Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice Number 44

Continuing the conversation about the climate crisis: 'Green' talk in my classroom

Sylvia Goetze Wake

ETAS Journal Volume 37, Number 3 (Winter 2020/21), p. 10

I have chosen this article because it not only addresses a current topic that affects us all, i.e. climate change and sustainable practices, but it provides practical suggestions with regard to raising awareness of these issues. Significantly, Sylvia encourages us to foreground our students' voices and design "green" lessons that are learner-centred and promote student autonomy. 

Patricia Daniels 

Abstract

At the 36th ETAS Conference, a workshop and many informal dialogues opened a conversation within ElT in Switzerland about climate change. If you missed it, a first article (Spring/Summer 2020) focused on the idea of taking a greener approach to conferences. The present article considers ways to introduce the climate crisis into our teaching practice.

Continuing the conversation about the climate crisis: 'Green' talk in my classroom

When I had the idea last year to organize a workshop with the question “Sustainability and climate change: what is our role as educators?”, I had more questions than answers. However, with students around the world striking for climate action, I felt strongly that as teachers we could not not do something. So, I rephrased the issue: Our students are marching. What are we doing?

To bridge the possible divide between our students’ perceptions and our own, our conference workshop began with some self- exploration. Each teacher wrote down at least one issue related to the natural world or to the climate crisis that was important to them. Here is a small sampling from the group of 16 participants: 

safe electricity   seasonal fruits and vegetables   forest fires   water conservation and cleanliness   food security
the meat/dairy industry   plastic bottle use in Switzerland   the international nature of our industry                                           the impact of aviation on climate change

Everyone had at least one concern, and these were incredibly diverse. Try this yourself, preferably with teaching colleagues in the staff room (or Zoom room) or at your local ETAS social professional network event. What climate topics are meaningful to you? What changes in the natural world do you observe where you live? What worries you about how resources are used?

After connecting with our own concerns, we considered the students’ point of view. In our workshop, we only speculated, but this is something very interesting to tap into before trying to “green up” your classroom. To do this, you could use any number of formats that encourage student input: a brainstorming activity, mentimeter tool, Padlet board or small discussion group. The question could be this: “What one or two things are important to you personally, with regard to the natural world or the climate crisis?”

Deliberately framing the question in a wide way helps everyone to participate. Finding out what really worries students (and not just what we think they think), can ultimately guide the subsequent selection of themes and material. Consider it the climate needs analysis, if you will.

With these first steps of awareness-raising in hand, here are a few classroom suggestions I would like to put forward for English teachers today, as we continue – daily – to read and hear about the effects of the climate crisis:

• Light green: Take a moment for a green perspective.
This involves minimal changes to your lesson plan, so it can be an accessible and realistic starting point. It might be as simple as adding optional reading or dedicating five minutes of class time to news or questions about sustainability. Or including an inspirational poem or quote about the natural world. Here is one which is attributed to Jane Goodall:

“you cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” (Selmene, 2019)

• Bright green: In this approach, you construct lesson plans that both teach English and get students thinking about planet earth. If that sounds time-consuming, use shared resources.
I recommend Owain Llewelyn as one example (https://eltsustainable.com/); what I love about his lesson plans is that they are easy to adapt and touch on other super-important topics as well (e.g. indigenous rights, black history awareness). The website and social media pages for ElT Footprint are also full of great resources.

• Students’ green: Rather than adding material, tap into your students’ experience and help them develop productive skills, while discovering their climate voice in English with upbeat discussion questions. Here are a few ideas, but the best ones are those you adapt to their level and their “climate needs”:

1) What is one thing you did last week that had a positive impact on the planet?

2) Do you know anyone who participates in climate protests, and if so, do you know why do they do this?

3) What people or companies do you know of that are taking concrete action for the future of the planet?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the examples which participants come up with.

Why bother?

According to a recent article in the Guardian (Tatum, 2020), young people want to and expect to learn about the climate as part of their education. They are looking for opportunities to be taught and to be able to discuss both their anxieties and potential solutions. The prize- winning Swiss documentary (DFJP, 2020) “Plus chaud que le climat / Wärmer als das Klima / Hotter than the Climate” poignantly reveals the internal struggles of young people on this topic. A must-see.

As teachers, our opinion and actions do have an impact, not only in terms of personal credibility, but on how students may come to think about issues. I remember seeing my French teacher riding her bicycle to school, holding an umbrella in one hand as she deftly maneuvered past cars: a radical sight in a mid-size Canadian city. It’s an image that has never left me and it encourages me to try to share a little more of my own decisions with my students.

By making space in our classrooms for discussing big issues like sustainability, we are acknowledging its importance. We are saying that we too are affected. We care. We are worried. Some of us are “on fire”. Some of us are unsure. The climate crisis involves enormous questions and a need for system change. What we do in the classroom can make a difference.

The author warmly thanks the workshop participants for sharing their ideas and their enthusiasm. You know who you are.

References:

Deutsch-Franzosischer Journalistenpreis (DFJP) (2020). Virtual award of the Franco-German journalism prize (DFJP) https://dfjp.eu/preistraeger-2020/

Selmene (2019, September 27). 25 Inspirational Climate Change Quotes to Take Action https://www.ecomasteryproject.com/25-inspirational- climate-change-quotes/

Tatum, M. (2020, September 28). ‘We deserve to be taught about it’: why students want climate crisis classes. The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/28/we-deserve- to-be-taught-about-it-why-students-want-climate-crisis-classes

Author

Sylvia Goetze Wake is someone like you: juggling work, family, studies and existential questions about the world we live in. She currently teaches English in an academic context.

Check out the rest of the issue here!