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A topic worth tackling: Teachers grapple with best way to teach climate change

  • Published at 12:30 pm October 6th, 2019
D2_October 5, 2019_Climate_Pg 1

It’s kind of hard to talk about climate change without thinking about the potential end of the world as we know it. But that’s exactly what Douglas Andrew, a longtime eighth grade science teacher at JFK Middle School, grapples with in his classroom.                                                                           

“We have to be careful how we teach it,” he said. “Kids, with all the stuff going on with the mass shootings, they’re scared and anxious … I’m always being positive about what we can do.”

And he’s not the only one thinking this way. Renee Bachman, a third grade teacher in her 10th year at Leeds Elementary School, said in teaching about climate change, “I try not to do it in a scary way. I try not to put doom in it.” Instead, she tries to focus on how students can make realistic changes now.

It wasn’t until 2016 that Massachusetts started including climate change in its science education standards. And unlike well-established subjects such as math, English, and social studies, teaching climate change is a relatively new frontier, which means teachers around the country are figuring out how to process it along with their students. 

Across the United States, 80 percent of parents want schools to teach climate change, according to a poll of more than 1,000 people in March from National Public Radio and Ipsos, a research and consulting firm. The study found that 86 percent of teachers agreed climate change should be taught in schools -- in theory -- but that in reality, it’s more complicated than that. More than half of teachers said they don’t teach or talk about climate change to students, providing a range of reasons from the young age of students to their own lack of knowledge and materials on the subject. Nearly two-thirds of teachers surveyed said climate change is not related to the subject or subjects they teach.

Andrew said he has been incorporating climate change into his teaching for the past 15 years by showing “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary about Al Gore’s climate change education campaign, and tasking students with researching topics such as coastal erosion on Cape Cod and, more recently, talking about Hurricane Dorian. Through grant funding, he and another teacher were able to purchase a set   of “Kill A Watt” meters, devices that measure how much power electronics use when they are on or off, which students can use for projects.

Despite Andrew’s long-standing inclusion of the topic of climate change in his classes, he said, “I know there’s people in the country that don’t believe in this.”

He has received unsolicited information in the mail from groups including The Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based organization that dismisses man-made climate change. In 2017, for example, Heartland sent thousands of teachers a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.”

“We’ve all gotten something in the last few years,” Andrew said, speaking more broadly about climate disinformation. “I don’t keep it because I get so upset.”

In a time when climate change can be a politicized issue, he said, “I try to keep it apolitical, but it’s not easy when our president says, ‘Why can’t we drop a nuclear bomb inside a hurricane to stop it?’” 

Shouldn’t be taboo

Even elementary school students are learning about climate change. “I think it’s important to talk about,” Bachman said. “You can’t have something as big as climate change be taboo.”

In Bachman’s third grade class, students regularly check the temperature in Northampton and in Phoenix, where Bachman used to live, and compare the numbers to previous years. Last year, her students talked more specifically about climate change while working on a project collecting data on salamanders in a nearby forested area for a citizen science project. The information they collected was submitted to the Salamander Population and Adaptation Research Collaboration Network, a group that’s studying how climate change is impacting the species and using data submitted by different groups, including Bachman’s students.

While there have always been kids in Bachman’s class who are environmentally conscious, in the past three years she has noticed a growing interest in climate change among her students. “More students in the classroom know what the term ‘climate change’ is,” she said, adding that they also understand humans are affecting it.

“We aren’t going to be able to change policy at 9 years old, so I don’t focus on that,” Bachman said. The class focuses on smaller actions, such as bringing reusable water bottles to school and using less single-use plastic in her classroom. “Over time, it’s going to get bigger -- they can understand the choices they make can have a lot of power.”

Jennifer Reese, science and garden coordinator at Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, echoed Bachman.

“Climate change realities are overwhelming for adults; we take great care in helping kids understand the Earth’s health without feeling hopeless or overwhelmed,” she said.

Amherst-Pelham’s curriculum includes a garden program for kindergarten through third grade, and Reese hopes spending time outdoors will instill in her students a love for the environment. “Once you value something,” she said, “you feel an urgency about protecting it.”

There are also programs for climate education taking place outside of school. This summer, Amherst Media offered a free, three-week racial and climate justice workshop targeted at middle school students of color and their allies.

“When we think of climate change, yes, it’s affecting the whole world, but it’s particularly impacting people of color more drastically around the world,” said Demetria Shabazz, one of the workshop’s leaders and president of Amherst Media’s board of directors. The NAACP of Amherst, Climate Action Now Western Massachusetts and the Hitchcock Center co-sponsored the program.

The young participants spent time outside and listened to speakers including Neftalí Durán, a food justice activist, and Tem Blessed, a rapper who has made music about climate change. Students also learned how to shoot videos and interviewed state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, on camera. 

Students’ perspectives

Tessa Kawall and Lucy Smith, who are now ninth graders at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, say they learned about climate change in middle school, where teachers covered issues such as deforestation, the science of greenhouse gases and the role of humans in the degradation of the planet. 

Smith, like Andrew’s students at JFK, also watched “An Inconvenient Truth” in middle school, and it left a strong impression on her.

Still, she thinks schools need to step up their efforts. “What we could learn more about is things we can do … what we can do to make a big change in the world,” Smith said. “It’s mostly big companies making problems, and I think we can learn how to stop that.” 

Kala Garrido, a sophomore at Hampshire Regional High School in Westhampton, remembers talking about climate change in middle and high school and said that teachers did a “fairly good job.”

“I think, there was definitely the acknowledgement that our climate is changing and an acknowledgement that there is global warming,” Garrido said. “But I think schools are really afraid of having any opinions that are in any way political. It’s become such a political issue. There’s nothing about, ‘Oh, humans are potentially causing that.’”

Students often bring up the subject in school, Garrido added: “Most of the people in my generation are conscious about this issue and passionate about it.”

Smith is one of those students, too. “I think we’re talking about it more than years before us,” she said, “but I don’t think we’re talking about it enough -- because not enough is changing.”

This story originally appeared in Daily Hampshire Gazette. It is republished here as part of Dhaka Tribune's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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