Adopted textbooks unhelpful in addressing vital global issue

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Cleveland High School students Sarah Stone (from left), Darius Capizzi, Zach Frentress, Hadley Sternber and Jenny Retchless tackle ways to stabilize global carbon emissions during a group lab project. Not all schools are as dlligent about addressing this pressing environmental problem. Last year was the hottest on record in the United States. So what is being done to educate local students about climate change?

Apparently it varies from school to school.

“There are no state standards regarding climate change education,” says Crystal Green, Oregon Department of Education communications director. “However, ideas and concepts closely tied to climate change are embedded throughout the science standards.”

Keska Kemper, who teaches oceanography at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, has found this to be true. “Oregon state standards have a really strong expectation that students understand climate and atmosphere and how those things interact,” she says.

Even so, Green says, “As a local-control state, school districts make the determination as to what issues to address and what instructional materials to use.”

Kemper, for her part, has shucked traditional teaching methods. “The first year I started, I said, why don’t we spend the money on equipment instead of textbooks?" she says. “There’s really great stuff available online that’s actually better suited to a public audience of 11th- and 12th-graders than a textbook. It’s more adaptable and more likely to have animation and be short and sweet and high-interest.”

Kemper directs her students to articles in the New York Times and, among others, for lessons about climate change.

“We talk about if climate is changing, is it human-caused? Then we look at data in terms of CO2 (carbon dioxide). For a demonstration we make a layer of CO2 in one aquarium, the other doesn’t. We put a heat lamp on both of them and watch how a layer of CO2 adds inflation to the aquarium and makes heat go up faster. We do inquiry based on that,” Kemper says. “It’s a month-and-a-half-long unit on climate change.

“Then we talk about ocean climate interactions — how change in pH affects organisms: sea levels rise and ice melts.”

Not enough time

David Conine, a chemistry instructor at Madison High School in Northeast Portland, says climate change is obviously having an impact but is still the subject of debate. For that reason, “There’s no curriculum that I know of in Portland Public Schools that says climate change is hot,” he says. “At Madison ... with an earth science class getting cut … it’s not getting touched too much.”

Conine has not been able to incorporate climate change education into his own classes, either.

“I would like to be able to do more with environmental chemistry, but I’m pretty limited in time,” he says. “Everybody has the same bell schedule at all high schools, and the bell schedules really allow the schedule to teach kids. It really reduces the amount of time you have to branch out and do alternative topics such as climate change ... We’re either having some fire drill, or we’re having some sort of college fair, or we’re having some sort of testing, and then testing for the state.”

Even giving students a foundation for making sense of climate change has proven a challenge.

“You’ve got to teach them chemistry in order to understand atmospheric science,” Conine says. “But I have enough trouble teaching them chemistry.”

Richard Street teaches biology and a course in ecological approaches to sustainable agriculture at Grant High School in Northeast Portland. He tries to incorporate elements of climate change education into the curricula of both classes.

“In biology, we don’t hit real hard because there’s so much to cover in basic biology,” Street says. “But whenever we get the chance, we throw in carbon in the atmosphere does this, carbon cycle and nitrogen cycle, how those gases circulate around.”

In his sustainable agriculture class, Street has his students consult Internet resources about “how we, through our agricultural industrial approach …  tend to make situations a little worse.”

Street chose to educate his students about the dangers of monoculture and desertification simply because it was important, he says. “There was no mandate. As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s the opposite ... it’s kind of political.”

But, he adds, “I have never encountered any roadblocks or objections to teaching current scientific findings.”

Textbooks timid

This is news to Bill Bigelow, Portland-based editor-at-large of “Rethinking Schools” magazine.

“The district’s adopted textbooks … both ignore and misrepresent the threat of climate change, and so teachers are not given curriculum that is helpful at all in confronting the challenges of climate change,” Bigelow says. “The good part is that people are finally paying attention to it, and that’s with no thanks to the official curriculum that’s been offered to teachers.”

Bigelow, who taught history for 30 years in Portland high schools, says climate change education should be incorporated not just into science classes but social studies classes, too — but isn’t.

There are exceptions, though.

According to the course description of the economics class taught at Alliance High School, at the Benson Campus in Northeast Portland, “A major focus will be in using economic principles to analyze and problem-solve current issues such as ... climate change.” And one standard for seventh-grade social studies in Portland Public Schools is to “understand and project how climate change and other changes in an ecosystem can increase or diminish capacity to support human activity.”

Nevertheless, in Portland Public Schools, "modern world history (formerly known as global studies) is the only high school requirement that kids have to learn about the world,” Bigelow says.

“And the section is about three paragraphs long, buried at the back of the book, and … says something along the lines of … ‘Not all scientists agree with the theories of greenhouse effects.’ So that’s the kind of material that’s unfortunately in the hands of teachers and kids.”

But, he adds, “The good news is there are a lot of teachers who are working around the district to address that and to really get students thinking deeply about the causes of the climate crisis and what we can do about it; Sunnyside Environmental School has done a whole schoolwide teach-in on climate issues.”

Kemper thinks it's absolutely essential to give Portland students a thorough education in climate change and its implications.

“Students want to know; it’s pretty hard not to start talking about what’s really going on,” she says. “In the next few years, our decisions will make a huge difference in what the future looks like.”

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