During a recent Portrait of a Graduate Student Summit held in Oceanside, young people were asked what skills they thought would be needed in the future. One high school senior replied, “I need to know how to live in a burning world.” Sadly, that theme was echoed many times throughout the day. The environmental concerns expressed saddened me for obvious reasons, one of which is that eco-anxiety is real and none feel it more than the students of today whose futures will undoubtedly be affected.
As an educator and environmentalist who has been working to raise awareness and take action to address the plastic pollution problem, I have conducted many presentations for school groups (Making to Make a Difference) and organizations such as the North County Climate Change Alliance (Climate Connections: Impacts and Solutions). Bringing the topic forward through art with a focus on hope and empowerment continues to be a highlight of my career.
Over time, I have become even more deeply involved in climate change education efforts. In fact, I participated in a year-long Climate Champions project developed through partnerships with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Birch Aquarium, UC San Diego, CREATE (The Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence) at UC San Diego, and the San Diego County Office of Education. As part of the ocean impacts teacher-leader team, I developed a unit on Sea Level Rise, which includes lessons and videos from NASA along with ideas for teaching argument writing through an environmental justice lens using resources from the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP).
More recently, I have been involved in an environmental education endeavor through the California Writing Project (CWP) and have also co-coordinated the San Diego Area Writing Project’s (SDAWP) Advanced Institute on Environmental Literacy and Justice. Committing to teach climate change presents challenges, but I am lucky to have Writing Project colleagues with whom I can collaborate.
Ann Zivotsky is one of those colleagues. She is a fifth grade teacher who participated in the Advanced Institute and decided to tackle climate change head-on in her classroom (read her blog post here.) Because we work in the same school district, I was able to co-teach with her to introduce her 5th graders to “climate warriors” who are directly impacted by climate change and are taking action to make a difference in their communities and beyond. The experiences of these youth activists became the material for the development of leads and conclusions for climate change opinion essays focused on solutions.
I began by showing Ann’s class several short videos produced by Unicef that highlight activists from around the world. The school where Ann teaches has a diverse student population, and the 5th graders were quite interested in learning about change makers from different places. They especially enjoyed hearing from the young women from the Philippines and Mexico, and because Del Rio is located in an area of town that also has a relatively large community of Pacific Islanders, they appreciated learning about Brianna Fruen from Samoa. Sharing the stories of diverse climate warriors allowed us to introduce students to issues of environmental justice while providing role models in whom the students could see themselves reflected.
As the fifth graders viewed the videos, we asked them to complete a graphic organizer to capture details about the climate warriors. Along with each of the activist’s names and countries, the class noted the climate impacts, experiences, and actions taken. It is essential to balance the reality of the impacts with positive examples of advocacy in order to assure students that even though climate change has harmful consequences, people can and are making a difference.
After watching the videos, we asked students to put themselves in the place of someone who experienced severe weather or other climate change related event. For example, we encouraged the class to think about what they might see, hear and feel during a storm. They were then asked to write from that point of view in order to develop essay leads that would engage readers. The example below is powerful.
In their full essays, students went on to both define climate change and offer solutions. When writing their conclusions, we asked them to circle back to their leads in order to remind readers why their solutions could make a difference for someone living in a place that has already been affected by climate change.
The entirety of the climate change lessons that Ann (and I) taught accomplished several things. Students became more knowledgeable about climate change, and they learned some simple things anyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint. They also became familiar with people who are making a difference while discovering that they too can make a difference. Finally, they developed reading, critical thinking, and writing skills, proving that climate change and environmental justice should be expanded beyond science curriculum and classrooms.
I will leave you with a video of Ann’s students talking about climate change. The video concludes with one student’s request that we “at least try.” Our lessons may not be perfect; we might not always know the answers to questions or the exact right thing to say when talking about climate change with students, but for these fifth graders, and all the other young people who are concerned about knowing how to live in a burning world, we, as educators, must try.
Leading with Climate Justice (5 minute overview video for teachers)
Leading with Climate Justice (conference presentation slides)
Climate Warriors for Environmental Justice (lesson slides)
Climate Warriors (video links)