Pushing Against Our Edges

(This is cross-posted at Cooperative Catalyst.)

For a long time I was afraid to teach about the environment. As a high school student my most powerful learning experiences had come from creating a campaign for sustainability within my school district. As a high school teacher I had, amazingly, taught for ten years without teaching a unit that focused on the environment.

I have always been afraid of having students leave my class feeling despair. I often design units around difficult or uncomfortable topics but I am always intentional about integrating stories of hope, resistance, or transformation. How could I even begin to approach Climate Change as a topic for investigation without overwhelming my students and myself? I was not sure that I could hold it together in the midst of a topic that feels so enormous and so lacking in hope. On the other hand, how could Climate Change not be a topic in my World History class?

Last year I knew that I had to try. There is too much silence about too many issues in our schools and my fears were making me complicit in the problem.

I developed a strategy. Slowly I worked to design a unit that would expose students to a wide range of thinking about the ways that humans interact with the environment. A specific case study would allow students to express varied viewpoints about humans and their relationships with the natural world. The unit would culminate in students writing monologues from different perspectives, each of which would be informed by research. Each student would perform a monologue for the class and publish all of his/her monologues, along with a video of a performance, on our school blog. The multiple perspectives of the monologues would fill the classroom with a range of voices. There would be despair and there would be hope along with a wide range of different views and experiences.

As my ideas and my planning evolved, my fear was beginning to shift into excitement. The unit would be a chance to expose students to a wide range of thinkers. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline and the work being done by Tars Sands Action and 350.org would provide excellent material for a case study.

When the unit culminated in performances last year, the class was rapt with attention as one student crouched in a corner of our classroom stage and performed another student’s monologue. The piece, in the voice of an imprisoned protestor who had been arrested in front of the White House, captured the intense passion and hope of someone trying to prevent the pipeline from being approved.  After the last line, the class burst into spontaneous applause and cheering. This was followed by many other monologues that made us angry, sad, or hopeful.

As I work to improve and expand the unit this year I am reminded of the spiritual and challenging work that is involved with teaching and learning. Fears are real and can’t be ignored. Yet none of us is able to learn deeply if we don’t push against the edges of what is uncomfortable and scary.

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