Beyond recycled art projects, here are five reasons why you should teach about climate change this Earth Day.

 Beyond recycled art projects, here are five reasons why you should teach about climate change this Earth Day.

When I taught fourth grade in New York City, I always assigned a traditional Earth Day project, instructing students to make art out of recyclable materials such as empty toilet paper rolls and tin cans. We planted seeds and went on nature walks around our neighborhood, and the kids made bird feeders and wind chimes. My objectives were for students to learn the value of recycling and to develop an appreciation for nature. As a parent of a kindergartener and a second grader in Chicago Public Schools, I've participated in countless of these projects with my own children.

In recent years, I've come to recognize the importance of doing more to educate students about climate change, one of today's most pressing issues, thanks in large part to the local and global advocacy of young people. It's a great time to do it because it's Earth Day.

The Earth is currently 1.2°C warmer than it was in the nineteenth century, and it is expected to be 2.4°C warmer by the end of the century. However, if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as more frequent and intense extreme weather, damage and irreversible loss to ocean ecosystems, a decline in people's physical and mental health, economic loss, and disruption of key services and infrastructure, the temperature increase must be kept below 1.5°C. We're not on the right track.

Climate change necessitates immediate action by everyone, including elementary school teachers.

As a teacher educator and educational researcher, I've spent the last few years observing colleagues perform this work in age-appropriate ways. Sixth-graders have written and performed plays about climate change; fifth-graders and pre-service teachers have learned about water justice; and preschoolers have learned about environmental stewardship, with an emphasis on Indigenous cultural principles.

I've also participated in a study group with pre-K to college educators to read Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson's anthology "All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis." This book aided my colleagues and me in thinking about our individual contributions to climate action by asking, "What are you good at?" What is the work that needs to be done? "What makes you happy?" The discussions that followed left me inspired by the work of these Chicago-area teachers, both in and out of the classroom.

One thing I've learned from this work is that many elementary teachers, like many people around the world, become paralyzed by inaction. Some of us believe we don't understand enough about climate change. Others of us know a little about it but are overwhelmed by its complexity and the amount of work that needs to be done. Others of us want to address climate change in our classrooms but are constrained by our curricula or under intense pressure to make up for lessons students may have missed due to the pandemic's disruptions.

It has been beneficial for some of the elementary teachers I have worked with to consider climate change as something that is not solely the domain of science teaching and learning. My colleague Kristine Schutz and I have proposed several ways to connect to the Illinois State Standards in social studies and science, including inquiry units in grades K-1 focused on loving the planet and one another, inquiry units in grades 2-3 focused on living in an interconnected world, renewable energy and sustainability in grades 4-5, and intersectional climate justice in grades 6-8.

Alternatively, we can teach about climate change through English Language Arts instruction, which equips young people with the skills necessary to read and communicate about complex issues. For example, the CPS Skyline curriculum has a fantastic sixth grade unit focused on nonfiction reading, inquiry/research, and argument writing that addresses this critical question: How do we balance people's needs and the state of the natural world? Alternatively, children can imagine more just futures by reading and writing climate fiction.

This Earth Day, I hope my colleagues in elementary education will seize the opportunity to contribute to climate action through our classroom instruction. We can read aloud picture books about environmental stewardship ("We are Water Protectors" by Carole Lindstrom is one of my favorites); investigate texts about the fashion industry, clean energy, or agriculture (The Climascope Project is a great resource); or create art to educate others about climate change and inspire climate action (Poets for the Planet has ideas for hosting a Poem-a-thon). It will take all of us to make a difference in the fight against climate change.