U of M Center Helps K–12 Educators Teach Climate Change, One Story at a Time

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During the last week of school in Abby Hartzell’s 11th-grade English class, students listened to a podcast with Jane Goodall and colored on coloring pages.

Scientists around the world reached an agreement about the dangers of climate change more than three decades ago. Still, scientific consensus on the issue has not translated into widespread changes in human behavior or driven meaningful policy shifts. Professor Marek Oziewicz, director of the new Center for Climate Literacy at the University of Minnesota, says bluntly: “Most people don’t really care about science.”

A professor of literacy education, Oziewicz says, “I believe climate change is the most existential challenge facing humanity, and the vast majority of people have no idea how fast it is happening.” Research shows that people remember information better if they consume it in narrative form. Stories help make emotional connections; they can compel action.

Oziewicz grew up in Communist Poland, where his father was frequently arrested or detained for speaking out against the government. While searching Oziewicz’s childhood home, a government agent discovered a copy of C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He picked it up with disgust and berated the 14-year-old for reading “fairytales.”

Years later, while in graduate school, Oziewicz came to a realization about the agent’s response: “He was afraid of it. Books and stories can plant ideas in heads and hearts. No oppressive government or external force can control them.”

Oziewicz contends that literature is a powerful tool not just to teach climate change, but to motivate people to take action. Education about climate change has been largely nonexistent in K–12 schools until recently. In 2013, the Next Generation Science Standards were released, which included performance standards on the topic of climate change. But since then, less than half of the states have adopted the standards, and to different degrees.

A 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll showed that 80 percent of parents support teaching about climate change, and 86 percent of teachers want to teach it. Lack of school support, curriculum, and resources may prevent that.

In response, teachers involved with the Center for Climate Literacy (currently run by volunteers) are developing and testing curriculums to find effective strategies. They will identify best practices through teaching and publish free curriculums and tips for teachers on the website. Oziewicz also intends to host seminars and teacher training.

“We are the first — and I think the only — organization that specifically focuses on stories [about climate change] for young people,” he says, noting that literature can be broadly defined to include written text as well as films, games, and apps.

Abby Hartzell is one of the teachers involved in curriculum development at the Center. As a student teacher near Saint Paul, she and a peer developed a unit on climate change for students in the 11th grade this past year.

Hartzell began by asking students what they knew about climate change and what they wanted to learn. Students explored documentaries, short stories, poems, YouTube videos, and even tweets written by climate activists. In their feedback on the course, students said every form of literature was a significant part of their learning.

The class discussed what motivates people to take action on climate change: fear and guilt or feelings of hope.

Hartzell was heartened by the response. “They were engaged in a way that I was really impressed by, especially given that it was the last few weeks of school,” she says.

The curriculum Hartzell piloted will be shared with the Center. As Hartzell goes on to teach ninth grade at another school next year, she hopes to bring this knowledge with her — although she admits her ability to do so largely depends on the school’s administration.

“Students need to have exposure to these topics,” she says. “They are encountering them in their [daily] lives.”


Correction: The print version of this story indicated that the National Center for Science Education released the national social science standards. The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by a consortium of 26 states and various non-profit organizations.