A+ Vegan Education: How to Bring Veganism into the Classroom, From a Teacher’s Perspective
A+ Vegan Education: How to Bring Veganism into the Classroom, From a Teacher’s Perspective
I’ve spent most of the past decade teaching high school level English in several countries. When I first introduce myself to my students at the beginning of the year, I always explain that I’m vegan, since this is big part of who I am. Most students have no idea what this means, so I usually have to give a short explanation of veganism. This doesn’t really do the topic justice! With each subsequent year, I’ve come to the realization that as a teacher, the least I can do is provide my students with a basic vegan education. We study science, language, history, and current events in school, so why not learn about veganism?
My Personal Experience as a Teacher
I spent the past 4 years of my career teaching in a Hong Kong secondary school. This allowed me certain liberties and privileges in the classroom that I probably wouldn’t have received in other countries. As the only foreign teacher in my school, my job wasn’t only to teach English, but to also teach “culture.” My school let me have free rein over what I taught, even if I was dictated by a pretty narrow scheme of work. I chose lessons and units based off what I thought my students needed at the time.
For example, I often heard my students using racial slurs in my classroom. So, I devoted an entire month teaching them how to be anti-racist through discussions of slavery and the civil rights movement. I saw the ridiculous amounts of plastic they used every day with their takeaway lunches, so I devoted a full unit to the environment. This involved teaching them vocabulary and strategies related to living an eco-friendly lifestyle. I noticed how they became obsessed with pop culture trends and body image, so I spent many lessons discussing with them ideas of beauty, self-esteem, and mental health issues. This all sounds wonderful on the surface, but I did have some students who slept through many of these lessons! Through the discussions we had, however, I knew I had gotten through to some of them. That was rewarding.
As far as veganism was concerned, I initially struggled with bringing this topic into the classroom. Would I be biased towards veganism? Was it unfair for me to push my personal beliefs on students? Would parents object to vegan education? But when my department head insisted that we teach units related to health, environment, and social issues, I knew in my heart that a decent vegan education couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to teach, inform, and allow students to make their own decisions. Is school not the place where we open students’ minds to new concepts and ideas?
I decided to make my lessons about veganism interesting, informative, and engaging. I realise, however, that my approach to vegan education definitely wouldn’t work in all school environments. But I hope my suggestions here might help some teachers to make their classrooms more vegan-friendly in at least some small capacity. That’s a win for everyone, is it not?
Teach the Basics of Veganism
As with any subject or concept, teaching the facts is absolutely necessary. I would have loved to waltz into my classroom blasting the dairy industry and telling students to boycott fried chicken. That’s not the best approach to a decent vegan education. Rather, we should give students the facts and allow them to come to their own conclusions.
I divided my lessons into the different building blocks of veganism, including environment, health, and animal welfare. This allowed students to show their prior knowledge and take notes using worksheets. I found that the one-minute PETA videos were particularly effective for high school level students. These videos are short, to the point, and incredibly impactful, by showing the cruelty that takes place in slaughterhouses. I did, however, give students a warning that some of the clips might be a little graphic. If anything, this made them more excited to watch (when you give them a disclaimer, it makes students more engaged!). I wouldn’t recommend showing these clips to younger students, however.
Facts and Data
I used facts and data that I collected from various sites to relay information. Instead of saying, “Meat is bad for the environment”, I gave them actual statistics related to pollution, overfishing, and emissions. Teenagers are incredibly smart and won’t believe blanket statements: they want to see proof.
One of my favourite “ice breaker” games was to divide students into pairs, giving each an image of a food item. This included things like potatoes, apples, eggs, and beef. After deliberating amongst themselves, I asked students to stick their food on the blackboard, according to how much water they thought it took to produce each food item. Their initial guesses were hilarious, and of course, way off the mark. My favourite part of this game was to rearrange the guesses that the class had made. This always garnered huge gasps of surprise, year after year. I moved the beef completely off the blackboard, and pinned the other animal products at the highest end of water usage. All of the fruits and vegetables I clustered at the very opposite end, with the lowest amount of water used. The students couldn’t believe it.
Teenagers are also incredibly open to multimedia. Although I would never have had time to show them full documentaries related to veganism, I often showed film trailers. My go-to was the trailer for Dominion. With fantastic aerial shots of slaughterhouses, captivating music, and close-up images of the fear in animals’ eyes, this trailer is professional, emotive, and incredibly powerful. Another great option is The Game Changers trailer, which seems to really resonate well with teenage boys, especially those who are athletes.
