(Should this be included in every subject?)
During the week of March 15, 2019, at least 1.6 million students on all 7 continents in more than 125 countries and in over 2,000 places walked out of their classrooms to demand that world leaders take action on the climate crisis. They were inspired by the Swedish high school student, Greta Thunberg, who had begun skipping school on Fridays in the previous year when she was 15 and instead sat outside the Swedish Parliament. She was pointing out that the world is facing an ecological crisis that could make much of the planet uninhabitable for her and future generations.
Striking students have formed an organization called FridaysForFuture to keep up the pressure on politicians and world leaders https://fridaysforfuture.org/
In recent years, I have become convinced that teachers need to be thinking seriously about how to include environmental education in all subject areas, so I was inspired by this dramatic action by students and their organizing a FridaysForFuture movement.
Research by earth scientists and environmental organizations is revealing the increasing degradation of our planet: depletion of fish in the oceans, growing numbers of wildlife threatened with extinction, shrinking open spaces for recreation, pollution of air, water and land, and global warming/climate change. We are living in a more and more compromised environment where political, economic and social changes will be necessary to ensure the survival of humanity and other living things.
Teachers are in a key position to take part in this world-wide effort and to help guide their students in becoming stewards of their community, state and national environments as well as in the wider world.
Educators have been trying to address these problems, but according to David Sobel, in his short, eye-opening book, Beyond Ecophobia, Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, these efforts have contributed to what he calls ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world.
“If we fill our classrooms with examples of environmental abuse, we may be engendering a subtle form of dissociation. In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain…My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.” 1
He proposes another approach: “No tragedies before 4th grade. Tragedies are big, complex problems beyond the geographical and conceptual scope of young children. Rainforest destruction is an environmental tragedy. The Valdez oil spill and the genocide against Muslims in the Bosnian war are tragedies. As subjects for curriculum, these topics should not be considered before 4th grade, and in most cases, well beyond that. The defining question should be: ‘When do children have the emotional and cognitive readiness for dealing with overwhelmingly sad and complex issues?’” 2
Instead of focusing on the negative at the elementary school level, Sobel and other environmental educators encourage what they call “place-based education” where you study the environment in the school neighborhood to connect with nearby nature and develop a love for it. They decry the fact that children often learn about flora and fauna in far-flung places, i.e., redwood trees, rain forests, endangered species such as lions, tigers, elephants and whales, while they learn almost nothing about insects, animals, plants, trees and aquatic life in their own community.
Children and adults who are alienated from the natural world will not notice or care when it is threatened. “To protect anything, you first have to love it. To love anything, you first must get to know it.” 3 The goal should be to implement curricula that get students out of the classroom and into the outdoors, and to choose experiences that will engender awe, wonder and respect for the land, plants and all living things as well as a dedication to preserve them.
An essential book for all parents and educators is The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. In this pioneering work, he describes “nature deficit disorder” as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families and communities. Nature deficit can even change human behavior in cities, which could ultimately affect their design, since long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence or inaccessibility of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression and other maladies.” 4
However, the book emphasizes that this deficit can be reversed as we “become more aware of how blessed our children can be – biologically, cognitively and spiritually – through positive physical connection with nature.” 5 It provides information for teachers at the K – 12 levels on how a connection with nature can calm down hyperactive children, improve behavior, school attendance and students’ ability to think, thus improving their academics and test scores. There are many suggestions for parents and teachers on how to provide opportunities for the natural world to become part of a child’s life, whether they are in rural, suburban or city communities.
What Teachers Can Do: Some Examples
Teachers are taking their classes to public parks and community gardens. Schools are getting community support to help convert rubble-strewn lots into gardens and open green spaces for recreation. Drab land around schools is being planted with native plants and trees that will attract native insects, birds and other wildlife. Teachers and students are designing and building raised beds on school property to grow organic vegetables that are used in school lunches.
At the most basic level, teachers and students in a city environment can walk around the block and find trees and plants to monitor during the year, i.e., changes that happen during the seasons, and insects and birds that live on them. There are even teachers and students who identify plants growing through cracks in the sidewalk, and marvel at their amazing ability to survive in such difficult circumstances.
