How do we empower students to think planetarily?

Tycho World Gif

Over April vacation, I taught a class at ¡CityArts! in Providence on “Worldbuilding.” The class was initially presented as an intro to digital art class for elementary and middle school students, but it was undergirded by much larger ambitions. The first sentence of my curriculum proposal read, “in this increasingly unthinkable (almost dystopian) world, it seems more important than ever for young people to think differently about how we live our lives and design alternative worlds.”

The students produced amazingly insightful works commenting on the troubling past, present, and future of the earth. Particularly powerful, was the collaborative piece produced on Earth Day. Students were asked to draw short animated GIFs of how they feel about the world and the problems facing it. We collected the GIFs from every student in the class and assembled them into a online monument, a GIF Wall. The GIF wall shows the whole gamut of emotion from sadness to frustration to anger to contentment to joy. The students had very mixed emotions about the state of the planet, but counter popular conceptions of “millennials,” they never showed apathy.

In the following days, we worked through these confusing emotions. We realized that we wouldn’t be able to collectively solve the worlds problems nor put our worries to rest in one week. Rather we found a shared richness of emotion; we all cared deeply about our worlds. If not the earth or the whole planet, students cared about the largest world they could grasp: their country, their community, their family. Our job as teachers is to expand that horizon. In one lesson on Google Earth, I very literally expanded their horizons; the students gasped when I zoomed out from a satellite image of the ¡CityArts! offices to the city of Providence to New England to the United Stated to the globe, floating in the vast blackness of virtual space. It was like Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, updated for our present era of constant planetary surveillance. I push all my students to think on the biggest possible scales, pushing them towards planetary thinking and beyond.

I have incorporated this mission into every aspect of my Americorps service from my teaching in arts education to the literacy interventions I hold at the Learning Community in Central Falls and Leo A. Savoie Elementary in Woonsocket. The Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) system (taught at both schools) uses many books that dwell on themes like environmental stewardship, ecological protection, and natural beauty. Though these books present these complex themes to the best of their abilities, my students often struggle to reflect on these planetary problems. I think this can be partially attributed to the formulaic rhetoric surrounding environmental education aimed at young people. My students readily recall environmental buzz words like “life cycle,” “ecosystem,” “recycling,” and “global warming” but when asked to say more and explain, students often falter. I think we as teachers have made it too easy for students to give the “right” answer to environmental questions, questions that have no answers and may never have answers. How do we foster the odd mixture of wonder and horror necessary when thinking about the earth and yet still empower students to study, engage, and influence the complex ecologies of this planet?

At the Learning Community, Artemio (Grade 6) has a wealth of wonderings but often gets stuck on his questions. His curiosity enables him to think way beyond the text into large scale understandings. While reading Crabs on the Run, Artemio noticed an informational graphic that showed a huge gap in the life cycle of land crabs. This was due to the lack of scientific research on this particular species of crab. Artemio made the connection that this kind of gap is what prompts further scientific research. This open ended prompt, the call for further study is what students need. To often in schools, science is something received as a complete and closed system. Rather we need to emphasize that people do science; people are need to discover, study, and map the world.

In my year of service, I have seen glimpses of the answer to these puzzling pedagogical questions. Working as a reading teachers, I have struggled to bring to life the complex themes and scientific question presented in our books. I have modified lessons to include larger projects like poster reports and animation studies. I have started to use the simple tool of the Know/Wonder chart (a T chart that encourages students to see the feedback loop between prior knowledge, critical questioning, and learning new information.) Student need to feel empowered, confident in there wonderings, and learn the research tools to answer those aching questions. Going forward, I will continue reflecting on my pedagogical practice, developing lessons and projects in art, science, and literacy that challenge the prescribed boundaries to my students worlds and empower them to think on the largest possible planetary scale, building and rebuilding the future while engaging with the harsh ecological reality of the present.

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