Students Learn About Climate Justice

Browse classroom stories by teachers who have used climate justice lessons found at the Zinn Education Project website and see how students — from elementary school to pre-service university programs — respond to lessons about environmental injustice.

This collection is part of our Teach Climate Justice Campaign, which offers lessons that can be used in social studies, language arts, science, and other subjects. Many of the lessons described below come from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, a teaching guide published by Rethinking Schools.

If you use one of the Climate Justice lessons or articles found on this website, consider submitting your own classroom story (and a photo of yourself or of your students doing the lesson). In gratitude, we will send you a free book about climate justice to support your teaching.

Andrew Bushor (teacher photo) | Zinn Education Project

I have used pieces from a variety of the Zinn Education Project’s climate justice lessons in order to incorporate them into a larger, comprehensive unit on the subject. To introduce my climate justice unit, we read the testimonials from the lesson Don’t Take Our Voices Away. It was a perfect way to put human faces to the struggle for climate justice, which is often lacking in climate studies in general, and it was also a good, relevant way to incorporate indigenous voices into a lesson.

As a culminating project, one of my high school students has shown interest in actually teaching The (Young) People’s Climate Conference to an elementary classroom in our district. I think taking on this role will further cement the lessons of climate justice within her.

—Andrew Bushor
High School Social Studies Teacher, Detroit, Michigan

Pulling from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, my class has used the reading “Plastics and Poverty” by Van Jones as well as the Climate Change Mixer in two, semester-long interdisciplinary learning expeditions.

Our first expedition circled around the ideas “power and privilege,” where we looked at Oregon’s history of inequities, and how systemic oppression shapes the communities we live in. This lesson plan and the discussion following helped students grasp the connection between harmful products, industry and people experiencing poverty.

Students made a tangible connection to the “Plastics and Poverty” reading when participating in a series of clean ups around our school, where there are several homeless camps tucked into the the trees and vacant lots. The plastic waste in our high desert climate disintegrates rather rapidly, and breaks down into the soil at a level where it can be hard to even remove it. Seeing all of this plasticizing of our soils, and human suffering directly out our door caused these students to make a shift in our curriculum as they saw the need to study both homelessness, and pollution in a greater depth in order to support the people in need in our community.

Our learning expedition culminated in an evening of fundraising, cold weather clothing donations, and presentations about systems of inequity in Oregon, and the leaders of change that are making a difference.

—Paul Trendler
High Social Studies Teacher, Bend, Oregon

Holly Hardin | Zinn Education Project

There are few lessons that I enjoy teaching more than ‘Don’t Take Our Voices Away’: A Role Play on the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change in my science classroom. In part, because it gives tangible details and a human face to the issue, not just a story of polar bears or talk about temperature. This is missing in a lot of the science curriculum we are provided. Likewise, the voice of indigenous people in the world is something quite absent in our westernized science curriculum, which is maybe not surprising because these voices are also being left out of world decisions.  Those points are what drew me to teaching the lesson. I keep teaching it because of how my students respond. They enjoy the structure of the activity, that they have some agency and control in what happens, as they get to take on the roles and make proposals.

—Holly Hardin
Middle Science Teacher, Durham, North Carolina

When I told my 8th grade social studies students that we would be exploring climate change, I didn’t receive the most receptive, encouraging responses. They made comments to the effect of, “We just studied this in science, why are we learning about this in social studies?”

A revealing question, one that exposes how compartmentalized and disconnected they saw this issue from society. Before this semester, having never delved into climate change as a social studies educator, I would have been at loss.  Then, I turned to A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. The collection of primary-source based lessons and activities embedded in this book proved to be an invaluable and powerful resource.

Lessons like the Climate Change Mixer, Paradise Lost, and the Thingamabob simulation took my students from a place of what appeared to be indifference and complacency,  to a place of inquiry, compassion, and activism.

The culminating activity involved having my students participate in a mock trial based on Bill Bigelow’s role play activity ‘Who’s to Blame for the Climate Crisis’? By this point of our study, my students were emotionally and intellectually ‘invested’ and were genuinely curious as to what or who is responsible for the environmental crisis.

A People’s Curriculum for the Earth prompted me as an educator to teach differently–more holistically, and more critically. It also reminded me of the importance of cultivating the learning conditions for students to make those intimate connections between themselves, other human beings, and the earth.

—Sarah Giddings
Middle Social Studies Teacher, Mesa, Arizona

Alison Martin | Zinn Education Project

I recommend Standing with Standing Rock: A Role Play on the Dakota Access Pipeline, whether it be for teaching current issues Native communities face and/or building empathy and the importance of considering multiple perspectives.

