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October 5, 2021

Student Voice: Why schools should move toward climate action

The author’s sister Nora at age 11 with a sign she made — September 2019. Photo courtesy of Maya Green

 

by Maya Green

It’s back to school season and I’m appropriately nostalgic, remembering all the things that marked this time of year — carefully chosen outfits with squeaky new shoes, fresh-paged planners with detailed to-do lists and the excitement of learning as I received all my syllabi. There’s new names to learn of course, of teachers and friends. But also Florence, Isaias, Joaquin, Dorian… the names of the hurricanes that were sure to visit my coastal city year after year.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, the beginning of fall was marked not only by pumpkin spice and backpacks bursting at the seams, but constant, recurring hurricane evacuations — the panic of making sure you put enough dog food in the car as you’re crossing your fingers that the house won’t flood.

When you live in a city at sea level, the climate crisis isn’t a vague, far-off worry that encourages you to recycle a little bit more than you would otherwise.

When you live in a city at sea level, the climate crisis isn’t a vague, far-off worry that encourages you to recycle a little bit more than you would otherwise. It is a present, clearly defined danger that you’re aware of every time the streets disappear beneath the floods of a run-of-the-mill rainstorm. It sits threateningly at the periphery of every election and town hall, and it exacerbates the existing inequities within the community. It is undeniable. And yet it is still all too absent from K-12 curriculum.

I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count the K-12 classes I’ve had that have explicitly addressed the challenges of climate change. AP Environmental Science. AP Biology. Both classes I opted into.

A 2016 survey found that while three-quarters of America’s science teachers are teaching climate change, little time was devoted to it and educators experienced a host of challenges. And yet students are rising to the challenge — protesting in the streets, engaging lawmakers and raising awareness on social media and in conversation with one another.

I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count the K-12 classes I’ve had that have explicitly addressed the challenges of climate change.

When I was in elementary school, I had a conversation with my uncle who is an engineer in which he explained the changes facing our atmosphere in very simplified, age-appropriate terms. I remember him illustrating the effects of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by telling me that the sea would turn bubbly like Coca-Cola. I spent some time thinking about what I could do about it. I ended up quickly designing a car that ran on a plant growing in the hood instead of an engine, roughly approximated in the following sketch:

While any mechanic, engineer or botanist would be skeptical of my childhood design’s feasibility, it raises an important point of what kids can do when trusted to engage with real-world problems in classrooms. 

Eco-anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” is a real problem for young people today. But knowledge is power, and when students are equipped with the skills, space and language to talk about climate change, they are primed to help solve it.

When the climate crisis is so actively shaping students’ lived experiences and communities, we do them a disservice if we don’t give them the resources to engage with solutions. As civic institutions, schools should model the society they hope students will build and encourage inquiry, exploration and critical thinking about our world’s hard truths and real challenges.

As civic institutions, schools should model the society they hope students will build…

I shared this perspective with the K12 Climate Action Commission, a group of education, environment, civil rights and young leaders organized by the nonpartisan Aspen Institute who are committed to mobilizing the education sector for climate action. I’m excited to see that their recently released K12 Climate Action Plan lays out a vision for schools where our classrooms are not vacuums isolated from the challenges facing our students and their communities.

The plan provides actionable next steps to create a future where America’s 100,000+ schools are models for climate action, and the 50 million children and youth in these schools are engaged to lead climate solutions. The plan also provides comprehensive guidance for how our country’s decision-makers and educators can work in partnership with young people to encourage schools to contribute to the important work of stewardship and collective responsibility — to each other, and to the planet we call home. 

I’m in college now with more autonomy to seek out classes on sustainability and equity but still see clearly the value of climate action in K-12 schools: for my eighth grade sister who accompanied me to climate protests when she was just 11-years-old; for the passionate high schoolers with whom I work alongside in the Organizing Fellowship at Student Voice who are eager and ready to be partners in creating a more just world; for the millions more young people across the country feeling the impact of the climate crisis in their own communities. The need for climate action continues.


Maya Green is organizing director at Student Voice (stuvoice.org) and a second-year student at Stanford University majoring in Urban Studies. Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and immersed in the deep Southern tradition of interfaith organizing, Maya is experienced in power-building through relationships and examining policy through the lens of lived experiences. A creative writer by training, she is driven by a belief in storytelling’s potential for social change.

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