Curriculum for the Earth and Conscientization: Helping students recognize the power they have—collectively or individually—to make the world a better place
A Catholic, collective response: “we want students to recognize the power they have—collectively or individually—to make the world a better place. But it’s wrong to direct students primarily toward individual solutions to create change. In his Chapter Five essay, Derrick Jensen confronts this problematic celebration of individual action: Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance… As students’ awareness of the environmental crisis grows, this consciousness can be misdirected by social forces that have an interest in how young people respond. The energy industry would much prefer that our students change their light bulbs, recycle their soda cans, or even install solar panels than organize a demonstration at the state capitol to shut a coal-fired power plant, testify at a public hearing against fracking, or otherwise gum up their fossil fuel machinery…What happens to the Earth if we respect the “right” of the fossil fuel industry to manage their assets however they please? More and more, the headlines are filled with the answer to that question: superstorms, drought, heat waves, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, species extinction, floods, drowning islands. A curriculum on the climate, and the environmental crisis more broadly, needs to address patterns of ownership and decision making. Our curriculum needs to confront the myth that private property is, in fact, private. The fate of the Earth “belongs” to us all.”
Helping students acquire a critical consciousness about the environmental crisis means we need to consistently encourage them to ask “Why?” Why is it that the future of life on Earth has been put at risk? It seems an impossible question to answer unless we engage students in thinking about the nature of global capitalism. Throughout the book, we draw students’ attention to this broader systemic context within which the environmental crisis is unfolding. Activities like “The Thingamabob Game” (p. 147) and the trial role play, “Who’s to Blame for the Climate Crisis?” (p. 163), explicitly confront students with the fundamental clash between an economic system that prizes wealth accumulation above all else and people’s need for a healthy environment. Capitalism insists that key productive decisions be made on the basis of what will yield the greatest profit. It grants God-like powers to unelected elites whose livelihoods depend not on creating a world of equality and environmental sustainability, but on making the most money. If we’re going to help our students not just describe, but explain, the environmental crisis, it is essential that educators name this elephant in our classrooms.
Despite the dimensions of the environmental crisis, students can approach this frightening content in ways that are joyful, lively and playful. Not long ago, we participated in a weeklong teach-in for 6th through 8th graders about energy issues at Sunnyside Environmental School, a public school here in Portland. Throughout the week, students heard speakers and participated in activities about everything from mountaintop removal coal mining to catastrophic oil spills to the civilization-threatening consequences of climate change. They also encountered people working on solar and wind power, local food initiatives, and other innovative responses to environmental challenges; but the week definitely offered an adult dose of planetary crisis. Nonetheless, in classrooms we visited during the concluding activist projects that students worked on, these middle schoolers were anything but grim; and their small- group work was electric with idea sharing and laughter. As with adults, we’ve found that students are able to live with contradiction; students grasp the sadness and injustice at the heart of the environmental crisis while finding joy and humor. For the book, we’ve selected activities that address key environmental concerns, but these activities do not invite despair. They are engaging, and feature collective work that triggers student playfulness and imagination.
Interconnections. Throughout the final stages of working on this book, we collaborated with Portland teaching colleagues Chris Buehler, Julie Treick O’Neill, and Matt Plies on a role play about La Vía Campesina. Despite the fact that La Vía Campesina may be the largest social movement in the world—with more than 200 million small farmers in its affiliated organizations—it’s pretty much impossible to find its work described in today’s mainstream textbooks. We conclude A People’s Curriculum for the Earth with La Vía Campesina’s efforts because we think that it highlights the way a deep response to any one crisis—for example, how to feed a world populated by perhaps a billion hungry people—addresses other social and environmental crises. La Vía Campesina’s presents a grassroots, “agroecological” challenge to agribusiness’s globalized, free market, chemical-drenched, genetically modified prescription for the world’s food production. The peasant movement shows that addressing hunger can simultaneously address climate change, inequality, public health, unemployment, forced migration, and much more. These are the kind of interconnections that infuse our curricula with hope— offering students the sense that fundamental change is not only desperately needed but also possible.
Challenging Curricular Apartheid. The teaching we observed at Sunnyside Environmental School showed us what happens when teachers collaborate across disciplines. Unfortunately, in too many schools, the environmental crisis seems to have become a kind of curricular hot potato. No discipline wants to claim the crisis as its own. We get it. We are both high school social studies teachers and we often bump up against our own shaky grasp on scientific concepts, trying to recall details from past biology and chemistry classes. While teaching one climate lesson at Lincoln High School, a student made an assertion about the impact of methane versus carbon dioxide that stumped us both and sent us combing through IPCC reports that evening. We try not to let these moments force us to retreat into the silo that traditionally has been considered social studies. And we’ve spoken with science teachers who feel that analyzing the social causes and effects of climate change reaches beyond their curricula or of their own knowledge. Similarly, teachers in language arts, mathematics, world languages, business, physical education, or art may wonder, “What does this have to do with my class?”
But in this moment of crisis, it’s imperative that we reject artificial barriers between disciplines. Throughout this book we’ve featured stories from educators who consciously cross conventional curricular boundaries—see for example, “Carbon Matters” (p. 110), “Science for the People” (p. 273), “Measuring Water with Justice” (p. 297), and “Facing Cancer” (p. 309). Throughout the curriculum, educators can collaborate to help students become the scientist-activists they need to be. Confronting the toxic injustice that has become one of the defining features of our time requires us immediately to begin constructing a fossil fuel-free world built on principles of ecology and justice, rather than profit and endless growth. No matter which classes we teach, educators need to find ways to help young people develop the analytical tools to understand the causes of the environmental crisis and to exercise their utopian imaginations to consider alternatives.
