You Can Teach About Climate Change in Every Subject and Grade Level. Here’s How
As a topic, climate change is often confined to science class, but it should be considered an interdisciplinary issue that spans subjects and grade levels, educators and experts say.
That line of thinking hasn’t caught on with all teachers, though: When a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey asked why they haven’t addressed climate change or issues related to it with students, 26 percent of teachers said they can’t think of any way it is related to the subject they teach. Nine percent said they think their students are too young to learn about it.
New Jersey made headlines last year for becoming the first state to require that climate change be taught in all grade levels and subjects. But for the most part, it’s up to individual teachers to decide whether they want to broach the subject in class—a tall order, considering the complexity of the science, the strong emotions it raises, and the lack of training in how to teach it.
Enter SubjectToClimate, a nonprofit with the goal of encouraging more teachers to teach about climate change. The organization, which launched in August 2021, has compiled hundreds of resources on climate change for every grade and nearly every school subject. It also pays teachers to create lesson plans on how climate change can be taught in every classroom. So far, there are more than 100, in subjects ranging from art and physical education to math and social studies.
In a conversation with Education Week, co-founder and chief operating officer Margaret Wang shared some examples of lessons and spoke about why it’s so important for climate change to be an interdisciplinary issue. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the mission of SubjectToClimate?
Our vision is for all teachers—all grade levels, all subjects—to teach about climate change to inspire the next generation for climate action. It’s a lot to ask for teachers to add another thing onto their plate with everything that’s already going on. What our organization does is simply make it easier for teachers.
When we first started this organization, teachers were like, “Yeah, I care about climate change, but I don’t see how this relates to what I’m teaching so I don’t know if I’m going to actually teach it.” Our end goal is to just show teachers, “Hey, you’re already actually teaching about it. You can teach it really easily. Here are ways that we can support you to do that.”
I’ll give you an example: This is a geometry lesson plan that we worked with a math teacher to create. At its root, it’s about what you would teach in a geometry class, but it’s answering the question, “How much would sea level rise if Antarctica melted?” which is really related to sustainability.
Can climate change be taught in grades as early as kindergarten? How?
It’s not a surprise that most sustainability-related resources are in science and [for] high school, and even middle school. Having said that, because we are constantly on the look for resources that fill in our resource gap, we are starting to see more people create resources in the elementary area.
I think there’s a lot of talk that yes, it can be taught as early as kindergarten, but it needs to be taught a little bit more carefully. So we’ve worked with teachers in the K-2 [grades] to create lesson plans.
Some of the things that our teachers have recommended when trying to teach students who are younger is to focus on solutions, because it’s a really hard situation to grapple with, and it can cause a lot of climate anxiety.
Elaine Makarevich, who is a K-5 educator, mentioned that it’s important to remember that how teachers choose to present the information will directly affect the students and how they feel. If the teachers are anxious when they share the global challenges, the younger students will tend to focus on the emotions of the teachers and less on the content at hand.
[Climate change is] something that’s important, and it’s hard to not show emotion toward it, but we don’t want to share too much of our worries—temper it appropriately for the audience. Share it through stories, games, and lots of opportunities to talk. That’ll open up opportunities for empathy and understanding and build the resiliency one may need to teach about this.
Can you give an example of what a solutions-oriented lesson could look like?
In our K-2 database, there are a lot of lesson plans that use an inquire, investigate, inspire framework, which is like: get them interested in a phenomenon, investigate it using your disciplinary content—whether it’s math, whether it’s art, whether it’s language arts—and then inspire. This section is the key thing to do. You’re either looking at how other people have addressed the problems or how you can. For example, one lesson plan has the student create a classroom waste management problem.
What’s an example of an art lesson about climate change?
This is a K-2 art lesson about connecting colors to emotions and also understanding how emotions are expressed through artwork. It’s actually a whole unit—at its core, it’s art and social-emotional learning, which is another way to help with climate anxiety.
In the first lesson, students are identifying their own emotions by responding to artwork. At first, you’re like, “Hmm, this is not climate change,” but they’re going to be doing this on climate change artwork. You need to lay a lot of foundations before you get really deep into climate change, oftentimes.
In the next lesson, they’re going to go a little bit more deeply into the colors and how colors relate to emotions. Remember, it’s K-2—these are building foundations for them to really understand both art and climate change. First, they’re going to explore colors, match colors to how they feel, and then they’re going to create their own color artwork to demonstrate a feeling, which is a great way for them to understand and process emotions, especially when it comes to climate change.
Then, the third part of this unit is they’re going to actually use those foundational skills to engage in an environmental issue and use their artistic skills to create artwork about caring for the oceans. They’re going to read a very short story and then they’re going to talk about it—they’re going to discuss the colors and the emotions, which is everything they learned in lessons one and two. Then they’re going to create artworks about oceans and display them around their local and school community.
What about high school English?
There’s [a lesson on] media literacy, which is a great thing—how do other people talk about climate change, and how do you know which one’s true?
But let’s [look at] poetry writing. This one is about odes and elegies. At the end of the day, it’s really rooted in an English topic—they’re looking at the difference between an ode and an elegy, and figurative language. They’re going to look at poems and learn about the topic of deforestation. After, they’re going to share their [own] poems and investigate possible solutions to deforestation.
I think the one about speech writing is also really great, because a lot of times in English class, you might be teaching a unit on public speaking and speeches. In this one, they identify and discuss the communication disconnect between climate change scientists and everyday people, which is a real issue. And looking at, why is there a disconnect?
They’re going to watch videos of different climate scientists trying to communicate and then evaluate their communication strategies, and that’s going to help them to deliver a more effective way of informing others about climate change.
OK, one more. How could climate change be incorporated in a foreign language class?
We predominately have Spanish for foreign language. If you think about your Spanish classes or any language classes, you are already reading about things, and it’s about changing up the content for it to be a little bit more realistic to maybe what you would talk about.
This one is about daily routines, and it gets into plastic as a result. They’re going to watch a music video—and this is all in Spanish, by the way. They’re identifying actions, and then they’re learning about the connection between plastics and climate change. And then they’re going to look at the the efforts in different Spanish-speaking countries to reduce plastic consumption.
They’re learning how to converse about daily routines [in Spanish]. They’re watching a music video, and the Spanish teacher is asking questions about it, so there’s some comprehension involved. Afterwards, there will be discussions, which is helping them question and and answer.
What is the benefit for students to hear about climate change in all their classes?
If they keep on hearing something over and over again, it’s going to click for them, and they’re going to be able to see it outside of their classroom. If you only hear about the quadratic equation in your math class, you don’t see it outside the walls of your math class. But if you start to hear about it in multiple subjects, you actually see it as something real.
The more that teachers can bring current events and what’s happening [into their classroom], the more that students will understand what’s happening right now and what they can do about it. I think there’s an argument that if you only kind of integrate it in some subjects, they’ll never reach a level of depth [in their understanding]. But at the same time, students learn a lot from outside of the classroom. If they keep on hearing about something, they’re going to develop their own interests on it, and they’re going to read about it on their own.