The Best of Us S1/E10: Preparing Pre-K - 12 Educators to Teach Climate Change Without the Doom and Gloom with Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

86% of teachers (and 80% of parents) believe that climate science needs to be taught in schools, yet fewer than 50% of teachers do — and less than one-quarter have received any professional training on climate change or how to teach it. Stephanie Sisk-Hilton, Elementary Education professor at San Francisco State University, hopes to change that.

How do we teach students about climate change through a justice lens that is appropriate for different ages and subject areas? How do we cover the subject in a way that doesn’t terrify students, but instead lets them see themselves as change agents? These are a few of the questions we discuss with Stephanie, who is working on creating a Climate Justice Education Certificate for pre-K - 12 teaching.

Listen now:


Jeremy Rogoff

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton, welcome to The Best of Us.

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Hi Jeremy, thanks for having me.

Jeremy Rogoff

Super excited for you to join and talk about a topic that is not something that we talk about often on this podcast, in terms of the content. The reason that I'm excited to talk to you in the realm of what we do at KickUp is how you're bringing climate justice into professional learning, and the integration of those two topics.

So I thought we could jump in and just talk a little bit about the Climate Justice Education certificate, which is something that you've created. Talk a little bit about why it was created. What problem were you trying to solve?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

So we're still in the creation process, it will be launching it next year. At San Francisco State University, where I'm a professor, we got a really generous donation to work on issues of climate justice university-wide. And one of the things that came out of that was this need to really serve educators.

There's a statistic I was actually really surprised when I first saw the certificate, a statistic. I had to go look it up to make sure it was real. But we have data showing that 86% of teachers in the U.S. and 80% of parents believe that climate science needs to be to be taught in schools.

We think of it as this kind of controversial thing, but really, most folks are in agreement that this is something we need to be doing. It's one of the it's one of the core issues of our times that we're going to that we need to be addressing. But at the same time, fewer than half of teachers in the U.S. report actually teaching any any climate related content.

And the most frequently given reason is they're not sure it's in their subject area or they're not really sure if they if they should. So we're developing the cert to try and address the needs of our education community, really foregrounding a multidisciplinary approach so that teachers who may not have received preparation in their undergraduate and their teacher ed program, in particular to issues of climate, education and climate justice, can both build their content knowledge and really start to see how their subject area or their grade level kind of fits into the bigger picture.

And one of the ways we're doing this is really trying to foreground this idea of a pedagogy of hope — one of the things teachers are worried about is is terrifying children. And that's you know, it's a real thing, a real a real reason to be worried. And so we want to help educators really think about, how do you approach issues of climate justice, that are really frightening in many ways, but approach them in a way that helps kids see themselves as people who can work towards change?

How do we focus on community based changes that are happening and that kids can play a role in and can learn about, can advocate for, so that they stay engaged instead of instead of being terrified. So we're hoping that if we model this in the program and we really help teachers think through this, that they'll be able to bring back to their schools a model of learning about climate change through a justice lens that is appropriate for different ages and subject areas.

Jeremy Rogoff

It's great. And it seems like it's an ambitious task to create a certificate like this. And it's especially ambitious, but also intentional that you've made it both multidisciplinary and pre-K through 12. So talk a little bit about why you decided to make it multidisciplinary and why you decided to make it pre-K through 12. As an outsider, I would think, okay, this is something that's great for a high school science teacher, but why is it something that is that you've decided to take a broader approach to?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

I'm a professor of elementary education and I used to be an elementary and middle school teacher. So this is this is personal for me that, yeah, I think often our efforts around teaching climate science are aimed at high school and above. So if you look even at the next generation science standards, which are the which are the standards that are in place in about two-thirds, three-quarters of the of the states right now, there is a lot related to climate science at the high school level, and there is not much at the elementary level.

And that is that is intentional. And again, it kind of comes to this idea of big things being kind of scary [for] kids to take up at a young age and kids needing broad background knowledge. But as a result, we kind of avoid topics that really we should be building the basis for from a young age.