A kindergarten teacher in Newark, New Jersey, whose school is surrounded by concrete, takes her class to a nearby park where they “adopted” a tree. They visit it regularly during the year to note any seasonal changes and any insects on the bark or birds in its branches. They search nearby ground for signs of life. Her students come to love their tree and its environment, and they look forward to their visits to the park to check on it.
Excellent examples of what can be done to develop curricula related to environmental education at the K – 12 levels can be found by subscribing to the Green Teacher magazine and purchasing books they have published that are relevant to your grade level and subject area It is amazing what projects teachers and students have undertaken in cities and towns across the U.S. and Canada and what they have accomplished.
Approaching the Subject of Global Warming/Climate Disruption
You have seen the gloomy reports of human-caused global warming due to our dependence on fossil fuels as our energy sources – oil, coal and gas – which has been leading to severe climate emergencies including wide-spread droughts, flooding, huge wildfires, stronger hurricanes and tornadoes. This has been documented by organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latter includes 2,500 scientists, including many of the world’s top climate experts from 192 countries.
As people leave their homes in areas that are no longer livable – in our country, for example, think of devastating Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Maria, hugely destructive tornadoes and our drying and burning west and southwest which are getting less and less rain – teachers will be finding climate refugees in their classrooms while they, themselves, may be a climate victim too. The emotional trauma of such experiences call for strategies to help ourselves and our students, including how to deal with anxiety, anger and depression, all of which will make teaching more difficult. (Luckily, there are organizations that can help provide guidance on how to go forward, such as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network https://www.nctsn.org/ Its home page states that “One out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior.” This is a shocking number that is likely to continue or get worse.)
The subject of global warming, climate change and extreme weather events is scary. Children can be made to feel that their future is insecure and full of danger. Therefore, teachers who do the important work of including environmental education in their curriculum have to be careful not only to present the problems but also the solutions in order to give their students hope.
Teaching about how to preserve a livable planet presents a huge challenge because of misinformation circulated by the fossil fuel industry, which seeks to maintain its massive taxpayer subsidies and huge profits. It has funded a small number of research scientists to “prove” that climate change is a natural process that the earth periodically goes through and which has nothing to do with the exploration, extraction, transportation and burning of oil, coal and gas.
This propaganda has influenced some school districts to require science teachers to give equal time in the curriculum to the climate change deniers or to avoid the topic altogether.
The National Center for Science Education https://ncse.ngo/ is counteracting this trend by focusing on the science that proves human activity, in its dependence on fossil fuels, is driving a dangerous spike in greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, that is negatively affecting the climate. Its website provides documentation of human-induced climate change, and lesson plans that include solutions to our fossil fuel addiction through massive funding for clean, renewable energy research and development of solar, wind, geothermal, tidal energy and other clean energy sources.
More Activities and Actions for You and Your Class
(These are adapted from the Teacher’s Guide that I created with input from other educators to accompany the 26 minute DVD – Unlimited: Renewable Energy in the 21st Century produced by Daniel Califf-Glick. This movie has great potential to awaken older elementary through high school students to the need for a clean energy revolution. It features well-informed 6th-grade students in an environmental club as well as adults who are passionate about stopping and reversing global warming. Google the title. It can be watched on YouTube or purchased. The Guide gives specific ideas on how to use Unlimited in classes but also includes activities and actions, most of which can be done whether students see the movie or not.)
1. Form groups to find out more about solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and biofuels.
Refer them to websites listed under resources. Give them an outline of what to look for, i.e.:
Describe this form of energy and how it is produced.
What are the pros and cons of this energy source?
Where is it being used in the U.S. or other parts of the world?
What is needed to develop more of this type of clean energy?
Note: Nuclear power was not mentioned in this movie. Is it a renewable resource? Is it clean? What are the pros and cons? Information supporting nuclear power is on the federal government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission website https://www.nrc.gov/
Opposing arguments can be found at the websites of Beyond Nuclear http://www.beyondnuclear.org/
and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service https://www.nirs.org/
Students can report their findings to their classmates in varied ways: an oral report; a public service announcement; a poster; a song and/or interpretive dance. (Note: Prior to their presentation, check their work for accuracy.) Consider sharing this research with other classes – one class at a time or at a school assembly.
