In 2019, Batesville (Ind.) Intermediate School began a book club using selections inspired by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the organization’s blueprint for addressing global challenges like poverty and climate change by 2030. Batesville’s students use lessons they glean from the club to engage with their community and the world, earning the school the American Library Association’s 2020 Sara Jaffarian School Library Program Award for Excellence in Humanities Programming.
No poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, and quality education: These are some of the 17 SDGs the UN established in 2015. In May 2019, the UN launched the SDG Book Club; each month, it posts on the club website a selection of books for children ages 6–12 that illustrate a particular SDG to help young people interact with these principles.
Our school launched the Junior Ambassadors program in August 2019, using the SDG Book Club as a springboard to introduce students to a more global perspective on world issues. Twenty-four 4th- and 5th-graders met for 30 minutes four days a week to read, discuss, research, learn, plan, and execute the sharing of knowledge and solutions to these issues. Fellow teacher Angie Moster and I used the book club to initiate discussion, then offered additional opportunities for junior ambassadors to build knowledge of SDG topics such as poverty and hunger through research activities, special projects, and guest speakers. What began as a desire to help small-town children expand their views of the world grew into a broader program that affected our school, community, and beyond.
The UN’s recommendation of Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg was perfect for our junior ambassadors to begin their study of the first SDG: no poverty. Its story demonstrates how poverty, hunger, health, and education are interwoven. The book is set in Haiti, so Angie and I invited members of local Haitian ministry groups to speak to the program participants. The speakers gave students new perspectives on activism and commitment. They shared how their groups try to meet immediate needs while creating long-term sustainable solutions to global problems.
In September 2019, the junior ambassadors used their newfound knowledge of the SDGs to create multimedia lessons, sharing them with the other 480 students in our grades 3–5 building. The 24 ambassadors worked in pairs that were each assigned two classrooms. There, groups led five 25-minute lessons—both in person and virtually because of the pandemic—that used one of the SDG Book Club’s recommended picture books.
Our study of the second SDG—zero hunger—gave junior ambassadors an opportunity to organize and execute a read-a-thon to raise funds for the Grain of Rice Project’s school initiative in Kenya. The nonprofit’s cofounder, Amy Ahiga, who grew up in a nearby community in Indiana, spoke to and inspired our students with her passion for helping others and her goal of building a school outside Nairobi.
The read-a-thon raised $3,200, with one-third of the proceeds coming back to our school. Junior ambassadors were so taken with Serafina’s Promise and Ahiga’s message that they used the read-a-thon profits to help children in Haiti. Students bought 300 jars of peanut butter and 526 tubes of toothpaste, which were sent to Haiti in early 2020.
These projects helped junior ambassadors strengthen their collaboration and leadership abilities. Students also gained experience with practical skills such as using shared presentation tools and spreadsheets, graphic design, usage rights, and media releases. Future students in the program will review previously studied SDGs as well as new ones, so all students will be familiar with the 17 SDGs by the end of their three years at Batesville Intermediate School.
With no preconceived notions, and by giving students ownership and opportunities, the program has unfolded into something much more than a book club. Junior ambassadors can look back on the 2019–2020 school year with pride, knowing they made a difference. With increased confidence and skills, these children will know that they can and will continue to save the world—one goal at a time.