Empowering Students to Protect the Environment: Teacher Tips

This past week saw students leading a global climate strike, and teenagers like Greta Thunberg, Pablo Cavanzo, and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez are calling on adults to support them. In New York City, the home base of the Shaped staff, the NYC Department of Education—which serves 1.1 million students—excused absences of students participating in the September 20, 2019, Climate Strike, as long as the students had parental consent.

But in talking with teachers around the country, I learned that teaching about climate change can be a really challenging topic. As teachers, how do you approach the topic of climate change and environmental protection? How do you empower your students to become engaged citizens? 

I asked a few teachers I trust for their thoughts, and hopefully their advice can help other teachers tackle this tough and complicated subject in their classrooms. 

Tracy Childers, Middle School Science Teacher, Foothills Community School, North Carolina
“Our students have the opportunity to express how they want to further take care of the earth and are able to become involved by expressing their thoughts and taking action through service projects. For example, our students recently went to survey and design a rain garden on a local trail for the local government. As their teacher, I am committed to their understanding of the science underneath the carbon cycle and climate change. The importance to the students of protecting their future creates the relevance.”

Amanda Rack, First Grade Teacher, Knob Hill Elementary School, California
“This week we are focusing on being responsible citizens in our ELA unit. This topic lends itself perfectly to environmental protection. We read a text called ‘Hello Community Garden’ and discussed ways that even kids can make contributions to their community. We discussed how they could help to make their community a better place by taking care of the environment around them.”

Rachel Swartz, Sixth Grade Teacher, Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy (MS/HS 141), New York
“Last year my students worked on service learning projects about the causes and effects of climate change. They researched information in the library, as well as Skype interviewed a conservation expert, in order to gather information. They then created campaigns featuring logical solutions to combat climate change in their everyday lives. They came up with ways to reuse and recycle materials they use in class or at lunch, and also created artwork inspiring their fellow students to recycle. They even motivated our school to create a Green Team. This project helped to foster their interest the Climate Strike.”

Pablo Cavanzo in his hometown of Bogota, Colombia

If you’re looking for an easy entry point to talk about climate change, I suggest watching this episode of Carmen Sandiego’s Fearless Kids Around the World featuring Pablo Cavanzo. A few years ago, Pablo discovered that the Amazon rainforest was being destroyed and that it put his home country—and everyone on Earth—at risk. Pablo took action and, along with a group of 25 other young people, issued a lawsuit against the Colombian government for not doing enough to prevent pollution and deforestation in the Amazon. And in 2018, the Colombian government ruled in their favor!

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Use the free lesson plan for Grades 4–8, “Caring for the Environment,” to have students find a social issue or problem that they feel strongly about and propose a way to address it while building skills in social awareness and responsible decision making.

Each webisode of Carmen Sandiego’s Fearless Kids Around the World comes paired with free social-emotional learning activities following the CASEL framework to build relevant competencies. Download these SEL activities and lesson plans to inspire your students at carmensandiego.com/fearlesskids.

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