While I don’t love many role playing lessons I’ve witnessed, I found this one to be effective and created with thoughtfulness. As a Native educator, I found that not only did this lesson seem valuable for a group of students, but I actually took away a lot for myself. As someone who views pipelines as very real threats to my communities and wholeheartedly supports pipeline opposition efforts, it was powerful for me to try on the perspective of a pipeline worker for this activity. I still strongly oppose pipelines, but this lesson forced me to humanize another side of this complex issue, to see the workers as people with not vastly different needs than mine and my family’s.

I will say that if you have Native students in your class, please be mindful of how this experience could be triggering for them, particularly with one of the media sources used in the beginning of the lesson of DAPL workers setting dogs on the water protectors. I found this to be emotional and hard to watch in the presence of others.

—Alison Martin
Curriculum specialist and teacher trainer in Native education, District of Columbia

I had my high school social studies class first watch and read “Tell Them” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. This poem is one of several Jetnil-Kijner poems recommended in the article, Climate Change, Gender, and Nuclear Bombs. Then, we watched the Josh Fox film, How To Let Go Of The World And Love All The Things That Climate Can’t Change (2016). After absorbing the art and messages, students chose imagery and quotes from the poem and the film to guide their research about other places and people on the frontlines of climate change. Finally, they used what they found in their research to compose their own “Tell Them” style poem.

(The lesson Teaching to the Heart: Poetry, Climate Change, and Sacred Spaces describes how another teacher used Jetnil-Kijiner’s work in her own curriculum.)

This activity was midway through our Modern World History / English Language Arts collaborative Climate Justice Unit. Students shared their poems in a read-around in History class. Poems were on display (and loosely “mapped” across a wall) for visitors to read during our unit final, which was a Climate Justice Symposium. During the symposium, Students presented TED style speeches about climate justice for their English class, and for social studies, students shared original lesson plans for incorporating climate justice into a variety of content areas and grade levels.

—Paige Hazard
High Social Studies Teacher, Portland, Oregon

Lora McManus Climate Mixer Cards

I led an entire unit on environmental justice with my elementary class. We discussed a variety of topics related to environmental justice including food deserts, redlining, climate change, pollution, air and water quality, and public transportation.

When discussing climate justice, we did a mini climate conference based on the Zinn Education Project’s The (Young) People’s Climate Conference lesson.

I separated students into three groups to have three mini-conferences. They presented to their classmates one at a time read directly from the character cards provided by the lesson. I created my own “scavenger hunt” sheet so that each student could take notes on other presentations.

—Lora McManus
Elementary School Teacher, Santa Barbara, California, US

This past winter, I taught a first iteration of a multidisciplinary climate change course, “Climate Change: From Knowledge to Action.”  As part of a unit on climate impacts and climate justice, students and I engaged in the Climate Change Mixer activity.

I assigned roles to students the day before the activity and students then took time to do further research on their character and that character’s home place (and how it was being affected by climate change).

During the activity, students got really into their roles and engaged in meaningful conversations with each other. The experience even inspired some students to pursue climate-justice-related topics in their projects later in the term.

—Stephen Siperstein
High School Language Arts/English Teacher, Wallingford, Connecticut

Holly Hardin | Zinn Education Project

I use documentaries pretty strategically, often to lift up POC narratives I can’t provide, and my students know that if I show them a film, I must be pretty passionate about both the message and the visual I’m presenting. I really like showing documentaries in their entirety, respecting the narrative arc created by the writers and directors, even if we must watch them over the course of a few days in order to better break them down and fit them into our public school schedule.

That said, I almost skipped over a segment near the end of the film This Changes Everything, where Naomi Klein is at the Heartland Thinktank climate conference, thinking my students might find this section less exciting and hard to grasp.

At the last minute, I decided to keep it in. I stopped the film, explaining to my kids what they were witnessing, as it was a bit confusing for them.

To do this, I posed the question: who would not benefit or get on board with slowing/ending climate change?

Climate Change Art (By Rini Templeton) | Zinn Education Project

See the lesson, Stories from the Climate Crisis: A Mixer

Having experienced the Stories from the Climate Crisis Mixer helped them delve into this question. Students named Chris, the apple farmer, Richard, Delta’s CEO, and Roman, the oil businessman from the mixer, citing that “rich businessmen” and “people who make money from other people hurting” or people who have enough money to “live where they want” would want climate change to keep happening. Another student talked about how “if you sell nonrenewable resources then you wouldn’t want people to believe climate change because you might go out of business.” From that place, we were able to talk about who might attend such a conference and why this conference was taking place, before continuing with the segment.