Make it Engaging
Visuals are extremely important in any lesson, so choose what you show wisely. Of course, showing extremely graphic images of slaughterhouses may not have a positive effect (and may go against your school’s policies). Instead, I recommend showing students photos of engaging vegan-related material. This could be vegan bodybuilders, delicious vegan foods, or vegan celebrities.
This was probably the most successful element in my students’ vegan education. Although I hoped students would hang onto my every word, they need to hear it from another source to fully believe it. Luckily, I have vegan friends who are true role models and professionals in different fields, who came to speak to my class.
One year, I asked my Scottish activist friend to come to my classroom. She talked about her time volunteering at animal sanctuaries in different countries, as well as more hard-hitting experiences like attending the Yulin dog meat festival. She’s also a freelance artist who does animal portraits, so students loved seeing her incredible work and learning about how to start an art business.
Another year, I asked my friend who is a vegan chef, as well as a local Hong Konger, to come to my class. This was really meaningful to my students, seeing as she was “one of them”. She also was able to communicate extremely effectively, being able to translate certain difficult English terms into Cantonese. Students were in awe because of her experiences living abroad, starting a vegan café, and being able to speak many languages. They respected her, and thus really listened to what she had to say about veganism. She also brought them some homemade cookies, which they really loved!
Another year, I asked two of my American friends, who were health coaches and fitness experts, to visit my class. One of these women is a former body building competitor, so my students were super impressed! The guest speakers really dove into the fitness and health aspects of veganism, while sharing some of their favourite recipes. My school’s principal actually sat in on this presentation, and I could see he was learning a lot, too.
I know that rules regarding giving food to students vary around the world. In Canada, for instance, we cannot bring food into the classroom because of allergies. In Hong Kong, however, I often rewarded my students with snacks or treats for a job well done, or as prizes for games and competitions in the classroom. Bringing food into the school was completely fine, and students in Hong Kong generally don’t have food allergies.
For Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and birthdays, I often gave my students treat bags. If we watched a movie, I brought movie snacks. At the end of the year, I purchased treats for everyone. The important thing to note is that I bought vegan food, and I would tell the students, “Did you know, this is vegan?” They were usually surprised and interested. I even commissioned one of my friends, who is a vegan pastry chef, to make vegan egg tarts. Egg tarts are a famous local snack/dessert that are always made with eggs. My class was really excited and curious to try vegan egg tarts, which they absolutely loved.
I sometimes taught “culture” classes on Saturday, and I always enjoyed adding a food component to them. Students hated coming to school on Saturday, and so did I! I thought if I made the classes fun, students wouldn’t mind so much. Teenagers love food, so I thought this would be a good way to motivate them.
I put together a “taste test” of different foods. This worked particularly well for my Saturday class, where they learned about the USA and tried various American snacks that just happened to be vegan. Their task was to taste the snacks, write short reviews, and give them a rating. It was really fun seeing their reactions – they absolutely loved spicy potato chips, but hated pickles! Of course, this is an activity that’s best suited for an ESL classroom, but I could easily see this working in a native English classroom, when learning about other world cultures. You might be surprised by your students’ reactions! For example, when they learned about Australia, I couldn’t believe that they fell in love with the taste of Vegemite. Trying vegan foods from around the world shows students that veganism is popular.
For another Saturday class, I taught them about the UK, which culminated in having an all-vegan British afternoon tea. It was a lot of work to prepare this, but the students were incredibly happy! I rented out the teacher’s lunchroom and set up the cramped space like a fancy afternoon tea. I served tea sandwiches, crumpets with jam, biscuits, and other treats. Everything was vegan, including the milk for the tea. The students were impressed and loved everything, some going in for seconds and thirds, and others even taking leftovers home for their families.
I also had to design and run our school’s annual “English Week”, and I usually included a food component. One year, we had different booths for different countries in our school’s entrance hall. Students had to visit each booth and fill out information about each country into their “passport”. They then got to try a snack from that particular country. We ran this event for an entire week during lunchtime, and once students discovered they could get free (vegan) food, they came back every day!
