Case study: Elwood Primary is embedding the cross-curriculum priority of sustainability in all subject areas – with expert guidance

Elwood Primary School has been involved with the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic initiative for four years. The school recently gained its first star as part of the initiative’s Sustainability Certification. It currently works with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program and also keeps chickens.

The school’s Sustainability Coordinator, Louisa Dretzke, has made embedding sustainability across the curriculum a key focus for 2013. The cross-curriculum priority of sustainability became part of the Australian Curriculum (AusVELS) in 2013, making it mandatory for schools to integrate sustainability across the subject areas of English, mathematics, history and science.

ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic schools can access support to help them understand and implement sustainability across their curriculum. The ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic online system provides schools involved in the initiative with access to lesson plans and other resources from schools across Victoria.

Louisa is guided by April Seymore, her ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic facilitator for the southern metro region, to implement and embed sustainability at the school. April is based at the Port Philip Eco Centre, a not-for-profit, community-managed, environment group that provides a base for a number of affiliate groups involved in activities that promote biodiversity, environmental sustainability and community action.

Louisa says that most people associate sustainability with topics like waste, water and biodiversity. One of her key tasks is to broaden the way teachers think about sustainability, so that it can be woven into the curriculum more widely, as mandated by the Australian Curriculum.

Expert help to identify links between sustainability and the curriculum

“None of us are sustainability experts,” said Louisa. “We’re at the very start of this journey. Our challenges are finding the resources we need and identifying the links between sustainability and our curriculum areas.”

April, the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic facilitator, provides that expert knowledge. She has a teaching background, and has collaborated on education for sustainability activities with hundreds of students, across all year levels. Louisa gathers learning intentions from the Elwood Primary School teachers and discusses these at her bimonthly meetings with April to brainstorm solutions. Louisa and other Elwood Primary School staff also attend teacher environmental network meetings hosted by the Port Philip Eco Centre. These meetings focus on embedding sustainability into the curriculum. “The theme is introduced and then we go through the practical hands-on activities, and teachers discuss how they would embed it in the curriculum,” said April.

Provocative question asking draws out sustainability themes

April focuses on provocative question-asking as a way of drawing out sustainability themes that go beyond the obvious. She invites teachers to ask “what happens before the part we see and after the part we see”. The answers, she said, are usually linked to sustainability.

An example of this is when Louisa, who teaches a grade six class, asked her colleagues to identify the sustainability focus of their economics unit, “everyone looked at me like I was nuts”. But then she pointed out a number of themes that fit into both sustainability and economics: the effects of consumerism, the fair trade movement, and the impact of purchases made by people in advanced countries on developing countries. Louisa said that the other teachers immediately recognised the connection once she had pointed it out, and were able to think about how to incorporate sustainability into their economics unit.

Sustainability in maths and English

One of Louisa’s students researched the impact of fast fashion. She’s extended that into her maths work – she’s looking at what it costs to make and sell that fashion, and where the profit goes.

Another student, who is an environment leader, looked at the percentage of waste the school is generating as part of the unit on percentages. He collected data and created spreadsheets. Next, he and some other students will be looking at energy use in the school, using the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic online data management system (resourcesmartschools.vic.gov.au) and the measurements from light meters.

Louisa brings sustainability themes into literacy by deliberately selecting texts that have a built-in sustainability perspective. “If we’re discussing inferring themes, then we should use books that include sustainability as a theme.” For example, she’s used Window by Jeannie Baker with grade two students and A Forest by Marc Martin with grade six students.

Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program

Elwood Primary’s grade three and four students work with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program. They grow, harvest, share and prepare healthy food – and develop awareness of the environment, sustainability and plant diversity. The Kitchen Garden program informs much of what happens in the classroom in grades three and four, across the curriculum. Sustainability is incorporated in a variety of ways.

The students discuss and explore what happens to waste using the garden’s compost system as a learning tool. Much of their maths is linked to the kitchen garden too, including measuring and weighing food. The students go home and cook for their families, and talk about learned concepts like food miles (the distance food travels from where it is produced to where it is sold – the further food travels, the more substantial its carbon footprint).

Experiential learning in the local environment

Elwood Primary makes use of its local environment for experiential learning experiences as often as it can. Students have worked with 17-year-old local wildlife expert Gio Fitzpatrick, the Port Philip Eco Centre’s Youth Wildlife Ambassador and a grade 11 student at Wesley College. Gio has been awarded City of Port Phillip Young Person of the Year 2012 and has been endorsed by David Attenborough for his nesting box program, which Elwood Primary students have been involved with. He monitors over a hundred nest boxes from Port Melbourne to Elwood, has successfully attracted back a Powerful Owl (the largest native Australian owl) to St Kilda Botanical Gardens, and restarted the Friends of Elster Creek, which includes members of the Elwood Primary community.

The grade four students have accompanied Gio on the biodiversity walk he regularly runs, to discover the history and biodiversity of the Elwood canal areas. They have also attended programs that are jointly operated by the Port Philip Eco Centre and the Boon Wurrung Foundation. These programs educate students about the Indigenous history of the area and enable them to gain botanical and scientific knowledge of the local plants. The more intimately students are familiar with an area’s flora and fauna, the more they are motivated to feel ownership over it and protect it.

Linking sustainability to the local environment is working to enhance student understanding and action. An Elwood Primary parent was recently impressed that their child had come home from school and wanted to go straight to the beach and pick up five pieces of rubbish, because of something they’d learned in class.

“That’s exactly what we want, to have kids inspiring other generations,” said April.

Sustainability teaches students that their actions affect others

One of the advantages of learning about sustainability is that it teaches the students where they fit into the larger world: that they’re part of a wider system, and that their actions affect others.

“It teaches them empathy,” said Louisa. “And they see that they’re not powerless. That even one small action, even if it’s just the chocolate they buy, has an impact.”

One of her students was recently so affected by what she learned in class about the Marysville bushfires that she decided to do something to help. Emily took a stall at the school’s regular community market to encourage people to visit Marysville, because she’d learned tourism was dropping in the aftermath of the fires. She went to Marysville and bought produce, which she sold on at the market stall to raise money for the community.