English/language arts students have the privilege of being “transported across the globe, back in time or into the future” as they read poems, plays, novels, and articles because classrooms are “spaces of discovery, possibility, and participation where students learn to empathize with experiences of people like and unlike themselves” (Beach et al, 2017). These students grapple with big topics, universal themes, and matters of morality. They also learn to think critically and use their voice in writing.
The structure and skills of the E/LA classroom make it the perfect setting to read and write about the devastation that climate change is wreaking on our planet. Many teachers, however, do not have the luxury of redoing their curriculum to accommodate a topic that is not listed in their standards or a part of any of the literature they are required to teach. I thought I was one of those teachers until I discovered that I could incorporate reading and writing about climate change into an existing unit. In this article, I will overview how I integrated climate change into my unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry with my eighth grade English students.
Defining “dystopia” is necessary before reading. To do this, I put the book covers and movie posters of popular dystopian literature and movies such as The Hunger Games,Divergent, The Maze Runner, Ready Player One,Wall-E, Mad Max,The Matrix, and Ender’s Game (in case students do not know the plot of these, each image is clickable to the summary on either GoodReads or IMDb) on my CleverTouch board screen. The students talk to each other and come up with a list of what these works have in common. I then show the class a few dictionary definitions of “dystopia,” and we discuss which elements from our master list match the definition. If they don’t bring it up, I make sure to draw their attention to the part of the definition that says a dystopia is FICTIONAL, and I leave them with the question, “but are they?”
Also before we pick up the novel, students participate in a type of Jigsaw activity. They are put in groups of three and each given a different article from NewsELA on global warming. They are given time to actively read their assigned article, and then share out summaries with their group. As a group they need to come up with an answer to the question, “Could a dystopia become our reality?” They need support from their articles and from the definition of “dystopia”.
While we read, we keep the definitions of “dystopia” displayed on large chart paper on the wall of the classroom. As we read through the novel, students add textual evidence from The Giver to the chart paper when they see evidence that fits the definition of a dystopia.
As we get to the part of the novel when Jonas begins his training as Receiver of Memory, the class will focus on the importance of memory and knowledge. As supplementary texts help build critical thinking and reading skills, students will read NewsELA articles about the differences between weather and climate, Paris Agreement, and selections from Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas. Students will practice the Common Core State Standards under Reading: Informational Texts of finding central ideas, citing textual evidence, and analyzing connections between texts (including The Giver). Students will continue discussions about whether or not dystopias are entirely fictitious and the role knowledge plays in our society.
Additionally, as we get to the end of the novel, students will explore what it means to advocate and to be an agent of change. Students will read about The Climate Reality Project, Greta Thunberg, Citizens’ Climate Lobby. They will also conduct their own research on what can be done to help locally as well as globally.
Upon completion of the novel, students will be asked to role-play a situation where they are the Receiver of Memory for the Community. The Community elders have come to them with a problem: the river that gives water, salmon, and life to the Community is starting to run low and is dirty. They need advice about what to do. Students will do research and draw from what they have already read to put together a comprehensive presentation on what could have caused the water issues and what they could do to mitigate the problems.
Incorporating climate change into a whole class novel study not only has students doing many of the CCSS in Reading both in literature and informational texts, but it draws in the Next Generation Science Standards about Global Climate Change… Click To Tweet
Incorporating climate change into a whole class novel study not only has students doing many of the CCSS in Reading both in literature and informational texts, but it draws in the Next Generation Science Standards about Global Climate Change which require students to ask questions about factors that include human activities that may be contributing to climate change. This type of novel study can be done in conjunction with science classes studying these standards which would be a sharing of the informative texts and possibly increasing the type of writing and research students can do on the topic.
Climate change is not something that is off in the future. It is a catastrophe that is happening before our eyes, and why shouldn’t ELA teachers bring it to their classroom discussions? Richard Beach, Jeff Share, and Allen Webb agree asserting that “who better to people this movement than students who see their future on the line. And who better to prepare these students than English teachers who understand the power of imagination to grasp big ideas and use literacy to change the world.”
Beach, R., Share, J., & Webb, A. (2017). Teaching climate change to adolescents – reading writing, and making a dif. Taylor & Francis.
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