After oral presentations, have students take a paper and pencil test (multiple choice, short answer, fill in the blank, matching and/or a short essay, i.e., describing 2 or more things they have learned from this study and at least one question they have). Assessment based on their answers will determine whether to revisit information/concepts.
2. Investigate how your school can become more energy-efficient.
For example, are lights left on, fans and air conditioners running when no one is around? Is there poor insulation? Your class can write a collaborative report and give a copy to the principal, the Board of Education and the town government detailing the problems and suggesting solutions. In addition, you can explore the possibilities of getting an energy audit for your school. An energy audit is when an energy expert comes in, examines the school and makes recommendations on how to be more energy efficient. You can contact your local or state government to find local energy auditors.
The Center for Green Schools https://www.centerforgreenschools.org/ has information and services that go beyond energy efficiency. Their website shows how schools can be remodeled or newly constructed with environmentally friendly materials and with clean air and sunlight, free of toxic materials and harmful chemicals; how energy efficiency can lower utility costs and how such schools can conserve resources, reduce waste, improve student health and learning, and show students “from an early age the importance and benefits of acting as responsible stewards of their communities and the larger world.”
3. Invite a volunteer from an environmental organization fighting climate change to speak to your students. (See Additional Resources page toward the end of this chapter for a partial list of national organizations that may have local branches.) Find out about a particular cause they are advocating and decide if you and your students should support it.
4. See renewable energy in action. Visit a home or office building with solar panels, a wind farm, a geothermal operation, an effort to capture the energy of the tides or another form of clean energy production. Have an expert explain how these alternative energies work.
To find out places to visit near your school, contact your town council, state assembly and senate representatives, state Department of Environmental Protection, the Chamber of Commerce, and/or a local environmental organization.
5. Implement a recycling program in your school with children in the leadership. (A difficult fifth-grade class that was seen as a problem became positively transformed when the children were given the responsibility for collecting recyclables in their school.)
6. Learn about the exciting efforts to create millions of green jobs: The website of Green for All can inspire students to see that unemployed people including parents and relatives can be retrained for these new jobs, and high school and college students can consider them for a career choice.
7. Learn about mountain top removal. Visit the website of I Love Mountains https://ilovemountains.org/ to find out about this controversial practice in W. Virginia., Kentucky and Tennessee and the efforts of this organization to stop it. The tops of 500 square miles of mountains have been blown up looking for coal – causing grave environmental damage, destruction of 1,000 miles of streams, and pollution of the air and water. Correspond with this organization to find out how you and your class can support their efforts to stop this.
8. Start an anti-idling campaign. The air outside of many schools is severely polluted at the beginning and end of the school day by cars and buses delivering and picking up children. Pollutants include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and soot that can lodge in the lungs. A growing number of states and towns have passed anti-idling ordinances, stating that motors can only run briefly after stopping – from 10 seconds to 3 minutes.
There are students from the elementary school level through high school who have mobilized in different towns and cities on their own, even with no law in place, to convince parents, care-givers and bus drivers to turn off their engines rather than keep them running while talking to others or waiting for children to exit the building.
You can find anti-idling resources and how to organize by going to: https://www.stopthesoot.org/ Although this site focuses on NJ, it has relevant resources for any state or local campaign.
You can also go to the website of the Sustainable Jersey, Anti-Idling Education and Enforcement Program which mentions students in the Switlik Elementary School in Jackson, NJ in their successful effort to get their town council to enforce the NJ anti-idling law. A description of this success is under the heading “What N.J. Schools Are Doing.”
9. Write to local newspapers. Encourage your students to write letters to the editor of the local newspaper(s) discussing the need for people to take global warming and/or other environmental problems seriously and describing actions they can take. Most local papers print all letters to the editors and would be particularly interested in the views of children. (If you send letters and none of them are printed, call up the editor or visit the newspaper. Explain that the paper should be helping your students to become active citizens by printing their letters, which will encourage them to continue to be involved. This type of advocacy often works.)
