Sustainability Can Start In The Classroom

In the near future, climate realities will affect the livelihoods, health and happiness of our nation’s students. As they grow up in the Anthropocene, their choices will either exacerbate our current environmental problems or help to relieve them. In the next 30-40 years, their lives will be directly affected by our changing climate system in many ways, from the foods that they are able to enjoy, to the types of disasters they have to prepare for, to new public health risks that could affect them.

From 2012-2014, I taught 7th grade English Language Arts at a charter school in New Orleans. As an educator, I started to see the reality that climate change actively threatened the success and welfare of my children. It was a startling wake-up call, one that led me to transition out of the classroom to work on this very issue.

Currently, I am an apprentice at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and a graduate student in the Climate and Society program at Columbia University. My driving hope in this work is the promise of bridging climate and educational justice. I recognize that there is no hope in the fight against climate change without an equal fight for educational equity. Through both my research in my master’s program and experience in the classroom, I have come to believe that our teachers must prepare students to adapt to inevitable climate changes, and, more importantly, to step forward as leaders in this world if there is any prospect for a better future.

With this in mind, here are five concrete ways teachers can bring climate activism into their classrooms in order to show students the agency they have in securing their futures and to prepare them to be change makers in our society.

1. Take small steps to create a more sustainable classroom.

There are many low-hanging fruits teachers and students can go after to easily reduce their classrooms’ carbon footprints. Here are some examples:

  • Avoid printing things you can keep on a screen to reduce paper waste
  • Allow students to wear jackets in the classroom instead of using unnecessary amounts of heating
  • Light up the classroom using natural light or ask administration to switch to LED light bulbs

These are all simple ways to create a lower-carbon classroom environment.

2. Get kids involved in everyday sustainability.

Explicitly teaching students about eco-friendly actions will help them contribute more effectively to the small steps in sustainability that the class is taking together. Many people do not know the difference between items that can be recycled and items that must be trashed. This is just one example of a simple barrier that could confront students’ ability to participate in climate solutions. Teachers can combat this by having students create signs that show the differences between various types of recyclables, or develop a fun slogan that helps them to remember.

3. Teach the “why” of sustainable practices.

Teachers should back up all of their classes’ hard work by informing students about the facts associated with worldwide climate change. You can do this by getting help from experts in the climate science field. For example, NASA’s climate literacy pamphlet breaks down the issue of climate change into understandable terms. Other resources can supplement this information source and make it more fun. The Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota has a cool and informative animation that helps students really understand the carbon cycle and how humans have altered it.

4. Incorporate environmental themes into classroom units.

There are many authors who deal explicitly with topics that help us realize why it is important to maintain the integrity and beauty of natural systems. Some powerful examples of works centered on these themes include Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Readers Edition. Additionally, teachers can introduce students to environmental leaders such as Van Jones and Lisa P. Jackson through literature.

5. Celebrate students’ use of sustainable practices at school and at home.

When I taught Michael Pollan’s novel, I reinforced this new knowledge with a trip to the local farmer’s market. There my students learned about urban farming, and were able to get a better grasp of what options they had in sourcing the food they eat at home. This field trip served as an impetus for students to be more critical about what they consumed and carry this knowledge into their futures. This is just one of the many ways to celebrate their carbon-saving lifestyles in and out of the classroom.

Brittany Watts is a master's student in Climate and Society at Columbia University.

Photo by RoyHalzenski

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