College of Education class builds paths for future climate action

Climate rally

Teaching about climate change in K-12 classrooms takes a careful balance between discussions on potentially dire consequences and inspiring hope for the future. That was the message delivered by a group of future educators at a recent UO College of Education workshop.

It was part of a class, Teaching for Climate Activism, offered as an elective in the Education Foundations program, which included a mix of undergraduate and graduate students pursuing careers as educators. Sarah Stapleton, an assistant professor in the Department of Education Studies at the UO, led the class and coached students through development of the workshop.

Stapleton is also an affiliate faculty member with the Environmental Studies and Food Studies programs and was recently named a faculty fellow of the Environment Initiative, which focuses the intellectual energy and work of faculty members, students and community partners on working toward a just and livable future through transdisciplinary research, teaching and experiential learning.

This was her second term teaching the class, which she created with a Williams Fund grant to help prepare future teachers to teach about climate change and justice.  

“We know from climate change education and communication research that we need to include action, so that people do not sit in a place of despair,” Stapleton said. “Climate change is so dire, so urgent and so frightening that it can be debilitating for people to talk about, much less learn about.”

Stapleton said the first goal of the course is to teach educators how to feel comfortable talking about climate change. The second goal is to communicate about it in ways that instill hope and action. 

“For my students, putting on the workshop is their climate action,” Stapleton said.

The virtual workshop included sessions on how to clearly explain climate change, affect climate change locally, take action with young students, and find hope. The 32 students in the class led the sessions, which were the culmination of their learning from fall term.

The keynote speaker for the event was Tim Swinehart, an environmental justice educator in Portland whose work has been featured in the The New York Times, YES! Magazine and NEA Today. He shared his experiences teaching about climate justice in Portland public schools.

Swinehart said he was inspired by the work and care the students put into the workshop and was honored to be a part of it.

“It is absolutely essential that students begin to see themselves as activists and change makers,” he said, “and are given opportunities to engage in collective work with one another and find meaningful ways to take action in their communities.”

The class introduced students to strategies for leading conversations about climate change despite potential backlash or doubt from listeners.

“I tell my students that their job will be to figure out how they’re going to teach about climate change in ways that resonate with their own community,’” Stapleton said. “‘But they’ve got to teach about it. No matter what community they’re in.’”

Stapleton encourages students to lead those conversations with attention to common ground.

“I started my class this year with students sharing their climate stories,” Stapleton said. “It was heart-wrenching because every single student had something to say about how climate change has impacted their life.”

Lenora Davis, a graduate student pursuing a career as a science teacher, said the class changed her perspective on approaching climate change.

“Although I have known and cared about climate change for much of my life, this class has given me a new lens with which to view the climate crisis, the most urgent issue of our time, a lens of hope,” Davis said.

Stapleton said she deeply believes in the power of teachers to make changes that matter in society. 

“Education is activism,” she said. “When educators choose not to talk about climate change and choose not to talk about all the injustice that is wrapped up in it, they are implicated by not speaking up about the most dire issue humans have ever faced.”

aw3se4%T.1aw3se4%T.1The Environment Initiative is one of the UO’s five Academic Initiatives that work across disciplines, developing the next generation of leaders and problem solvers.

By Madeline Ryan, College of Education