10. Get active! If you hear of a conference, rally or public meeting for an important environmental issue, consider inviting your students, their families, other teachers and students to attend with you.
11. Investigate electricity: Find out how it was discovered, what it is in general, what it is at the electronic level; why it can travel through wires; how it is converted to work radio, TV and other media; the varied ways it is produced; why some forms of production are cheaper at certain points in time than others and why some forms of energy are safer and cleaner. You can also find out what energy sources are used in your state and country, as well as other countries, to compare.
Helping to demystify electricity can stimulate wonder and awe, scientific thinking, and curiosity about how other things work in our modern society.
12. Investigate public policy: Find out if your local and state governments have passed a clean energy bill. If you have one, see what its main features are. Since these bills are often long and complicated, contact an environmental organization which will have this information summarized. You can also contact your state representatives and ask their office staff to investigate the bill for you.
Once you learn about the bill, it is important to find out if it has been implemented or not. If it hasn’t, or only to a limited extent, your class can write letters to elected representatives and to heads of government agencies urging them to activate this bill and to vote for financing, pointing out particular sections of concern. Without public pressure, even good bills are often only partially enforced or not at all.
If your state does not have a clean energy bill that addresses climate change, read a summary of a bill from another state. Have your students write letters to their state representatives asking them to sponsor such a bill. They can state what they want included in the bill such as subsidies for the installation of solar panels, particularly on school roofs. (The school district of Bayonne, NJ, for example, has no electric bills because they have solar panels on the roofs of their schools and therefore produce their own energy.)
Find out the main contents of the latest federal energy bill. See if it has mandates for local and state governments. Your class can write to their U.S. Senators and Congressional representatives with questions, requests and comments.
You can set up an appointment for you and your students to visit the offices of politicians and/or heads of environmental agencies to make the case for a bill or for strengthening an already existing one to fight climate change.
This activity can accomplish some important goals including: teaching the concept of an active citizenry, taking a stand to help save the earth for future generations, and learning about how a bill becomes law. The latter is especially important since few students and many adults are not clear on how laws are passed and the role of citizens in making our leaders accountable.
A final point: the need for public policies to move away from polluting fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable energy is crucial to avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown. Actions such as recycling and changing light bulbs to more efficient ones are important, but do not get to the root of the problem.
13. Discuss global consequences of unabated fossil fuel use: Initiate a conversation about the potential for wars and conflict over the limited amounts of fossil fuels that exist under the ground. Your class can discuss this with questions such as:
If every country continues to use fossil fuels as we do today, and demand continues to grow worldwide, what will happen when they start to run out?
Many people say that wars have been fought for oil already. Can you think of any examples? Are their claims valid?
Do you think we could avoid wars fought over limited resources? How?
I. Ten inspiring, detailed teacher/school stories related to environmental education can be found on my website. Here are the titles:
An Education Worth Quoting by Michael Chodroff. (A fifth-grade teacher’s hobby of collecting proverbs helps him create a positive classroom community, culminating in an amazing 50 day environmental project.)
The next essays on my website are a result of my interviews with teachers and environmentalists:
II. A Sampling of Websites:
A. General Up-to-Date Information on global warming, renewable energy and related topics:
- 350.org: https://350.org/
- Grist: https://grist.org/ (Invested with a sense of humor.)
- Alternative Energy News: http://www.alternative-energy-news.info/
- Friends of the Earth: https://foe.org/issues/climate-and-energy/
- Chesapeake Climate Action Network: https://chesapeakeclimate.org/
- Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/
- Friends Committee on National Legislation: https://www.fcnl.org/about/policy/issues/environment-energy
- Union of Concerned Scientists: https://www.ucsusa.org/globalwarming
- Beyond Extreme Energy: https://beyondextremeenergy.org/
B. Environmental Education Related to Schools:
1. Rethinking Schools: https://rethinkingschools.org/ A People’s Curriculum for the Earth edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart, Rethinking Schools Publication, 2014, 410 pages. Provides a wealth of background information and creative environmental lesson ideas for K- 12 teachers that include history of climate change and other issues, role plays, projects, and successful classroom stories with activities that are engaging and do not invite despair; instead they encourage students to question, empathize and take collective action to help resolve environmental problems they care about.
