A School for Climate Solutions

img_6941As teachers gathered for the Lowell School Climate Change Education Summit on Friday, November, 4, they faced a timeline spanning from 300 BC to 2100. The teachers represented all disciplines of the middle school at Lowell, a small independent school in Washington, D.C. We all met in the home of 7th and 8th grade Humanities teacher Sarah Smith, which created an open and welcoming environment to wrestle with the big questions of the day.

Several months ago, Lowell’s Director of Middle School, Kavan Yee, reached out to Climate Generation with a question. He wanted to know if I – along with my sister, a PhD student at UC-Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group studying climate change education – would facilitate a Summit he had been dreaming up to spur the integration of an action-oriented, interdisciplinary approach to teaching climate change at Lowell. Kavan’s vision was to move Lowell towards being an issues-based school, where students are taught about the pressing issues of the day and are empowered to make a difference on those issues. We agreed, and soon Climate Generation’s Education team was working closely with Kavan to turn the Summit from a vision into a reality.

On November 4, during a Professional Development day at Lowell, the Summit took place. The eight Lowell teachers plus two Lowell parents – representing Moms Clean Air Force and the Department of Energy – began by walking the timeline. By visiting the timeline at different points, and turning to talk to their neighbors about the events included, the Summit attendees discussed how each event, whether it was the invention of the steam engine or the Rio Earth Summit, related to climate change. The story that the timeline told was a story of human history, and its projected future events posed the question of what kind of world they wanted to bring into being for their students.

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While climate change is most often left to the science classrooms, Lowell’s approach to integrating climate change education is different: across disciplines, students would learn the many factors contributing to the problem of climate change, as well as the social, political, economic and technological solutions. During the morning, through videos and a Google Hangout with former YEA! MN leader Kendra Roedl, we summoned different voices to share why teaching climate change was so important. Our Director of Education, Kristen Poppleton, presented on educational best practices, resources, “Cli-fi” and more via Skype. She fired up attendees with suggestions of how Lowell could become a “living laboratory” for climate solutions. Throughout the day, the teachers and parents chronicled their reflections, questions and ideas in Google docs, which Climate Generation will later review and use to inform our future work with Lowell.

After a lunch break, the afternoon focused on giving teachers a better sense of what teaching climate change could look like, and the wealth of resources available to support them in this pioneering endeavor. First, we led the group through a “Data to Life” activity, which illustrated how climate data could be creatively portrayed to help students connect to the issue across disciplines on a more personal, emotional level. We shared examples of a temperature and CO2 graph that was “brought to life” through music, through melting ice, and through poetry. Then the teachers brainstormed their own activities, which ranged from simulating the effects of climate change in dioramas to creating a human graph with middle school students.

frankniepoldNext, NOAA’s Climate Education Coordinator and stalwart Climate Generation partner Frank Niepold delivered a keynote talk to attendees. His presentation delivered two powerful messages: first, that climate scientists had done their work of highlighting the urgency of the climate threat, and now it was up to us to respond – in other words, it is now a social problem. Second, he said that he didn’t know of another school that was taking the time and effort to so thoroughly integrate climate change education across disciplines and grade levels, and that Lowell could be a model school in this regard.

Lowell’s Humanities Curriculum Coordinator, Natalie Stapert, is undeterred by their trailblazing status. She presented her model for how this new curricular path could be implemented, taking students from deep learning, to concern, to action. She has developed something similar for the 3rd-5th grade, which now focuses on teaching students about race. Her approach was very sensitive to the idea that it is not enough for students to merely understand the severity of climate change; they must also be able to develop and implement their own solutions.

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To wrap up the day, we led attendees in a “Gallery Walk” that unleashed their ideas regarding what climate change education could look like at Lowell, how it could be a strength for the school, what were the obstacles and where they needed support. During the wrap-up, Kavan shared a potential new name for the middle school, given the direction it was headed: the School for Solutions. I have never ended a day with more hope for the future. We are looking forward to our continued relationship with Lowell, as we return in the spring for an in-depth planning session to inform the 2017-2018 school year!

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