English Goes Green
Embracing environmentalism in the English classroom
Welcome to From the Teacher’s Desk, where we take turns further reflecting on our episodes and applications to the classroom.
Teaching English usually means focusing on literary analysis and writing skills, while carefully navigating the social issues that come up when reading any piece of good literature. And all English teachers have niche topics they love to bring into the classroom whenever the opportunity presents itself.
For me, it’s always been the environment.
The truth is, regardless of your students’ political upbringing, the vast majority of them are concerned about the future of the planet. They can see what is happening in their communities with their own eyes.
Unfortunately, many have experienced increasingly dangerous weather patterns that seem to constantly threaten their homes and lives. Tornadoes, wildfires, and hurricanes have impacted the vast majority of American students. They’ve experienced electrical grid failure and extreme temperatures. They care about the impact on the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the animals that make them go “awww.”
Just like with the study of science, the English classroom can be a powerful place for students to explore and discuss environmentalism in surprisingly non-partisan ways. This is also a chance for teachers to guide students to be solution-minded and focus on policy instead of despairing over their future.
How can we do that?
Challenge students to find solutions
We live in a world of problem proclaimers. The challenge is teaching students how to be problem solvers and work beyond partisan bickering to make life better for everyone. I always started my short AP Language unit on the environment by telling my students we weren’t going to debate if climate change was real. Instead, we were going to analyze and debate the solutions that people had presented for what we could actually do about it.
As an avid camper and state and national parks lover, one of my favorite solutions to present to my students has always been the Civilian Conservation Corps, the organization from the Great Depression that firmly established our nation’s state parks systems and transformed our national parks.
Find videos about your state’s CCC projects and discuss the potential for the 21st century. (This five-minute podcast episode from a history teacher is a good summary of the CCC.) Have students do research on local environmental issues and how they could be resolved using local government and private enterprise. It gives them a chance to practice research writing skills with a practical (and impactful) purpose.
(Go here to find my social change research project on Teachers Pay Teachers.)
Kids Movies For the Win
There are several children’s films that appeal to broad audiences. The Lorax and Wall-E are both marketed to children and appeal to all ages. And while they present bleak worlds, they also offer hope that what has been destroyed can still be healed. They can be used in several different contexts, including dystopian units, but they also work well at the end of an environmental unit.
Use them as a chance to highlight the opportunity for change as opposed to despair. In our latest podcast episode, we even argue that Avatar, for all of the destruction in the film, presents a hopeful picture of the future at the end of the story.
Environmental issues do not have to be a hot button in our classrooms. Nor do they have to be doom and gloom. Instead, you can use it as an opportunity to teach your students research, compromise, and activism that makes a positive impact on all of their futures.
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