2. Sierra Club: https://www.sierraclub.org/ Environmental outings described around the country; search “Environmental Education” and you will find many web links for teachers including “Tomorrow’s Planet, A newsletter for kids who want to make our world a better place.” You can read back copies and subscribe.
3. Facing the Future: https://cedar.wwu.edu/facingthefuture/ Curriculum units for middle school and high school on climate change, sustainability and other topics.
4. Sunrise Movement: https://www.sunrisemovement.org/ High school and college students taking action for a clean energy future.
5. Birdsleuth.org: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/k12/ A project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birdsleuth K-12 creates innovative resources that build science skills while inspiring young people to connect to local habitats, explore biodiversity, and engage in citizen-science projects.
6. National Wildlife Federation: https://www.nwf.org/ Resources that include lesson plans, webinars to educate students about wildlife, biology, life sciences, conservation and to investigate climate change.
7. Edible Schoolyard: https://edibleschoolyard.org/ Information/publications on turning part of a schoolyard into a vegetable garden, teaching the importance of growing local, organic foods. Includes lesson plans.
8. Children and Nature Network: https://www.childrenandnature.org/ Building a grassroots movement across the country and the world to reconnect children and nature. Website provides extensive research on the value of the natural world to our physical, mental and emotional health as well as actions parents and teachers can take to participate in this movement; the DVD, “Mother Nature’s Child, Growing Outdoors in the Media Age” is a valuable resource.
9. No Child Left Inside (Healthy Parks Healthy People Central): http://www.hphpcentral.com/ This coalition of over 2000 groups, representing 50 million Americans, is seeking to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to ensure all children achieve ‘environmental literacy’. The bipartisan No Child Left InsideAct, H.R.882 — 114th Congress (2015-2016), seeks to support the environmental education movement, improve student achievement and prepare students for jobs in a green economy.
10. Alliance for Climate Education: https://acespace.org/ Provides curriculum materials including lesson plans, teacher guides, student books, and short videos describing dangers and solutions to the world-wide problem of climate change. Specific actions and activities for students are suggested.
A Warning on Choosing Books for Students on the Environment
In choosing books for classroom use on environmental issues, particularly global warming/climate change, teachers need to be careful not to scare students into helplessness and hopelessness.
For example, The Future of the Earth, An Introduction to Sustainable Development for Young Readers (Yann Arthus-Bertrand, photographer, adapted by Robert Buleigh) is aimed at middle school students that may frighten them into disinterest and inaction. The many amazing, vivid and very large photographs powerfully drive home almost every environmental crisis the world faces; in fact, most pages are devoted to crises and only a few provide anything hopeful.
This book could be used wisely by teachers to help emphasize a few issues that students could study and take action on; however, for many children it is not one to be read page after page, as the environmental destruction depicted is overwhelming.
In contrast, How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate, Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming (L. Cherry and G. Braasch) provides many photos and information on climate change but always includes successful actions that scientists, teachers, and students are taking to help solve each problem. Like the previous book, it is aimed at middle schoolers but could be adapted for younger or older grades. A Teacher’s Guide provides interesting lessons related to science, language arts and math. Its call to action and the many varied resources that are described indicate positive paths that teachers and students can take in confronting specific climate problems.
An uplifting website is https://www.youngvoicesfortheplanet.com/ where students can watch inspiring short videos about young people who have taken successful action in addressing climate and environmental crises.
1Sobel, David, Beyond Ecophobia, Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, The Orion Society, 1996, p. 2.
2Ibid., p. 27-28.
3Louv, Richard, “A New Generation of Environmentalists: Fighting Global Warming by reconnecting people to nature,” Children and Nature Network, Nov. 12, 2012.
4Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008, p. 36.