Lessons in Crisis

On creating an integrated climate change curriculum for public schools.

IN THE 1930s, my father wrote a school curriculum for the state of Missouri for his doctoral thesis. I always wondered if he could possibly have chosen a more boring topic. Only recently, I realized that nothing could be more important right now. The reason? Climate change. “This,” to quote environmentalist and economist Naomi Klein, “changes everything.” If you can name a more inclusive, more challenging, or more critical topic to prepare these young people for the uncertainties, catastrophes, and transformations ahead, I yield my space.

About 75 percent of public school science teachers include climate change in their curriculum. But less than half of those teachers are aware of the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change, meaning students are receiving mixed messages about its causes and solutions. ​Photo by Tyler Stabile/Ohio University Libraries.

Many students, like Greta Thunberg, the millions of #FridaysforFuture protesters, and the youth plaintiffs in Our Children’s Trust climate lawsuits, are angry, holding rallies in the streets and taking other actions to combat the crisis. They have no patience with the empty promises and dithering they get from grown-ups, who they feel have stolen their future. Others are fighting serious depression. I recently contacted Megan Warner of BRING, a Eugene, Oregon, environmental non-profit that gives presentations to schools about the impact of wasteful consumption on climate change. She says her sessions have become more like grief counseling. “So often I hear from young people that they feel depressed about their future, afraid to have kids, scared of the climate crisis, and anxious for the world they will grow up in,” she writes. “More research is happening on the intersections of the climate crisis and mental health, with connections even being made between suicide and climate change, as well as new language developing around climate trauma, eco-grief, and eco-anxiety.”

Similarly, in an article about climate change despair that she has observed in her students, Sarah Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, writes, “I was seeing a great impatience of doing the work of classes: ‘Why am I wasting my time in classes when this stuff is happening out there?’”

ACCORDING TO A 2016 study by the National Center for Science Education, an estimated 75 percent of public school science teachers include climate change in their curriculum. But less than half of those teachers are aware of the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change, meaning students are receiving mixed messages about its causes and solutions. What’s more, a broader look at all subject areas found that more than half of teachers don’t mention climate at all, according to a 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll, mainly because they don’t see it as related to what they teach.

What if chemistry class took on the matter of rare earth minerals, why they are used to power our electronic devices, and whether or not there might be more environmentally safe and less labor-exploitive alternatives? Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

And learning isn’t limited to the classroom. Schools could embark on projects like building bird-safe windmills or growing organic salad for the school lunch that might energize some. Photo courtesy of NOAA National Ocean Service.

That’s a huge missed opportunity. Imagine for a moment the number of subjects in the middle school or high school syllabus crucially related to what’s happening “out there” in the world. In the three subjects of biology, history, and computer science alone, the origins, impact, global significance, future pathways, and many of the ultimate problems and potential solutions to the climate crisis are there for exploring. Think of a biology class built around studying coral reefs, rainforests, and wetlands, three key endangered habitats for sustaining life on earth? How about a full year devoted to extinction, biodiversity, and ecosystems? Or simply the value of (and methods for) planting a trillion of the right trees in the right places, starting with your own campus. Examining the Industrial Revolution or the Oklahoma dust bowl from a climate perspective could suddenly make history class up-to-the-minute relevant, not to mention an exploration of the environmental impacts of war and global military activities.

For English teachers, a climate lens could offer myriad lessons and exercises in language, literature, and journalism that promise knowledge and insight through reading, social media, film, and discussion, along with the epiphany of ideas and the release of despair through writing.

What if chemistry class took on the matter of rare earth minerals, why they are used to power our electronic devices, and whether or not there might be more environmentally safe and less labor-exploitive alternatives? Such an approach could be team-taught with social studies and government classes to get students talking about the full impact of their consumer choices. Topics like soils, superfund sites, ocean dead zones, agricultural chemicals, and methane from melting permafrost could provide endless fodder for understanding food, water, air quality, and the climate on a warming and crowded planet. How about studying the movement of plastic through our ecosystems? How many students know that there’s a 90-percent chance that the sea salt on their potato chips contains plastic, as a recent study concluded?

