UN SDGS: Genrefying with Global Citizenship in Mind

[Danny Glasner, American International School of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City]

Grade 4 Teacher Michelena and her students

I had been thinking about genrefying a collection using the UN Global Goals for some time. I had wanted to do so in Thailand, as it perfectly fit the ethos of my previous school and the PYP Exhibition was being viewed through the lenses of the 17 SDGs… and then Covid19 happened.

Soon after arriving in Ho Chi Minh, I found a kindred spirit in one of the Grade 4 teachers, Michelena is her name (her Twitter handle is @MichMcphers23 and (along with a Secondary Individuals and Society teacher) she is fostering the learning of, and taking action upon the Global Goals at the American International School Vietnam, where we both work. She is also a member of Compass Education, a non-profit organisation made up of students, teachers, administrators and non-formal educators, registered in the US and based in Thailand.

We started by asking some driving questions. As educators, how do we make the SDGs more accessible to younger learners? How do we inculcate among our students, a love and passion for service?

Michelena and I teamed up with her grade 4 students to pilot the genrefication of our non-fiction collection in the library. This is a big library, with a lot of books, so no simple task indeed. Also, these students were relatively new to the concept of SDGs and service, so what would they be capable of doing? Turns out, quite  a lot! Michelena’s class came in every Monday (and during many breaks) to help keep the genrefication train moving along the rails.

The Sustainability Compass is a key tool in Compass Education

Compass Education organizes the 17 Global Goals under 4 Compass Points.  Seventeen of anything is hard to remember (even for adults), whereas Nature, Economy, Society and Well-Being easily stick in the minds of people of all ages.

The students started by taking the 500’s in the Dewey Decimal System (Maths and Sciences) and compassing them. If the book was about individual health, then it got compassed under Well-Being, if it was about producing affordable clean energy, it fell under Economy, if the book was about Life Below Water, then it fell under Nature

In preparation for this blog post, I asked 6 of her students a few reflective questions.

Tell me about your experiences learning about SDGs and the Compass.

Most students replied as Kylie did, “My experience in learning the SDGs and Compass points was fun and helps me learn more about the problems of the world and how to fix them.” 

 Tell me about your experience in the Library genrefying the non-fiction section. What has been easy? What’s been difficult?

Fiji responded,  “I am very happy to be one of the 6 people being interviewed about sorting the books. I think it was easy but also hard because some books are a bit hard to sort and find where they belong. It was a very good experience helping the library and kids to understand what the Global Goals are.”

Do you feel that you understand the goals better now that you’ve helped genrefy the books in the Library? Please explain.

Alice, a fan of exclamation marks wrote back, “yes I did  !!! Because basically it helped me learn while doing it !!!”

Without further ado, let’s bring on the other stars of our show, the globally diverse books!


What Matters by Alison Hughes, illustrated by Holly Hatam (2016) / Canada

A young boy picks up a single piece of litter not realising how many consequences result from that one act. “What matters” links to SDG 15 Life on Land, how nature is all connected.

The publisher Orca Books has a blog post where they suggest a “litter bug” arts and crafts activity based on the book.

Note: this title is available via Epic Books.


Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Henriqueta Cristina (Portugal), illustrated by Yara Kono (Brazil)(2015), translated from Portuguese by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (2017) / Published in partnership with Amnesty International

This picture book, based on a true story, is about a family that moves from Fascist Portugal, becoming refugees in Algeria and Romania, before ending up in Communist Czechoslovakia in the Cold War period of the 1960s.

Maria Popova on her Brainpickings website did a beautiful, long review of the book, exploring it as an allegory protesting enforced conformity under different political regimes. She notes that the book ends with the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This story links with SDG 16 Peace and Justice, but more broadly links to all the goals reminding us of the importance of protecting basic human rights.


Rice from Heaven: The secret mission to feed North Korea by Tina M. Cho, illustrated by Keum Jin Song (2018) / Korea

This picture book is based on a rice balloon project from 2016 to send rice to hungry North Koreans from South Korea.

The story links with SDG 1 No Poverty, SDG 2 Zero Hunger, SDG 3 Good Health and Well-Being, SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities. 

On her webpage, the author provides links to a teachers’ guide for grades K-3, a teachers’ guide for grades 3-6, and a link to a blog post with additional activities.

Note: this title is available via Epic Books.


The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson (AnishinaabeKwe) (2017)
The Water Walker / Nibi Emosaawdang by Joanne Robertson (AnishinaabeKwe), Translated into Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) by Shirley Williams and Isadore Toulouse (2019) / Bilingual edition / Menominee translations by Dawn Wilber also available

“The Water Walker” links to SDG 14 Life Below Water as well as SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production.

It’s the story of Nokomis (Ojibwe word for grandmother) walking to raise awareness for our need to protect water for future generations.

On the publisher’s website are two pages — see here and here — with teachers’ guides, coloring pages, paper dolls, vocabulary sheets, etc.


Queenie: One Elephant’s Story by Corinne Fenton, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (2006) / Australia

“Queenie” is the story of one elephant taken from her homeland in India around the turn of the 20th century,  to the Melbourne Zoo.

From the age of 9 Queenie was a beloved feature attraction, carrying approximately 500 people per day, 6 days a week on her back around the zoo. Unfortunately, the story has a sad ending.  One September day in 1944, after a long, tiring day of carrying  passengers around the zoo, while Queenie was walking back to her enclosure,  she crushed her keeper Wilfred Lawson. No one really knows what happened, but in July 1945 Queenie was put to sleep.

This book links with SDG 15 Life on Land. 

The publisher has produced a PDF of classroom ideas to go with this book — see here.


Every Last Drop: Bringing clean water home by Michelle Mulder (2014) / Canada

Every Last Drop reminds us that every day thousands of people, mostly children, die from drinking dirty water because they don’t have access to clean water, linking perfectly with SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. This book shares how people all around the world are finding creative ways to collect and clean water.

Michelle Mulder also wrote Trash Talk, uncovering the many innovative ways people of the world are dealing with waste. 


Follow the Moon Home: A tale of one idea, twenty kids, and a hundred sea turtles by Philippe Cousteau and Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Meilo So (2016)

Written by Philippe Jr (the grandson of Jacque Cousteau) and Deborah Hopkinson, this book tells the story of how young people took action, making a big difference in saving baby loggerhead turtles.

The story links with SDG 14 Life Below Water, SDG 15 Life on Land, and SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production. 


Danny Glasner‘s journey as an educator began as an elementary homeroom teacher, but he has been a technology coach, learning support, and for the past five years a primary school and whole school teacher librarian. The library brings many of Danny’s passions together; love of reading, technology, diversity, justice, mindfulness and service all with a heavy dollop of empathy. It’s a safe space, where the entire learning community is made to feel welcome and seen. Danny utilises his network to bring people together, to help children connect ideas, and to amplify their actions by broadening their audience. His passion for connecting people and ideas inspired him to start up #inTLlead, a grassroots teacher librarian leadership group, and #inTLchat, a Twitter hashtag and chat that connects librarians all over the world. He also joined #PubPDAsia as one of the founding city hosts. He is also a founding member and ally of #wlead, a women’s leadership group in education. Twitter: @dannyglasner


Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books that relate to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goals together.

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