This Marine Biologist Taught at Occupy Camps. Now She’s Written Curriculum to Inspire Students to Action.

Middle school and high school students constantly hear about the many challenges our society faces—from fracking to police shootings to corporatization. What they don’t hear enough about is what they can do to make their world better.
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Ultimate Civics’ Rethinking Democracy! is an American civics curriculum for youth, particularly high school students. Rethinking Democracy! uses lectures and interactive exercises to explore American history from the adoption of our Constitution to recently proposed constitutional amendments. This course engages youth in a monumental teachable moment: reclaiming a functioning democracy.

In this free sample lesson (PDF and PowerPoint), "Empowering Youth as Change Agents," students analyze and discuss the basic elements of successful action plans created and implemented by peers from around the country. The full Rethinking Democracy curriculum is available for $20 at the Ultimate Civics website.

Photo courtesy of Riki Ott.


Dr. Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist with a specialty in oil pollution. Riki witnessed the devastation of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, and assisted in the recovery of the Gulf’s BP oil spill in 2010. She is also a former commercial fisher woman, author, speaker, and activist.

Riki spoke with us about the Rethinking Democracy! curriculum, which she developed with co-founder Dr. Gershon Cohen. Her answers have been lightly edited.



What inspired this curriculum, and why is it important to you? What makes this curriculum unique?

When I taught at Occupy camps around the country in fall 2011, I was shocked to find all these people who had stepped up to change America without a CLUE how to move ideas into action! They hungered for the backstory of how we got into this mess, how we lost our democracy, and they were fascinated by discussion of value-based organizing.

Why aren’t we preparing students, especially in grades five through twelve, for the work of regaining our democracy?

We discovered that we have a lot in common, and that we just lack a skillset to bridge the divides. Rethinking Democracy! for adults was born.

But a question nagged me: Why aren’t we preparing students, especially in grades five through twelve, for the work of regaining our democracy? Then it dawned on me: Oh! Because teachers lack a curriculum with relevant and inspiring content. Students, especially older middle school and high school students, know this is all crashing on their shoulders, and they seek to understand. This curriculum was inspired by the knowledge that engaged youth are critical to the proper functioning of a civil society.


What do you want students to take away from these lessons? What do you want them to know and do, and are there any ways to assess this?

In January 2013, I presented Rethinking Democracy!’s lesson “Empowering Youth as Change Agents” for an environmental teach-in at Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland, Oregon. The students chose to focus on the state’s proposed coal train ports. On February 14th, the governor received more than one hundred valentines asking him to veto a proposed coal port on the Columbia River, and on May 8th, under pressure from organizations and activists, Kinder Morgan scrapped its plans to build the coal export plant.

I want them to follow their passion, as I believe this is how we will change the world: people doing the work they love to do, not someone else’s work.

Today, five Sunnyside eighth graders—who were in sixth grade at the time of the teach-in—are preparing to testify at an upcoming hearing on a proposed propane terminal in Portland.

I want students to take away a sense of empowerment and excitement, along with skills to put their ideas into action. I want them to follow their passion, as I believe this is how we will change the world: people doing the work they love to do, not someone else’s work. Are students passionate about water privatization? Reducing the carbon footprint in their community? Animals' rights? Plastic bag bans? Food security and GMO “food”?

I include a correlation to national standards based on the 2012 Current Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database. But the real assessment is how the students use the information in the real world: generating press releases, testifying at city council meetings, collaborating and working together, and actively problem-solving to change their world.

 

What advice do you have for  teachers who want to use this curriculum?

A class of fifth graders in Eureka, California, once told me: “We don’t need to hear about any more problems. We need to know what we can DO about the problems.” This curriculum is designed to give students the skills to put ideas into action. Allow time for the final class — or make it a class project — in which students design, create, and implement a project. You will learn a lot and the students will be forever changed once they realize they can make a difference.

Take time in Lesson Four to choose Brower Youth Award stories that reflect the age, diversity, and interests of YOUR students. Then watch their faces as you show the clips. It’s really awesome to see the youth engage.


What additional resources do you recommend on this topic?

The Young Activists’ Guide to Building a Green Movement and Changing the World offers a discount to educators. It was written by young people, for young people.

Brower Youth Awards remain the favorite resource of teachers.

Young Ta'Kaiya Blaney is especially inspiring for middle school students (and adults), and her song with photos and lyrics.

Rock your class with the brothers…check out EarthGuardians.org

Our Children’s Trust: Short films for climate justice youth of all ages.


What’s your story? How did you come to this work?

The summer I turned fourteen, I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to understand why robins were falling out of trees and dying in my hometown of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Inspired by Carson's beautiful and tragic writing, I decided I would become a marine biologist like my new hero. I left Wisconsin at 18 in 1972 in search of an ocean and education.  Thirteen years later, armed with two degrees in marine toxicology, I headed to Alaska for one summer “off” before starting a career.

I always remember the lesson I learned at fourteen: successful movements engage and inspire youth.

I fell in love with Alaska and salmon fishing. One summer became 28 years after the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in my backyard of Prince William Sound, and my career found me. My commitment to problem-solving in the wake of this disaster led me to movement-building and teaching values-based community organizing from fifth grade to university.  I always remember the lesson I learned at fourteen: successful movements engage and inspire youth. We adults need to give youth skills to drive their ideas into action — and TURN 'EM LOOSE.