Teaching Hope in a Climate Crisis

Today I was on the Kojo Nnamdi show! Live radio is an exhilarating and terrifying experience – not least because now everything is recorded for the podcast and sent out via Twitter.  Check out the show here. The topic was teaching about climate change and justice as a strategy for giving young people hope in the current climate crisis.  Since joining Whittle School and Studios, I have received incredible support for incorporating this topic into our curriculum and it came together beautifully for our 7th graders this past fall.   

It is known that the Thursday before winter break is NOT the time to be ambitious.  If there is ever time for a movie or a pajama party, the days leading up to a two-week vacation are it.  But at Whittle, we are constantly trying to defy conventional educational wisdom, so of course, the Thursday before break we were being ambitious. 

Our 7thgraders had been working hard towards their culminating project:  a simulation of an Indigenous climate summit where they would represent the perspectives of Indigenous people from around the world.  The goal was to prepare a set of resolutions to “send” to the UN outlining the climate challenges global indigenous groups were facing and the solutions needed to mitigate those challenges.  

This project brought together a STEM study of deep time and extinction level events with the examination of early American history through an Indigenous lens that we did in humanities.  We always try to incorporate arts education practices and the performative nature of a simulation added that element.  We also invited the model UN instructors in to conduct workshops on diplomacy, negotiation, and consensus building.  

In groups students researched environmental crises such as desertification, ocean acidification, sea level rise, glacier melt, deforestation, drought, and uranium mining.  They also studied the cultures of the Indigenous groups on the front lines of these problems, people whose ways of life are being threatened and who are also fighting back in myriad of admirable ways.  They learned to care about caribou, coral, and cancer rates.  Now it was time to put all this learning to use.  

The greatest teaching moment of my life came two hours into the simulation.  My 12 and 13 year-old students had been presenting, discussing, and debating vigorously – and they weren’t done yet.  I was prepared to drop it.  The majority of the experience was complete, and I wasn’t sure I could ask for more.  But they weren’t done yet and needed more time.  I offered the free study period scheduled for the next morning. Sure enough, the next day, without prompting, all 19 of them trooped in, arranged their tables, and got back to work.  Winter break was mere hours away.  

What was happening?

I was experiencing the holy grail of teaching – an intrinsically motivated classroom.  Students who were working hard because they were invested in the content and the task at hand.  Because they felt a sense of purpose.  Because what we were doing mattered. I’d come close before, but that day I saw the real deal. 

To whom do I owe this career defining experience?

Certainly, my students, who are some of the most talented young people I have had the privilege to work with.  I recently asked them what they remembered and what they learned:

That many people are now turning to Indigenous People for help and inspiration when it comes to helping the world and having more sustainable goals.    ~Chiara

I think preparing for the climate change summit gave a whole lot more information about topics regarding climate and preparing and researching these topics gave me a lot of insight into Indigenous perspectives. I had to study solutions for the Inuit Arctic people’s climate problems, so I really also had to research what their problems were as well.   ~Logan

I am also truly inspired by the education model we are building together at Whittle School and Studios.  Our mission is to reimagine education through interdisciplinary, experiential, project-based learning.  Not everyone believes this will work.  After that day, I know it does.

Additionally, I am so grateful for the support of partnerships with awesome organizations located right here in Washington DC.   Teaching for Change, Rethinking Schools, and the Zinn Education Project have so many awesome teaching materials like the ones that inspired and informed our study.  Local land and water protection groups like Everybody Grows and Anacostia Watershed Society do this work every day and provide hands on access to gardens and rivers.  Smithsonian institutions like the National Museum of the American Indianand the National Museum of Natural Historyare investing in incredible experiences that connect our classrooms to larger conversations and communities.
My job as a teacher of history and the humanities is to develop deep empathy which includes the ability to listen.  Throughout our study, my students learned to listen to others who have different and equally valuable stories to tell.  They learned to listen to the past so that they learn from and do not repeat mistakes.  They also learned to listen to marginalized voices who have the skills and knowledge to turn climate change around and make this world more just for all. 

There is nothing more rigorous and worth studying than the problems adults haven’t solved yet.   Climate change is one of those problems.  If you would like to teach about climate action and justice in your classroom or include Indigenous voices here are some more resources I found invaluable:

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