Why English Teachers Must Talk About the Climate Crisis (and how to do it)

*Note: This material was originally shared as part of a NCTE presentation titled “Responding to the Climate Crisis in English Language Arts.”


“Take two breaths. 100 years ago, you would have breathed in 300 ppm of CO2. Today, you breathed in over 410 ppm of CO2. The difference is what’s driving climate change.” —John Calderazzo

As I write this, the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history is just a few miles from my house. It’s been burning for over two months, and it’s destroyed many forests, trails, campsites, and spiritual retreats that my children and I have enjoyed for decades.

Eight years ago, I watched what was then the largest wildfire in Colorado history burn houses on a ridge I could see from my bedroom window. That, for me, was the catalyst that got me to realize that the climate crisis wasn’t something we could put off dealing with. It had already changed our climate enough to create the hottest, driest years in human history. And these changes in our climate were already making wildfires in the West several times bigger and more devastating.

Cameron Peak fire approaching Estes Park.

Fire forced me to realize that climate change wasn’t someone else’s problem, or a problem we could put off. As a teacher and a writer, I started to dedicate myself to communicating about the problem so that we, as a society, could effectively address the climate crisis. Although I wish I could talk with you in person today, 2020 had other plans. Here’s the short version of what I wanted to share with you (and here’s a useful handout with a book and activity list to go along with this page: Learning from Disasters handout.pdf).

Three reasons for why it’s vital to discuss climate change with children and young adults:

1) Children are inheriting this problem. Educators have a duty to provide young people with the tools needed to understand and effectively address the problem.

2) Denial is destructive. Many students are already experiencing climate related anxiety about their future. Avoiding the problem leaves students even less prepared to deal with the reality they’re inheriting, and can make anxiety worse. Instead, young people need to understand how to effectively address complex issues.

3) Young people are far better at changing the behavior of adults than other adults (something I’ve learned from eight years of professional climate communication). The more students understand climate change and how it will impact them, the more they can persuade adults to work to create the future they want to live in.

It’s vital that we don’t silo off climate education to science curriculums. Environmental problems are societal problems, economic problems, and human problems. To adequately prepare students for the world in which they live, young people need support understanding how to use all disciplines to solve the problems they’re facing. Writing and literature are especially effective at getting students to make personal connections to social and environmental problems, and to creatively problem solve.

Stories shape the ways we think and act. Stories form the foundation for how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. In order to effectively address the new problems we’re now facing, we need new stories that can help us envision new solutions.

Attached you’ll find a list of several novels that I’ve used to help students from elementary school through graduate school explore some of the big environmental and social problems they’re inheriting.

The second page of this document includes activities that help students create connections between themselves, these texts, and the problems we’re facing. Several of these activities focus on envisioning the future, and creative problem solving.Learning from Disasters handout

Finally, here are five general techniques I’ve found that make teaching and communicating about climate change more effective:

1) Make it personal and immediate by sharing the changes you’ve already seen in the world due to the climate crisis. (This is why I started off this page with a story of the fires I’ve seen).

2) Make it concrete and memorable rather than technical. See the quote from my good friend John Calderazzo that I posted at the top of this page for an example of this. He put the facts of increasing climate pollution in a way I’ll never forget.

3) Engage students by creating opportunities for active learning and inquiry. For instance, rather than giving students a barrage of climate change information and evidence, have them do a “What do I know and what do I want to know” assignment in small groups. In this assignment, students can work together to come up with three important things about climate change that they have evidence for and that they would like others to know, and at least one (or two) things that they’d like to know. Then groups can present what they know (and why/how they know this) with the class, along with the questions they want to ask. Having students teach each other keeps them active and engaged, and the questions they ask provide an opportunity for the class to explore effective inquiry, and how to distinguish good sources from misleading sources.

4) Use stories that give students a sense of agency. The first step in dealing with a problem is recognizing it. The second step is seeing what we can do about it. Right now, many students are aware of the problem of climate change, but they don’t know what they can do about it. That’s why stories that demonstrate the power young people have to solve problems and make a difference in the world are essential. (See the book list on the connected handout for more on this.)

5) Emphasize that human caused problems have human solutions, and turn anxiety into action. We can solve this, but we need to approach and understand the problem in a way that enables us to solve it.

Note: The handout below includes several books and activities that I’ve used to meet the above goals in middle school, high school, and college classrooms. However, books for younger readers (4th-6th grade) that effectively engage environmental and social issues are rare. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote The Last Panther (a book for middle grade readers that addresses climate change, species extinction, and income inequality). If you want to use The Last Panther with your 4th-7th grade classrooms, here’s a link to a page where you can find teaching materials to go along with this book (including discussion questions, curriculum connections, and an excellent debate activity that a teacher in Florida sent me): http://toddmitchellbooks.com/the-last-panther-teaching-and-book-club-kit/

More books recommendations and exercises can be found here: Learning from Disasters handout.pdf

PS: I do free Virtual Visits to classes that order 15 or more of my books. Click for details. http://toddmitchellbooks.com/skype-visits/


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