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A Call to Action: Create Opportunities for Students to take Climate Action

Teacher Voices | November 13, 2017

Every month we feature an opinion piece written by teachers in the MƒA community. Welcome to MƒA Teacher Voices.

By Lynn Shon, MƒA Master Teacher, and Andrew Zimmermann, MƒA Early Career Teacher

Last month, 60+ educators and their guests convened at MƒA’s very first Thursday Think, participating in a nationwide screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, followed by a Q&A with former Vice President Al Gore. The sequel, like the original (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), makes a firm call to decisive climate action on a global scale, but also vividly brings forth an alarming, updated reality: The impacts of climate change are here, now. Extreme weather events and rising sea levels are affecting communities across the world today, and will continue to do so with mounting severity. Political division and special interests have also become more extreme, making climate action an increasingly uphill moral challenge.

A sense of duty filled the room after the screening, which coincidentally fell on the week of the five year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. In 2012, Sandy was understood to be a once-in-500-year coastal flooding event. In 2017, a study predicts the likelihood of such extreme flooding in NY to occur once every five years by 2030. Despite a tumultuous year of extreme weather that has begun to feel commonplace, Sandy continues to live in our city’s memory as a wake up call, and the beginning of a new era. With Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo committing to lead the nation in upholding the Paris Agreement, NYC stands on a global stage to bring “truth to power.”

In the Q&A webcast following the screening, we had the opportunity to ask Mr. Gore how we, as educators, can ensure that our students’ voices are included in decision making. In his response, Mr. Gore stressed the power of student voice in driving climate action, drawing parallels to the power of student voice during the civil rights movement. When students bring truth to their families and communities, they inevitably contribute to changing laws. “Students have been in the vanguard, and are once again beginning to play a key role in this climate movement,” said Gore.  

But the challenge still looms. In this pivotal moment in a leading city, how can we ensure that our students have a voice? How can we as educators create opportunities for our students to take climate action, now? See below for a video clip from the Q+A webcast. 

Reframing how we teach climate change

On the last day of school in the 2016-2017 school year, the NY Times published A Sense of Duty to Teach Climate Change, which detailed how educators are providing opportunities for students to explore data and observe climate change impacts first hand, and even directly challenging misleading claims as a means of teaching students about the nature of science. But with coastal flooding and extreme weather facing our city immediately, we need to push beyond ensuring our students understand the science of the causes of climate change. We need to connect students directly to the climate actions that should be taking place in their own neighborhoods.  

Perhaps we need to reframe how we are teaching climate change. Why not have our students dive right into solutions-oriented work? By replanting dunes or installing a small rain garden to manage local flooding, we create an authentic and productive task that sets up a narrative for our students to explore and understand the science. More importantly, we make progress, and empower our students to feel successful. This feeling of success is critical to inspiring more climate action, and in combatting climate despair.  

Create Opportunities for Students to Take Climate Action

As educators, we have the unique and critical role of creating opportunities for the voices of youth to be shared and heard. At MƒA, we have a powerful network of STEM educators to crowdsource our best practices for building more climate literate and climate active school communities. Last month, we collaborated with 32 teachers in an MƒA single session workshop called Teaching Climate Change and Resilient Design in NYC to share our approaches to creating these opportunities. Below is an outline of some of the key approaches discussed:

  • Create opportunities for students to be the educators. Seek out or create community outreach events, expos, and summits for students to teach others about climate change and climate action. Transform projects into teaching assignments to reach friends and family. Train students on using social media and data visualization tools to amplify and strengthen their teaching.
  • Create opportunities for students to become involved in our city’s initiatives. Learn (alongside students) about our city’s resiliency plans and initiatives. Challenge students to propose and advocate for their own ideas that help the city reach its goals within the school building. Connect with local decision-makers to provide opportunities for students to share their ideas.
  • Create opportunities for students to make small (and big) changes within their own communities. Design and implement a small scale climate action project within the school perimeter.  Plan service projects that make NYC more resilient. Encourage students to use social media to make these changes visible and known to others in the community to call more to action.  

We simply can’t afford to lose time. Instead of allowing our classrooms to become  “a microcosm of the battle over how to address the perils of climate change,” we must make our classrooms a microcosm of climate action. We educators must see ourselves as critical agents in climate action, not simply as disseminators of content.  

Lynn Shon and Andrew Zimmermann teach STEAM at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn New York, where they both also serve as instructional coaches. They wrote a two year climate action curriculum for the Resilient Schools Consortium, which will be implemented across seven NYC DOE schools for the next two years. Lynn and Andrew also worked with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy to develop their Gowanus Climate Change curriculum. Lynn has been an MƒA  Master Teacher since 2014. Andrew Zimmermann has been an MƒA Early Career Fellow since 2016.