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How Texas Teachers Bring Climate and Environment Lessons to the Classroom

There are certain topics that teachers must cover throughout the year. They need to hit specific state and federal guidelines so their students can advance to the next grade. However, there are also opportunities for unique learning experiences in the classroom. In particular, science classes give teachers space to explore ideas creatively and in a hands-on process. 

Everything is bigger in Texas, and the lesson plans are no different. Check out a few teachers who are making a difference in the Lone Star State by bringing lessons about climate, the environment, and nature into the classroom. 

Why Texas Teachers Need to Talk About the Environment

It is important for any educator in any state to discuss environmental stewardship, but the lessons are particularly important in Texas, as one of the largest states in the nation. Once they reach voting age, students can send elected officials who prioritize the environment to Congress. Even as young students, they learn what they can do to limit their negative impact on nature. 

Admittedly, Texas isn’t the easiest state for teachers to talk about the environment and climate change. In 2017, it was one of the most prominent states to develop “academic freedom” bills that would allow teachers to explore “the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”

While the bills were presented as a way to give teachers more flexibility, many parents and instructors worried that it was meant to protect climate change deniers instead of educators presenting actual scientific facts. The National Center for Science Education covered the bill (and how it died in committee) and its potential impacts on teachers and students.

Issues regarding the presentation of scientific subjects aren’t limited to Texas. Teachers across the nation often receive mixed signals about what they can and should teach. More than 80 percent of parents and 86 percent of teachers think climate change should be taught in the classroom, reports education writer Anya Kamenetz. However, only 42 percent of teachers actually discuss it, according to polls by NPR and Ipsos. 

Kids who don’t learn about climate change in school might not learn about it at home either, as only 45 percent of parents talk to their kids about climate change. They think it’s the school’s job to discuss the subject; but more than half of teachers asked don’t teach it, most saying “it’s outside their subject area.”

While presenting concepts related to stewardship, recycling, and climate change in the classroom may not be easy, it is important. The messages teachers bring to the classroom can stay with students and even influence their parents.

“Children can increase their parents’ level of concern about climate change because, unlike adults, their views on the issue do not generally reflect any entrenched political ideology. Parents also really do care what their children think, even on socially charged issues like climate change or sexual orientation,” explains science writer Lydia Denworth

Tying Environmental Protection to the Local Community

One of the best ways teachers can introduce climate science to the classroom is by connecting the lessons to the local economy and nearby natural resources. 

For example, high school students along the Gulf Coast participated in a “Sink Your Shucks” oyster shell recycling program sponsored by the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Restaurants donated their used oyster shucks and students worked to create living oyster reefs. This project allows oysters to grow for future harvests (protecting the fishing and tourism industries) while creating cleaner waters in the Gulf of Mexico as oysters are filter-feeders. The oyster reefs also become living ecosystems for other fish and protect against erosion. 

Students in Texas are also learning how to protect agriculture and become good stewards of the environment through effective farming practices. 

The Texas Farm Bureau has “Ag in the Classroom” programs that help students in grades 1-6 learn where their food comes from and better connect with the farmers and ranchers who provide it. These programs include hands-on workshops, lesson plans, and educational seminars for teachers.  

Unfortunately, like many educators across the nation, Texas teachers have had to discuss the effects of natural disasters and the importance of taking action to protect our planet.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and displaced hundreds of families. Texas schools raised funds and supplies for their peers in Houston. The hurricane was also a learning opportunity. Former teachers Katherine Schulten, Michael Gonchar, and Caroline Crosson Gilpin created a sensitive and valuable resource at The New York Times Learning Network for teachers to use when discussing Hurricane Harvey in the classroom to help students better understand the magnitude of what was happening in Texas.

Tying lessons about environmental stewardship to the local economy and to basic needs like food and shelter lets teachers show students how important it is to protect their local ecosystem. Environmental protection isn’t just for far-off lands, it is also for your own backyard. 

Environmental Education Can Occur on a Small Scale

It is important to remember that students don’t need exotic field trips or in-depth projects to learn to care about the environment. Some teachers in Texas are taking small steps to bring the local ecosystem into schools. 

For example, teacher David Pickett at Tarkington High School in Cleveland, Texas introduced fish tanks to his classroom, funding it through Students would get to see local fish in a simulated natural environment and grow them to a point where they could be released into local lakes. Additionally, Pickett writes that aquariums have been known to calm students and lower anxiety, creating a better learning experience for his students.

Another way schools are helping on a smaller scale is by creating Monarch butterfly gardens. Elementary teacher Kimberly Boyce-Quentin in Houston had her class take part in the National Wildlife Foundation’s Monarch Heroes program. Students learn about the butterflies and their annual migration and take steps throughout the year to ensure their protection. They even participate in a “symbolic migration” by sending paper ambassador butterflies to Mexico.

These small acts of environmental care and learning add up. If each school takes steps to respect the environment, then cities and towns across Texas can realize less waste and increased natural growth. 

Take Care of Texas, a statewide campaign by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has materials and waste reduction tips specifically for the classroom. Schools create a significant amount of waste each day, from paper to food items, which means that reducing waste by recycling and reusing can have a significant impact. 

Teachers Can Tap Into Outside Educational Resources

As Texas teachers voice their desire to discuss environmental protection and stewardship, various organizations are stepping in with solutions, and there are some teachers who are dedicating their free time to help their peers.  

For example, the Texas Land Conservancy, an organization that strives to enhance the quality of life in Texas through land conservation, curated a list of resources specifically for Texas students. There are field trip recommendations, learning materials, and classroom activities that teachers can take advantage of.

Additionally, the Texas Wildlife Association offers Learning Across New Dimensions in Science for teachers to learn ways to bring nature into their K-8 classrooms. They focus on conservation and land stewardship, and characteristics of environments and basic needs. These six-hour seminars are hands-on and offered at no cost.  

There are even some resources from within teaching communities. Elementary science teacher Ari Mosquera is also the mind behind The Science Penguin. Mosquera’s own science materials weren’t what she needed for her diverse student body, and other teachers were likely in the same situation. She started to blog her top ideas and curate lessons plans for others. The site has become a hub for Texas science teachers — and educators nationwide. One example is her post on teaching ecosystems: It includes ideas for learning vocabulary terms and getting students up and moving while they work.

These resources can give teachers tools to build an environmentally-focused curriculum for a few weeks or even through a whole school year.

Texas Community Members Are Jumping In to Help

Not only are teachers taking steps to connect students with the environment, local governments are also getting involved. 

The City of Austin developed a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights following the idea that “children who learn and play in nature are healthier, happier, and perform better in school.” In the Bill of Rights, kids have the inherent right to climb a tree, picnic in a park, connect with wildlife, and plant a seed. Created to solidify the city’s overarching goals for equality and stewardship for its children, the Bill also proves that local policymakers will support educators in their drive to forward environmental stewardship.  

Private citizens are also working to help schools and the environment at the same time. Vanessa Barker and Taylor Willis in Fort Worth created The Welman Project to help underserved schools. Companies call them when they have excess materials or things they don’t want anymore and the duo find schools that need those items. 

For example, a business that is closing may donate their office chairs, printers, and several boxes of printing paper that would otherwise go into a landfill. The process also helps teachers become more environmentally minded as they look for ways to donate, repurpose, or reuse items in the classroom.

Images by: rawpixel/©, rawpixel/©, hdornak, Greyerbaby

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