In Tim Swinehart’s high school class in Portland, Oregon, students scroll through environmental blogs, occasionally pausing to jot down notes. Swinehart, a tall and lean 40-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and light hair, floats around the room asking students what they plan to say during the Lobby for Clean Air Day in Salem next week, when they will meet with Democratic Senator Michael Dembrow. Along with their prepared speeches, students will make a case for clean air to Governor Kate Brown. The visit will serve as a class period, a field trip from this elective environmental justice class.
Two boys at different tables throw their voices across the divide to discuss cars. “The diesel particulate filters that they put in to capture all of that stuff, they take away from the performance, power and efficiency,” one says. This isn’t the car talk of newly licensed drivers. These teens are considering greenhouse gas emissions. Students here not only learn about the devastating effects of climate change, they’re also encouraged to be activists.
Lincoln High School is in its first year of a revolutionary pilot program for seniors and some juniors that teaches how climate change affects people around the world. In the rest of the city, the climate crisis is taught briefly in social studies and science classes, and some textbooks downplay global warming. But through involvement in local environmental activism, students in Swinehart’s class are encouraged to think of themselves as change makers.
“Climate education, especially in the age that we’re living in, needs to be a whole lot more bold than it is,” says Swinehart, who taught social studies before taking on this class, too. “Responsible climate justice education has to help kids see how they play a role in creating a better world.”
Since starting last fall, students have read books about activism, marched on City Hall, and given testimony in favor of progressive environmental initiatives at public hearings. Tyler Honn, 17, says the class has given him “much more confidence, a sense of agency and a sense of purpose that I absolutely didn’t have before.”
“Portland Public School’s climate justice resolution serves as an example of successful grassroots organizing.”
The class originated, in part, from a climate justice resolution drafted by a group of activists, teachers, students, and parents, and passed unanimously by Portland’s school board in May. It is the first comprehensive climate literacy policy in the country, and calls for Portland Public Schools to implement a climate justice curriculum. It also asks that schools abandon text materials that downplay the human impact on the climate crisis, and promises professional development and curriculum materials to school staff funded by the district. Although it’s only in the first year of its three-year implementation plan, the resolution has already inspired other cities to follow suit.
Supporters of the resolution say that classes like Swinehart’s are one of the best tactics to fight against the climate denial that has fueled President Trump’s attacks on environmental regulation and prompted a budget proposal that called for drastic funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. The nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, endorsed the resolution in Washington, D.C. during its national convention in July. For many, Portland Public School’s climate justice resolution serves as an example of successful grassroots organizing and local advocacy, which may be the linchpin of progress as federal protections are eroded.
In 2015, Swinehart and Bill Bigelow—a former Portland educator and curriculum editor at publisher Rethinking Schools—led a workshop for community activists and teachers. The two had recently published a collection of art, role plays, stories, poems, and articles to teach about the environmental crisis. In the workshop, they examined a standard Portland public high school textbook and were horrified to read that the theory of the greenhouse effect was debatable among scientists. They convened a group of community members, and initiated the climate justice resolution.
Gaby Lemieux is a Lincoln senior who was active on the resolution drafting committee. At 17, she came to Swinehart’s class as an activist who had already testified in favor of the climate literacy resolution. After a “life-changing” two weeks spent on an organic farm in Washington, Lemieux returned to Lincoln High believing that everyone deserved a hands-on climate education.
“I’d never had an education that was so comprehensive and so positive,” she says about the farm. She decided to start an environmental justice club, and invited Swinehart to talk about climate activism. A student piped up to ask when Lincoln was going to have an environmental activism class.
“I walked out, and I almost walked to my classroom, and I just kept walking toward the principal’s office,” Swinehart says. The principal readily accepted his proposal, and the class became a pilot course for the new climate justice resolution, passed just three months earlier.
As with the rest of the country, climate education in Portland Public Schools is piecemeal and largely depends on what teachers decide to incorporate into their curriculum. In general, educators at Portland Public Schools embrace a more comprehensive approach to climate change education. In fact, Portland’s teacher’s union signed on to the resolution before it was presented to the school board. Other schools in the district were already incorporating climate change into their curricula, science teachers at one school had previously added a climate change unit to their freshman curriculum, and some elementary school teachers already teach about the Marshall Islands, rising sea levels and climate refugees. The passage of the resolution provides additional resources.
Nationwide, teachers generally only spend an average of one to two hours teaching climate change in an academic year, according to a national survey of classroom science teachers conducted by researchers from Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education. The same survey found that only about 37 percent of teachers taught that burning fossil fuels primarily causes global warming, although that is the consensus among climate scientists.
Climate literacy curriculum and instruction decisions are largely made by the local school district or the individual teacher, says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. The federal Department of Education has little influence over what is taught in the classroom.
