Bo leans back. Way back. I point to the floor under him and sweep my fingers toward my palm, sign for “Chair flat.” Today willing, he swings forward. In a bit, his movement catches my eye and he’s struggling. He tries to move his feet, but they won’t budge. The legs of the chair have passed through his laces, he’s not supposed to lean back, and he’s stuck. I smile. Bo smiles back and starts to laugh. I bust a gut, and Bo frees himself by tipping again.
Bo’s my people. I spend hours a day with more like him. These are some of the most energetic on the planet: thirteen and fourteen year olds. I teach algebra and earth science. That my students don’t all want to be at school would be an understatement. For many, like Bo, most academic learning is disconnected from life in the neighborhood. Yet I know my students learn best when I get them to tell their stories and engage them with the forces that shape their lives outside the classroom. These days two forces conflict: growing teen markets for throwaway goods and the increasingly popular recognition that climate change is here to stay, especially if we keep on throwing everything away.
My students are swept up in an infantilizing branding effort that reduces all the complexity of the human spirit to a compulsion to consume. The U.S. advertising industry spends 150 times more a year marketing to children than it did a generation ago. Rich or poor, the ads tell them, they have the freedom to buy.
Concurrently, they are witness to an emerging consciousness that humans are a planet-scale climate altering force. And so the pressure they have to consume has turned green, as though simply purchasing the right goods will solve our environmental problems.
But to exercise stewardship only through consumer choices is an extremely limited stewardship indeed. The freedom to buy even if it’s green won’t get us out of this mess. Instead, we need a culture focused on collective decisions that remake our infrastructures and re-form the way we live and work together.
Taking on Climate Change in the Classroom
As a teacher, I have the power to lead youth to transform culture. Both climate change and cultural change are complex and can evoke paralyzing fear, making uniting across differences difficult. And yet uniting across socioeconomic, philosophical and political differences is just what needs to happen as humanity faces a global crisis. The public school classroom, with its forced diversity, can be a place to overcome fear and learn the power of collective action.
I teach 8th grade in Tumwater, Washington, a small town in Western Washington State. Our community—typical of small U.S. towns—offers few private schools, and it has only two middle schools, both of which serve a similar mix of suburban and rural areas: I teach the wealthy students along with the poor.
Regardless of social class, they share an infrastructure that is not their invention. They do not walk to school. Most of them cannot walk to school, nor can they ride bikes. Distances are too great and safe passage in crossing the interstate and busy boulevards is impossible given winter’s short days and the lack of bike lanes and sidewalks. New housing has leapfrogged into the county’s rural areas while bus service has declined. Instead of driving less, Tumwater families drive more than they did a generation ago. Our community needs an about-face from fossil-fuel dependent infrastructures so the next generation of Tumwater kids can get to school without driving.
Instead of using the single page devoted to climate change provided by our textbook, I presented my students the evidence about it: shrinking glaciers; increased wild fires; spread of malaria; more frequent flooding of coastal cities during storm events. We studied ocean currents, atmospheric convection and the volume of water at different temperatures and in different states. Scared by such drastic changes and the implication that their way of life was the problem, my students balked. Cody said, “What are you trying to tell me Ms. Dean? I can’t drive a truck?!” In Cody’s mind, work means driving a truck, and thanks to the advertising industry, it means the freedom to drive the open roads of the West. Just a generation ago Tumwater depended almost entirely on the woods for its economy. He and his classmates expect to be able to drive a truck just like their fathers and grandfathers do. In learning about climate change, they felt scared and stuck and they didn’t like it.
I could have left them right there. My official charge as a public school teacher is to teach hundreds of discrete academic objectives, to be achieved, individually, by each of my students. This can be done, but such schooling isolates students from one another and separates learning from the forces active in their lives. In the thirteen years since I became a teacher, this has gotten worse, much worse. Rather than creating an engaging, integrated, and rigorous context for learning, the current top-down standards- and test-heavy school reform effort charges teachers with tracking and assessing achievement of individuals. When my students resisted learning about climate change, I could have dropped the subject right then and given a test. I decided not to.
Fear short-circuits critical thinking. I knew that they'd be more likely to be able to push through to more learning if they talked about how they felt: that way emotions and thoughts wouldn’t get so muddled up in each other. But in my experience, asking eighth graders to name their feelings can be like trying to get a stone to talk. Not so when you ask them to tell their stories.
So I asked the class, “How many of you have ever had a time when things were going wrong and you felt there was nothing you could do about it?” Nearly every hand went up. Each story they told was of struggle in isolation. I pointed this out and suggested that perhaps problems aren’t as overwhelming when others come along for the ride.
If there’s anything a public school classroom has, it’s plenty of company. From the first day of school I ask my students, “Why would you shoe-horn so many people into such a small area and not rely on each other?” I have room for about twenty-four desks chairs and students. I usually have over thirty. Limited space and resources can force interdependence. My students’ greatest asset in getting past their fear of climate change was right under their noses: They had each other.
As I pressed on, I told my students to expect to be scared sometimes. I added, “In most of your stories you were alone. In the global warming story, we'll have each other.” I did this not to absolve them of personal responsibility, but to help them see that they didn’t have to take the heat alone. Courage loves company. We examined sources of CO2 and methane and the ways that the production of almost everything we consume relies on the burning of fossil fuels.
“I can…” and “We can …”
As students learned what it took to make the goods they consume, they chose to look at everything from apples to playing cards to computer consoles. Every item traced to carbon-releasing fuels. At one point Madeleine looked up at me from her study of apples and said, “But Ms. Dean, we have to eat.” Other students vowed to change their ways. Angel smiled at me one afternoon and said, “I’m going to plant a garden.” DuSean started limiting his family’s consumption of aluminum cans. At the same time, Katrina vowed that she still planned to drive a truck, with a carburetor and Luke announced, “Well you know Ms. Dean, I still want to drive!”
I wanted them to look to each other for support, so I asked them to consider what we could do together about global warming. I kept a list of climate change solutions sorted under the headings “I can…” “We can…” and “They can…” I wanted my class to see what was within their power and control. They decided that the place where they had some power was in their school.
At that point, our school sent all of its waste to the landfill 150 miles away. They researched CO2 emissions from transportation and methane released from landfills and discovered that shifting the waste stream of our school from the landfill to recycling would make a difference. With help from the custodian my students designed a neglect-proof system and taught the rest of the school about the connection between waste and greenhouse gasses. By the end of the school year they had organized their community to behave differently. In the words of Cheryl, who is now a student at Tumwater High School, “Teaching everyone in our school about global warming was fun, but what was really cool was that we made change together. Even the other classes are into it.”
My hope is that my students’ success as change agents will provide them with the mindset and tools to move their culture toward collective action. My hope is that their experience will support them in transcending the barriers that keep us focused on individual choices rather than on the institutional changes we can only make together.