacher-librarian-blogger wrote a post about his juggling between adopting new technologies and taking into account a future where electricity, for example, may be scarce. I share this dilemma of getting my priorities sorted out with so many mixed messages floating around these days. And if I am lost, my students must be even more so!

The global problems that Rob addressed in his post are rather overwhelming, and may lead to a feeling of total  helplessness and despair. Personally, I would like to hold up some hope in the face of all this impending doom, though. There is too much scepticism, cynicism and subsequent indifference amongst our students as it it, at least here in Finland. In this respect, Doug Johnson's reply post to Rob especially resonated with me. He wrote:
It has always been my contention that the ONLY solution to our world's problems lies in a truly aware and engaged population. And such awareness will only come by way of education that requires, not believing, but dispassionate thinking and robust problem-solving abilities.
I would like to emphasize the problem-solving abilities - and some practical hands-on activities instead of the traditional book-knowledge-only approach of Finnish high schools. It's one thing to know a lot of facts, but quite another to be willing to take action and apply any of that knowledge.

Sustainable development strategy Thursday

The Finnish Ministry of Education has set extensive goals for sustainable development in schools.
The aim is for all schools to have an action plan for sustainable development by 2010 and for 15% to have received external accreditation or certification of their activities by 2014.
In our school, we have a team to do the background work for ideas. The problem with a lot of government initiatives is that they tend to be lengthy and wordy, and often just remain empty rhetoric in dusty documents, or rarely visited websites. That's why real concrete ideas are needed at the local level, if the initiatives are to be turned into everyday practices at schools.

Today a meeting was held to come up with our first steps towards a more sustainable direction. We chose to start with saving paper. In a school with only 30 teachers and 400 students, a staggering number of close to 300,000 sheets of copy paper have already been used since the beginning of 2009! It was decided that each member of staff will get their individual copying code to help us all monitor and keep track of our use of paper. It will be interesting to see if this will start making a noticeable difference.

Paperless Friday and environmental seminar

No end to serendipity this week, since a tweet led me to the Teach Paperless blog and the mission of Paperless Friday, which already got over 100 teachers involved after reading the first tweet about it last week. I'm always keen on renewing old practices and trying out something new, so I definitely want to jump on the bandwagon, and challenge some of my colleagues to join me. What's more, this would be an excellent start for the paper saving campaign we embarked on on Thursday.

I couldn't start this week, though, since I wasn't at school on Friday but spent the day in Helsinki to attend a seminar on 'The Social Impact of Climate Change', organized by the Federation of Finnish-British societies at the British Embassy. What an appropriate finish to my green, environmental week. We heard, for example, Mr Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies predict a very grim future, basically telling us that it's too late already. Luckily, young Finnish Green Party MP Oras Tynkkynen emphasized everybody's personal responsibility in making choices in life. More mixed messages again, though. I didn't enjoy hearing my idealistic little everyday endeavours, such as recycling or using energy-efficient light bulbs, labeled as useless tinkering, when really drastic national and global measures are called for. "Climate chaos" instead of "climate change" was one lecturer's opinion of a more appropriate label for our current circumstances.

As a teacher, I am still wondering what message to give to my students, and how. It seems that each individual, even an informed and well-educated one, issuch an insignificant player in the massive, global corporate and political game. Or maybe I should stay on my turf, ie. focus on teaching English grammar, and leave the environment to experts.

No comments: