Youth Activists to Educators: Teach

As climate change activists continue the history of younger generations standing up and demanding change, they ask educators to support them with comprehensive curriculum and honest discussion.

In Houston, 16-year-old Shania Hurtado (top, center with sign) organized a rally that drew congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (lower left, in green).


The Youth Climate Strike on March 15 was another moment in history when young activists have stepped up and led a movement, including civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the opposition to the Vietnam War, the Arab Spring, and the uprising in Tiananmen Square.

More recently, Malala Yousafzai became a global voice advocating for the education of girls after she recovered from being shot by the Taliban. (She also became the youngest Nobel Laureate in history.) Mari Copeny is an outspoken activist for her community in Flint, MI, and the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, joined teens from Chicago and New York to lead the March for Our Lives for national gun legislation reform.

When it comes to climate change, the young global leader is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who skipped school one Friday last August to sit in front of the parliament building in Stockholm and protest her government’s inaction. She sparked a worldwide movement, and she has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Thunberg helped organize the March event, with the goal of bringing more attention to their cause, educating the public, and insisting politicians act with urgency. Among the group's list of demands: compulsory comprehensive education on climate change and its impacts throughout grades K–8.

What can educators do?

SLJ asked these young leaders and striking students what their teachers could do, or do better, to support them.

“Educators can definitely help by teaching students about the realities of climate change,” said Sana Shaikh, a 17-year-old high school junior and the New Jersey state lead for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. “Just being straight up about it and not hiding anything and making sure people are educating and know what needs to be done.”

A student in the Academy for Computer and Informational Sciences at her county’s school of technology, Shaikh said there isn’t much talk or teaching about climate change at school.

“It definitely needs to be more of a priority,” she said. “We need to be talking about it more in schools.”

Houston’s Shania Hurtado, who is 16 and the Texas state lead, concurred that teachers’ biggest contribution would be curricular.

“Teach your students about climate change—not just what causes climate change, but also why is it important, how does this affect us?” she wrote in an email. “Teachers can play a larger role in teaching climate change and leave less room for doubt and negligence. The Youth Climate Strike movement needs teachers who guide their students to take action.”

Hurtado and Shaikh both said they learned most of what they know about climate change from doing their own research. Teachers often avoid discussing the topic, or current events and protests related to it, for fear of being accused of partisanship or facing discipline or backlash from the administration or parents, students say. But the younger generation doesn’t see climate change as a partisan debate.

“I don’t think of climate change as a political issue. It is a people issue,” wrote Jayde Farmer, a high school junior who organized a strike in Hemet, CA. “It’s not a debate, it is a scientific fact. Teachers should encourage students to take action condemning the inaction of global powers and their submission to industrial polluters. They can create healthy environments to freely discuss what actions their students can [take].”

The Hemet, CA, event was organized by Jayde Farmer, who said the strike brought "an unfathomable feeling of empowerment."


More than science

Facilitating discussion is key, agreed Luke Kerr and Lanah Hinsdale, seniors at Deer Creek High School in Edmond, OK. The organizers of a rally at the Oklahoma state capitol also said the conversation and curriculum should go beyond science class.

“With an issue as pressing as climate change, we think it’s important and almost vital that educators bring up these events [with] their students,” they said. “We think it’s important for educators to emphasize the importance of being politically active. Modern politics can and must be brought up in the classroom. Students should know who their legislators are and how to contact them. Students should know the voting process and how to register to vote. Students should know the [legal] process and how lobbying works. All of these processes can be brought up and applied to many subject areas without any partisanship.”

These young activists also talk about the inequities of the impact of climate change and want others to be educated on that as well. In Morristown, they spoke of “poisoned” Indigenous lands and air pollution and toxic water supply in low-income and minority communities.

In Texas, Hurtado, who is in 10th grade, was moved to read more about the issue and get involved after Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area in 2017. The inequity of the destruction and recovery was particularly upsetting to her.

“Marginalized communities—communities of color and low-income—struggled and continue to struggle to cope and recover,” she wrote. “Climate change disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color, and this is what I hope to change.”

This generation of activists hopes adults don’t roll their eyes and turn their backs, and instead line up behind them. In school, the students want educators who are supportive, provide resources, and most of all, who teach.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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Leila Parrish

Sheila Lee Jackson is amazing! So proud of this Houstonian and literacy advocate.

Posted : Mar 27, 2019 08:46



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