Strategy Share: Exploring Our Changing Planet in Humanities Classrooms

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver, a high school social studies and English language arts teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for Pre-K-12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Caitlin MacLeod Bluver
Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver teaches social studies and English language arts at Boston International High School in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

“No, we can’t change the world because our voices don’t really matter,” shouted Marlon.

“I agree with Marlon, because we’re just teenagers. No one will listen to us,” Gabriella responded.

Nearly all of the students stood in the “disagree” or “strongly disagree” corner of the room, arguing that they did not have the power to combat climate change. While I was thrilled to see students expressing their opinions, using evidence from their own lives, and responding to each other’s comments, I was dismayed to learn that so few students recognized the power of their voice. I paused, though, recognizing that this was day one of a long, eight-week unit. I had a new task: Could I help my students change their thinking?

I teach in an urban high school where all of my students are English Language Learners (ELL). They are all quite recent immigrants to the U.S., and they all qualify for free lunch. In the spring, I had the opportunity to travel to the Arctic as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions to explore the wildlife of Svalbard, our rapidly changing planet, and the interconnectedness of human action on our natural world. I returned to the classroom thrilled to learn more about climate justice with my students. Not only do I believe that teaching about our changing planet can be done in an ELL and humanities classroom; I believe it’s critically important.

Polar bear.png
A photo of a dead polar bear, taken while on expedition, sparked students’ curiosity. Photo by Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

I felt that Step 1 with my students was to build excitement and buy-in about the topic. I showed students many photographs of receding glaciers and videos of naturalists explaining the changes that they have witnessed in the Arctic. The photograph that garnered the most curiosity was of a dead polar bear who had most likely died of starvation. “It’s a dead dog!” “No, it’s a dead bear that died in a fight.” “But there’s no blood! It died because there is no ice!” “No, it died because there is no food!” Through photos, videos, anticipation guides, four-corners debates, and human barometer discussions, students who had never heard of climate change before were eager to learn as much as they could.

Students played a vocabulary game to help them access higher-level words. Photo by Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

Step 2 was to increase my students’ background knowledge through nonfiction texts. We also studied vocabulary (both general and domain-specific) that supported their understanding of the texts. We played games to learn synonyms for words that mean “big” and “small,” built semantic maps, and learned morphemes (the smallest meaningful linguistic units) to help tackle rigorous texts. In addition, I modified all texts to meet students’ English language development level, chunked all texts, provided word banks and sentence starters, and created audio recordings of all texts using Screencastify.

Step 3 connected my students’ global learning to the local level. After they demonstrated that they understood broadly what was happening to our planet, why, and the effects of a warming climate, we turned specifically to how climate change is affecting Boston and how Boston is looking to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We used resources from local universities and our city, newspaper articles from local papers, and experts from nonprofits and universities to explore the projected effects of climate change and investigate possible solutions to a hotter city and a city that floods more often.

Students at work
Students drafted climate justice proposals using modified graphic organizers and sentence stems. Photo by Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

Students then created their own original solutions for a more resilient Boston, focusing on adapting to either extreme heat or increased coastal and stormwater flooding. They presented their original proposals to an authentic audience: members of the city’s energy, environmental and climate teams, professors, leaders of local nonprofits, and leaders within our school. When organizing outside community members to come to my classroom, I try to think about who should be in the room. Who has expertise knowledge that they can offer to my students and who should hear these proposals? I then send many emails out and follow up if I don’t hear back. Here are some more tips and a sample letter.

Giving students a chance to present to experts in the field and receive feedback was fundamental to the success of the project.

Student reports
Students developed and presented final proposals to create a more resilient Boston. Photo by Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver

The best part was that nearly every student’s thinking had changed. “I learned that students and youth can do something about climate change,” said Hoda. “I now know that I have to use my voice to share with my community why I think extreme heat is a problem,” reflected Raulina. “I know that I can and I should use my voice to fight for what is right,” Gabriella wrote.

So while I know that we as teachers have a lot asked of us, I urge you to make time to teach about our changing climate in your non-science classrooms. Not only is it possible, but given the state of our world, it is imperative. Our students must be prepared to tackle our world’s biggest problems, and it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them with authentic opportunities to create innovative solutions. By doing so, our students will learn that their voices do indeed matter. What is more important than that?


Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.


One thought on “Strategy Share: Exploring Our Changing Planet in Humanities Classrooms

  1. OMG! This is great. I teach climate change. Your teaching plan on the topic is fantastic.

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