And learning isn’t limited to the classroom. Schools could invite climate-related innovators to speak on campus. They could embark on projects like building bird-safe windmills or growing organic salad for the school lunch that might energize some. Presumably, educators have found that lunch has learning potential. Some schools have moved to Meatless Monday, a “global movement that encourages people to reduce meat in their diet for their health and the health of the planet.”

Speaking with teachers reinforced my sense that the options for integrating climate into virtually every subject are near limitless. Asked what he would do if he was tasked with making climate change the focus of his curriculum, Marco Elliott, a working artist and 22-year veteran art teacher at Venice High School in California, suggested year-long, multidisciplinary projects with climate crisis themes, such as plays. “Art students might work on a storyboard, stage designs, posters, masks, and costumes in collaboration with the English and science students who would have researched and written the script, with the Music department producing a sound track. All this would be closely orchestrated by a student-teacher team, possibly involving other professionals from the community.”

Michael Stasack, a French teacher in Eugene, suggested students might give “classroom TED Talks” in French on climate subjects, keep track of weather patterns across the French-speaking world, translate song lyrics about nature, discuss monthly themes on environmental topics, and debate the French reliance on nuclear power. He knows from experience, however, how much time it takes to develop effective lessons outside the required materials. “Most foreign language teachers teach at several levels, so it could be a lot of work at the outset to develop the additional curriculum,” he says. Some newer French textbooks have chapters on climate change, but he hadn’t seen anything in great depth.

The textbook business, which occupies its own cornerstone in the vast “educational industrial complex,” apparently hasn’t accepted the need to pull out all the stops to address the climate emergency. “To date,” says the Aspen Institute, “the education sector has yet to establish its role in addressing climate change, and large-scale climate solutions too often overlook the role education can play.” But that doesn’t mean schools have to start from scratch: The Institute, a respected think tank, offers what may be the single best K through12 educational action plan available, complete with background materials for teachers. Clearly, there’s no excuse for schools to drag their feet.

THOUGH THERE’S STILL a long way to go, some states are making progress, including Oregon, where I live. For one, Oregon was an early and proud signatory to The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a framework for K through12 science education released by the National Research Council in 2013. The framework includes climate change in science standards for both middle and high schoolers. According to recent figures released by the National Science Teaching Association, “twenty states and the District of Columbia (representing over 36% of U.S. students) have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Twenty-four states (representing 35% of U.S. students) have developed their own standards based on recommendations in the NRC Framework for K-12 Science Education.”

Then, in May 2016, the Portland school board passed “the most comprehensive climate literacy policy of any school district in the country,” according to Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor for nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization RethinkingSchools.org. The policy calls for “robust professional development opportunities and for every school to implement a climate justice curriculum.” But even here, the results have been mixed. A recent email exchange with Bigelow revealed, at best, intermittent success in implementation: “Progress here can be two steps forward, one step back,” he wrote me last fall. “The school district leadership has been supportive in some ways and resistant in others.”

While Oregon is one of 36 states that include human-caused climate change in their state science standards, not all do. So, what about Missouri? How has my father’s curriculum from the 1930s been adapted over time to address what we’ve seen coming at least since NASA’s James Hanson spoke to the US Senate about global warming in 1988, and what, in 2015, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “an existential threat to humanity”? Sadly, not so well, Dad.

Missouri did adopt new science standards in 2016, but not the full NGSS. Included in the new standards was the caveat that teachers could decide how to approach the subject of climate change, which can often be a political “mind-field.” And their approach may be influenced by fossil-fuel funded groups like the Heartland Institute. As Olivia Desmit writes in the Columbia Missourian, “Columbia public school science teachers are among hundreds of thousands across the country who have received a book from the Heartland Institute that denies that Earth is warming and that human activity is causing it.”

In some ways, America’s decentralized educational system — where standards vary from state to state and curriculum varies from county to county — poses a challenge when it comes to climate education. It often leads to inconsistent and conflicting approaches to what students are taught and how they are taught. But it also poses an opportunity. It means that even in states that haven’t integrated climate change into state standards, teachers can take the initiative to include it in their teaching plans. And it means that schools and school districts can get creative about developing lessons that will truly educate students about the crisis of our times, and prepare them to help address it.

My question is, are we moving fast enough? High school students graduating in the 2021/22 school year will be the artists, French teachers, and computer programmers of 2030, the year some scientists are calling the last chance before we reach that global warming tipping point of irreversible change.

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