Hot Topic

Photos by Scott Buschman

Last spring, when U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) came to visit Oroville High School, science teacher Rich Hogan asked him a question about climate change. The congressman’s reaction — in front of students and staff — surprised the Oroville Secondary Teachers Association member.

“He got pretty defensive and asked me how long I had been a teacher,” recalls Hogan. “He wanted to know if I was teaching both sides of the issue. It created quite a stir.
I didn’t know he was a climate change denier.”

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Rich Hogan

The heated exchange occurred very close to the Oroville Dam, where 200,000 people were evacuated last winter after the emergency spillway began to erode, threatening catastrophic flooding. Scientists assert that we can expect to see more flooding emergencies in a hotter world due to climate change.

Politics should not determine what is taught in science, says Hogan, who recently received a book in the mail from the Heartland Institute (which is funded by the Koch brothers) challenging scientific evidence of human-caused climate crisis. According to the Associated Press (AP), thousands of teachers were mailed Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, a book that the National Science Teachers Association calls “propaganda” and encourages educators to recycle.

“We need to teach students to wade through information and become independent critical thinkers and be socially aware of issues that will affect their generation more than mine,” says Hogan, who has taught science for more than 20 years and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC), a partnership between Stanford University and CTA that promotes best practices for the new standards. “And we need to do it fast, before we get past the tipping point.”

Teaching the facts

The debate over teaching about global warming in schools is heating up, according to the AP, which reports several states have considered measures to teach opposing points of view about climate change. In 2012 in the Southern California community of Los Alamitos, for example, the school board told teachers they must prove climate change lessons are “politically balanced” rather than scientifically accurate, which created an outcry.

Science has shown conclusively that human activity is changing the global climate. Even the 2017 “Climate Science Special Report,” authored by scientists from 13 federal agencies as part of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment done every four years, forcefully supports this view. (The report is pending approval by the current administration.)

This and many other scientific studies, and President Trump’s decisions to withdraw America from the Paris climate accord and dismantle environmental protections, have given many educators a renewed sense of urgency to teach about the subject.

“We have a responsibility to teach about climate change. It’s happening in our world today.” – Darlene Killgore, Oxnard Educators Association

“We have a responsibility to teach about climate change,” says Darlene Killgore, an Oxnard Educators Association member and science teacher at R.J. Frank Middle School. “It’s happening in our world today. You teach the facts, and students make their own decisions. You can look at changes during the Ice Age and warming trends that are documented historically — and see that now our planet is warming up at an increased rate that has never been seen before.”

Indeed, Earth reached its highest average temperature on record in 2016, breaking the record set just a year earlier in 2015, which beat the previous record in 2014. Most climate scientists think global warming has contributed to unusually devastating weather patterns in recent years such as drought, heat waves, and intense precipitation and storms. The massive rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in August may have been exacerbated by climate change.

Killgore incorporates global warming into multiple lessons and units in hopes students will understand that climate change affects where they live.

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Darlene Killgore with student Kelsy Rodriguez

“We talk about solar power, wind and other sustainable energy versus the burning of fossil fuels. We can start with small ways to change our dependence on fossil fuels by walking to school, riding a bike or taking mass transit. These students will be voters soon, and the next generation will need to decide what laws should be in place.”

One of her students, seventh-grader Harmony Svestka, admits she worries about climate change. “It’s scary to me because it could cause our world to end. It will affect my generation, but it’s not our fault.”

Teaching about climate change is challenging, says Killgore, because schools are in the process of transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and teachers desperately need new curriculum with up-to-date information.

Climate change challenges teachers

Under NGSS, teachers are being asked to teach not only the causes and impacts of climate change, but how science and engineering can help solve problems and inform policy. But materials are lacking.

A 2015 Stanford University study found textbooks used in California schools — the same books still in use — contain misleading information about climate change. The good news is that new NGSS-aligned science textbooks will become available in 2019. Meanwhile, teachers must find supplemental materials themselves, and they are not always sure these materials are accurate, says Lisa Hegdahl, a science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School, member of the Galt Elementary Faculty Association, and former president of the California Science Teachers Association.

