The day after Hurricane Sandy, my wife and I walked around our town. We’d been fortunate. Even though a fallen tree blocked our street, with every sort of power line beneath it, we had power and water and even TV and Internet. Our house was filled with neighbors charging their cell phones and craving hot coffee.
As we picked our way past trees and police tape and fallen wires, we saw home after home darkened, trees upended across yards, porches, and roofs. We finally reached my 92-year-old mother, who was trapped in her cold, powerless home, and my mother-in-law, who was even more imprisoned in an apartment with neither power nor running water. I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences or have seen images such as these, and far worse.
The storm brought change. We all also saw President Obama and New Jersey Governor Christie work together—an image of what our nation could be and should be. And that brings me to the main point of this column. I believe that students in every school in America should address the following question: Are human actions changing our climate? And if they are, how? What can we do about it?
We’re living amidst wild nature. Is that due to climate change? What could be a more perfect Common Core question? What could be more central to our lives, and our students’ futures? To address these questions, kids need to use science, history, economics, ecology, biology, math, and social action—they can read dystopian novels such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker (Little, Brown, 2010) or M. T. Anderson’s Feed (Candlewick, 2002). These are questions on which experts disagree. That’s perfect. We’re not preaching to our students, we are engaging them in answering a question that’s as central to their generation as civil rights was to mine. Why should schools focus on anything else? Students will learn every required skill, but not as textbook abstractions, rather as the central issues facing us, all of us, right now and in the future.
I urge you, readers, make the case to your school. Or, if the teachers and administration are too pressed by tests to add a new unit, start a display in your library: Is human-induced climate change leading to catastrophic weather? Include books, print-outs from websites and magazines, and ads. (The New York Times has a fine set of learning resources about Sandy.) Then invite kids to add their notes, comments, and questions. Build it and they will come—and you’ll be the agent asking the key questions that must be asked… and answered.
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