Rethinking Schools curriculum editor Bill Bigelow and high school teacher Tim Swinehart are the masterminds behind the nation’s first comprehensive climate literacy policy, which was passed by the Portland Public Schools school board in May 2016. They had enough of too many textbooks discrediting or minimizing the effects of climate change.
The two educators are also co-authors of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. It is a collection of stories, poems, activities, and role-plays that gives students honest insights into the people and places affected by climate change. Articles on solutionaries who are working for climate justice are also included to inspire and replicate.
We offer two free downloadable lessons from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.
- Climate Change Mixer is an engaging introductory lesson on climate change—and empathy. In this activity, students meet one another in character—17 individuals around the world who are affected by climate change. Some are forced to leave home, while others profit from this business opportunity.
- Don’t Take Our Voices Away is a role-playing opportunity where students learn how indigenous people are confronting the effects of climate change. In this activity, they will work together to develop a common list of demands to present at the Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change.
And, if you’re interested in making climate change part of your school district’s curriculum, here’s a Climate Justice Resource Kit that includes a copy of the resolution passed by the Portland Public Schools school board, organizing tips, and news coverage about the significance of this landmark policy. The YES! Magazine article “Portland Public Schools First to Put Global Climate Justice in the Classroom,” also reports on highlights of the pilot program’s inaugural year at Portland’s Lincoln High School.
Bill Bigelow is the curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. Bill taught high school social studies for almost 30 years in Portland, Oregon. He is the author or co-editor of numerous books, including Rethinking Our Classrooms, The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, and Rethinking Columbus. Bill spends a part of most workdays caring for his 6-month-old grandson Mateo.
Tim Swinehart teaches social studies half-time at Lincoln High School, in Portland, Oregon. Tim, the recipient of the 2015 Oregon Outstanding Social Studies Teacher of the Year award, is a longtime organizer with Portland Area Rethinking Schools and the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference, and currently serves on the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee. He spends his off days with his daughters Zadie and Mira, riding bikes, reading books, playing music, and making protest signs.
Bill and Tim spoke with YES! about A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. Their answers have been condensed and lightly edited.
What inspired A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, and why is it important to you? What makes this curriculum unique?
Bill: In 2007, Tim and I attended a climate crisis teach-in sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization. It left us shaken. One speaker after another talked about the frightening implications of climate change.
The climate crisis is immoral—it begins in the richest countries of the world but affects the poorest most profoundly.
We came back to Portland and launched an “Earth in Crisis” curriculum workgroup to begin developing and testing out new curriculum. That began a seven-year journey that led to A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.
I have two grandsons, and I want them to have a world that is livable and not in perpetual crisis. The climate crisis is immoral—it begins in the richest countries of the world but affects the poorest most profoundly. Any educator who regards themselves as a social justice educator needs to address the climate crisis in class. I think that A People’s Curriculum for the Earth is the most comprehensive and participatory resource around, with justice at its core.
Tim: Another inspiration for A People’s Curriculum for the Earth was our desire to “story” the climate crisis. To alert students to the stories of the people, places, and cultures affected by climate change right now—not in some distant future—and to bring those stories into our classrooms, in the form of role-plays, simulations, poetry, and creative writing. To offer students the opportunity to see the climate crisis from someone else’s perspective and to empathize with the urgency experienced by those living on the frontlines of the crises—an urgency too often hidden.
Climate justice education needs to be interdisciplinary, hands-on, connected to our communities, and to give students a sense of agency—all the things we know help make learning relevant and empowering for our students. I feel an immense responsibility to teach about climate change in a way that helps students understand the root causes of the crisis, how climate justice intersects with other social issues, and how students can see themselves as part of a movement working for a more just and sustainable future.
What do you want students to take away from these lessons and stories? What do you want them to know and do, and are there any ways to assess this?
Bill: The terms “climate change” and “global warming” often get thrown around as abstract concepts. I want students to recognize that the environmental crisis we are facing affects real human beings in deeply unequal ways. I also want them to know that there are people who are doing something about it. That there is a climate justice movement, and that students can be a part of it.