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Lisa Hegdahl

Nearly two-thirds of students in the U.S. are taught about climate change at school, but there is a great deal of room for improvement, say researchers from Pennsylvania State University, Wright State University in Ohio, and the National Center for Science Education in California. Their 2016 nationwide survey of 1,500 science teachers finds most students spend only an hour or two per year learning about climate change in middle and high school — and much of what they are taught is confusing or wrong. For example, only 38 percent of schoolchildren are taught that climate change is linked to fossil fuels. Seven percent of teachers surveyed attribute recent warming to natural causes. Another 22 percent say there is “significant disagreement” among scientists about the cause of global warming, when in fact 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it is caused by human activity.

Many teachers surveyed say they lack training to teach about climate change, and the information is changing so rapidly, it is difficult to keep up.

The study, published in the journal Science, concludes that giving short shrift to the subject — and sending mixed messages about climate change in the media — leaves students more susceptible to disinformation spread by political or corporate interests once they enter adulthood. The study also notes that the energy industry spends millions on climate denial research and supporting candidates who deny global warming.

Environment as a teaching tool

Science lab teacher Laurie Scheibner, Tahoe Truckee Education Association, recalls that California experienced a multiyear drought that was devastating for families in the area, many of whom depend on the skiing industry for their livelihood.

“But we shouldn’t get excited, just because we had normal snow last year,” she says. “We had a lot of rain-on-snow events, which caused immediate runoff, and then because of a winter with lots of snow, we also had big spring runoff. Students noticed how different this is in their short lifetimes. The runoff impacted everyone along the Truckee River and caused some flooding issues downstream.”

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Laurie Scheibner watches as her students test the “dam” they designed to hold back runoff water.

A study of the snowpack found last winter’s snow to be wetter (containing more water) than usual, which caused flooding and avalanches. In February, an avalanche buried the crest of the main mountain highway between Reno and Lake Tahoe beneath about 20 feet of snow. Climate change is also heating up the lake, causing algae to bloom and reducing clarity.

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Laurie Scheibner

“Because of climate change, we’ve had either no snow and drought conditions, or heavy wet snow because the ocean is warmer and is affecting global patterns,” says Scheibner.
She often asks students how people can adapt to climate change and how engineering might help. During a lesson last spring at Tahoe Lake Elementary School, she asked students to design dams to hold back runoff water, with a variety of manmade and natural materials including Popsicle sticks, rocks and pine needles, to see what worked best.

Beforehand, she showed clips of the Oroville Dam at its crisis point as an example of the need for engineering designs as the climate changes.

“This way I’m not just telling them what happens; they have to figure it out themselves,” she says. (To see more about this lesson, visit the PBS Kids website, to.pbs.org/2feIjIZ.)

Kelsi Himmel, who teaches AP environmental science and chemistry and biology at Argonaut High School in Jackson, takes students on wilderness excursions in nearby El Dorado National Forest to make them more aware of how climate change impacts their environment.

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Kelsi Himmel takes her high school students on wilderness excursions to see the effects of climate change firsthand.

“I’m a firm believer that if my students are going to make any real connection with their curriculum, they must view the impact of climate change firsthand, so we can discuss what we love about our area, why we live here, and why we want to keep it that way. They’ve seen the effects of multiple years of drought on our forest with bark beetles. You can see ridges of dead trees. Plants are more susceptible to beetles and other diseases after multiple years of drought and not having cold winters to kill them off.”

She recalls that when she was in college, there were very few degrees in environmental science, called the “gloom and doom” department. But today there is much to be hopeful about, with alternative energy sources and green technology. The challenge is finding a collective will to implement changes that can save the planet.

“We need to start talking to our friends, our families and politicians. We can cry about it — or we can examine ways to find solutions to our problems together.” – Aba Ngissah, Inglewood Teachers Association

Al Gore’s new documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, asserts that the stakes have never been higher, but the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. A sequel to An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the documentary addresses the progress that’s been made to tackle the problem of climate change and Gore’s global efforts to persuade governmental leaders to invest in renewable energy, culminating in the landmark 2016 signing of the Paris climate agreement.

