Charlie Pettitt empowered his English as a Second Language (ESL) students in China to advocate for an issue they cared about: wildlife conservation. When Charlie connected his lesson to a topic relevant to his students, they were more willing to speak up, practice their environmental vocabulary, and explore solutions. Charlie works with a variety of ages, from children to adults, and implemented this project with eighth-graders.
In your National Geographic Educator Certification project, what inspired you to apply the topic of animal rights/conservation to an ESL context?
I first became interested in animal rights during a scuba diving internship in Thailand. I was shown a documentary called Sharkwater that covered the trade of shark finning. I was appalled that consumers knew so little about the process behind shark fin soup.
Shortly after that summer, I began teaching ESL at a school in China. In my speaking and discussion classes, I discovered that students were more willing to speak up when we covered topics relevant to China. I realized this would be a good opportunity to discuss the process behind shark fin soup. Using China’s national treasure, the giant panda, I was able to initiate a debate about animal rights with my students. After sparking their interest, I challenged them to investigate the issues behind shark finning and other animal rights and conservation issues.
How did you make this project visual, and how did that influence student learning?
In the first part of the lesson, students watched two National Geographic video clips, “Giant Pandas 101” and “Elusive Giant Panda,” and examined a map that compared the range of panda habitats in the past to the present. This helped students see panda conservation as a success story and gain a better understanding of their environmental history.
The second part of the lesson involved creating informative advocacy posters. Students selected appropriate photographs to illustrate the plight of animals such as tigers, bears, and sharks. The students chose visuals that made their posters eye-catching and helped others to empathize with the conditions of these animals.
How did your project impact students? Was there a change in thought process, behavior, or perspective?
Overall, I was very impressed by the curiosity and maturity that the group demonstrated in tackling sensitive issues that are not usually discussed in the Chinese education system. After learning more about the issues, students quickly turned their attention to finding solutions. They realized they could influence their communities by raising awareness. They felt empowered by the task; it gave them the purpose and motivation they needed to enthusiastically participate and engage throughout the lesson.
How has this project influenced your teaching?
After seeing the students react so positively to being challenged with controversial topics, I have felt brave enough to introduce other contentious issues to the group. In my experience, holding classroom debates can really push students to engage and develop critical thinking skills. I start by introducing a controversial topic to the class, then have students work together to list positive and negative aspects of the issue.
When I split them into two teams for the debate, some students may have to argue for a position that they don’t agree with so they can practice seeing an issue from another perspective. As an ESL teacher, I want my students to learn how to communicate with people from all over the world, not only with a different language, but with tolerance for other opinions.
Interested in joining Charlie as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.
This interview has been edited and condensed.