Dr. Jennifer Williams is a member of the United Nations’ Global Goals Educator Task Force, #TeachSDGs. Our students today need to be engaged in authentic experiences that connect them to real people and real problems of our world. Through the sharing of stories and with unified efforts to tackle global issues, students can begin to discover the power they each have in making a difference at local and global levels. The Climate Action Project, connecting students from 64 countries and 250 schools, provides a unique opportunity for classrooms to take ACTION on climate change and to find their role in the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development. Climate change is an ideal topic for concentration as this issue is not one that sees borders of countries or is focused on any one geographic location—this is a problem for all—which means every single person can be part of a solution. Together as teachers, through experiences such as The Climate Action Project, we can #TeachSDGs and mobilize as world educators to reach the global goals by 2030. Learn more at teachsdgs.org and follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenWilliamsEdu.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I’m Dr. Nathan Lang, and I know all of you will be very, very excited to hear who our special guest on the show today is. We have Dr. Jennifer Williams, and she has dedicated herself for nearly 25 years to the field of education through her roles as an education activist, professor, school administrator, literacy specialist and classroom teacher. Jen it is so great to chat with you today on the show.
Jen Williams: Thanks so much, Nathan. I’m so thrilled to be here with you today.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You and I have been friends for a while now. And even though I know you well, I still can’t keep up with all the many things that you’re involved in. And I always look forward to looking on Twitter and just seeing all the impactful work you’re doing from working with the UN, with working with TeachSDGs and with the climate action project. So can you share with the listeners a little bit about the work you’re currently involved in?
Jen Williams: Oh, sure. I’d love to, and I appreciate that intro so much. As you and I talk about often, it’s such an exciting time to be an educator, and my journey has been an interesting one for sure. And I’ve had a lot of fun getting to this point, but where I’m at currently is I have this amazing opportunity to work at the university level. So I’m working with pre-service teachers and it’s great for me to see each week as these new teachers are coming into our profession and they’re so eager and hungry for it. And so that great reminder for me that we have wonderful hope in these new teachers.
Jen Williams: And then I get to work with currently practicing teachers in my work around social good, helping teachers to support their own students, to take action for social impact all around the world. And so I’m doing that through my work with TeachSDGs, which I know I’ll talk a little bit more about through writing and speaking, and then my new nonprofit work with Take Action Global, which is aligned to everything I’ve been doing with the UN.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That is so exciting. And especially in the midst of the past couple of months with students finally taking a stand for our environment and being able to make impact with their voice, can you talk about your work with the climate action project and specifically about how you’re helping teachers to empower students to take a stand?
Jen Williams: We think about things like climate action, and this topic that we are all seeing that we need to attack it with urgency. And the students are really leading the way, which for me is, I mean, it almost gets me to this emotional point that this is what I’ve worked my whole career for is student empowerment. How can we find ways to support students to take action on the issues that they believe are important? And, right now, really we’re saying these students rise up against climate change and knowing that we all need to work together for the UN sustainable development goals and climate action. So it’s been pretty remarkable. I was a part of, so early conversations around the sustainable development goals, which we all adopted as a world in 2015, and these 17 goals that deal with things from poverty to gender equality, to life on land and life underwater.
Jen Williams: We have our very own goal in SDG, number four. So quality education for all, which those last two words, for all is really where I’m focusing my work now. But these children and youth, they’re fired up about the environment and they’re fighting for change. So last month we had the goals project, which was really like this entry level invitation for classrooms to come in, look at what are the 17 sustainable development goals. Because though it’s something that a lot of us that are in this conversation are aligned to, or working towards every day, there are still so many people that don’t know that the goals even exists. So even teachers, this ability to start the dialogue with students, we had over 1500 classrooms, which is about 30, 40,000 students from around the world, over 70 countries which is super cool.
Jen Williams: And it all kind of came from Twitter. So we had students starting to think about ways that they could take action at local levels. How can they apply that out to global levels? And then that ended with a week in New York City, where there is actually a Global Goals Week at the UN headquarters. And so we were a part of that. We’ve been working really hard over the past few years to have educator voice and StudentVoice represented. And I can share a little bit on how we saw that represented this year, and then we’ve moved now into the climate action project.
Jen Williams: So we’ve moved from the goals project, which was focused on all of the goals to the climate action project, where students are working, week one through exploration, like helping them to establish their own definition in shared vocabulary because there’s a lot of definitions of climate change out there. So letting them go through that process of inquiry, instead of us just giving them the answers. Looking at the effects moving through the weeks, now they’re at the point of establishing on their own. This is of course student driven, what are some solutions, and then next week they’ll finish up by actions that they can take. So it’s remarkable.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It is.
Jen Williams: And when we just give students the time and space to explore these topics that they care so much about, it’s blowing us away.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. On that note, what if… teachers listening today and every day they’re lesson planning and they have a scope and sequence they’re following but they’re also intrinsically motivated and they want their students to take part in this. What would you tell teachers who maybe would like to discover what these SDGs are about? What advice would you give them anywhere from making time, to embed the goals, to any kind of tips for planning, any help you could give?
