D.C. Teachers Navigate Emotions, Tough Questions In Lessons On Climate Change

By Margaret Barthel
September 23, 2019

DCist is providing special coverage to climate issues this week as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of 250 news outlets designed to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Many of these stories originated as questions from our readers

Olivia Kerrigan begins in-class discussions about climate change by asking students to tell her what they know about the subject, what they don’t know, and what they’d like to learn more about.

One thing she hears a lot: “When are we going to die?”

“They’re genuinely scared about when are humans going to go extinct, when are we going to lose all the animals we care about,” says Kerrigan, who teaches 12th-grade environmental science and 9th-grade biology at Duke Ellington High School. So she’s learned to mix scientific facts with solutions—systemic and individual—in her response. “We try to make it a solution-oriented class, because it could get really dark really quickly.”

“We do try and let them have their emotions,” she says.” And then we talk about, ‘what is the role of emotions in science?’ ‘How do we fit that in with what I know about greenhouse gases?’”

One of her biggest priorities is impressing on students the importance of being active and informed citizens, especially considering that her seniors are about to become eligible to vote. She regularly asks her students to analyze short videos or news articles about climate change, and she plans to have them evaluate the climate change platforms of the 2020 presidential candidates this fall. She says the number-one thing she wants students to take away from her class “is the ability to read and understand scientific data in the news.”

Several other D.C. educators charged with teaching climate change are navigating a similar balancing act: both presenting the facts and helping their students process their emotions about the looming impacts of climate change. And they say that tasking their students with researching, debating, or designing ways that they themselves can contribute to climate solutions isn’t just a good coping mechanism—it’s also a teaching tool.

Carolina Riveros-Ruenes, a sixth grade English teacher at Two Rivers Public Charter School, is part of a team of teachers leading an interdisciplinary unit focused on climate change. She sees her students’ emotions about climate change contributing to heightened engagement in her classroom. “They’re mad, they’re really upset about it,” she says. “That’s why they’re into it, because they’re upset.”

The trick, according to Riveros-Ruenes, is to get her students to channel their frustrations into the unit’s learning exercises, which in English class include analyzing dystopian novels that deal with environmental themes (she points out that the protagonists are often “young people who decided to make a change”), and creating one-minute documentary videos about climate change topics.

A number of other classes—including Kerrigan’s—at public schools around the District complete similar video projects, in a program developed by a partnership of city agencies and nonprofits. Students screen the videos for parents and community members and—once, in Riveros-Ruenes’ memory—for members of the D.C. Council. (You can watch the completed videos here.)

In the midst of all the talk about the individual actions her students can take, though, Riveros-Ruenes tries to be realistic with her students about the scale of change needed. “One of the things that we hit really hard is that even if everybody in D.C. did those things, it would not be enough,” she says. “This has to be about policy change.”

Other teachers are also zeroing in on the politics and policy of climate change.

“The key has been to balance instruction with action,” says Natalie Stapert, who teaches sixth graders at the Lowell School, an independent school in D.C. which has worked with the nonprofit Climate Generation to build a humanities curriculum focused on climate change.

Stapert says that the urgency of climate change prompts her students to do some of “their very best work” across disciplines. In language arts classes, for example, they develop their persuasive writing skills by writing letters to family members, elected officials, and journalists about climate change.

In social studies, students examine how humans have impacted the climate throughout history, as far back as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The school even brought students to a climate change hearing on Capitol Hill in February.

“They were very engaged in what their elected officials had to say, and they were thinking a lot about how to impact the political system, but also how to make changes in their own lives and the lives of people they knew now,” recalls Stapert.

Even some of the District’s youngest students are getting a shot of personal responsibility alongside basic science information, according to Lisa Alexander, the executive director at the Audubon Naturalist Society.

The Society works with 22 D.C. public schools to present hands-on science education programs to more than 3,000 elementary school students in the District. The focus, says Alexander, is on teaching students science and stewardship of their immediate environment simultaneously—laying a foundation that she believes will prevent kids from despairing about climate change.

“I feel like we run the risk of being so doom and gloom with kids that we shut them down,” Alexander says. “We’re the purveyors of ‘you bet there’s something you can do.’”

These educators’ emphasis on pairing scientific concepts with real-world applications is in keeping with the Next Generation Science Standards, the blueprint for what information kids in District schools (and in many states across the country) should know and what things they should be able to do at different grade levels.

Matt Krehbiel, the director of Science for Achieve, works on the implementation of those standards. He says that the ultimate goal is to “position kids to be able to make sense of what’s happening around them,” while leaving flexibility for local school districts to zero in on specifics in their individual curricula.

So how exactly are D.C. schools shaping local science education—specifically education about climate change?

Deciding what actually gets taught in the classroom is largely the purview of D.C. Public Schools and individual charter operators. DCPS did not make any of its staffers available for an interview.

A statement from a spokesperson says that “D.C. Public Schools’ goal around science education is to ensure that we are creating scientifically literate citizens who understand important issues, including climate change, and can engage in constructive dialogue around those issues,” and noted that climate change specifically appears in the curriculum for middle school earth science, and high school biology, earth science, and environmental science.

The Office of the State Superintendent for Education, which sets standards, oversees testing, and provides resources for all public schools, both traditional and charter, across the District also did not grant DCist with an interview. OSSE gives funding for partnership programs like the ones Alexander and the Audubon Naturalist Society bring into schools, and they also oversee the District’s Environmental Literacy Plan, which sets goals for local schools to integrate environmental literacy concepts into their K-12 classrooms.

One element is the Environmental Literacy Framework, released in 2014, which outlines environmental contexts and questions by grade level and pairs them with possible local sustainability activities—furthering the scaffolding of the Next Generation Science Standards.

While the Framework is far from an actual curriculum, it provides a window into the broad ideas students might be asked to engage with as they grow up. According to the Framework, for instance, the guiding question for Riveros-Ruenes’ sixth graders is “What are the consequences of human activity on air, land, and water over time?” with a suggested class trip to a green infrastructure site.

While the teachers I spoke to for this story felt generally supported in their climate education work by their schools, not everyone is entirely pleased with the state of science education—and by extension, climate change education—in the District.

Dr. Jessica Sutter, the Ward 6 State Board of Education representative, expressed concerns that a single-minded focus on reading and math test scores in the District is detracting time and attention from ensuring that students, especially in the younger grades, have a solid grasp of science knowledge.

Sutter is worried that “science and social studies are seen as ‘Yay, we can teach these when we can,’ but the others are subject to accountability standards.” One elementary school she visited, she says, has just one science teacher, and fits the subject into students’ days as a special class, like music and art; she says another school didn’t even have a science teacher on staff, and was trying to fit in science teaching into students’ homeroom time.

While the Board’s authority doesn’t extend to curriculum decisions, Sutter says she and her fellow members are looking into analyzing schools’ master schedules and conducting focus groups with teachers about the time they’re able to spend on science education.

Sutter is trying to convince her Board colleagues to pass a symbolic resolution declaring their belief in the importance of students studying climate change (a similar resolution, which she brought to the Board earlier this spring after a group of student activists from national group Schools for Climate Action approached her, did not pass).

Alexander, from the Audubon Naturalist Society, also hopes that D.C. might consider implementing a high school environmental literacy graduation requirement, something which Maryland already has.

“The world that we have put in front of our children is going to require a lot of environmental knowledge and understanding of what actions are effective,” she says.

This story was published originally on DCist.

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