Where Is the Movement of Educators Dedicated to Fighting Climate Change?

From our recent NWAIS presentation

At my independent school in Oregon, we are launching an institutional response to climate change. At Catlin Gabel School, we are looking at divesting our endowment from fossil fuels, developing a climate literacy curriculum for students ages 4-18, and working on a model to measure and then reduce our Greenhouse Gas emissions.

I am writing to ask if a) your school is on a similar track and/or b) you’d like to share your experience with me, my students, and my school. I am especially curious about schools outside the USA.

Closer to home, my colleagues and I are inviting educators from other independent schools in the region to share resources–curricula, carbon counters–as we embark on this work. Our Head of School is exploring the possibility of a regional meeting of interested educators and administrators sometime next spring.

I understand that this isn’t a substitute for federal and international action on climate change, but I feel that there is real good in institutions lowering their use of resources. There is also an educational value, one perhaps greater than the direct environmental impact.

For the moment, however, few at my school appear moved to action. Many cars idle in the parking lot; there is little carpooling. Students notice this, of course. Teens can sense hypocrisy a mile away and I don’t think the adults at my school have done enough to stop their BS sensors from going off. Granted, our wonderful facilities staff records the school’s usage of oil, gas, and so on, and this info will serve us well when we begin looking for strategies for conservation. But we’ve just let the data accumulate for years. The grounds crew does an amazing job making the school look beautiful–every visitor remarks on it.The staff has done much to switch to more earth-friendly cleaning supplies and they’ve grabbed the low-hanging fruit for the rest of us. Yet without any school-wide action plan right now to lower our use of energy, it’s hard for us to convince our students climate change is an issue that will mark their lives. I fear we are making some of the older students cynical.

Recently, two colleagues and I attended the annual conference of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools at the Charles Wright School in Tacoma to share our process. We are really at the beginning of our journey as a school, despite the late date. I have taught about climate change for a decade, so have a few of my colleagues, but only now are we moving toward a coordinated effort. It feels late, but it also feels good. At the conference, our session was not well attended, but those who did come were energized and ready to collaborate on curriculum and planning.

MY web searches suggest that similar processes are happening all over the United States. But, as far as I can tell, the Department of Education doesn’t offer coordination on how schools can respond to, or teach, climate change. Perhaps I am missing something, but could it be the US federal government doesn’t have a plan for transforming schools to meet this enormous challenge? There is a program through which schools may apply for an award for their environmental work, but this is for outliers, not for everyone.

epaclimate-grabThe Environmental Protection Agency has a nice website for younger students but its a decade out of date. Encouraging students to turn off lights at home (a good practice to be sure) isn’t going to do it. They get this. Students need to be tasked with more. Even grammar-school students can understand the fact that governments set policies around energy consumption. They need to gain experience working together on broader solutions. Otherwise we are teaching them to do something we admit in the next breath to be meaningless–we are thereby telling our students that it’s hopeless.

So, I am going to see if over the next few years, I can find schools that are helping students learn about climate change in a more meaningful and empowering way. I am going to work with my students on measuring and then working to reduce our school’s footprint in a meaningful way. And I will lend my voice to the call for divestment. Lucky for me, I have a Head of School who shares my concerns.

I would love to hear from educators about how their schools, schools districts, and governments are working on climate change education. Does anyone know of groups that are sharing knowledge about student-centered ways of making schools greener and about teaching climate change in an age-appropriate manner? Please feel free to comment below or send me an email to patwalsh65@gmail.com.



2 thoughts on “Where Is the Movement of Educators Dedicated to Fighting Climate Change?

Add yours

  1. This is an important idea. While many individual teachers are teaching about climate change and other aspects of sustainability, there is no strong network to support them. Rethinking Schools does some things, and there are some lessons on Zinn Education Project & Global Schoolroom, there is no coordination or even a single place to find all the relevant materials.

    It might be worth looking at the campus sustainability movement, both for ideas that worked — and some that didn’t.

    Please excuse the length of this reply, but I want to go into a little history of what’s happened here in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. At the end of 2006, the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment really ramped up the pace of colleges & universities recognizing how important this is. (We had a total of 26 campus sustainability interns at colleges & universities here in the Lehigh Valley, and we were following every aspect of the movement.) AASHE [Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education] formed to coordinate the larger campus sustainability movement, and stressed that sustainability meant curriculum, research, operations, and community engagement.

    In 2014, an economics major at Lehigh University wanted to do an internship on climate action, and we chose to try to get the local school district to adopt a commitment. The administration and school board president liked the idea, so we went on to develop a commitment that called for attending to climate & sustainability in curriculum & student activities, facilities & operations, and community engagement. It was adopted by the Board that spring. (You can find a link for the commitment on the Alliance website, at http://www.sustainlv.org/schools) That summer 3 other interns developed dozens of ideas about how they could implement the commitment and the interconnectedness of all these areas. Most of these were never implemented or even explored; the district had moved on to other pressing concerns.

    Last year, we started looking for and identifying resources that could help teachers more directly; the first of these deals with using an inventory of the school’s greenhouse gas emissions [GHG] to make ideas more tangible, involve students in every step, and provide a focus for discussion throughout the school. (You can find more about this project at the same website as above, http://www.sustainlv.org/schools.)

    We are considering several other possibilities in other areas of sustainability & social justice, but one seems to be next up: how food from the industrial food system undermines our health instead of supporting it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Peter, for your thoughtful and generous response. And thanks for sharing your website: there is a lot of good material there for my colleagues and me to read, adapt, etc.

    Under a more functional system the US Department of Education would supply every public school with the resources for measuring GHG emissions and would offer incentives and help for lowering them. School districts would have full-time, salaried employees whose job it was to coordinate such efforts. But alas …

    Because I don’t live in that world, I am trying to figure out what to do in the interim. I have written to Portland Public Schools and I will soon contact our state board of education. As I say above, the head of my private school is keen to coordinate a meeting with representatives of other independent schools next year to share knowledge and push for real change.

    I am hoping that by continuing to ask around I will stumble upon a federal program to lower emissions in schools. I have just written Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee. We shall see!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s