In the ongoing effort to raise awareness of climate change and environmental issues, my eighth-grade students took an innovative approach to learning more about these topics. Through a combination of fiction studies and nonfiction research, students gained a deeper understanding of the complexities of these issues, explored how to make a positive impact, and then shared their knowledge in a developmentally appropriate format with fifth-grade students.
The process started with students choosing one book to read that explored themes of climate change and environmental issues from a list. The books provided creative and engaging ways for students to better grasp the human impact of climate change and how the science of climate change impacts the lives of kids their own age.
Students had eight weeks to independently read the book, conduct their research, and design their project. Independent reading is a consistent focal point in my classroom, and students are accustomed to reading books focused on a specific theme for their independent reading and then applying their reading to a project. This, however, was the first time there was an interdisciplinary focus with the added aspect of teaching younger students.
Some book recommendations
Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman. This near-dystopian novel is set in California and explores what would happen if one day the taps went dry and there was no access to fresh water. The story highlights the desperation of a community that needs access to clean water. Alternating between multiple characters’ perspectives, the story showcases how all different types of people have the common need for clean water and highlights the current climate issues that could lead to severe drought.
The First Rule of Climate Club, by Carrie Firestone. After joining a science program focused on climate change at her school, Mary Kate starts to notice how her community is contributing to climate change and the connection between climate justice and social justice. Mary Kate has many big ideas for making a positive impact on her community and works with her peers to create positive change.
Global, by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. This graphic novel will be published in April, and I look forward to adding it to my suggested list for students next year. The narrative alternates between the stories of Sami, who lives in a village along the Indian Ocean and is dealing with rising ocean levels and fewer fish, and Yuki, who lives in Northern Canada, where the ice is melting and polar bears are looking for food.
Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, by Barbara Dee. Haven Jacobs has climate anxiety and feels like she’s the only one worried about the planet. Then, as part of a school project, she realizes that a river in her community is polluted after noticing there are far fewer life forms in the river than when her older brother did the project. Haven works to discover the cause of the pollution and get people in her community to take notice and make changes.
The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold. This magical book tells the story of April, who goes to Bear Island with her father, a researcher. She’s told that there are no more polar bears on the island due to melting ice, but she finds one lonely, hungry bear who needs help finding his way home. This book shows the impact of climate change and encourages students to think about how they can help.
The Lost Whale, by Hannah Gold. Rio is staying with his grandmother in California while his mom receives the mental health treatment she needs. He discovers a new purpose in helping a lost whale find its way back to the correct migration path. The book highlights the struggles of whales due to climate change, overfishing, and pollution while also capturing the reader’s imagination.
Monarca, by Leopoldo Gout and Eva Aridjis. This illustrated fable tells the story of a Mexican-American girl who is transformed into a monarch butterfly making the migration south. During the migration, she experiences multiple situations caused by humans and climate change that illustrate the obstacles faced by migrating monarchs.
Paradise on Fire, by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Addie struggles with losing her parents in a tragic fire, and her grandmother sends her to a wilderness camp in California. Her experience with her parents has led her to be extremely focused on safety and preparedness; this proves invaluable when she and her friends are caught in a wildfire and have to find their way to safety.
Thirst, by Varsha Bajaj. Minni lives in Mumbai, and her community experiences frequent water shortages and spends a lot of time waiting in line at community taps to have access to the water they need. She discovers that someone is stealing the community’s water and selling it back at an exorbitant price. Exposing the criminal has many risks, and Minni must decide what to do.
Two Degrees, by Alan Gratz. This engaging and terrifyingly realistic book tells three separate stories of children impacted by climate change. Akira is separated from her family during a forest fire in California; Owen and his friend must fight to stay alive in Churchill, Manitoba, during an encounter with a polar bear that can’t find enough food because of the melting sea ice; and Natalie struggles to survive as a life-threatening hurricane strikes Florida. This book gives readers a better understanding of the complexities of climate change and inspires them to act.
Utilizing Fiction and nonfiction
Students read their books independently and answered questions such as the following to help focus their reading and gather information for their project:
1. How does climate impact the characters in the story? Give various examples from throughout the book.
2. Describe the main character’s relationship with nature. Give various examples from throughout the book.
3. How does the setting (specifically the climate) compare with where you live?
4. What (if any) role does the media play in the story?
5. Explain how society impacts the individuals in the story or the role that community plays in the story.
6. Describe a time when a character gave or received help.
7. What connections did you make between the book and topics you have learned in science this year?
8. How does the author use fiction to reveal current environmental issues and realities?
After they finished reading their novels, students compiled a list of environmental issues in the story and used their environmental studies textbook to research related facts. After thinking through various environmental issues in the book, students determined the message about climate change and/or the environment that the author wanted to convey to readers.
Presenting to younger students
Students then designed a presentation of their choice to teach fifth-grade students about climate change and/or the environmental issues in their book with the central focus being the author’s message. They could create a slide show, video, pamphlet, or post to showcase their information in a way that would be engaging and appropriate for fifth-grade students.
The presentation requirements included a claim about environmental science, details connected to their claim from their novel and nonfiction sources, and a conclusion of their presentation that showed specific ways in which middle school students could effect positive change connected to their claim.
Students then paired up with fifth-grade students during our advisory time to share their presentation, talk about their books, and teach environmental facts relevant to their presentation.
This opportunity to educate and interact with younger students was motivational and empowering for the eighth graders, while raising awareness and engaging their younger peers. By combining fiction and nonfiction resources students were able to connect scientific evidence about the environment to stories that demonstrated how much the environment impacts humans, animals, and communities.