One state mandates climate change in nearly every subject — even physical education — MinnPost | Team Cansler

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PENNINGTON, NJ — There was one minute left on Suzanne Horsley’s stopwatch and the atmosphere remained full of carbon dioxide, despite her class of third graders’ vigorous efforts to clean the air.

Horsley, a wellness teacher at Toll Gate Grammar School in Pennington, New Jersey, had the kids toss balls of yarn depicting carbon dioxide molecules to their peers, who stand on plastic discs depicting forests. The first round of the game was set in the 17th century and the children cleared the field in less than four minutes. But this third round happened in the present, after the advent of cars, factories and electricity and massive deforestation. With fewer forests to catch the balls and longer distances to throw, the kids couldn’t keep up.

“That was tough,” Horsley said after the end of the lap. “Much more challenging in that era compared to the 1700s, right?

“Yes,” agreed the students.

“In 2022, we put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Horsley said. “What’s the problem with that, what’s causing it?”

“Global warming,” volunteered a girl.

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Two years ago, New Jersey became the first state in the country to adopt learning standards that require teachers to educate children about climate change across grade levels and subjects. The standards, which came into force in autumn, introduce schoolchildren to the subject from kindergarten age, not only in science lessons, but also in art, world languages, social studies and sport. Proponents say the education is necessary to prepare younger generations for a world – and a job market – that is increasingly being transformed by climate change.

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“There is no way we can expect our children to have the solutions and innovations to these challenges if we don’t give them the tools and resources that are needed here and now,” said Tammy Murphy, wife of the New Jersey governor. Phil Murphy and a founding member of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Action Fund, who pushed to get the standards into schools. Just as students need to be able to add and subtract before they can learn calculus, kids need to understand the basics of climate change — the vocabulary, the logic behind it — before they can tackle the climate crisis.

Historically, climate change has not been widely taught in US schools, largely due to partiality towards climate change and the limited understanding of many teachers of the science behind it. That changed in 2013 with the release of new national science standards that directed science teachers to introduce middle school students and higher to climate change and its human causes. Still, only 20 states have adopted the standards. A 2020 report by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund found that many states that did not follow the new guidance did not explicitly state their standards on the human causes of climate change, and some even promoted falsehoods about them their causes and severity. Meanwhile, discussion of climate change outside of science classes is relatively rare, educators and experts say.

New Jersey is trying to change that, but it’s no easy task. Like teachers across the country, educators here are exhausted after years of Covid disruption and, as elsewhere, some schools are facing dire teacher shortages. Additionally, many educators don’t feel ready to teach climate change: A 2021 survey of 164 New Jersey teachers found many lacked confidence in their knowledge of the topic and had some misconceptions about how the problem relates to other environmental issues confused issues such as plastic pollution.

For now, the requirements for climate education have not faced much opposition from climate deniers and conservatives, who have instead trained their attacks on the state’s new standards of sex education. State officials, however, expect some criticism when teaching is introduced in classrooms.

A more pressing concern – and one that plagues any educational initiative because of local control of schools – is that tuition is unevenly distributed across the state. Schools in affluent cities like Pennington tend to have more time and resources to introduce new classes; Schools in poorer communities like Camden, which are often most vulnerable to climate disasters, may not have the resources to do so.

“I’m pleased to see New Jersey at the forefront of climate change standards,” said Maria Santiago-Valentin, co-founder of the Atlantic Climate Justice Alliance, a group working to mitigate the disproportionate harm of climate change to marginalized communities. But she said the standards need to be revised if they don’t adequately emphasize the unequal impacts of climate change on black and Hispanic communities or ensure students in those communities receive the instruction.

New Jersey is making some efforts to help teachers adopt the standards, providing $5 million for lesson plans and professional development, and hiring teachers like Horsley, who has a master’s degree in outdoor education and a passion for the environment has to develop model teaching.

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Supporters try to ensure that teachers have many examples of how to teach the Standards in an age-appropriate manner, with racial and environmental justice being a key feature of the teaching.

“It’s not like we’re asking kindergarten kids to look at the Keeling curve,” said Lauren Madden, a professor of education at the College of New Jersey, who prepared a report on the standards, citing a chart showing the daily carbon dioxide concentrations. “We’re trying to identify areas where we can build some of those foundational building blocks so that when the students are in upper elementary school or middle school, they really have that solid foundation.”

On a weekday, Cari Gallagher, a third grade teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary School in central New Jersey, read the book No Sand in the House! to her students. which tells the story of a grandfather whose home on the Jersey shore is devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Later, the students sat down to write about what they had heard and to make connections between the book and their own lives, world events, or other books they had read.

After the writing exercise, Gallagher instructed the students to break up into small groups to build structures that would help protect against climate change disasters. The kids used Lego, blocks, Play-Doh, and straws to build carports, walls, and other barriers.

That same morning, an elementary school kindergarten class listened as their teacher Jeffrey Berry held up a globe and talked about how different parts of the world have different climates.

At Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, art teacher Carolyn McGrath led a class on climate change with a handful of students this summer. The results of the lesson – four paintings of climate activists – stood on the windowsill of her classroom.

“It empowered me to see people like me reflecting me and my identity,” said Mackenzie Harsell, an eleventh grader who created a portrait of 24-year-old climate activist Daphne Frias, who like Mackenzie is young. and is disabled. “This project told me that I can do anything.”

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

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“Education is certainly a pathway that we could perhaps have slowed down from where we are in relation to the climate crisis,” said Margaret Wang, chief operating officer at SubjectToClimate, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers develop and promote climate education share. More jobs related to climate change are already opening up, Wang said, and children need skills not only to discover scientific innovations, but also to tell stories, advocate, inspire and make public policy.

Back at Toll Gate Elementary School, Horsley, the wellness teacher, prepared to hand the third years over to their homeroom teacher. Before returning to the school, a pretty brick building that was flooded during Hurricane Ida last year, the students reflected on the lessons.

Ayla, a third-grader in jeans and tie-dye sneakers, said she felt like “doing something about climate change” because “I don’t want it to get that hot.”

Wes, another third grader, said adults could have done more to protect the environment. “I think they’ve done a mediocre job because they’re still producing a lot of carbon dioxide and a lot of people are still making garbage.”

“I feel sorry for the other animals because they don’t know about it and therefore don’t know what to do,” added his classmate Hunter.

“We know about it,” said Abby, who wore a T-shirt that read “Girl Power.” She said it’s up to people to drive less, recycle and protect other species from the climate catastrophe.

“When I first found out we were going to be learning about climate change in the gym, I thought that was surprising because that’s what we usually learn in class,” Abby added. “But I’m glad we made it in the gym,” she continued. “It was great fun.”

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

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