Jen Williams: It’s really neat for me as an educator to see these teachers that I’m working with, connect back to their teacher identity. And, looking at my pre-service teachers that come to me and they are so clear on their why, I want to make a difference in the world. That is why they got into this profession. I think that’s why the majority of us did. And by participating in projects like this, I’m starting to see teachers that have been in this field for 20, 30 years going, “Oh my Gosh, this reminded me why I got into it.” We don’t have things like rubrics and standardized tests. It’s so open-ended, and we see our kids come alive. Like, “Finally, you’re hearing my voice.” So we have these teachers, they’re ready. They’re like, “Okay, now I see my role as I’m not just going to be impassive in my classroom with someone from above handing me my curriculum,” and saying, “Here you go, this is what you need to do.”
Jen Williams: Educators are realizing that they had needed to have this active role, but they’re also hesitant and they’re a little bit nervous. So I think for me, it’s about giving myself permission, like finding ways that I can be, and also unapologetic about it too like, “This is what I believe. I know I need to give my students opportunity to share their voices and their passions.” What I always tell teachers is start small. And I think if we all take these small actions collectively, they’re going to add up to massive changes in exactly what we’re seeing with student activists like Greta leading these climate strikes. So things like going on with teachsdgs.org, teachers can take the pledge. That’s a wonderful first step. Take the pledge to TeachSDGs in the classroom.
Jen Williams: If the SDGs are new for you, that’s absolutely okay. You go in with your students and learn together. Things like printing off the poster of the SDGs, which is so beautifully visual. There’s all of these vibrant colors, there are the emojis, people really connect with them. So even if you just post that in your classroom and stand back, guarantee you’re going to have your students and your school community member saying, “I need to know more about this.” Because, it invites action. So you’ll see that. And then it’s connecting with like-minded people and saying, “You know what, I’m really interested in…” like for me, I mean, today, you and I are talking about climate change. My education background is all literacy.
Jen Williams: And so talking about carbon saturation, these are new terms for me and so I’m learning, but I’m loving that process of learning. So it’s not like you have to be an expert in whatever you’re going after, when it comes to social impact, but being open to kind of having that creative confidence to dream big, take risks and find those people that are going to go out there and ask those questions with you.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Absolutely. One of the fascinating parts of the TeachSDGs that I find is that, obviously students and educators are making a difference for social good and for society, but also feel as an avenue for students to build on these really important skills of creativity and communication and collaboration and critical thinking, citizenship and character. There’s so many Cs now, but they’re also very important. Have you seen the impacts on the student’s ability to build these skills through a program like the climate action or TeachSDGs?
Jen Williams: All of it. Because, and I think for me when I’ve… and I mean, I’ve talked about these things, I’ve written about these things. When we say StudentVoice, student center, digital citizenship, project-based learning. Until I got into this work, I was like, “Oh, this is actually it, this is really it.” And so I joined, this week being digital citizenship week, and I joined on a session on Monday and to get students recognizing perspectives and communicating effectively all of this. But that last part, that take action piece is where I really start to see the power. So I do believe that we’re able to weave in all of our objectives and goals into projects like this. We as teachers just kind of had to be creative also and find ways to make it work.
Jen Williams: And that’s the best way to do it. I think because for a long time, and I would talk about global ed and I talked about global ed a long time before the SDGs came out. And it was tricky for teachers because they would say that sounds like a nice to have, but I really just don’t have time. And that is a legitimate concern, but it’s not just making it an extra, find ways to weave it into the work you’re already doing. And for me, it’s lead with your own passions. When your students see you excited about something they’re going to get on board. And it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to agree or disagree, but just you being an activist and an advocate of something you’re passionate about.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, I love it. And just hearing you speak about it, just caltivated my passion to want to be more involved. How can we all get involved? What would you recommend as a good starting point of resource website if we want to explore these SDGs in higher depth?
Jen Williams: I’d love for you to reach out to me on Twitter, my handle is @jenwilliamsedu. I have a book coming out. If you’re a teacher, I have a book called Teach Boldly coming out with ISTE, it’ll be out at the beginning of November. And that’s a good starting point to guide you through classroom space design, talking about storytelling, talking about professional development. So that’s kind of a primer, but then it’s really about finding ways to preserve that richness of humanity in a way that’s meaningful to you. So I’d love to hear from anyone on Twitter and then teachsdgs.org, please connect with us there. And we have just an extraordinary community of passionate educators that believe in this work and believe in each other. So they’re so welcoming and we’re all learning together. These goals came out in 2015. We have to reach them by the year 2030. We have 10 years. So we have a lot of work to do. And so if you’re looking for a collaborative network of passionate people, this is a great place to land.
Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Fantastic. And you and his organization have already done a tremendous work already. So I’m excited to personally see how this evolves and just the amazing and wonderful stories that will come out as a result. So, Jen, thank you so much for today, it has been such a pleasure and honor to have you on the show.
Jen Williams: I appreciate you and WeVideo welcoming in and thank you for all that you all do too.