Swinehart teaches students to confront their privilege through empathy.
Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, states are required to adopt some science guidelines but are largely free to choose their own standards. The most recent national development in science education happened in 2013, when 26 states and various nonprofits created a set of standards called the Next Generation Science Standards. It incorporates aspects of global climate change education, but many teachers and students feel it is not enough.
During a one-week climate change course in eighth grade, Lemieux remembers watching the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow, about a fictional superstorm that hits New York City and wiped out much of the population. “Of course, my reaction as a middle schooler was just shut it out completely,” she says, “shut out the problems of climate change.” This left her feeling helpless and fearful for the future.
In Swinehart’s class, she’s having conversations about climate change in a way that she never had previously, discussing power structures and how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color. A majority of Lincoln’s students are white, as is Portland’s population, so she said it is sometimes challenging to learn about subjects that don’t impact them directly. But Swinehart teaches students to confront their privilege through empathy.
Students write poems based on the work of Kathy Jetnil-Kijner, a poet from the Marshall Islands who has written about the threat of rising sea levels on her island. They focus on human stories by reading from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Beautiful Trouble—a book about activist principles, theories and tactics by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell—and use material from Swinehart and Bigelow’s book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. In December, students simulated the DAPL movement by roleplaying as the Standing Rock Sioux and the Energy Transfer Partners, and each group presented to President Barack Obama.
“I think our job is to seek out those voices, the voices of the people on the front line, and make sure that we’re listening to them rather than telling them what to do,” Lemieux says.
In October, representatives from environmental nonprofit 350PDX gave a presentation to the class and mentioned that the city would be voting on zoning codes for a fossil fuel infrastructure ban that had passed in 2015. The infrastructure ban had no teeth, so zoning code changes were intended to restrict fossil fuel development.
In early November, the entire class dressed in red to honor the anti-fossil fuel movement—and their school’s colors—and marched to City Hall in support of the ban. They delivered their speeches to public officials and handed them 500 public comments collected from the community.
The class returned to City Hall over several weeks, and during one of the visits, Lemieux and four other students gave in-depth testimony. They discussed the natural beauty of the Cascades and Portland, as well as the need to protect it. “It gave us a really terrific background and platform to continue to advocate locally and work with our local representatives,” Lemieux says.
In December, the City Council voted unanimously to adopt the zoning code changes. “It makes me so proud as a teacher,” Swinehart says, recalling the day.
A coalition of business, labor, and oil industry groups is now appealing the ban, and not everyone has been so supportive of Portland’s climate literacy resolution or its encouragement of youth activism. Conservative media organizations including TheBlaze and Fox News have lambasted the school district, with some calling its members “book burners” for suggesting that schools remove learning materials that deemphasize the human impact on climate change. The Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, has sent unsolicited material skeptical of climate change to teachers throughout the country. “Adopting such a resolution does send a strong signal,” says Branch, of the National Center for Science Education, about the district’s measure.
“In my experience, youth who are aware of the problem are very eager to work toward solutions.”
Undeterred, a 15-member committee is currently working to develop a climate justice curriculum for other grade levels. Katherine Muller is a former college teacher with a doctorate in ecology who adds a parent’s perspective to the committee. Her daughter, Ella, is a freshman at a Portland high school that does not offer a course equivalent to Swinehart’s environmental justice class. Ella also testified on behalf of the fossil fuel infrastructure ban last year. “In my experience, youth who are aware of the problem are very eager to work toward solutions. They know that they will be the ones to live with the consequences of the decisions that are made today, and they want their voices heard,” Muller wrote in an email.
Bigelow says that Portland already serves as a model for other cities. He has consulted with the head of the Sierra Club in Philadelphia, spoken with interested Seattle teachers union activists, and says a delegation from California will be visiting Portland to learn how to create their own curriculum.
Whether other districts adopt similar resolutions will depend on local school boards, “many of which, I think, are not going to be as eager to promote the activism among their students as in Portland,” Branch says. He can see the resolution passing easily in progressive cities like Austin, Texas, but says it seems very unlikely in predominantly conservative places like Dallas.
Shortly before the bell rings in Swinehart’s class, students separate into groups to tackle yearlong action projects. Tyler Honn and Tucker Holstun are analyzing the school’s carbon footprint. They are conducting surveys and attaining data from a local electric company to measure the amount of energy the school consumes on and off site, including transportation to and from class. The school district plans to build a new school, and Honn and Holstun see an opportunity to promote solar panels and energy efficiency.
They hope that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis will generate a sense of accountability and ownership of a new school. “It would help mobilize kids to care about building a new school,” Holstun said. “It’s also important because we can use this as a way to educate kids generally about climate change,” he added.
This article was funded in part by the Surdna Foundation.
Melissa Hellmann reports on artificial intelligence at The Seattle Times and is a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!.