Saturday, January 24, 2009

Featured in NEA Today!

Someone at the union magazine subscribes to Rethinking Schools and picked up my article about textbooks not including my students lives. He wrote the piece linked below. What I like about it is the way he frames my work as part of a huge collective effort on the part of teachers to free ourselves from the dictates of publishers and meet the children in our care with imagination.

Link to NEA Today Article (to cut and paste)

Friday, September 14, 2007

United Nations: Youth, Education and Climate Change

Well, one thing leads to another. After a trip to the Arctic, I wound up in Manhattan addressing an international audience at the United Nations. I spoke of what public school classrooms and teachers can offer in a time of global environmental crisis -- citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Here's the text of my talk as given on Thursday, September 6 in New York City.

I was invited to speak here because I spend a lot of time with some of the funniest, most hopeful and energetic people on the planet: thirteen and fourteen year olds. While my official charge is to teach math and science concepts, my students learn best when I engage them with the forces that shape their lives.

One of the strongest forces confronting my students is ever increasing pressure to consume manufactured goods, in spite of a global environmental crisis. The U.S. advertising industry spends 150 times more a year marketing to children than it did when I was in high school. Rich or poor, the ads tell them, they have the freedom to buy: This comes in lots of forms: ipods; skateboards; shoes; game consoles; cell phones; purses; clothing. . . . and most recently, GREEN.

As though simply purchasing the right goods will solve our environmental problems. Granted, some consumer choices are far better than others. Better to drive a Prius than a Hummer, better a paper cup than Styrofoam, better fluorescent than incandescent. But to exercise stewardship only through consumer choices is an extremely limited stewardship indeed.

Finding solutions to climate change requires cultural transformation. The freedom to buy even if it’s green won’t get us out of this mess. We need a culture focused on collective decisions that remake our infrastructures and re-form the way we live and work together.

As a teacher, I have the power to lead youth to transform culture. Both climate change and systemic change are complex and can evoke paralyzing fear, making uniting across differences difficult. And yet uniting across socioeconomic, philosophical and political differences is just what needs to happen as humanity faces the global crisis. The public school classrooom, with its forced diversity, can be a place to overcome fear and learn the power of collective action. As I tell you one teacher’s story of teaching about climate change, keep in mind that my classroom is a microcosm of the larger culture.

The first time I taught about global warming, I took my cue from my student’s textbook “Weather and Climate”. It was published by Prentice Hall in 2000 and devoted one page of its 175-page middle school science book to global warming. The language was vague:
“human activities MAY be warming the earth’s atmosphere
“if carbon dioxide traps more heat, the result COULD be global warming.”

The little bit that was there however presented an opportunity to make the connections necessary to plant some seeds for change.

I teach 8th grade in the small town of Tumwater, in Washington State. While mostly white, my students are socio-economically diverse. Our community – typical of small US towns -- offers few private schools, and it has only two middle schools, both of which serve a similar mix of suburban and rural areas: Education is compulsory and I teach the wealthy students along with the poor.

This community is extremely dependent on carbon-releasing fuels. Housing prices and lack of public transit are to blame. Population growth in our county has been among the fastest in the nation and affordable housing has leapfrogged into the county’s rural areas while bus service has declined. Homes in the urban core have increased tremendously in value, farm and forest land in outlying areas provide for comparatively inexpensive new housing.

My middle school students are prisoners of an infrastructure that is not their invention. My students do not walk to school. Most of them cannot walk to school, nor can they ride bikes. Distances are too great and safe passage in crossing the interstate and busy boulevards is impossible given the constraints of daylight and the lack of sidewalks. Climate change demands that we transform fossil-fuel dependent infrastructures so that the next generation of Tumwater kids can get to school without driving.

Instead of using the single page devoted to climate change provided by our textbook, I presented my students the evidence about climate change: shrinking glaciers; increased wild fires; spread of malaria; more frequent flooding of coastal cities during storm events. We studied ocean currents, atmospheric convection and the volume of water at different temperatures and in different states. Scared by such drastic changes and the implication that their way of life was the problem, my students balked. Cody said, “What are you trying to tell me Ms. Dean? I can’t drive a truck?!” Just a generation ago Tumwater depended almost entirely on the woods for its economy. In Cody’s mind work means driving a truck, and thanks to the advertising industry, it means the freedom to drive the open roads of the West. He and his classmates expect to be able to drive a truck just like their fathers and grandfathers do. In learning about climate change, they felt scared and stuck and they didn’t like it.

