ESOL, Sustainably

I took part in a really interesting #esolchat on Monday on Twitter on the topic of environmentally sustainable practice in ESOL. Like many people, I try to live and work in an environmentally friendly way, and sometimes I do well, and other times rather less well. Now, this is not an authoritative account by any measure, but I have been thinking a lot about my practices, personal and professional, in terms of the environmental impact.

First of all, let’s be clear, environmental impact is a hugely complex topic. For example, according to Mike Berners-Lee’s brilliant book How Bad Are Bananas, a thin lightweight plastic bag has a carbon footprint equivalent of 3g whereas a recycled paper bag is four times that (once you go up in size & quality, of course, things change dramatically – supermarket “bags for life” create 50g and those nice designer paper bags made of virgin paper create a massive 80g). However, there are other impacts to using a thin plastic bag, and as Berners-Lee points out, you are better off using a reusable bag like a rucksack, or even just no bag at all if you can manage it.

Secondly, everything, everything we do has a impact on the environment. We could get really really hung up on this, but simply by being alive we have a carbon footprint, using resources, and so on. And before you throw yourself under a bus in despair, this too creates a massive environmental impact: emergency vehicles (at least 3, probably), hospitals, flowers at your funeral… Seriously, don’t. The issue is one of balance, not of abstinence.

So how bad are we at work, then, and what can we do about it? I try not to think about the pens I have thrown away in the past. I used to casually lob old board pens into the bin with reckless abandon, and probably still would. But what other classroom habits are there which I could address?

Display boards, whether interactive or not, are tricky. I suspect, however, that a well cared for old fashioned whiteboard using recyclable and/or refillable pens is probably less damaging than a modern interactive whiteboard, and probably a blackboard and chalk is better than both (I could be wrong). We use, for example, rather brilliant (I have to admit) boards which are effectively large touchscreen TVs – no projector, and if need be no computer. They should last plenty of time, and I hope we will recycle them properly at the end of their useful lives.

I did some quick calculations using various online calculators – this is very much back of the envelope stuff, and assumes we are using the standard electricity supply at work,

Our current IWBs are this model which has a consumption rating of 107 watts. To work out energy consumption we need to multiply that by the amount of time we use it and divide it by 1000 to get kwh (kilowatts of energy per hour, sort of).

So for our IWBs, used for 6 hours a day, gives us 0.642kwh. I’m going to assume that they are in use for around 5 days a week, 35 weeks a year so that takes the use of a single IWB of this sort up to 112kwh, roughly 26kg of carbon emissions according to this calculator. Not so much, really, when you consider that sitting in a queue of traffic for 5 miles can cost 22kg per day. But things add up quickly. In my building alone there are around 30 or so of these, which makes it up to an annual carbon cost of 780kg. This is consumption alone and we’ve not touched on things like the costs of producing the things, transporting them, installing them, maintaining them, and, eventually, the environmental impact of getting rid of them, with all the various nasties that are inside. We also rarely use them without a computer, so we’d have to factor in that cost as well. Berners-Lee gives us around 12g per hour, so 35x5x12 = 422g, so let’s just say 0.5kg a year for use, plus 50kg per year manufacturing, transport etc., assuming we use the laptop for 4 years, multiplied by 30 again (one per room) takes us to 1515kg. Oh, but then there’s the cloud storage, the servers, and all the other stuff that use of an IWB encourages, which frankly is just too complex for me to work out here but is a lot more than you might think. So the annual carbon consumption needed for 30 rooms to run IWBs is in the region of 2000kg of carbon per year, and that’s left out some pretty big costs that I don’t have time to find. Even so, that’s at least 2 tonnes of carbon being chucked into the environment just for PowerPoint.

What about per teacher? Based on these figures, me teaching one hour in one room with a laptop and an IWB comes to around 25g of carbon for the board and 12g for the laptop, or 37g per hour. I teach 840 hours a year on my current contract, so that takes my fairly conservative estimate up to around 31kg of carbon emitted during a year of teaching. For perspective, that’s not much more than your traffic filled commute. Doesn’t sound so bad, perhaps, but multiply that up for a big college of some 500 teachers and it’s 155 tonnes of carbon.

Then there’s printing. According to this site at least, 100,000 sheets of fresh virgin paper has a carbon footprint of around 6000kg. That’s a lot of carbon, but then again, that’s a lot of paper. If printed, leaving aside the production costs of the machine, a single printed page apparently gives us around 1g of carbon dioxide. I have around 18 students in each class, across each, for 10 sessions. assuming 2 sheets per student per lesson, that’s 360 printed pages a week.

Hang on, let me check that, because that suddenly feels like a lot of paper.

No, that’s 360 pages. A WEEK. Wow.