Climate change as a social justice issue

Aba Ngissah has been teaching climate change for two years at Hudnall Elementary School in Inglewood. She uses free materials available from a state program, the California Education and the Environment Initiative, to supplement her school’s science books. The ILC instructor and Inglewood Teachers Association member has also signed up for the organization’s in-person trainings and webinars.

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Aba Ngissah

“We talk about glaciers that are shrinking and how that affects animals, plant life and tundra,” says Ngissah. “We look at the rising waters and how that will affect islands. Students learned that some islands will disappear due to rising sea level. There’s going to be displacement of people and animals in coastal communities. One student was very aware of the social issues, noting that climate change affects poor people and those who live in Third World countries the most, where it becomes difficult to grow crops and sell them in the marketplace.”

Indeed, climate change disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities, notes the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, particularly regarding heat waves, poor air quality, and increasingly powerful events such as hurricanes. A United Nations report warns that up to 122 million more people worldwide could be living in extreme poverty by 2030 as a result of climate change and its impact on farmers’ incomes, which in turn would impact the ability of poor people to receive education and health care.

Ngissah believes students can relate more to climate change when it is viewed through a social justice lens, since most of her students are from low-income communities.
“It’s crazy to think about,” she says. “Climate change affects every part of humanity. My students ask how they can help change this. I tell them we can’t sit back; we need to start talking to our friends, our families and politicians. We can cry about it — or we can examine ways to find solutions to our problems together.”


 

Tools, Resources for Teaching About Climate Change

• An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017), Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
• Resources and professional development available from the California Education and the Environment Initiative (californiaeei.org).
• Videos on climate change produced by National Geographic (video.nationalgeographic.com), including “Climate Change 101 with Bill Nye.”
• Content from NASA Global Climate Change (climate.nasa.gov) and Climate Kids: NASA’s Eyes on the Earth (climatekids.nasa.gov), a website for young learners.
• Global Oneness Project’s (globalonenessproject.org) free resources and toolkits examining the impact of climate change on people and communities.
• Earth-Now, a free app that allows students to manipulate color scales on a 3-D model of Earth and see reports on temperature, carbon dioxide, sea level and other climate factors.
• National Center for Science Education at ncse.com/climate.


 

Facts About Climate Change

  • Global sea level rose about 8 inches in the last century. The rate in the past two decades, however, is nearly double that of the last century.
  • Earth’s average surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
  • The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
  • The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking. Together, they’re losing more than 100 cubic miles of ice every year, which flows into the oceans and contributes to sea level rise. And the rate of ice loss is accelerating.
  • Since the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased
    by about 30 percent due to humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and from there into the oceans.
  • Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming
    trends over the past century are the result of human activity.

Digital Lesson-Sharing

Educators are known for their outsize capacity to give and share, and when it comes to lesson plans and curricula, teachers have generously shared with colleagues for centuries.

Sharing in the digital age means that myriad educators are now involved, and virtual marketplaces for Open Educational Resources (OER) — freely accessible, openly licensed text, media and other digital assets for classroom use — are springing up.

The promise of OER has been touted for some time. It taps into the collaborative brainpower, innovation and creativity of educators around the country and around the world. It ensures that teachers and students always have the most up-to-date and relevant content for little or no cost — which is particularly attractive to cash-strapped school districts. And OER can be customized and adapted to individual student populations and aligned to state standards.

OER can be found at various educational sites, including TeachersPayTeachers.com, where educators post their work for colleagues to use (often for a fee). In recent years, high-tech firms such as Amazon and digital education companies have joined the fray. The U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign supports states, school districts and educators in using OER to transform teaching and learning.

Challenges in finding quality material

But while OER may be a boon to education, for many educators finding free, quality online curriculum requires tenacity, collaboration, increased staff development, and possibly new language in their collective bargaining agreements.

And that doesn’t even include wading through the thousands of choices of online learning and research materials out there.

Many say it’s the Wild West when it comes to selecting and vetting material.

“That’s exactly what it is,” says Oxnard Educators Association member Karen Sher, a seventh-grade teacher who is on special assignment as an instructional coach. “[OER] gives teachers more freedom, but it puts a lot on them in terms of research.”

