Well, one thing leads to another. After a trip to the Arctic, I wound up in Manhattan addressing an international audience at the United Nations. I spoke of what public school classrooms and teachers can offer in a time of global environmental crisis -- citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Here's the text of my talk as given on Thursday, September 6 in New York City.
I was invited to speak here because I spend a lot of time with some of the funniest, most hopeful and energetic people on the planet: thirteen and fourteen year olds. While my official charge is to teach math and science concepts, my students learn best when I engage them with the forces that shape their lives.
One of the strongest forces confronting my students is ever increasing pressure to consume manufactured goods, in spite of a global environmental crisis. The U.S. advertising industry spends 150 times more a year marketing to children than it did when I was in high school. Rich or poor, the ads tell them, they have the freedom to buy: This comes in lots of forms: ipods; skateboards; shoes; game consoles; cell phones; purses; clothing. . . . and most recently, GREEN.
As though simply purchasing the right goods will solve our environmental problems. Granted, some consumer choices are far better than others. Better to drive a Prius than a Hummer, better a paper cup than Styrofoam, better fluorescent than incandescent. But to exercise stewardship only through consumer choices is an extremely limited stewardship indeed.
Finding solutions to climate change requires cultural transformation. The freedom to buy even if it’s green won’t get us out of this mess. We need a culture focused on collective decisions that remake our infrastructures and re-form the way we live and work together.
As a teacher, I have the power to lead youth to transform culture. Both climate change and systemic 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 the global crisis. The public school classrooom, with its forced diversity, can be a place to overcome fear and learn the power of collective action. As I tell you one teacher’s story of teaching about climate change, keep in mind that my classroom is a microcosm of the larger culture.
The first time I taught about global warming, I took my cue from my student’s textbook “Weather and Climate”. It was published by Prentice Hall in 2000 and devoted one page of its 175-page middle school science book to global warming. The language was vague:
“human activities MAY be warming the earth’s atmosphere
“if carbon dioxide traps more heat, the result COULD be global warming.”
The little bit that was there however presented an opportunity to make the connections necessary to plant some seeds for change.
I teach 8th grade in the small town of Tumwater, in Washington State. While mostly white, my students are socio-economically diverse. Our community – typical of small US towns -- offers few private schools, and it has only two middle schools, both of which serve a similar mix of suburban and rural areas: Education is compulsory and I teach the wealthy students along with the poor.
This community is extremely dependent on carbon-releasing fuels. Housing prices and lack of public transit are to blame. Population growth in our county has been among the fastest in the nation and affordable housing has leapfrogged into the county’s rural areas while bus service has declined. Homes in the urban core have increased tremendously in value, farm and forest land in outlying areas provide for comparatively inexpensive new housing.
My middle school students are prisoners of an infrastructure that is not their invention. My students 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 the constraints of daylight and the lack of sidewalks. Climate change demands that we transform fossil-fuel dependent infrastructures so that 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 climate change: 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?!” Just a generation ago Tumwater depended almost entirely on the woods for its economy. 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. 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.
My official charge as a public school teacher is to teach hundreds of isolated academic objectives, to be achieved, individually, by each of my students. Such schooling isolates subjects from one another and separates learning from the forces active in students’ 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 school reform effort charges teachers with tracking and assessing achievement of individuals. This focuses teachers on trying to make students better, without examining the dysfunctional system in which students find themselves. It’s kind of like buying a more energy efficient car and then moving 40 miles out of town for cheaper rent in order to make the car payments. When my students resisted learning about climate change, I could have dropped the subject right then and given a test. I didn’t.
Fear short-circuits critical thinking. I knew that we'd be more likely to be able to push through to more learning if we took the time to talk about how we feel: 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.
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. In nearly every story they told, they were in trouble alone.
My students’ greatest asset in getting past their fear of climate change was right under their noses: They had each other. When my school was built about ten years ago, the state had promised smaller class sizes. I have room for about twenty-four students in my room. I usually have over thirty. From the first day of school I ask my students, “Why would you shoe-horn so many people into such a small space and not rely on each other?” Limited space and resources can force interdependence.
After students had shared their stories I reminded them “As we continue to learn about global warming, expect to be scared sometimes. In most of your stories you were alone. In the global warming story, we'll have each other."
I pressed my students to think past individual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and consider what we could do together about global warming. 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.
As students examined 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. Chandra smiled at me one afternoon and said “I’m going to plant a garden.” Ryan 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 carbeurator and Luke announced, “Well you know Ms. Dean, I still want a car!”
I kept a list of climate change solutions sorted under the headings “I can . . .” “We can . . .” and “They can . . .” I wanted students to see what was within their power and control. They decided that the place where they had some power was in their school. And 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 sustainable system and taught the rest of the school about the connection between waste and greenhouse gasses. They 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.”
By itself, their collective action is not much, yet it represents the unification across socioeconomic, philosophical and political boundaries necessary to change our culture into one that can work together to remake infrastructures. My students experienced something revolutionary in a time of relentless emphasis of individualism. They learned that working together, and in spite of their fear, they could, in fact, create systemic change that meant more than individual choices alone. Since their initial effort, the system has sustained itself in spite of twice-over turnover in students and significant changes in staff. That is cultural change.
My hope is that the 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 systemic changes needed to mitigate global warming.
Schooling needs to stop emphasizing individual achievement of isolated academic objectives and use the opportunity provided by shared time and space to transcend boundaries and work together to understand issues that deeply impact our communities. Teachers have the skills and students have the potential to make connections between what they learn in school and the rest of the world. As long as political forces continue to fragment academic subjects from each other and make talented teachers into managers of student progress, our schools will struggle to give us what that the world needs: citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Now, more than ever, we need less emphasis on individual achievement and the individual freedom to buy. Instead we need an ever deepening understanding of our interdependence and a renewed commitment to each other.