At the end of that clip, the person they are interviewing in the film says “If you want more trees, use more wood, because using more wood sends a signal to the marketplace that trees have value. If you want more elephants, market their ivory.”

Though the kids had reacted to many stories in the movie, this was the first point they were outraged; literally yelling at the screen in disbelief: “That’s ridiculous!” “That makes no sense!” “He’s wrong!” “You can’t kill the elephants” with a few more intense and explicit comments mixed in.

It was kinda amazing. I paused at this point for discussion. This scene helped my middle schoolers push deeper into their understanding of capitalism, maybe more than any other approach yet. Though the Thingamabob Game helped, too, it was hard for them to grasp until this point. I asked them what felt wrong about his argument.

Thingamabob (Art by Michael Duffy) | Zinn Education Project

Download a lesson about economics and climate change: The Thingamabob Game

“Companies selling things, ultimately want to sell them, they don’t always care about those things. Selling more doesn’t guarantee their will be more,” shared Sophie.

Leo G. chimed in and added “It’s usually the opposite because protecting the environment or changing how we do things would cost money.” Daniya then summed up their points: “Sometimes making money gets in the way of everything else.”

We started the movie back up to finish it, and in the very next scene, Naomi says, “And here’s the truly weird thing about Heartland, I actually think they’re right.” Without waiting for the dramatic pause to end, students were yelling at the screen again, but once we resumed, they could hear the next line “not about the elephants, not about the science denial, but something more basic… that if climate change is taken seriously than it changes everything,” at which finally students were able to sigh in relief and finish the film, cheering at the end.

Having read the book by the same name, I was excited to have both this film as well as Naomi Klein’s article Why #BlackLivesMatter Should Transform the Climate Debate to share with students the invaluable information Klein is presenting, in formats that middle school students could interact with. They helped push our study of climate change in science class to one that doesn’t ignore the connections to race and capitalism.

—Holly Hardin
Middle Science Teacher, Montgomery, Alabama

Meet Climate Justice Activists Gallery Walk Photo | The Zinn Education Project

I use the lesson, Meet Today’s Climate Justice Activists: A mixer on the people saving the world as part of my unit on climate change. In my unit, we asked “what is justice” and what it means in regard to climate change. One of the goals of our school is for our students to “take action,” so this lesson gives them role models on how to take action in regard to climate change.

I used it with three of my classes, 125 students total. The students responded well to playing roles including Eve Miller,  Harry Smiskin, Victoria Barrett, AOC, Kathy Jetnil-Kijner, Mishka Banuri, Linda Garcia, Hannah Jones, Simmone Ahiaku, Henry Red Cloud, Joanna Sustento, Lucie Atkin-Bolton, Greta Thunberg, Arturo Massol-Deya, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.

The directions in the lesson were helpful in making the time productive, and I liked the concept of a mixer as the setting for the lesson.  At my school, we use a variety of strategies from “The Strategic Teacher” and SRI, but I have never used a mixer before. It was a nice variation that added novelty to the lesson structure, and the students responded well to it.

—Scott Browne
High Social Studies Teacher, San Antonio, Texas

I used the Zinn Education Project’s Climate Change Mixer in a problem-solving project with my 8th grade science students, where I had students work in teams to create an essential question around one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Then, they had to propose a solution to address their question. They needed to be able to identify various stakeholders and whose interest was being served by their solution.

Once students had their questions, my school’s librarian and I collaborated to have the students engage in the Climate Change Mixer. The different experiences and perspectives of the individuals represented in the mixer activity really resonated with the students. They were highly engaged during the activity, and were able to identify new insights that they gained from their conversations while in the roles.

When they returned to the sustainability questions, the mixer activity helped students identify who is, and who is not, being considered and impacted in their projects’ solutions.

—Sally Meneely
Middle School Science Teacher, San Francisco, California

Christin DePouw photo

As a teacher educator, I use the Climate Change mixer and the Young People’s Conference on Climate Change in order to support my students’ understanding of how colonialism, globalization, and climate change intersect today. The activities help my students, who are pre-service teachers, to connect science to social studies in meaningful ways and to teach in interdisciplinary and critical ways.

We often build on the two lessons by developing a TourBuilder narrative to emphasize narrative and geography, and have also included PBS’s interactive “The Last Generation.” This site provides a face to people like those under discussion in the Climate Change Mixer and also steps us into discussions of climate change displacement and immigration as well as other economic/political consequences that may seem unrelated.

Having access to these resources has been beneficial in a lot of ways and has greatly enhanced our teaching and learning in relation to climate change.

—Christin DePouw
College Social Studies Teacher Educator, Green Bay, Wisconsin

We welcome more stories.

Climate Justice Tell Your Story Ad | Zinn Education Project

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