COLUMN: Want teachers to teach climate change? You’ve got to train them
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Sometime this fall, in a classroom in New York City, second graders will use pipe cleaners and Post-it notes to build a model of a tree that could cool a city street. They’ll shine a lamp on their mini trees to see what shade patterns they cast. Meanwhile, in Seattle, kindergartners might take a “wondering walk” outside and come up with questions about the worms that show up on the sidewalk after it rains.
This summer, teachers around the country are planning these lessons and more, in professional development programs designed to answer a pressing need: preparing teachers to teach about the climate crisis and empower students to act.
“I believe that the climate movement is the most interesting movement in education,” said Oren Pizmony-Levy, associate professor of International and Comparative Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. (Disclosure: The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Teachers College.) Schools have to address student climate anxiety, provide them knowledge and skills, including the ability to recognize misinformation, and empower them to act, while schools also “clean up their act” by decarbonizing their physical infrastructure.
Teachers don’t necessarily feel prepared to lead this work yet, said Pizmony-Levy.
“We’ve been doing research with New York City Public Schools for the past 6-7 years. About a third of teachers say they teach about climate change in a meaningful way. Those who don’t, give the following reasons: 1) It has nothing to do with my subject; 2) I don’t know enough about it; 3) I don’t feel comfortable talking about it; and 4) I don’t have the right materials,” he said.
National polls by Education Week and the North American Association for Environmental Education bear these views out. Three-quarters of teachers, and 80 percent of principals and district leaders in NAAEE’s poll agreed, “Climate change will have an enormous impact on students’ futures, and it is irresponsible not to address the problem and solutions in school.” Yet only 21 percent of teachers felt “very informed” on the topic and only 44 percent said they had the right resources to teach it most of the time or always.
On July 17-20, Pizmony-Levy led a first-of-its-kind professional development institute for NYC public elementary school teachers who want to teach climate change in any subject. Teachers who signed up were responding in part to Mayor Eric Adams’ Earth Day commitment to soup up green learning. Climate lessons are supposed to be taught next year in every school in the nation’s largest public school system.
Related: One state mandates teaching climate change in almost all topics — even PE
Forty teachers from every borough gathered in a heavily air-conditioned room that bore the sweet scent of smoke from the barbecue restaurant next door. They heard lectures from climate scientists, and talks on related topics like environmental justice; learned about efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of New York City public schools, and how to address common student misconceptions, for example, “If it’s called global warming, why do we have things like the polar vortex?”
“Teachers can’t give this information if they don’t have it, and our generation of educators, it’s not something we learned in school,” said Alisha Bennett, a school social worker in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, who participated in the training. She came because of her strong interest in infusing climate justice into her school’s equity work.
Oré Adelaja, a third grade teacher, said she “just learned about environmental racism,” in the training. Her school is in East New York, a primarily Black and Hispanic neighborhood with high rates of childhood asthma. She envisions asking her students to document the resources like green space and trash bins available in their community, and write letters to their city council representative to get more of what the neighborhood needs. She said, “Let’s give them the data points to critically think and draw conclusions.”
In a session focused on teacher leadership, Adelaja came up with a nature-based metaphor for her work: “A bird who every day came to the nest and fed its young until the young learned to fly — giving my kids the information and knowledge, and eventually that agency and self-sufficiency to find their own solutions to their own problems.”
The sessions received funding through a $25 million National Science Foundation grant to Columbia University. The teachers participating committed to creating lesson plans — like the shade simulation — that will be made available freely for others to use on platforms including the website SubjectToClimate.org.
Related: Climate change: Are we ready?
Megan Bang, a professor of the learning sciences and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University is training cohorts of Pre-K through fifth grade teachers this summer in Washington State, Illinois, Michigan and Louisiana through her project, Learning in Places, which is funded through the National Science Foundation. (Disclosure: Bang is a member of the K-12 action commission at This Is Planet Ed’, where I’m also an advisor.) She said this teacher education is designed to be intellectually demanding.
“We just did an interview with an incoming teacher who told us: ‘In 20 years I’ve never been asked to think like this,’” Bang said. “If we don’t offer educators the opportunity to rethink their intellectual ideas — about climate change, science, inequality — it makes it really difficult to do this work.”
Bang, who is partly of Ojibwe descent, said she looks at different mental models of the relationship between humans and the natural world — do we see ourselves as apart-from nature, or part of nature? Broadly speaking, she said, in indigenous traditions, it’s the latter.
Drawing on the tension between the two worldviews, her work presents students with moral dilemmas about nature and opportunities to take civic action on behalf of the wild world. She said that just giving kids facts is not going to be effective.
“In most of education we think knowledge leads to difference in behavior,” she said. “Social science does not support that. In the 90s and early 2000s we thought if people understood the carbon cycle, they would know why climate change matters.” That didn’t pan out, to say the least.
Instead, students in the “Learning in Places” curriculum are encouraged to ask “should-we” questions — values questions. For example, in the worm inquiry, created by a Seattle teacher, students asked: Should we rescue the worms from the sidewalks so they can burrow back into the wet ground? If we do, it will benefit the worms; if we don’t, it could benefit the birds who eat them.
Taking science out of the lab and immersing students in the living world, like parks and gardens, buffers some of the negative views of climate change that even the youngest students come to school with, Bang said. According to her research, “Five-year-olds tend to have ‘the earth is scorched and unsavable’ models when they come to school. Kids come in with, ‘Humans harm the earth and the earth is dying,’” she said. “That doesn’t motivate action or change.”
This column about teaching climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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