When I began brainstorming The Young People’s Climate Conference unit, the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris had just ended; I thought about how I could use this significant event as a way to teach my students about climate change. Was this global concern too big and abstract to address with 3rd graders? How could I bring up an issue so complex, so gloom and doom? How could I not? I was concerned about how environmental issues are often taught to young children in a way that is artificially divorced from social concerns, and I felt learning about the pressing issue of climate change could not wait until my students were older.
With a majority African American and low-income student population, and a full-inclusion model, my school is known as one of the most diverse public charters in New Orleans. I wanted to not just teach what climate change is, but to frame it as a social and environmental justice issue my students could directly relate to and take action to change.
The inspiration for this unit came from Bill Bigelow’s article “Climate Change Mixer.” In the introductory activity, each student takes on the role of someone affected by climate change and, walking around the room, meets people from the world as they tell their stories based on short autobiographies. I was inspired by the active, yet profound way high school students were learning about the climate crisis and believed my 3rd-grade students could too.
I created a unit around a “People’s Climate Summit” in which 3rd graders would present mostly underepresented voices of people around the world in a conference-like group performance. The conference was the culmination of students’ learning about the topic, and led to students taking action around Congress’ upcoming decision to adopt the U.N. agreement.