Another year, we did a “Movie Week” and I surprisingly managed to convince my school to purchase a large, carnival-like popcorn machine. The students lined up to flavour their own popcorn, and we of course provided them with vegan toppings, such as golden syrup, matcha powder, and hot sauce. They loved it!
By the end of my time teaching in Hong Kong, my colleagues became interested in veganism, too. They often asked me what I was eating for lunch and would check the ingredients on snacks they brought into our staffroom. For my farewell lunch, my department head took the whole department to a nearby local vegan restaurant! They even ordered me a special vegan cake for my last day at the school. I was really impressed with the gesture, but even more happy about the fact that they learned so much about veganism during my time working there.
I had a small bookshelf in the back of my classroom, where I encouraged students to borrow books from. On that shelf, I had a vegan kids cookbook and a vegan colouring book, which I noticed that students borrowed sometimes. The girls in my class really enjoyed colouring during their break times. I remember after one of my lessons, a boy asked to take the cookbook home so he could try making vegan food!
If you have a bookshelf in your classroom, include some vegan-friendly titles.
It’s important to include websites on the worksheets and PowerPoint slides where students can find out more information. They may want to learn more about veganism but might be too embarrassed to ask. Giving them the tools to find out more on their own is key! I also suggest linking to some local vegan restaurants. This will show them that eating vegan is easy and accessible.
Pamphlets and Stickers
I reached out to some local organizations like the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the Hong Kong Veg Society, and Fur Free Asia and got some pamphlets and stickers. I didn’t hand these out to the students, but I had them available at the back of my class for them to take home if they so wished. These were very useful because they were written in traditional Chinese, not English, so that the students could understand them better and further their vegan education.
Any good teacher knows that just speaking at the front of the class is not the most effective form of teaching. For students to really be actively engaged in the lesson, they need to be involved somehow.
Anyone who learns about veganism for the first time is bound to have loads of questions. The same goes for students in a classroom! When guest speakers came to the class, I had students come up with questions beforehand. This insured that they really thought in-depth about vegan education. I also marked the students’ worksheets, so they had to include a question to ask, or they would risk losing marks. Even if the question wasn’t particularly good, at least it got them thinking! It’s important to welcome students’ questions about veganism.
Another idea is to have students put anonymous questions into a hat, that you can read at the end of the lessons. I used this strategy when I was teaching Sexual Health in the UK. Students often had questions but were too embarrassed or shy to ask them in front of their peers. This method would work equally well when discussing veganism, especially in an ESL environment, since students might be unsure of their questions or a bit shy asking them.
Journal writing is a wonderful way for students to reflect on various topics and share their ideas and opinions. In my class, I marked each journal entry, so students generally put a lot of thought and care into what they wrote. They often consulted their vocabulary lists that were related to the journal topics too.
Some of my favourite journal topics I assigned to them were related to veganism. I would ask them questions such as: “Should wearing fur be illegal?” or “Could you ever cut meat out of your life?” I loved reading their responses. I made it quite clear to my class that I didn’t necessarily want them to agree with my personal view on these topics. Rather, I was more interested in their thoughts and explanations.
Many students reflected on their own cultural beliefs and their family values when answering these questions. Others talked about their personal views on nutrition and animal welfare. Even if I didn’t always agree with them, it was interesting seeing their thought processes. And this led to further discussions, with me giving them a mark and asking some more probing questions to them in the margins.
Sometimes, I would get students to read their journals to the class, and in the case of some really well-written pieces, have them published in our school’s newsletter or anthology. This really opened up the minds of fellow students (and even staff!), encouraging more discussion and debate.
By the end of my time at my school, everyone I interacted with had a basic vegan education – which is a huge feat, in my mind.
As you can see, incorporating vegan education into the classroom is possible. It’s important to be mindful and respectful of your school’s policies, the students’ ability level, and the overall school culture. You also don’t want to shove your beliefs down students’ throats! I feel like parents would strongly object to that method. Instead, approach veganism as a concept that can be researched, debated, and discussed, like any other topic learned in the classroom.
Vegan education doesn’t need to be political or controversial. Give students the information and allow them to come to their own conclusions. Be a good role model and share positive aspects of your vegan lifestyle with them. The point is not to make students immediately go vegan; instead, it’s to sow seeds in their young minds that will perhaps blossom later in life.
Note: all school images have been used online with permission