My official charge as a public school teacher is to teach hundreds of isolated academic objectives, to be achieved, individually, by each of my students. Such schooling isolates subjects from one another and separates learning from the forces active in students’ lives. In the thirteen years since I became a teacher, this has gotten worse, much worse. Rather than creating an engaging, integrated, and rigorous context for learning, the current school reform effort charges teachers with tracking and assessing achievement of individuals. This focuses teachers on trying to make students better, without examining the dysfunctional system in which students find themselves. It’s kind of like buying a more energy efficient car and then moving 40 miles out of town for cheaper rent in order to make the car payments. When my students resisted learning about climate change, I could have dropped the subject right then and given a test. I didn’t.

Fear short-circuits critical thinking. I knew that we'd be more likely to be able to push through to more learning if we took the time to talk about how we feel: that way emotions and thoughts wouldn’t get so muddled up in each other. But in my experience, asking eighth graders to name their feelings can be like trying to get a stone to talk.

So I asked the class, "How many of you have ever had a time when things were going wrong and you felt there was nothing you could do about it?" Nearly every hand went up. In nearly every story they told, they were in trouble alone.

My students’ greatest asset in getting past their fear of climate change was right under their noses: They had each other. When my school was built about ten years ago, the state had promised smaller class sizes. I have room for about twenty-four students in my room. I usually have over thirty. From the first day of school I ask my students, “Why would you shoe-horn so many people into such a small space and not rely on each other?” Limited space and resources can force interdependence.

After students had shared their stories I reminded them “As we continue to learn about global warming, expect to be scared sometimes. In most of your stories you were alone. In the global warming story, we'll have each other."

I pressed my students to think past individual contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and consider what we could do together about global warming. We examined sources of CO2 and methane and the ways that the production of almost everything we consume relies on the burning of fossil fuels.

As students examined what it took to make the goods they consume, they chose to look at everything from apples to playing cards to computer consoles. Every item traced to carbon-releasing fuels. At one point Madeleine looked up at me from her study of apples and said, “But Ms. Dean, we have to eat.” Other students vowed to change their ways. Chandra smiled at me one afternoon and said “I’m going to plant a garden.” Ryan started limiting his family’s consumption of aluminum cans. At the same time, Katrina vowed that she still planned to drive a truck, with a carbeurator and Luke announced, “Well you know Ms. Dean, I still want a car!”

I kept a list of climate change solutions sorted under the headings “I can . . .” “We can . . .” and “They can . . .” I wanted students to see what was within their power and control. They decided that the place where they had some power was in their school. And at that point, our school sent all of its waste to the landfill 150 miles away. They researched CO2 emissions from transportation and methane released from landfills and discovered that shifting the waste stream of our school from the landfill to recycling would make a difference. With help from the custodian my students designed a sustainable system and taught the rest of the school about the connection between waste and greenhouse gasses. They organized their community to behave differently. In the words of Cheryl, who is now a student at Tumwater High School, “Teaching everyone in our school about global warming was fun, but what was really cool was that we made change together. Even the other classes are into it.”

By itself, their collective action is not much, yet it represents the unification across socioeconomic, philosophical and political boundaries necessary to change our culture into one that can work together to remake infrastructures. My students experienced something revolutionary in a time of relentless emphasis of individualism. They learned that working together, and in spite of their fear, they could, in fact, create systemic change that meant more than individual choices alone. Since their initial effort, the system has sustained itself in spite of twice-over turnover in students and significant changes in staff. That is cultural change.

My hope is that the my students’ success as change agents will provide them with the mindset and tools to move their culture toward collective action. My hope is that their experience will support them in transcending the barriers, that keep us focused on individual choices rather than on the systemic changes needed to mitigate global warming.

Schooling needs to stop emphasizing individual achievement of isolated academic objectives and use the opportunity provided by shared time and space to transcend boundaries and work together to understand issues that deeply impact our communities. Teachers have the skills and students have the potential to make connections between what they learn in school and the rest of the world. As long as political forces continue to fragment academic subjects from each other and make talented teachers into managers of student progress, our schools will struggle to give us what that the world needs: citizens with the capacity to understand complex systems and unite with each other as agents of cultural change. Now, more than ever, we need less emphasis on individual achievement and the individual freedom to buy. Instead we need an ever deepening understanding of our interdependence and a renewed commitment to each other.

