Exploring Environmental Literacy through Global Book Bags

By Emily M. Schell, Ed.D.|April 24, 2018

“Kate felt the trees were her friends. She loved the way they reached toward the sky and how their branches stretched wide to catch the light. Trees seemed to Kate like giant umbrellas that sheltered her and the animals, birds, and plants that lived in the forest. Not everyone feels at home in the woods. But Kate did.”

This excerpt is taken from The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever, a children’s book written by H. Joseph Hopkins about Kate Sessions. The book describes a curious young girl who loved the outdoors and had a passion for trees, graduated as the first woman to earn a science degree from the University of California, and later became known as the Mother of Balboa Park after planting trees from around the world in San Diego’s city park and surrounding region.

Books like The Tree Lady belong in the hands of young readers to inform and inspire them as global citizens. These stories bring environmental literacy to life for students to learn about natural systems and how they interact with human activities. Some stories provide role models for students to investigate further and present characteristics that students aspire to adopt. Consider these additional selections:

  • Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World (Laurie Lawlor): With a passion for the natural world, Carson endured many challenges to pursue her studies in science. Her research and observations led to a writing career, which produced the best-selling book Silent Spring and led to new practices to protect the environment.
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa (Jeanette Winters): After years away from her home in Kenya to study abroad, Wangari Maathai returned to find extreme deforestation. Despite challenges, she began a planting revolution across the country and earned a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle (Claire A. Nivola): Since she was a child, Sylvia loved plants, animals, and the water. This tells the story of her life as an oceanographer who studies and cares for the natural world. More importantly, she advocates for marine protected areas around the world.

The International Studies Teacher Education Project (ISTEP), one of the California International Studies Project regional sites at San Diego State University, set out several years ago to help elementary teachers teach global education through high quality children’s literature. The Global Book Bag program invites teachers to explore engaging books with global themes to share with their students. Some teachers present these books as a read aloud to the whole class and others add the titles to their classroom libraries or learning centers. Others adopt the program as presented and create a class set of book bags to send home each week with students.

What is a Global Book Bag? A book bag is comprised of a bag that holds an age-appropriate book with a global theme, a two-page set of instructions, and whatever materials are needed to complete the learning activity described in the instructions. Materials might include a map, interactive journal, colored pencils, a graphic organizer, artifacts, or photos. The bag itself can be a canvas tote (teachers typically have lots of these from conferences and meetings) or might be a DIY project that engages students in creating bags from T-shirts that are ready for reuse. Students might bring in old T-shirts for this project, or the teacher might visit a thrift store or seek donations from colleagues, friends, or local organizations with leftover T-shirts from an event.  

How do Global Book Bags work? With a different book title in each book bag, students take home one book bag every week. They read the book and complete the learning activities with support from a parent, guardian, or older sibling in the home. Students return the book bag to school and share what they learned. The teacher checks and refreshes each bag (i.e., adds new copy of graphic organizer) and sends each student home with a new book bag weekly. The book bags rotate from student to student until they have all experienced every book bag. With a class of 32 students, a teacher has 32 different book bags, and 32 weeks of homework that promotes literacy, global themes, and potentially environmental literacy.

Consider these selections:

  • The Table Where Rich People Sit (Byrd Baylor): A young girl questions her family’s wealth as she observes other students having more material goods. She learns about the value of living life in harmony with nature and others as her parents challenge her to place a monetary value on the environmental qualities of their home.
  • Why Should I Recycle? (Jen Green): Children learn all about recycling, reusing, and composting from their teacher who takes them on field trips to learn the different paths that waste can take. In the end, students integrate these practices into their daily routines.
  • Rain School (James Rumford): Students in Chad begin their school year by rebuilding the schoolhouse after the rainy season washes away the building.
  • The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (Jeanette Winters): As a child, Jane loved to observe nature. She watched carefully and made notes about her observations. As an adult, Jane used her interests and skills to learn about chimpanzees — later teaching the world about these fascinating animals.

Global Book Bag learning activities are designed around the information and ideas presented in each book. With environmentally themed book bags, the learning activities promote the California Environmental Principles and Concepts. For example, One Well: The Story of Water on Earth is a book filled with information about water – the water cycle, access to fresh water, how water is used around the world, water pollution, etc. In this book bag, students learn about Principle 3: Natural systems proceed through cycles that humans depend upon, benefit from, and can alter. To do so, students are instructed to read the book and complete a three-column graphic organizer making notes under the headings, “Why people need water”, “How people can benefit from access to water”, and “How people can alter access to water.” Afterwards, students use the same organizer to record how they used, benefitted from, and altered water’s natural cycle to gain access during a 24-hour period. A written summary statement requires students to describe what they will do to conserve water and why. Students are left with greater understandings about water as well as their own dependence on and use of water. Beyond understanding the issues related to water, students consider taking actions that help protect fresh water reserves.

Teachers interested in accessing a book list for teaching Environmental Literacy can find a downloadable document, which is updated every other month, on the ISTEP website. Another book list is provided organizing titles under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Many of these goals support environmental literacy, including:

  • Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation — Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy — Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
  • Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities — Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable
  • Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production — Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Goal 13: Climate Action — Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact
  • Goal 14: Life Below Water — Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Goal 15: Life on Land — Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

A collection of instructions for Global Book Bags are found on the website as well. However, more titles focused on environmental literacy are needed. Teachers in San Diego and Long Beach are working on growing this collection as they participate in Saturday workshops and pour their creative ideas into learning resources for students across the state. If you would like additional information about Global Book Bags, or are interested in hosting a workshop in your region, please contact me at eschell@sdsu.edu.

Emily M. Schell, Ed.D.
This article was written by Emily M. Schell, Ed.D.

Emily M. Schell is Executive Director of the California Global Education Project, based at San Diego State University, and leads the statewide network providing professional learning programs in global education for K–12 educators. She is a former teacher, principal, history–social science coordinator, liaison to National Geographic Education, pre-service educator, and author of the state Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum. With great respect for the environment, educators, and students, Schell serves as a co-chair on the California Environmental Literacy Initiative. She also served on the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit Education Affiliate Steering Committee representing the California Subject Matter Project, and now serves on the 2019 UC–CSU Sustainability Education Summit Steering Committee.


  • Alune issack mwaipopo

    Thanks for sharing am from Tanzania-east africa, but i want to get this book so am asking in what way i can get a book