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Karen Sher

Sher became a specialist in the Library of Congress’s OER after attending its summer institute several years ago, and vouches for the primary sources it makes available to teachers. While the Library of Congress may not be as well known as other OER sources, it offers a wealth of resources for educators, according to Sher.

Sher asserts that regardless of the quality resources available online, “where the real magic happens is when teachers collaborate.”

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Pia VanMeter

Pia VanMeter, co-chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee of CTA’s State Council of Education and high school science teacher, would agree. When her district rolled out an open source math curriculum, it was a disaster because there was not adequate staff development.

“Teachers were working on the curriculum while trying to teach the curriculum,” says the Riverside City Teachers Association member.

“Open source as an idea is great, but you need to critically look at it and make sure it is aligned to standards.”

Collaboration and staff development are key

The Cajon Valley Education Association (CVEA) has a joint curriculum committee with the Cajon Valley Unified School District to determine, among other curriculum decisions, the selection and uses of OER. The district is among those selected by the U.S. Department of Education as part of its #GoOpen initiative.

The committee’s work began two years ago when teachers started to question the superintendent’s “all in” campaign to include OER as part of its curriculum.

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Christopher Prokop

“Our association began to ask, ‘What is that going to look like? Are we going to meet the requirements of Common Core? What about English learners? Who is going to create the curriculum?’” says CVEA President Christopher Prokop. “We became the adults in the room.”

Despite the early issues, teachers and the district are working together, and Prokop credits the district for wanting to “get off the textbook adoption merry-go-round” that is driven by big publishing companies. Teachers districtwide now have a modified Monday schedule that allows time for collaboration and staff development (including on OER) in teacher-driven meetings.

Know your OER objectives

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Angela Der Ramos

Angela Der Ramos, Alisal Teachers Association, is a member of CTA’s Instructional Leadership Corps and provides professional development at conferences and in her district. She is a big proponent of OER, especially to rethink some of the curriculum or standards she is required to teach. Still, she maintains using OER must involve good pedagogy, and teachers must be articulate about what they are doing, “particularly when they are going against the norm.”

Der Ramos runs “This Side of the Chalkboard,” a Facebook page where teachers can share techniques, strategies and lessons in using OER.

The fifth-grade teacher believes the mission of education is to produce literate critical thinkers who are steeped in social justice and have learned they have the power to make positive change. With this in mind, her OER sites include Newsela, which she uses to highlight current human rights abuses, and Teaching Tolerance, an educational resource from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While Der Ramos particularly endorses teacher-generated material, she is hesitant to support the idea of “teachers paying teachers” for online content.

“I fault no teacher for trying to make money,” she says, “but my own philosophy is one of sharing.”


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Where to Find OER

Finding and vetting high-quality, standards-aligned Open Educational Resources (OER) can be challenging. Here are some expert recommendations:

ck12.org — An established resource offering full lesson plans easily incorporated into classrooms.

edmodo.com — An OER pioneer with a time-saving “Spotlight” search to help find specific elements.

opened.com — This OER has an enormous range of assessments.

gooru.org — Provides both lesson plans and full courses that can be downloaded and used for free.

curriki.org — Another early OER resource that lets teachers easily share their own lessons.


Their Favorite Things

CTA members Angela Der Ramos and Karen Sher, and CTA staff consultant and edtech specialist Karen Taylor, have favorite sites for OER content as well as educator tips, i­­ncluding:

BrainPOP, brainpop.com

Edutopia, edutopia.org

KQED Learning, ww2.kqed.org/learning

Library of Congress, loc.gov/teachers

Newsela, newsela.com

Pinterest, pinterest.com (search for curriculum and lesson plan)

Read Write Think, readwritethink.org

Rock Your World, rock-your-world.org

Teaching Tolerance, tolerance.org

Zearn Math, zearn.org

Let us know your favorite sites at editor@cta.org.


What to Consider With OER

  • Use reputable sources and make sure the content you choose is aligned with standards.
  • Select content you can easily adapt and customize for your students.
  • Factor in time to adapt and customize, and time for you to become familiar with the content.
  • If you’re sharing OER with colleagues, schoolwide or districtwide, make sure you have time to collaborate, prepare and learn together.