If we expose students to the enormity of the climate crisis, we also have to encourage them to see themselves as change agents.
In 2016, the Portland Public Schools Board unanimously passed a resolution calling for students to see themselves as social and environmental justice activists. This is crucial. If we expose students to the enormity of the climate crisis, we also have to encourage them to see themselves as change agents. Can we assess this? All good teaching should interrogate how students are responding to our lessons. We need to give students opportunities to demonstrate how they are responding to the climate crisis in their daily lives.
What advice do you have for teachers who want to use this curriculum?
Bill: You don’t have to be an expert to begin to teach about this. We are all figuring it out as we go. Keep it grounded in story. Make it participatory and experiential. There is something wrong with teaching about the immensity of the climate crisis through a traditional pedagogy of readings and worksheets. We need to touch students’ hearts.
You don’t have to be an expert to begin to teach about this. We are all figuring it out as we go.
I also want to make sure that we are not just teaching a curriculum of “climate literacy,” but of “climate justice.” Part of that means centering the voices of people from frontline communities, like the Marshall Islands. Here in Portland, we’ve worked with performance poet Kathy Jeñil-Kijiner to explore how climate change is affecting indigenous people in the Pacific Islands, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arctic, and Bangladesh—places that have little to do with creating this crisis but are the first to suffer from it.
Also, consistently highlight activism. If we do a good job of imparting the science of climate change and its consequences but fail to alert students to the amazingly creative and widespread climate justice activism, then we run the risk of feeding student cynicism and despair.
Tim: Many teachers I know have shared the concern that climate change feels too immense to take on as part of their curriculum. It’s true that teaching “deeply” about the root causes of the crises and the many ways that people are responding can take a long time, but an activity like the Climate Change Mixer can be used in a single class period. Colleagues have used it successfully in science classes, economics classes, even gardening classes—and appreciate how it grounds climate change in the stories of people currently affected by the crisis.
What additional resources do you recommend?
- Poetry by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. Look for “Dear Matafele Peinam,” “Tell Them,” and “The Butterfly Thief.”
- How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can Change (HBO Josh Fox). Watch the trailer here.
What’s your story?
Bill: I grew up wandering the golden hills of Marin County in California, exploring wetlands inhabited by salamanders, alligator lizards, and western racers, and building forts in the forests near our house. My friends and I had a broad—and naïve—knowledge of the natural world. And yet my schooling ignored the outdoors and taught us that anything worth knowing was to be found in books and the four walls of the classroom.
My friends and I had a broad—and naïve—knowledge of the natural world. And yet my schooling ignored the outdoors…
School taught me to not-think about the Earth, if I can use not-think as a verb. We were also surrounded by “development”—by the destruction of beaches, the filling in of wetlands, the plowing up of hills. And by its silence, my schooling taught me that this kind of degradation was normal.
I’m still trying to unlearn all this and find ways to help students question and critique the destruction of the Earth. I want them to come to insights about the world through a problem-posing curriculum of role-play, simulation, first-hand experience, storytelling, and critical reading. An ecological education has always been needed, but now it’s a matter of survival.
Tim: Growing up on ten acres, surrounded by towering Douglas firs and a rolling hayfield, it was easy to find myself in the middle of what we often refer to as “nature.” I spent my days walking through trees, running through chest-high grass, and picking wild blackberries, warmed by the sun, smelling, and tasting of late summer.
It’s a wonderful feeling to take my daughters Zadie and Mira there, to watch them run through the field, to pick blackberries from the same vines I picked as a child.
I’m fortunate that my parents still live on the same piece of land that I grew up on. It’s a wonderful feeling to take my daughters Zadie and Mira there, to watch them run through the field, to pick blackberries from the same vines I picked as a child. Watching them, I’m motivated to protect places like my parents’ land, and millions of similarly beautiful places around the earth, from the ravages of our changing climate.
My work teaching climate justice has helped me realize that it’s not just about these places, but about the people that inhabit them. Because in the end, we all live someplace worth saving. If we can see the connections between the places and people most affected by the climate crises and our collective future on the planet, we might just find the courage we need for the struggle that lies ahead.