Political and Educational Context. In an article in the Guardian, Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, laments the “bad timing” of the climate crisis:
Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude—that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.
Catholic education is uniquely equipped to present a vision and approach that counters an increasingly constricted and standardized curriculum, narrowed to what can be poorly measured by bubble tests. Decisions about what schools should teach and children should learn are being moved away from classrooms and communities to the same politicized bureaucracies and monied interests that are undermining democracy. This too is “bad timing.” At a time when we need an urgent national conversation about how schools and curriculum should address the environmental crisis, we’re being told that the problems we need to focus on are teacher incompetence, government monopoly, and market competition. The reform agenda reflects the same private interests that are moving to shrink public space—interests that have no desire to raise questions that might encourage students to think critically about the roots of the environmental crisis, or to examine society’s unsustainable distribution of wealth and power.
* * *
This book is not so much “a people’s curriculum for the Earth” as it is an invitation to begin to build that curriculum. And it’s encouragement to educators to demand the right to effect a curriculum that honestly and deeply addresses the environmental crisis. Some of this work will go on in our classrooms; in meetings with other teachers; in teacher social justice conferences in San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle; in our professional organizations; in the pages of Rethinking Schools magazine; and at the Zinn Education Project and This Changes Everything websites. And some will go on in our unions, community organizations, and other activist organizations where we fight to teach about crucial issues in the world.
The intertwined social, economic, and environmental crises that confront humanity require us to be audacious. As Naomi Klein writes, this is “the fight of our lives.” For educators, this is the curriculum work of our lives. And, yes, it is a fight, too. We need to demand and organize for the right to teach about what really matters, and not be forced to toe the textbook line or obey “rigorous” standards, developed afar, that may or may not help students appreciate and act on this moment in history.
We educators need to imagine, cooperate, create, hope—and at times, defy and resist. And we need to see ourselves as part of a broader movement to build the kind of society that is clean and just and equal and democratic. One that seeks to leave the world better than we found it.
A PEOPLE’S CURRICULUM FOR THE EARTH: TEACHING CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
Five years in the making, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth is a collection of articles, role plays, simulations, stories, poems, and graphics to help breathe life into teaching about the environmental crisis. The book features some of the best articles from Rethinking Schools magazine alongside classroom-friendly readings on climate change, energy, water, food, and pollution—as well as on people who are working to make things better. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth has the breadth and depth of Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, one of the most popular books we’ve published.
At a time when it’s becoming increasingly obvious that life on Earth is at risk, here is a resource that helps students see what’s wrong and imagine solutions.
Chapter 1: The Whole Thing Is Connected. We can continue the “enclosure of the commons,” begun so long ago—the privatization and commodification of nature—or we can recognize the fundamental truth that we are all connected and that there is nothing “private” about how we treat the Earth, or each other.
Chapter 2: Grounding Our Teaching. Grounding our students in their communities doesn’t just connect them to nature; it also connects them to the ways their communities have been battered by powerful interests, and how race and class have shaped those communities.
Chapter 3: Facing Climate Chaos. Articles in this chapter will help students recognize the significance of the climate crisis and see that the people being hit the hardest are the ones least responsible. Through various activities students consider root causes of the crisis in order to critically think about the deep social changes we will need to respond fairly and decisively.
Chapter 4: Burning the Future. “Burning the Future” has a metaphorical ring, but it’s no metaphor—it’s literally true: We are burning the future. This chapter deals with the overall issue of fossil fuels and then is divided into three sections: coal, oil, and natural gas and fracking. Yes, we are burning the future. But nothing is inevitable. This is a key lesson from history, and from the activities included in this chapter.
Chapter 5: Teaching in a Toxic World. Articles in this chapter describe how “toxic trespass” happens in far too many ways in our lives—here and around the world. Because of the intimate nature of the toxic trespass, students’ first reaction may be self-protection or individual consumer choices, rather than collective action. This chapter provides abundant evidence that people are taking collective action.
Chapter 6: Food, Farming, and the Earth. Food embodies many of the ecological problems and social injustices highlighted throughout the book. And similarly, it calls out for activism that recognizes the interconnectedness of these issues.
Throughout A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, we indicate that full teaching materials for a number of articles are available at this website.
“Cookie Mining Activity” — for use with “Coal, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Mountaintop Removal,” by Bill Bigelow, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 200-207.
“Coal Export Mixer” — for use with “Exporting Coal and Climate Change,” by Bill Bigelow, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 220-225.
“Amber Energy Morrow Pacific Project ad” — for use with “Exporting Coal and Climate Change,” by Bill Bigelow, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 220-225.
“Environmental Crime on Trial: Roles” — for use with “Environmental Crime on Trial,” by Brady Bennon, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 231-237.
“Role Play: The Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline” — for use with “Dirty Oil and Shovel-Ready Jobs,” by Abby Mac Phail, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 241-246.
“World Trade Organization Summit on Food and Patenting” — for use with “Got Milk, Got Patents, Got Profits?” by Tim Swinehart, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 338-344.
“Irish Famine Roles” — for use with “Hunger on Trial,” by Bill Bigelow, in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, pp. 355-360.