Climate Change: What Educators Can Learn from Students Around the World
Scientists agree that humanity only has a few years to slash greenhouse gas emissions to prevent—or at least limit—the most catastrophic potential impacts of climate change. Without action, experts warn that there could be innumerable extreme weather events, endless droughts and food shortages, tens of millions of climate refugees, the inexorable spread of infectious diseases, and a sixth mass-extinction event.
Young people see this moment as a battle for their future. On March 15, more than a million students around the world marched out of school demanding that their governments take action on climate change. They are calling for policy decisions about climate change that are informed by scientific research and for a profound shift in global energy systems away from fossil fuels. Yet, there is a gap between student concerns and the ways in which school curricula address those concerns; as a new poll from NPR reveals, most teachers don’t teach climate change.
As climate action becomes more urgent, we as teachers can empower students with climate literacy and advocate for those who want to strike or engage in other forms of activism. We can encourage students to hone their communication skills and experience the power of action as a force for political and social change. We can help students gain crucial climate knowledge—and not just in science class.
Leading with Literature
English and humanities teachers can support students in their climate education, even while taking on so many other pressing social issues, such as structural racism, white supremacy, and gender equality, to name just a few. Climate change connects to all of these, and through readings and discussion, students can explore the entwined histories of the civil rights and environmental movements or contemporary connections between Black Lives Matter and climate justice.
Opportunities for climate education exist in the material teachers are already teaching. The Great Gatsby consistently ranks among the most frequently taught books in U.S. high school English classes. Teachers can leverage the novel’s tension between pastoral imagery and the “valley of ashes” in order to teach students about climate-related issues such as energy use and sacrifice zones. Illuminating such connections helps students recognize and interrogate their assumptions about the relationships between humans and nature, as well as explore topics related to climate justice.
In our classes we’re also introducing new texts that respond to climate change in various ways: climate fiction (“cli-fi”) like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, comics and graphic works like Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, and nonfiction like Elizabeth Rush’s Rising.
Connecting the Dots
A multidisciplinary lens, too, can strengthen students’ understanding of climate change and inspire their activism. At San Francisco University High School, faculty in English and science are collaborating to co-teach a course called Climate Science/Climate Stories, in which students study the relationship between climate change and human experience. Students learn climate science and read literature about the natural world, often doing both in the same lesson. The student work that emerges from this class reveals the expansive thinking and sense of expertise students gain by looking at a problem through multiple lenses: One student inked a comic about an environmental cleanup project in San Francisco’s Bayview district; another used photography and writing to imagine his bayside neighborhood under different sea-level rise scenarios; another created an interactive website exploring the relationship between food waste and climate change.
Students appreciate opportunities for immersive projects that connect them to place and ground them in the sense of wonder that can balance the despair of climate change. In Phillips Exeter Academy’s Green Umbrella Learning Lab—a design thinking course in sustainability—students pitch and carry out term-long sustainability projects that benefit their community. They lean into the interdisciplinarity of these projects, nurturing relationships across traditional boundaries—of disciplines, yes, but also of faculty and staff, of school and town. One group of students created a campus bike-share program called Redbikes; another group researched water quality and worked with town officials to increase community awareness about carcinogens in the water supply; and still another group partnered with a local pizza shop to design, market, and implement a sustainable pizza box to combat cardboard waste.
Students crave opportunities to better their communities and to reshape their own lives in sustainable ways. It is not just about hope; it is about making change. At Choate Rosemary Hall, as part of the school’s year-long Environmental Immersion Program (EIP) students take a range of environmental classes, from ecology to environmental literature, and conduct their own environmentally focused research projects. Over the course of a year in this residential program, students practice the arts of sustainable living, and they leave with both the knowledge and agency to pursue further environmental studies and, most importantly, to effect positive change in their own communities.
In all these units, classes, and programs, students are invited to grapple with the sticky problems of the present and to imagine and enact sustainable, just, and flourishing futures.
Inspiring More Action
Students are caretakers of our collective future. We will continue to support them as they reject the inaction of world leaders and claim #FridaysforFuture. But Fridays aren’t enough. We want to talk about climate change throughout the week, too. Teachers can act by developing curricula and working toward educational reform, and by building their own climate change literacy through organizations like 350.org and Climate Generation. Exeter’s Environmental Literature Institute (ELI) provides professional development specifically for teachers. Founded in 2016 with the intention of building a community of environmental educators, ELI nurtures environmental curriculum innovation, connects teachers across disciplines, and empowers them to support students.
Often, teachers in the U.S. feel confined by standards, isolated in their schools, and disconnected from one another. The courageous teachers who have held their own strikes and marches across the nation in recent months have shown us that they often don’t have the resources to meet the immediate, daily needs of their students, let alone the sense of empowerment to meet a pressing need like climate change. But if there’s anything the young people in this movement have shown us, it’s that “no one is too small to make a difference.”
Students like Greta Thunberg, Isra Hirsi, Alexandria Villasenor, Haven Coleman, and other climate strike organizers who instigated this movement are bold and imaginative. Every student who chooses to strike, to study climate change, to care about the planet, to reject the cynicism of our political systems compels us to teach and inspires us to act. Young people around the world are leading the way. It’s time for their teachers to follow.
artwork by Judith Edwards ('19), San Francisco University High School (CA)