Climate Education in New Jersey: 7-Year Olds Are Finding Solutions

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In a June afternoon, Michelle Liwacz stood at the front of her classroom in Slackwood Elementary School, located north of Trenton, N.J. Engaging her first-grade students, she presented them with a thought-provoking question: How could the penguins living in Antarctica adapt to the warming temperatures?

The classroom buzzed with excitement as the 7-year-olds contemplated the challenge. One boy proposed that the penguins could cool off by swimming in the water, but quickly realized the perils of encountering hungry orcas. “Maybe they could migrate to another cold place, like the United States during winter?” suggested Noah. Aliya chimed in with the idea of equipping the penguins with floaties, while Gabi proposed the construction of igloos as a potential solution. In a whimsical twist, Gabi even offered her own refrigerator as a dwelling for a few penguins.

The young minds brimmed with creativity and compassion as they brainstormed ways for the penguins to adapt to their changing environment.

As the school year draws to a close, New Jersey has the distinction of being the first, and so far only, state to require that climate change be taught to all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The topic is woven into lesson plans across most subject areas, even physical education classes.

The standards are built on a striking premise: Even as storms eat away New Jersey’s coastline, snow days become obsolete and wildfire smoke poisons the air outside, climate change can be taught to the youngest learners without freaking them out.

Tammy Murphy, the wife of Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, was the driving force behind the new standards. She said climate change education was vital to help students attune to the planet’s health, prepare for a new economy based on green energy and adapt to climate shifts that promise to intensify as this generation of children reaches adulthood.

But the state’s method of teaching its youngest learners about climate change arguably does something more profound: Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom, the standards are designed to help children connect with what’s going on in the natural world around them, and, crucially, learn how to solve problems.

“It’s perceived as such a heavy topic, as something we have to wait to talk about until they’re older,” said Lauren Madden, a professor of elementary science education at the College of New Jersey who researches and offers guidance on the implementation of the standards.

“When we shield them from so much, they’re not ready to unpack it when they learn about it, and it becomes more scary than when they understand they’re in a position where they can actively think about solutions,” Dr. Madden said. “When you take kids seriously that way, and trust them with that information, you can allow them to feel empowered to make locally relevant solutions.”

Ms. Murphy, who also serves on the board of former Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, began meeting in 2019 with more than a hundred educators to discuss creating new standards. In June 2020, the state board of education voted to require climate change be taught in seven out of nine subject areas, including social studies and world languages. The board is expected to vote this summer on whether to require that climate change be expanded to the two remaining subject areas, English language arts and math.

In advance of that decision, some voices of dissent have surfaced. At a public hearing in May, critics pushed for debunked denialism theories about climate to also be taught and said teaching climate science was a form of “indoctrination.” One speaker said the use of the term “global” in the standards would make children uncomfortable about calling themselves American.

But a poll conducted in May by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J., found that 70 percent of state residents supported climate change being taught at schools. Dan Cassino, a professor who directed the survey, said it could be one of the Murphy administration’s most popular policies. That support mirrors nationwide findings that show the overwhelming majority of Americans, on both sides of the political divide, want their children to learn about climate change.

At Slackwood Elementary, a public school serving about 250 students from kindergarten through third grade, several parents said they were delighted by the climate lessons. It relieved them of some of the burden of trying to explain climate change and extreme weather, they said, and tapped into children’s instinctive curiosity about animals and nature.

“If they’re being more respectful to the environment, they’ll be good human beings,” said Niral Sheth, whose youngest daughter, Navya, is in Ms. Liwacz’s first grade classroom. “They need to know what they can do. I don’t want them to be left behind.”

Many of the students at Slackwood are English language learners — one teacher counted 17 languages spoken. More than half of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch; the school has a pop-up pantry that sends bags of food home to families in need.

Outside, in a corner of the playground, there’s a fenced-in butterfly garden, a compost bin, and a soil bed where kids have tested which type of fertilizer, a chemical commercial variety or a natural blend, best helped plants (the natural one came out ahead).

Inside the school one recent morning, Ms. Liwacz was showing a video that led her first graders, who were gathered on the carpet, in a singalong.

“Our Earth is a very, very, very big place,” two dozen tiny voices sang out, more or less in unison. “It is covered by water and land. It has five huge oceans where we can swim. And seven continents where we can stand.” The song went on to describe how North America was home to the United States, at which point Navya, who is 6, did some loud ad-libbing.