Across a year based on 35 teaching weeks that’s 12.6kg of carbon. That’s a lot less than the IWB etc., but again, multiply that up for your 500 teachers and you’re into 6 tonnes. It goes down a lot with recycled paper, possibly 50%, but even so that’s a lot of paper. This is all assuming two pages printed on one side, but I’m not sure the printing costs of double sided printing will add much to the base carbon cost of the paper. And yes, I do regularly use 2 sheets or fewer per lesson.

Printing, plus laptop plus IWB then comes to 33.6 kg of carbon dioxide emissions for the basic tools of the job. Paper has got a lot of bad press, but actually even with these very very rough caluculations, with all sorts of conservative estimates and dubious sources, a paper based course, using materials printed on a laser printer, is likely to be much less damaging environmentally. Sure, if you are printing 10 pages per student per week, then that’s a scary amount, and actually close to equal the use of the electronic devices, but simple paper is also much much easier and less resource intensive to recycle, and again, using recycled rather than virgin paper means you could be looking at about half the emissions.

Rooms will need heating and lighting, of course, and then there’s the appliances in the staffroom kitchen, and goodness knows what else. Moving away from carbon emissions, there’s also the matter of cleaning chemicals around the buildings. Then there’s the disposal of materials, for example in FE from practical sessions in creative industries, hair and beauty, motor vehicle engineering, construction and so on. This year’s end of year art show could easily become next year’s landfill. I’m pretty sure all these areas now have a sustainability element, which would include safe disposal of chemicals and materials, but even so, it still has to go somewhere even if it’s not into landfill or poured straight into a river.

So: what to do? I’m an ESOL teacher, so that final point is much less of an issue than for others. However, any changes can only have a cumuluative effect. An easy one is the pointless writing down of instructions, whether on a whiteboard or on paper. We are conditioned, through habit and use of published materials, to include a task instruction on a handout. Let’s say for your E1 lesson on adverbs of frequency, you have 10 single line gap fill sentences in 14 point Comic Sans, with a nice title, some instructions, set at 1.5 line spacing, which would comfortably fill a full page. We could get rid of the title and the instructions, use a lighter, smaller font, shift the margins, and suddenly you can get two per page with minimal, if any, impact on learning. Sounds like a fuss? Maybe, but then again that’s a carbon footprint reduction of 50%. Not bad for five minutes.

Alternatively, does the activitiy need a handout? Unprinted paper is much less environmentally damaging than printed paper, and if you use recycled paper, that’s a huge benefit. So what about dictating sentences for grammar practice from time to time? (If you’re thinking that sounds a bit boring for the students, consider that a) they will practice writing and spelling, and b) clip art and comic sans does not make a gap fill interesting.) And no, you don’t need to put the instructions on the board either? If you’re using it anyway, then maybe? Certainly I use just the board and get students to copy things, for example.

Full texts are a little more challenging, but I’ve tried a couple of tasks which mean that the students write their own questions, for example. Alternatively I dictate a list of words and/or numbers and ask the students to identify their relevance in the text. For gist, the old “predict the content” from the title and students read to identify their ideas is an easy go to. In terms of follow up language work as well, you can ask students to underline key words or structures and use verbal questions to get students to focus on the language in the text. One piece of printout for the students, no IWB at all.

I use scrap paper a lot too. I have a pile of postcard sized paper which I bring to every class, made from old handouts cut up. These are given to the students with questions, challenges, error correction, etc. on as I go round the room. Instead of writing and printing flashcards, get students to create their own on these.

And remember as well that at the heart of every ESOL class is human interaction, and without it you’ve just got a teacher telling students about grammar. Interaction, lockdowns nothwithstanding, needs no technology. Why do you need to write down discussion questions, for example? Why not just ask the students the first question and then see where the discussion goes, feeding new questions as the task progresses?

Reusable resources have a place here as well: laminated copies of photographs, for example, have a huge potential for jumping off points for lessons, and could be used incredibly effectively. Pictures of places, for example, could be used to start role plays, situational and functional language, locational language, alll sorts. Students take a picture and you lead with verbal prompts like “What place is it?” then “Where?” “What do people do there?” “What do you say when…?” Take them in, clean them off, use them again.

Like I said above, though, it’s a whole lot more complex than people think. The thing I haven’t really touched on here is embodying the environmental values in your own life outside of work: after all we are much more than the jobs we do, and that goes for the environment too. I know I’m far from perfect, but there’s something hypocritical about inisisting people cut the amount of paper we use at work, while at the same time driving to work in a massive gas guzzler. I don’t like saying that, because I don’t want to put people off reducing paper, etc., at work, but to get these things right, you have to think about all aspects of your life. We need think about it ecologicially in the broadest sense of the word: how do our lives interact with the world and the environment around us.

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