Home > Archives > Volume 23 No. 4 - Summer 2009 > Obama, Schools, and the Environment

Obama, Schools, and the Environment

Summer 2009

Illustration: Randall Enos

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Before the presidential election, Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book about U.S. eating habits and food policy, The Omnivore's Dilemma, wrote a long open letter to the next president in the New York Times Magazine. Among his many excellent recommendations, Pollan argued that the future "Farmer in Chief" should see food as an environmental issue: "We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine." One place to start, Pollan suggested, would be for the president to order part of the huge White House lawn torn up and in its place plant an organic vegetable and fruit garden.

Perhaps heeding this advice, Michelle Obama enlisted 5th graders from D.C.'s Bancroft Elementary School to begin work on a South Lawn garden. Ms. Obama said she saw this as an educational initiative, and hoped that children "will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities." A symbolic gesture, to be sure, but a good one.

Will this hopeful sign on the relationship between education, health, and the environment be followed up with other initiatives?

Unfortunately, President Obama's first speech devoted to U.S. education, at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, offered little encouragement. Mr. Obama dipped into the rhetorical well of every president stretching back to Ronald Reagan. He offered a cliché-dense lecture about "world class standards" and the need to wage academic achievement war on kids from India to South Korea: "It's time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world."

For a president who campaigned on themes of change and hope, this dubious appeal to competition and nationalism instead of larger social vision was disappointing. And given that each day we move closer to an ecological meltdown that could dwarf even the current economic crisis, his failure to so much as mention a link between education and the environment was a huge omission.

Environmental Justice

As we've often editorialized, educators have a responsibility not just to the children in our schools and classrooms, but also to the world as a whole. To mention just one pressing concern: rising global temperatures are melting glaciers throughout the world, including in the Himalayas, which provide drinking water and irrigation for a billion people throughout Asia. It's no exaggeration to say that how educators of conscience respond to the global ecological emergency will echo through the ages. In this issue, Rethinking Schools presents a collection of articles that explore the connection between our schools and the environmental crisis. This is our first issue with this focus?no doubt, the first of many.

In "A Pedagogy for Ecology," an excerpt from Rethinking Early Childhood Education, Ann Pelo makes a poignant argument for nurturing in young children an attachment to place?"to invite children to braid their identities together with the place where they live by calling their attention to the air, the sky, the cracks in the sidewalk where the earth bursts out of its cement cage." This kind of place-based, ecological education is profoundly personal, but it is also political. Helping children develop what Pelo calls an ecological identity is a prerequisite to children developing a connection to the natural world, and later, a commitment to defend that world.

Bob Peterson picks up similar themes in "The Wonder of Nature," a review of three valuable books on education and the earth. Implicit in Peterson's review is the insistence that all education is environmental education, as children inescapably acquire attitudes about nature in their schooling. He quotes Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (originally published in 1949): "?We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,' instead of seeing the ?land as a community to which we belong.'" As Peterson points out, in our era, we need to interpret "land" as the entire biosphere, and teachers need to help students see nature as more than a thing to exploit.

Michael Stone's "Rethinking Lunchtime" highlights promising developments in Berkeley, Calif., schools, where a greener approach to food has had positive effects ranging from fewer schoolyard fights to enhanced physical activity to decreased waste headed for the landfill. More and more educators are beginning to realize that what we eat and how we eat have environmental implications. Stone's piece shows that "greening" schools offers exciting opportunities to reimagine just about every aspect of school life.

In "The Big One," Bill Bigelow describes a unit on climate change in a high school global studies class. He argues that our rapidly warming earth?especially at the poles?is a civilization-threatening issue, and requires an urgent cross-curricular approach in schools?that no one discipline "owns" the environment. In an opening role-play activity, he demonstrates how he helps students see that global warming affects humanity as a whole, but unequally. He writes that he wants students to "appreciate the inequality at the heart of climate change: that those who have the smallest carbon footprint are the ones most victimized by its consequences."

Activities in the unit that Bigelow taught with Portland teacher Tim Swinehart, and described here?a collection of role plays, simulations, critical reading activities, media, and personal writing?suggest some of the directions that teaching about climate change can take: looking at issues of race, class, and culture; probing for links between a profit-driven economy and global warming; evaluating how the traditional school curriculum handles climate change; exploring personal connections to place and loss; and helping students imagine themselves as climate justice activists.

Finally, in "Educating Heather," teacher educator Lauren McClanahan describes an imaginative curriculum that draws on Yup'ik high school students' personal knowledge about the impact of global warming in their fishing village of Kwigillingok, in western Alaska. Yup'ik students share images of their lives with McClanahan's students at Western Washington University, in Bellingham. It's a fine example of "place-based education," grounding the curriculum in local issues with global implications.

These articles frame some of the key issues involved in teaching and the environmental crisis. They are just a beginning, and we encourage readers to write us with additional teaching ideas and resources.

We wish we could see more glimmers of hope in President Obama's initial foray into schools. His early public pronouncements, as well as his appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, offer grounds for concern. (See Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?) The energy created by Obama's campaign and election provides new opportunities for progressive change, but that change will not come from the top.

More than ever, it's time that social justice educators renew our commitment to develop a curriculum that addresses the central issues of our time. We need to "green" the schools in every imaginable way.