Climate Change Education: Teachers Reflect on Goals, Challenges and Inspiration

By Kathleen Robbins

Teaching middle and high school students about climate change can feel daunting. “Students need to leave feeling empowered and hopeful, rather than full of anxiety or depression about our changing climate”, teachers at Woodstock Union High School & Middle School (WUHSMS) reflect. Where do we start? First, students need to have a solid and accurate understanding of the scientific mechanism of a warming planet and climate change. Vanessa Cramer, AP Environmental Science teacher, begins by having students construct a model of how they think climate change works, and then proceeds to address misconceptions, like the fact that it’s not the hole in the ozone layer letting in more sunlight that is causing increased temperatures. As science classes increasingly move toward students developing and using models, as well as constructing explanations and designing solutions—as outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards—it becomes easier for teachers to identify areas of misunderstanding and work to redirect students’ thinking early in a unit.

Once the science is solidly understood, teachers have several other main objectives for their students.  Seventh grade science teacher Melissa Fellows hopes that students are able to critically evaluate sources of information so that they can make informed decisions. She also emphasizes that it’s important to understand climate change at a global level but also to bring it back to Vermont so that students understand both their own role and responsibility as well as how they are impacted and will be impacted in the future by a changing climate. Janis Boulbol, Agriculture Innovation Instructor, brings it into students’ lives by helping them explore the positive impacts that growing food locally has on our carbon footprint. She helps students experience that small things that they do can collectively have a huge impact on what seems like an overwhelming problem.

As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A truer statement could not apply to climate change. Educators are finding it essential, and powerful, to make explicit the connections between climate change and water quality, forest resilience, agriculture, and even systemic racism. They strive for students to understand the injustice of how climate change is impacting people of the world so unequally while realizing our responsibility to take action to prevent further climate change. Samantha DeCuollo, 9th Grade Integrated Environmental Science teacher shared that, “Unfortunately, climate change is now a politically-divided topic, and it hasn’t been that way in the past. I think there is a lot of opportunity to leverage climate conversations around shared values in order to break down those barriers that come up in an initial climate change discussion.”

It isn’t just science teachers that are addressing this topic; English teachers regularly engage their students in reading, writing, and reflection about their connection to nature, the world around them, and the impact of different social and environmental justice initiatives. Math teachers are helping their students evaluate graphs, tables, and different ways of presenting and interpreting data.

Learning and support is also not limited to the classroom. Reflects Cramer: “It feels really good to support student-led climate strikes, marches, and educational workshops because it speaks to the fact that through their education, students have come to understand the gravity of the situation and feel empowered and supported to call attention to climate change. I am proud that our teachers and administration support these students.” WUHSMS students regularly attend state-wide youth climate rallies in Montpelier and have organized local marches and school-wide education days in conjunction with faculty. Indeed, adults and young people working together to implement solutions is the most powerful way forward.

Climate change is a complicated, weighty issue that teachers at WUHSMS are working toward breaking down and fostering empowerment through interdisciplinary, student-led projects, difficult but safe conversations, and tying it all back to science. All of the teachers united under this final sentiment spoken by Vanessa Cramer: “Ultimately, I hope to contribute to my students becoming life-long stewards who make good decisions about their impact on the environment.”

Kat Robbins is the Place-Based Educator for Woodstock Union Middle and High School through the Center of Community Connections (C3) in Partnership with Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

This article is part of a series on teaching children about climate change. Forthcoming: First-hand experiences and reflections from local students on how global warming is impacting their lives, and what they’re doing about it.

What you can do: Engage teachers in conversations about climate change education; ask how you can support their efforts by involving youth in climate change awareness discussions and activities at home, in the local community, and beyond.

Claire Saunders was one of fifty WUHS students who joined hundreds of other youth from around Vermont at the state capital in Montpelier to rally for climate change legislation, and to engage in conversation with our local lawmakers.


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.