Raychel Israel is an elementary grade teacher in the SF Bay Area with a Masters in Education from Stanford and a passion for creating awareness around climate change through science education. She currently serves as an instructional improvement coach, is a part of her district’s “Science Leadership Team” and a part of a science instruction research grant, working with professors and educational leaders at Cal State East Bay.
As we accept the challenge of remote learning, I’ve asked myself how I’ll continue having meaningful conversations with my students that examine current, real-life concerns around climate change.
Now more than ever, I’ve been feeling called to “deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct,”(1) the curriculum and what’s valued in the classroom.
To help all of us keep the conversation going and introduce these meaningful lessons at home, I’ve laid out some ideas around how to approach topics like climate change, single-use consumption, food waste, and intersectional environmentalism.
Topics are broken out to make these lessons easy to revisit. Each includes an overview, discussion points, and questions to help keep the dialogue rolling. Class is in session — enjoy!
TOPIC 1: The climate is changing — so what?
This current generation of kids and teens will be tremendously impacted by climate change, and it’s our job to equip them with facts, information, tools, and unequivocal agency.
Here’s why climate change matters. If we defy the heavily stacked odds and limit global warming to 2 degrees (as per the Paris Accords goal): Half of all animal species will face extinction, and a total of 60 percent of all plant species will face extinction.(2)
Too much carbon dioxide (which is in a lot of pollution from things like cars and factories), and other gases called Greenhouse gasses (you can “meet” them all, here), in the atmosphere is really bad for the earth. 20 countries are responsible for at least three-quarters of the world's greenhouse gases — and the U.S. is #2 on the list.
Luckily, trees and plants really help out by breathing in carbon dioxide. Hmmm… so, what can we do?
- What are some of your favorite things to do outside? What do you think is the coolest thing about the planet?
- Have you heard the word pollution? What do you think the word pollution means?
- Have you heard the term climate change before? What do you know about it or think it might mean?
- Are there things you can do to help the planet at home, in your neighborhood, at school?
TOPIC 2: Better than recycling? Rethinking, refusing, & reducing!
When it comes to recycling, the question isn’t, “How can we recycle more,” but, “What can we replace recycling with? How can we rethink our waste?”
Recycling isn’t bad, but it’s just not enough. Most of the time the things we recycle are items designed to use once or a handful of times. Sometimes these are called “single-use” items. A lot of materials go into making them, and often the factories where they are made create a ton of pollution. We need to find other options.
- What do you think it means to “refuse to purchase or accept” certain items?
- Why would reducing your waste be better than recycling?
- What kind of items might you refuse to purchase, or ask your family to refuse to purchase?
- What are some items that you notice most in the recycling bin? What do you think it means to reduce your waste?
TOPIC 3: From waste to soil - The story of composting
Each year 80-120 BILLION pounds of food waste is thrown out in the US. That’s 1,000+ Empire State Buildings! Most of that ends up in landfills, so we all need to reduce our food waste at home.
After we throw food into the trash, that food waste and trash then gets dumped into landfills. As it sits, it creates a ton of methane gas, which is a really harmful Greenhouse Gas, worse than Carbon Dioxide (remember that one from earlier?). So food in trash and the landfills actually has a huge, harmful effect on the earth and climate change.
But there’s a great way to reduce food waste at home! It’s stinky, gross, messy, and a favorite hangout spot for worms and roly-polys. Compost!!
Composting your food waste is a way to turn your old food into healthy, vitamin filled soil for plants and trees. Not only does composting make the yummiest soil for plants and trees, but it also reduces your waste and your impact on climate change.
- Have you heard the word compost or composting before?
- What food waste have you thrown into the trash today?
- Do you usually eat all the food on your plate? How about most of the food that you and your family buy for the week?
- Why do you think it’s important for plants to have healthy, vitamin-filled soil to grow in?
TOPIC 4: More plants, less cow farts
“Cows and other ruminants are responsible for two-thirds of [agricultural-related] emissions. Their guts produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide… Cows release some of that methane through their flatulence [aka FARTING!], but much more by burping."(3)
Yup. Cows fart too. Turns out, those farts don't stink for the farmer but also for the planet since they produce methane, partly responsible for climate change.
Every six seconds, an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is destroyed to make way for the production of [items] such as soy, beef and palm oil.(4) And, as we read before, we know that factory-farms produce a ton of greenhouse gasses.
Changing our diet to be plant-based can make a real difference. It will also require a lot of will power and planning — but if we’re excited about the impact we can have, anything is possible!
- What are some of your favorite foods?
- What are some of your favorite foods that do not include meat or animal products?
- Why might switching to a more plant-based diet be good for the earth and climate change?
Note to parents/guardians: I want to acknowledge that based on one’s location, current socio-economic status, and/or health needs, not everyone has the ability to significantly alter their diet and the food they buy, as it relates to climate change. If reducing your meat intake will hurt you physically or financially, then please do not! We must take care of ourselves in order to take care of anyone or anything (including the earth) else. There are other ways to make an impact, and your health or financial stability should not be put at risk towards this end. Consider extending this conversation before making any drastic changes, as more conversation can lead to engagement and accountability.
TOPIC 5, FOR PARENTS: Intersectional environmentalism
Note: This section is intended for parent/guardian use and reflection.
There are tons of opportunities to learn more about intersectional environmentalism (coined by Green Girl Leah) and climate change’s harmful impacts on communities of color. When researching this topic, please use resources and information written and/or created by BIPOC. Here are some resources to get you started or help you continue the work.
Environmental injustice is nothing new, but we must acknowledge it to make a change. The reality has been confirmed and substantiated in a recent report from the EPA.
- Race Best Predicts Whether someone lives near pollution - infographic. Full article here
- “Tipping Point” from Vice, where they cover environmental justice stories, typically in relation to BIPOC communities
- Intersectional Environmentalist. On this site, you can learn by topic, by community, or by checking out their incredible digital downloads
- How much do I already know about this? Beyond Flint. Michigan, can i point to specific and/or more general instances of environmental injustice?
- When I talk to my child(ren) about climate change, environmentalism, and climate reform, is this a part of the conversation? If not, why not?
- How might my kids be able to make a real difference if they were challenged with this kind of information earlier in life?
- To what level are my kids learning about this in school and in their community?
Change begins at home, and you’ve already taken a meaningful step by completing Sustainability 101. Now, start taking action by making small adjustments to your routine — and make these changes a habit by repeating them every day.
1. Ladson-Billings, G. 2006. “From Achievement Gap to Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.” Educational Researcher 35(7): 3-12.
2. Foer, Jonathan Safran. We Are the Weather . Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2019.
3. No One Is Taking Your Hamburgers. But Would It Even Be a Good Idea?,” The New York Times, March 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/climate/hamburgers-cows-green-new-deal.html.
4. Forest 500 | Powerbrokers of Zero Deforestation,” Forest500.org, 2020, https://forest500.org/