A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

Amazon_com__A_People_s_Curriculum_for_the_Earth__Teaching_About_the_Environmental_Crisis__9780942961577___Rethinking_Schools__Bill_Bigelow__Tim_Swinehart__BooksEdited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Rethinking Schools, 2014. 397 pages. $24.95/paperback.

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As I dipped into A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, I wondered what I would find: would I read about high school lesson plans, familiar climate change rhetoric, or environmentalism for prep school students? Would it be of interest to Friends?

I was surprised, moved, and delighted by the breadth and depth of this book, and by the treasures it contains. It is filled with the voices of more than 50 dedicated and passionate teachers; articles from a variety of activists and experts; teaching ideas; tons of resources; and a clear-eyed understanding of the connections among climate, justice, economics, power, and education. Here are a few random treasures: the concept of “toxic trespass”—when chemicals enter our bodies without our consent; the incredible carbon footprint of modern warfare; the story of Yup’ik students in Alaska creating short, place-based videos to educate pre-service teachers; a reflection on a lesson from the coal industry where students mine chocolate chips out of cookies.

A People’s Curriculum includes sections on grounding our teaching, facing climate chaos, fossil fuels, toxics, nuclear energy, and food and farming. In each section, there are background pieces, descriptions of what teachers have done in their classrooms, and teaching resources. Although the majority of the material is focused on high school students, the full range of ages is represented, and the classrooms we visit reveal a stunningly diverse array of young people, many from low-income and minority families. There are articles on helping preschoolers develop an ecological identity; using a garden spider instead of the canned science curriculum with third grade immigrant children; shaping a fifth grade data and statistics unit around water, including issues of ownership, access, and price; and an in-depth study of the carbon cycle as a way for middle school students in a conservative community to learn the science related to climate change. While the focus is on schools, most of the content could translate to any group of adults seeking a greater understanding of these issues.

I was struck by several big recurring themes. First is the editors’ determination to remember that everything is connected. You can’t teach about the environment just as science; you can’t teach it just as social studies. You can’t separate ecological destruction from economic systems or from injustice. You can’t offer individual solutions to a problem that is profoundly social. Van Jones speaks to these connections in the opening essay: “The root of this problem, in my view, is the idea of disposability itself . . . We don’t have disposable resources. We don’t have disposable species. And we don’t have disposable people. We don’t have a throwaway planet, and we don’t have throwaway children—it’s all precious.”

Another is how our standard school curriculum leaves us ecologically illiterate. Most of what we hear there is echoing silence, and that within classrooms generally sealed off from the environment around them. History textbooks have virtually no material on our historical relationship to nature. How, asks co-editor Bill Bigelow, can we talk about the mills that grew up along the rivers of New England as examples of Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurship without ever mentioning the role of the water, and how it became commodified in the process? “When we’re not taught to understand the intimate and fundamental connections between people and the environment in our nation’s history, it should come as no surprise that we struggle to make these same connections today,” he writes. Ecological literacy, in contrast, would alert us to life’s interconnectedness, and go beyond a study of nature to developing a sense of place and questioning some of the root concepts of modern society—progress, individual freedom, growth, private property.

These teachers care deeply about helping students to not only understand the environmental crisis intellectually, but find and claim their place in relation to it. They have discovered that, in order to relate to how climate change is affecting other people and species, students need a chance to tell their own stories of love and loss. “It was the stories of their own lives,” reflects Bigelow, “that created the basis for a deeper bonding between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It was as if, after hearing each other’s stories of connection and loss, students said to themselves, ‘This is what it must be like to lose your land and way of life.’”

While not a standard curriculum, there are detailed descriptions of several activities that a group of learners can take on to gain a deeper understanding of the interconnecting players and forces involved in climate change. One favorite is the mixer, where each person is assigned an identity along with some background information, and given questions to ask of others. This is particularly useful in hearing the stories of people from a variety of places who may experience an event or trend in very different ways. Another is an extended role-play of a trial or hearing, where people are assigned different roles and asked to defend their group or explain their position. This allows for engaged and thought-provoking discussion of questions like who bears the most blame for the BP oil spill, or how should genetically modified foods be regulated internationally?

One of the greatest strengths of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth is the window it offers into the lives of our young people. Clearly they are ready to understand their world and engage with it. But most schools offer them very few opportunities to do this, and creative teaching is critical. In an early essay, Quaker activist and scientist Sandra Steingraber notes the doom-and-gloom tone of most adult books on global warming, as contrasted with children’s literature where people are working ardently together to solve a big problem—and enjoying the grand adventure of it. Whether such books are realistic, she can’t doubt that “the fatalistic mindset which afflicts many adults but almost no children is a big part of what’s preventing us from derailing the global warming train that has now left the station.” This book can do much to help us all learn from the children, and maintain in our own lives the balance between injustice and hope that these teachers strive to keep in their classrooms.

This is a book that resonates deeply with Quaker values and concerns. I would recommend it to anyone who engages in teaching of any kind, to every Friends school, and to people of all ages who would like to help each other grow in their capacity to understand climate change and take action in the face of it.

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