New Jersey teaches climate change in every classroom – even PE


PENNINGTON, NJ — With one minute left on Suzanne Horsley’s timer, the atmosphere remained thick with carbon dioxide, despite her third-grade students’ efforts to clear the air.

Horsley, a wellness teacher at Toll Gate Grammar School in Pennington, NJ, had children toss balls of yarn representing carbon dioxide molecules to their peers stationed on plastic disks representing forests. The game’s first round was set in the 1700s, and the students had cleared the playing field in less than four minutes. But that third round happened in the present day, after the advent of cars, factories, electricity and massive deforestation. With fewer forests to catch balls in and longer distances to throw, toxins were building up faster than kids could pick them up.

“It was tough,” Horsley said after the end of the round. “In this period compared to the 1700s, it’s much more difficult, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” the students respond.

“In 2022 we had a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Horsley said. “What’s wrong with that, what does it cause?”

“Global warming”, volunteered a girl.

Two years ago, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to adopt learning standards requiring teachers to teach children about climate change at all grades and in all subject areas. The standards, which came into effect this fall, introduce students from kindergarten age to the subject, not only in science classes, but also in the arts, world languages, social studies and education. physical. Proponents say education is needed to prepare younger generations for a world – and a job market – increasingly reshaped by climate change.

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“There’s no way we can expect our kids to have the solutions and the innovations to these challenges if we don’t give them the tools and resources they need here and now,” said Tammy Murphy, the wife of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) and a founding member of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Action Fund, which lobbied for the standards to be enforced in schools. Just as students need to be able to add and subtract before they learn numeracy, she says, children need to understand the basics of climate change – the vocabulary, the logic behind it – before they can tackling the climate crisis.

Historically, climate change has not been taught comprehensively in American schools, largely due to partisanship surrounding climate change and the limited understanding of science by many teachers. That began to change in 2013, with the release of new National Science Standards, which required science teachers to introduce students to climate change and its human causes starting in middle school. Yet only 20 states have adopted the standards. Other states may not mention the human causes of the crisis, and a few even promote lies about it, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund.

Even in New Jersey, many teachers said they lacked confidence in their knowledge of the subject in a 2021 survey. The state set aside $5 million for lesson plans and professional development, and it’s hiring teachers like Horsley, who has a master’s degree in outdoor education and is passionate about the environment, to develop model lessons.

So far, demands for climate education have not been pushed back much by climate deniers. Conservatives have instead directed their attacks at the state’s new sex education standards. But state officials anticipate some criticism as classes begin to roll out in classrooms.

Advocates try to ensure teachers have plenty of examples to teach standards in an age-appropriate way, with racial and environmental justice being a key feature of teaching.

“It’s not like we’re asking kindergartners to look at the Keeling curve,” said Lauren Madden, an education professor at the College of New Jersey who prepared a report on the standards, referring to a graph showing daily concentrations of carbon dioxide.

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On a recent weekday, Cari Gallagher, a third-grade teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary School in central New Jersey, was reading to her students “No Sand in the House!” which tells the story of a grandfather whose Jersey Shore home is devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Later, students sat down to write about what they had heard, making connections between the book and their own lives, world events, or other books they had read. Then, as part of a group activity, they built structures – carports, walls and other barriers made of Legos, blocks, Play-Doh and straws – that could protect against the calamities due to climate change.

Research suggests that education has an impact on how people understand climate change and their willingness to take action to stop it. A study found that students who took a course on reducing their carbon footprint tended to adopt environmentally friendly practices and stick to them for many years. Another found that educating middle school students about climate change led their parents to express greater concern about the problem.

“Education is definitely one way we might have been able to slow down to where we are now in terms of the climate crisis,” said Margaret Wang, co-founder and COO of nonprofit SubjectToClimate. for-profit that helps teachers find and share. climate lessons. Other jobs related to climate change are already opening up, Wang said, and children will need the skills to not only discover scientific innovations, but also to tell stories, advocate, inspire and shape public policy.

A pressing concern in New Jersey is that lessons are going unevenly across the state. Schools in affluent towns like Pennington tend to have more time and resources to introduce new instruction; schools in poorer communities that are often the most vulnerable to climate disasters, such as Camden, may lack the resources to do so.

“I am happy to see New Jersey as a pioneer in climate change standards,” said Maria Santiago-Valentin, co-founder of the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance, a group that works to mitigate the disproportionate damage of climate change on people. marginalized communities. But, she said, standards will need to be revised if they don’t emphasize enough the unequal impact of climate change on black and Hispanic communities or if they don’t ensure that students in these groups receive instruction.

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At Toll Gate Elementary, Horsley, the welfare teacher, was about to hand the third year students over to their teacher. Before returning to the school, a beautiful brick building that was flooded last year during Hurricane Ida, the students reflected on the lesson.

Ayla, a third-grade student in jeans and tie-dye trainers, said it made her want to ‘do something’ about climate change because ‘I don’t want it to be that hot “.

Wes, another third grader, said adults could have done more to protect the environment. “I think they did an average job because they’re still producing a lot of carbon dioxide and a lot of people are still throwing trash.”

“I feel bad for the other animals because they don’t know, so they don’t know what to do,” added his classmate, Hunter.

Abby, who wore a ‘Girl Power’ t-shirt, said it was up to humans to drive less and recycle and protect other species from climate disaster.

“When I first found out that we were going to learn about climate change in the gym, I was like, it’s surprising, because normally we learn this in class,” Abby added. “But I’m glad we made it to the gym,” she continued. “It was really fun.”

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This story about climate change education was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger Bulletin.

Teresa H. Sadler