Chapter 2: A Vision For Climate Change Teaching

YOUNG LEARNERS BECOME MORE INVESTED IN SCIENCE WHEN THEY ARE CHALLENGED TO EXPLAIN REAL-LIFE PHENOMENA THAT ARE RELEVANT TO THEM. When classrooms are set up as knowledge-building communities, students work together to understand complex phenomena and improve evidence-based explanations over time. This chapter, and the resources added below, share examples of events and processes related to a variety of climate change topics, provide details about why some work better than others with students, how you might modify existing phenomena to be more relevant to your students, and how to maintain an equitable classroom in which students learn how to learn.

What this is

This guide will help you plan climate change curriculum so that students perceive a sense of coherence—that ideas are becoming connected and building upon one another in ways that allow them to piece together a big picture and ask better questions.

Why it might matter for your teaching

You can use this guide with your teaching partners to explore different ways to integrate climate change into your curriculum. There are different levels of “getting started” and you can determine which one suits your needs. The examples include 1) what you might include in individual lessons that relate to climate change, 2) how lesson can build across a unit, 3) how units can build across a school year and 4) how to develop multi-year trajectories of student learning.

Images from the arc of Carolyn’s 3rd grade unit on the Amazon and deforestation

This gallery of slides shows a few of the activities that Carolyn’s students engaged with over the course of four weeks. While the gallery cannot reproduce all the details of the unit, it does represent several aspects of a knowledge-building community: 

1) a coherent trajectory of climate change ideas that build upon one another, 

2) students’ use of scientific practices like asking questions, analyzing data, modeling, explanation-building, using mathematical thinking, making claims and supporting arguments, 

3) sense-making opportunities that teachers provided and the beginnings of epistemic agency by allowing students choice about what kinds of data to seek out and how to make meaning of it, 

4) a focus on what others are doing to prevent the worst effects of deforestation and climate change—images of what is possible in terms of action. 

Click anywhere on the gallery below and see if you can tell where these four features are supported in the slides.

Images from Jessica’s classroom

Here are a few images from Jessica’s classroom. Because I described her classroom at length in the book I am including just a few images that represent how she supported students’ sense-making, in ways similar to both Carolyn (3rd grade) and Molly (high school).

Images from Molly’s classroom

Molly’s students had done modeling and explanation-building for the past couple of years in her school system. They were routinely asked: What do you need to know more about? Their questions (two sets of them in the images below) became part of the curriculum and they made decisions about what kinds of information to collect. As part of figuring out how pikas were so vulnerable, they did water and heat labs, some groups simulated winter conditions and some simulated summer conditions (images from two groups shown below).

What this is

It can be a real puzzle to identify standards that you can use to teach climate change lessons. Some standards mention the term “climate change” and some just include phrases like “human impact.” Others refer to engineering challenges that might apply to any regeneration or resilience efforts that communities can use to deal with climate change, but the language is generic—the standard does not mention climate change itself. The tables in this linked PDF help you identify all climate-relevant disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) and performance expectations (PEs) in the NGSS. By the way, cheers to New Jersey, the first state to incorporate CC standards across all grades and all subject areas. Connecticut is not far behind, requiring climate change studies across public schools as part of their science curriculum.

Why it might matter for your teaching

You could use this set of tables with your teaching partners or in PD settings to 1) help develop awareness of how to interpret standards that might apply to climate change but do not mention the term explicitly, 2) map out what standards are addressed in the grade levels you are responsible for, 3) coordinate with teaching peers on how to build on ideas across grade levels. Note: Many states have adopted these standards for their own use. In doing so, many have modified some of the standards or have used descriptors other than DCIs or PEs.

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