“Navya, what’s your problem with the North America part?” Ms. Liwacz asked, after the song was over.

“Because it doesn’t say Canada and Mexico,” Navya replied. “So I have to change the last words into Canada and Mexico.”

“You can’t forget our neighbors,” Ms. Liwacz said. “It’s bothered her since Day 1.”

At Slackwood, children are taught that human activities, such as transportation, heating, and raising livestock, are overheating the planet, as one classroom book says, “making Earth feel unwell.”

Yet the focus is on awareness and problem solving. Kindergartners are taught how everything is connected, along with the importance of pollinating insects. That has helped children see bees as friends rather than scary stinger-wielding foes, the principal, Jeanne Muzi, said. First graders learn about composting, recycling and hydroponic gardening, and second graders explore pollution and plastic. After learning about floating garbage, one second grader said plastic should be prevented from getting into waterways in the first place, Ms. Muzi said.

“He’s seven,” Ms. Muzi said. And in talking to him, I was like, wow, that is such a big idea.”

One morning late in May, Ms. Liwacz announced that her first graders would be talking about cause and effect, and that the day’s story was about what would happen if sharks disappeared.

Navya’s hand went up. “I learned, well, fish eat shark poop,” she said.

“Well, they do,” Ms. Liwacz replied, to a few giggles. “And fish need that, right? Why?”

Navya had a ready answer. “Because then all animals need food and water to, um, survive, and fish eat shark’s poop to survive,” she said.

“And so what if sharks disappeared?” Ms. Liwacz said.

“That’d be bad for the fish,” Navya said.

Ms. Liwacz next read a story detailing the role of sharks in keeping ocean water clean and ecosystems balanced, which in turn benefited land mammals. Then she paired the students to discuss what would happen if sharks vanished, prompting more chatter about the importance of poop.

A little later, during snack time, Ms. Liwacz showed a video about Eugenie Clark, a shark scientist and marine conservationist. Learning about scientists and other people working toward climate solutions is a focus at the school, as are ways of riding out extreme weather driven by climate change.

Last week, as dangerous smoke shrouded the skies, Ms. Liwacz and her first graders talked about how even though the Canadian wildfires were scary, they were able to stay safe indoors, and that the smoke would eventually abate.

“It makes them feel a part of what’s happening outside of school in the real world,” Ms. Liwacz said. “Of course, not all problems are going to be solved. But it’s getting them thinking, How can I fix this? How can I change this? What can I do with myself or with my friends or my community to help change what I see or what I noticed?”

The United Nations has underlined that idea, saying that education is crucial to addressing global warming, because of its power to shift students’ attitudes and consumption habits, help them discern fact from fiction and prompt them to take action.

Yet across the country, climate change is taught unevenly and often anemically. A 2016 study found that while climate issues were taught by three-quarters of public school science teachers, many students got less than two hours of climate education a year.

In some states, there has been strong resistance to incorporating climate science into classroom learning. Though none ban global warming education, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, some states falsely frame climate science as a matter of debate. This spring, the Texas state board of education issued guidelines saying students ought to learn the “positive” side of fossil fuels.

At a recent conference in New Jersey about integrating the climate standards into primary schools, several educators said they were daunted about adding climate science to their lesson plans, especially given educational setbacks their students suffered during the pandemic.

They also said they needed more guidance. The state has set aside $5 million for climate change education grants, drawing applications from nearly half of New Jersey’s school districts.

Still, in a recent small survey of educators, Dr. Madden, the early education specialist, found that more than three-quarters worried that climate change might not be a priority in their district because of lack of subject expertise. Concerns about controversy have increased, too — with the percentage of educators who said teachers might avoid it because it was politically sensitive nearly doubling to 17 percent between June 2022 and December 2022.

Yet educators at the conference roundly agreed that climate change should be taught to give students a sense of agency that could allay the climate anxiety that is especially pronounced for young people worldwide.

Asked whether learning about climate change could be scary for children, Monica Nardone, a third-grade teacher in Trenton, all but rolled her eyes.

“We have lockdown drills” to prepare for school shootings, she said. “Seriously? How much more are we going to make them afraid?”

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