Monday, February 26, 2007

My Dear Students: Polar Bears Offer a Lesson If We Listen

I am in Churchill Manitoba. The welcome sign at the train depot says it’s the Polar Bear Capital of the World. And I haven’t seen a bear. This town lies at the end of a northern spur railroad that touches the edge of the arctic. Southward, peat, marsh, swamp and fen spread all the way to Manitoba. Northward, at this time of year it’s almost solid ice to the poles.

Churchill still has bears. The reason I haven’t seen one is that they are busy right now. The males are out on the ice, working hard to get as fat as they can while they can. The females are deep inland conserving their energy having just birthed cubs. The bears’ yearly cycle depends intimately on the rhythmic freezing and thawing of the ice on Hudson Bay.

Every year, extreme cold freezes Hudson Bay in October. It melts again in June or July. The ring seal, the bears’ primary source of food is available only when the bears can walk the sea ice. As soon as the ice melts, the bears enter a fast until it freezes again. Due to their forced fast off the ice, the bears’ driving purpose during winter is to consume as much fat as possible. They grab a seal where it surfaces to breathe and strip it of its blubber, which is much higher in calories than the meat, leaving the rest for the arctic fox which follow them to take advantage of what the polar bears leave behind. Because of the seasonal thaw, Churchill’s nine hundred or so bears make for dry land as the ice breaks up. There, if healthy, they go into a restful waking summer hibernation, surviving on the fat stores built up over the winter.

Nick studies Churchill’s bears. We talked in the dining hall of the Churchill Northern Studies Center while he waited for the weather to warm and clear. I entered conversation by asking if I could ask a question about polar bears. “Any question about polar bears is just fine with me,” he said.

He has a dream job. He searches for bears by helicopter, stuns them, and weighs and tags them. He tracks them from year to year and looks for trends in the health of Churchill’s bear population.

Nick is tall and thin, with narrow shoulders and a big smile. He looks a little bit like a polar bear himself. I asked what path led him to be an expert in polar bears. He told me the story: It was a matter of taking a different path home from studying for exams.

“Usually I went one way, but this time I took a different street. There on a light post was a little notice that was a different color from those around it. I would never have noticed it if it weren’t a different color. It was about the size of a sticky note. It said they were looking for someone to join a polar bear study, lab work only. No field work. I think that’s why I got it. Everyone wants to do field work. I don’t believe in fate or anything. It was just luck. And now the job I have, it was the same way. The guy who had it before me was supposed to have it for three years and he left a year early. I was just finishing up my Ph.D. in seals and they were looking for someone with a Ph.D. and polar bear experience. Oddly, that was me.”

Nick’s a biologist, but he calls himself an historian. The bears he studies are in trouble and their story will soon be a thing of the past. Every year the ice breaks up earlier. These days, it’s happening up to two weeks sooner than it did a few decades ago. As a result the bears are having to spend more time away from their food source. Land-based prey, even though bears have been known to snack on it, just won’t cut it. When the bears break their fast, they just increase their metabolism. Churchill’s bears are hungry and unlikely to make it through the next fifty years as a population.

What’s happening to these bears is different from the dangers faced by the beaver, the spotted owl, the whooping crane and the bald eagle.
Unlike twentieth century endangered species, these twenty-first century bears aren’t simply losing their habitat, being poisoned or being over-used as a resource. Lost habitat can sometimes be mitigated. We can stop using pesticides. Hunting practices can be changed. Instead of local causes, global human activity is changing the local climate on which Churchill’s bears depend.

Elevated levels of CO2 and methane in the century and a half since the Industrial Revolution have warmed the earth. It’s not that CO2 and methane are atmospheric newcomers. It’s that humanities’ collective lust for fossil fuels and the energy they provide has displaced our planet’s stores of carbon from inside the earth to the atmosphere and large scale agriculture is increasing the amount of methane released from decompositon of organic matter. Global atmospheric carbon and methane and global temperatures correlate directly: as carbon and methane increase, so does the global average temperature.

Warming is happening the quickest in the Arctic and its environmental impact is most dramatic at the edge of the arctic ecosystem. Ask around Churchill and anyone will tell you that things aren’t like they used to be. Winter is shorter. The open water season is longer. Change is happening fastest in the Arctic because there is so much more land mass in the northern hemisphere and land absorbs more heat annually during the warm season than water. In addition, as soon as some ice is lost, more follows. Ice reflects heat far better than water. These are changes in the local climate that local or regional or even Canadian national policies alone can’t undo.

