Oakland students demand climate change curriculum
on October 25, 2019
On an afternoon in October, students streamed into an AP Environmental Science classroom at Oakland Technical High School. A papier-mâché honeycomb hung lazily in the window, next to a cardboard seal and a seahorse, as students took their seats. Joseph Senn, a science and physiology teacher, turned on the projector and began his lecture.
Senn launched into a discussion of weather patterns. “Here is a picture of ENSO years, El Niño years,” he said, pointing to a map of ocean currents and using the acronym for their full name, El Niño-Southern Oscillation. “But this is as a bird would see it.”
Two years ago, students from this science class urged the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to teach its students more about climate change. Senn told his students about the Sierra Club’s efforts to get schools to adopt climate policies. Inspired, Tech students encouraged the district to pass a policy that would restructure curriculum to include the causes of climate change, its effects on societies and ecological systems, and possible solutions and mitigation strategies.
This February, the OUSD Board of Education passed the Environmental and Climate Change Literacy (ECCL) policy. The legislation allows a working group to rewrite curriculum and seek funding with the ultimate goal of educating Oakland students about climate change. A climate literate student “understands their influence on the climate and the climate’s influence on themselves and society,” according to the policy.
“Giving the students awareness of what their individual contribution can be should be a key part of this new climate literacy course in order to really to safeguard the well-being of our planet and make sure that everyone is contributing,” said Benjamin Nicholas, a student in Senn’s class.
Before the policy passed, OUSD already required teachers to teach ecological precepts. The district’s environmental education policy, passed in 2004, required that “environmental facts should be taught as they relate to each other, so that students will understand basic ecological principles and appreciate the interrelated nature of living processes.” Another set of standards, adopted in 2013, mandate instruction in scientific principles.
“Our existing [policy] at the time, the environmental education policy, was pretty strong,” school board Vice President Jody London said, speaking by phone. London, who represents North Oakland’s District 1, convened a group of teachers and volunteers to work on the specifics of the climate literacy policy.
“We basically inserted some language into the existing policy that specifically names climate,” London said. “It wasn’t a huge shift. It was just being more intentional.”
London said she hopes to see students become for “advocates for policy change.” “Climate change is a really big issue,” she added, “but there are billions of individual decisions that people make every day that influence the emissions of pollution that is impacting climate change.”
Since August 2018, a volunteer working group comprised of OUSD teachers and members of the Oakland Environmental Justice Caucus have convened to review curriculum and plan next steps. The ECCL legislation allows the working group to review curriculum, provide professional development to teachers, and seek funding. Curriculum changes will extend beyond science classes to subjects like history.
“A really big misconception is that science is the only area in which climate change falls under,” said 11th grader Jora Broadhurst, who has been volunteering her time to educate younger students about climate literacy. “But actually has a lot to do with history and math and you can even incorporate into English.”
For example, once the policy has been implemented, students could read novels about “dystopian futures” in English classes, Senn wrote in an email. In math courses, students might explore “climate refugee numbers” or “graph natural resource consumption.” Senn wrote that students often struggle to understand climate change because they can’t relate to it. “By providing context, it should help them connect their lives to what they learn in school and vice-a-versa,” he wrote.
According to a slideshow presented to the school board during a February meeting by Herberta Zulueta, the OUSD’s secondary science coordinator, members of the working group hope that 50 percent of elementary school students will learn basic climate science in school during the 2019-20 academic year. By 2022, they estimate all Oakland elementary, middle, and high schools will have adopted a core climate literacy curriculum.
The students who petitioned the school board to update its policy in 2018 have since graduated. But Senn’s current students are working to advance the policy too. “I lead a project for my AP Environmental Science class,” said student Cali Carson. “And we worked with schools around Oakland, and we put up posters and helped teachers with lectures to help educate students about [climate change].”
Senn said some of his students have contacted their former middle and high school teachers to encourage them to teach climate change in their classes. “But that’s always the hardest part,” he added, “because teachers have so much to do. Now, we’re asking to do some more.” He added that teachers would need proper resources and professional development training, as well as compensation for their time.
Many teachers still don’t know about the policy. An Oakland Unified School District poll taken earlier this year asked teachers to respond to the statement “I am familiar with the recently adopted Board Policy on Environmental and Climate Change Literacy.” Nearly 70 percent of respondents strongly disagreed, and just over one percent strongly agreed.
But some OUSD students are already translating the lessons they’ve learned into action. Carson said she’s been making changes in her own life. “I probably started taking action in 7th grade, biking and walking to school and carpooling,” Carson said. “But I’ve been more strict with myself in high school because I can make my own independent choices to be better for the environment.”
Student involvement isn’t confined to Oakland Tech. OUSD students from Oakland Tech, Hillcrest Middle School, and Skyline High School spoke in favor of ECCL at a kick-off event in September. A student from MetWest High helped lead a climate strike in September, Jody London noted.
“If climate change is the largest single issue globally, and will have drastic impacts on [students] in the near future and is currently happening, then schools must prepare them for it,” Senn said, during a break between classes. “Teachers need to give them the background knowledge, so they can make informed decisions, right? That’s the point of education, is to give them the tools and resources, and let them make the best choices.”
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