Why Limit the Climate Crisis to Science Class?

High school teacher Sarah Outterson-Murphy shares how her students developed their English skills by grappling with a "real, urgent, relevant, large-scale, yet-unsolved problem." 

The climate crisis: It’s not something that will just affect scientists, so why limit it to science class?

As a high school English teacher, I’ve loved teaching about the climate crisis because it’s a complex real-world problem that we can address from so many angles. Through poems and creative non-fiction, students can examine the details of our changing world. Through research, debates, and rhetoric, students can persuade themselves and others of the best actions to take. Through speculative fiction, students can imagine future trajectories for scientific and political responses to this crisis. In all these ways, we can and must give space for our students to grapple with the reality of climate change. 

A few years ago, after developing a bit of a personal obsession with climate fiction, I threw together a list of novels and stories to help myself plan lessons and units about the environment for my high school students. TeachableMoment was gracious enough to publish the list.

As it turned out, judging from the website hits, I wasn’t the only one interested in taking a literary approach to climate education! I’m glad that others out there are on the same path. I’ve shared about my lesson plans before, but the work changes every yearand this year more than usual!

Here’s an update on how my English classes have been engaging with the environment in new ways during this year of the pandemic.

Dealing with Disaster

Iowa Derecho

Derecho in Iowa, August 2020 by Christina Warner.

Last year, my classes worked on comparing and contrasting what different authors were suggesting about the future of the earth: Can we stop climate change, or not? We took the time to dip into multiple short stories and poems.

This year, however, everything changed. In addition to the pandemic, my school district had to deal with another disaster. We lost three weeks out of our school year because our city was hit by a derecho, basically an inland hurricane, which destroyed not only hundreds of our students’ homes but also our city’s power and internet infrastructure just before hybrid online learning was to begin. Even once we were able to begin online school, high schools remained closed for months due to storm damage (not just the pandemic!) and students remained displaced: living in hotel rooms, crowding in with relatives,or logging on from homes undergoing months of noisy repairs.

Online learning slowed everyone down as we adjusted to new systems, new responsibilities, and new distractions. (Students playing video games or cooking lunch during classthat was new for me as a teacher!)  Traumatized students were suddenly responsible for keeping themselves on-task alone at home in front of a screen, and needed extra support both academically and emotionally. We as teachers had to refocus on the essentials: caring for our students, connecting them back to learning, and helping them make sense of the world.

Climate fiction was not the first thing I turned to this year, partially because it felt audacious to ask students to contemplate other disasters when ours was so immediate. I knew that some of the students at my school had even been climate refugees from Micronesia, and I felt that I needed to build a stronger relationship before digging into climate change as a topic in such a disrupted remote-learning scenario. But as the year continued, as our buildings were repaired, and as students began to return in person if they wished, I felt more relationally connected to them as well, and more able to engage with the larger climate context of our derecho disaster. 

This year, I used climate poetry to kick off a larger unit about protest and civil disobedience, an area of study that became even more relevant and complex after the Capitol protests turned violent in January. To begin the unit, we read three poems: “Song for the Turtles in the Gulf” by Linda Hogan (accessible with teachers’ resources on CommonLit), “Dear Matafele Peinem” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (as a video performed by the poet), and “Earthrise” by Amanda Gorman, also as a spoken-word video. My 10th graders found all three poems emotionally engaging and accessible, while still demanding that we pay close attention to the language in order to help us enter the ideas.

Poetry as Argument

We approached these poems as if they were arguments: forms of protest in themselves, rather than “just art.” We interrogated what exactly might be the poet’s message about environmental degradation and how it was coming across to us as readers. We were able to bring our own experiences with disaster, grief, and displacement into the context of these poems, especially for “Dear Matafele Peinem.” In addition to the wider social goal of developing students’ awareness of their own voice and power to protest, my goal was for students to get better at two specific literary skills through reading these poems. 

First, I wanted students to be able to understand claims, counterclaims, and rebuttals, both as readers and as writers. To that end, I asked students to identify not only the ideas that each author was arguing FOR in the poem, but also the ideas that each author was arguing AGAINST. This lesson became especially powerful when I asked students to quote the best evidence from the poem to show the poet’s claim and the opponent’s counterclaim. Students were able to identify, down to the single word, moments in the poems where the poet brings in an alternate perspective, only to refute it and propel her own point in the process. 

After practicing their ability to identify claims, students were ready to develop their own. I gave them a choice. One option was to make a claim arguing for which of the three poems made the strongest argument against harming the environment, using evidence to explain why that poem was the strongest (the claim) and why another poem was less convincing (the rebuttal). Although we’d done almost no preparation with poetry analysis during class, I found students surprisingly eager to explain in their own words why one poem was utterly moving and another was trash. There were strong partisans in support of each poem and/or poet, making it easy to point students to a classmate for them to hear helpful counterclaims about the qualities of a different poem, so that they could find something to rebut. 

The other option was for students to write their OWN protest poem about an issue that was important to them, also including a counterclaim and rebuttal. Students wrote about issues personal to them, including how the world should treat people with a disability differently or how people should behave differently during the pandemic. The poetic format turned out to be a great way for students to keep their arguments concise and focused while still bringing in plenty of detail and creative language. 

As my second major goal in our work with climate poetry, I wanted students to be able to understand how poets use rhetorical devices such as metaphor, anaphora, juxtaposition, and imagery to create different emotions. Students used quotes from the poems for a rhetorical analysis exercise in which they labeled the quotes with the names of different rhetorical devices and then identified what emotion that quote made the reader feel.

This type of rhetorical analysis is a core standard at my school, and I loved being able to approach it in a creative way by combining poetry with argument. The exercise also built on the claims-writing that students had just completed. If they had written an evaluation of the poems, students were able to bring their reflection on the poems’ effectiveness into their deeper analysis of what specific effects the poems had created. If they had written their own poems, students were able to think back to their own work as writers trying to affect their own audiences.

As a final note, I also teach a college composition course, and we were able to engage with climate in that course as well. Preparing to write an argumentative research paper, students were exploring different examples of real-world argumentation. I offered them a chapter of the book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Mitchell. The chapter is called “Wellhead and Tailpipe,” and it presents various reasons for our political disconnect between drilling oil and carbon emissions. After learning about different types of causes (remote, sufficient, necessary, reciprocal, etc.), students worked in groups to outline a rhetorical analysis of the causes that Mitchell’s chapter discusses for this problem.

There are so many topics and texts we could ask students to write about: Why waste their time with anything less than real, urgent, relevant, large-scale, yet-unsolved problems like the climate crisis?

Real-World Problems, Real-World Vulnerability

Climate change is one of the central problems of our present and of our future. The freak weather events we already face are only going to get worse. It is not too much to say that our entire existence as a human race depends on our ability to courageously confront this problem and to enact change, specifically in our systems of fossil fuel consumption. We also need to work fast to build stronger systems of support for those like my students who suffer when disasters strike, whether they are displaced across town or across the world.

I believe that we need to embed serious, wholehearted conversations about the climate crisis in ALL of our subjects, from engineering to art to world history— and we can’t leave it in the classroom, either. We need actions to inspire words and words to inspire actions.

My vision for this unit is still developing, but these are the next questions I need to answer: How can we take this work into the real world? How can we develop projects that honor the scope of the climate threat, and yet as we face our very real vulnerability to that threat, how can we also honor our students’ need for hope?