The polar bear mothers, who are the subject of Nick’s spring work, have it hardest. After a summer on land, using as little energy as possible, Churchill’s mother bears go to their dens in and around the Wapusk National Park. There they fast, waiting out their pregnancy until cubs are born in February. Once the cubs are born they nurse on milk forty percent rich in fat. By the time they emerge from their dens in February, eight months into a fast, they weigh only one-fourth what they did when they walked off the ice in the spring. Nick is looking for mothers on their way to feed on seal pups. He’s seeing bears with less fat on them and with fewer cubs. The earlier breakup of the ice means a twenty-five percent reduction in feeding time and it shows.

I asked him how it felt to be studying a population that was struggling. “It’s sad. I hope to be able to tell the story of the bears. And hopefully someone will listen.”

The question with which I’d approached Nick was about a story I’d heard that I couldn’t find confirmed in the literature about bears. People around Churchill report that the bears’ lust for seal oil extends to petrol. Leave gas cans or an oil drum lying around and sooner or later, the bears will go to great lengths to lick it clean. I asked Nick if the bears were attracted to oil because of their craving for fat. Nothing in the Arctic is as oily as seal, except for oil.

Nick refuted the local reports saying he didn’t see any evidence of bears being particularly attracted to oil. He said he’d seen plenty of oil drums left full and untouched surrounded by hundreds of bears. He chocked the reports up to the curiosity of polar bears. “They’ll investigate anything,” he said, “and if they get it on them, they want to clean it off, so it looks like they want to eat it.”

Maybe the rumors of bears being attracted to petrol are a projection of human beings’ seemingly insatiable appetite for it. Wherever bears and humans have co-existed without industrialization they have occupied similar niches. In the Pacific Northwest, bears and humans survived together for centuries on salmon and berries. In the Arctic North bears and humans survived together on ring seal. Since industrialization, goods move all over the word and people no longer rely on local food sources. The needs of bears and humans have seemingly diverged. You can get beef in the Arctic more easily these days than ring seal, and in Seattle, sushi’s more plentiful than coast trailing blackberries. The polar bear’s desire for oil stored in the body of the seal is about survival. Humanity’s desire for oil stored in the body of the earth is different.

In spite of what we know about climate change and risks it presents to the global ecosystem as we know it, the human lust for fossil fuels is unabated. According to a recent report commissioned by the governments of the US and Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland, climate change will make those fuels easier to come by than ever:

Rising global temperatures will melt areas of the Arctic this century, making them more accessible for oil and natural gas drilling. . . . Warmer temperatures would make it easier to drill and ship oil from the Arctic. . . . Offshore oil exploration and production are likely to benefit.” (, retreived 02-17-2007)

The report went on to decline to estimate how high energy prices would have to be to justify drilling in the region. With increased demand for oil, the prices may go high enough. More demand means increasing use and increasing use means that more and more carbon will find its way into our skies. More carbon means higher temperatures. Higher temperatures mean less ice. Less ice means hungry bears.

As if that weren’t enough, oil drilling and shipping in the Arctic pose an additional threat to bears. In the late eighties a small group of Canadian researchers decided to conduct a trial. They were concerned for what might happen to the bears in the event of an oil spill. They captured four bears and dipped two of them in oil tainted water. They were poised to measure what the dipping would do to the insulative quality of the bears’ fur. To their surprize, as soon as the bears emerged, the polar bear compulsion to be clean took over. The bears licked themselves spotless and had soon died of poisoning, in spite of the horrified researchers’ efforts to save them.

Churchill’s polar bears aren’t likely to fare better than the two who died in the study. Even barring an oil spill, forced to come off the ice sooner, many don’t have the stores of fat to see them through their long summer fast. Fewer survive. Fewer mothers give birth to fewer cubs. In the last decade, Churchill’s population of bears has declined by twenty-five percent. Given current climate models, spring will continue to occur sooner for at least the coming 50 years. The bears of Churchill occupy the southern range of habitat for a global species that spans three continents.

I asked Nick what he thinks will happen. “Well,” he said, “that depends. Some climate models predict that all the Arctic ice will break up. Some say less. I think what’s most likely is probably somewhere in between. Perhaps they’ll move north. Maybe they won’t. Either way, Churchill’s bears are going to disappear.”

“Do you think it will be in your lifetime?” I asked.

“Yes. Probably.”

Luckily for us, Churchill’s bears won’t disappear from one day to the next. They’ll continue to do their best hunting on the ice that remains. And Nick will be there to observe changes in their habits and population. And he will tell the story. The question is, will we listen?