Teaching Our Students to be Heroes

For the last few months I have had the pleasure of participating in a small informal book club of individuals interested in climate change education.  Teachers that join the discussion bringdystopiak valuable insights on how a particular text might fit into the classroom setting and for what ages.  Those of us that focus on supporting educators have been able to develop and think about ways to build climate literacy through literature.  All of us are united in a love for reading, and have been happy to justify taking some of our work time to dedicate to reading anything from young adult dystopian novels to non-fiction stories of innovation and solutions to the climate crisis.

One topic that we often circle back to is the difficulty of finding young adult works of fiction that feel hopeful when it comes to climate change.  Most of them portray a fairly dire future full of struggle and intense hardship (see bookclub blogs) As someone who focuses on climate change education as a profession, I know that without incorporating solutions to the discussion, students/teachers/the public can be left feeling overwhelmed, disengaged and hopeless.

David Sobel is well known in the field of environmental education for his work in place-based education and his contribution to the discussion about how and when to introduce climate change to students.  A few years ago in his article, Climate Change Meets Ecophobia, Sobel argued heavily against using environmental tragedy as motivation and that introducing climate change too early in elementary school was not only a bad idea, but could be detrimental.

It is because of this past work that I was interested to read David Sobel’s recent article in Orion magazine, Feed the Hunger. In Feed the Hunger, Sobel describes the phenomena of a lack hopeful environmental fiction for young adults and attributes it to the “…rising tide of hopelessness, along with rising seas level [that] is lapping at the toes of our young adolescents.”  This is in turn making “…our young adult fiction different from the young adult nature fiction of thirty years ago.”  Surprisingly Sobel, doesn’t argue that this is bad thing, but instead that by writing about the issues that students worry about every day they become “…somewhat more manageable, more quantifiable.”  Even more so he advocates for the importance of books like Hunger Games because of the resilient examples of heroes they provide for our students.

Discussion about preparing students for the future in the warming world generally includes the need to understand the essential principles of climate science and energy literacy.  It often also includes a discussion on the importance of developing skills for solutions in the areas of engineering and civic engagement.  Rarely does the discussion include teaching our students things like resilience.  Integrating fiction and other more literary works into climate change education can be a useful and beneficial way to bring these less tangible, difficult to teach, yet important lessons to students.

In a recent book of essays, called the Thirty-Year Plan, thirty writers offer their thoughts on what we need to “build a better future.”  The essays don’t include concepts like an understanding of the greenhouse effect or where our energy comes from, but instead the less tangible, including; courage, empathy, compassion, optimism, humility, and improvisation.  Sobel supports young adult dystopian fiction inevitably because “we’re going to need more adolescents willing to be heroic.”  By including these books in our teaching we offer an opportunity for our students to reflect on and perhaps even nurture the important traits that are needed as we face the challenges of today and the future.

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