And the fact of the matter is, kids are experiencing the impacts of climate change, whether we teach about them or not, Right. Like we have severe weather events that are affecting communities all across the country, all across the world. Kids are part of those. Kids are being impacted by that. I live in California.

I have two children who are drought babies. They're teenagers and young adults now. But until this year, with these record rainfalls, they've always known drought. They're experiencing the impacts of climate change, whether they're learning about it in school or not. And so just in terms of helping kids make meaning of their experiences, we need a multi grade level approach.

But also we have sort of this misconception that little kids can only think about little things. And we have lots of research to show that that's just not true. Kids start thinking about systems from the moment they're born. They're trying to understand social systems, communication systems, understanding how the world works, and we can really engage that.

So we want to be multi grade level so that we're really thinking about systems from a young age. We want to be multi-discipline because climate change is a multidisciplinary problem. It's not just a science problem. We absolutely need to be teaching accurate science. We need to make sure our our teachers understand the accurate science. But it's it's what's often referred to as a socio-scientific problem.
It's impacting humans, and it's impacting humans in a lot of inequitable ways because of our history and because of existing inequities in our in our social systems. And so we need history. Teachers weighing in on this. We need art teachers playing a role in this. We need health and physical education. Teachers playing a role because there's real health impacts on what's going on right now.

So we need a multiagency, multidisciplinary approach to addressing climate change. And so we need a multidisciplinary group of educators taking it on at the K-12 level. So that's that's our reason for it. The other thing, honestly — so I've been a teacher educator. Now this is my 18th year and a lot of the time I work with just elementary educators, but sometimes I'm lucky enough to have groups that include middle school and high school teachers or include folks working in special education settings.

And those are the best classes when educators from with different expertise can come together and really learn about each other's work and learn more about the education system as a whole, it it sparks innovation in a way that's less likely to happen when you're just working with people who do the same thing as you all the time.

So that's we're intentionally planning to create cohorts to spark that kind of innovative thinking by learning about what different people are doing in different parts of the education system.

Jeremy Rogoff

Yeah, makes sense. And given that it is such a broad group of potential educators that could take advantage of it, what do you envision being the intended learning outcomes of the program? If I'm a third grade teacher, how is it how is the learning that I'm going to experience the same or different than a middle school or high school teacher?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

That's a really good question. And you know, just like any K-12 teacher needs to differentiate for a wide range of background, when when students are coming into their class, we really need to be doing the same with our adult learning groups. But that's going to be a particular challenge when we're intentionally recruiting such a broad group of educators.

So one of our goals is for educators to develop or further develop their their core scientific knowledge about the causes and impacts of climate change, because we really do want to make sure that that's something where there are, you know, a lot of a lot of teachers don't feel confident in their science knowledge. And so that is going to look different for, you know, maybe a kindergarten teacher who was a history major in college versus somebody who's been teaching high school or science for for 20 years.

But we're hoping that by having folks learn together that everybody, they'll be able to support each other to build that knowledge. And we're also going to pair our kind of our most science heavy class with and an education class that will help teachers make meaning of that science in their in whatever context they're in. We also one of our goals is to help educators critically examine the the ecological, but also the social and economic impacts of climate change specific to the communities that they serve.

So we're hoping that we're going to at least eventually be drawing educators from a pretty large geographic range. And we want them to really be thinking about these issues in terms of their own communities, their own learners. And then we want them to actually play an active role in develop being culturally responsive and developmentally sensitive practices. We don't have comprehensive climate justice oriented curriculum.

We have lots of examples. We have you know, a lot of folks are working on different efforts, but we want teachers to actually be in the driver's seat, helping to develop materials that are, again, relevant for their students in their context. So, in it in the program, they'll be together in a cohort, but also there will be times when we'd probably break off in the folks with science expertise would make maybe taking something from a slightly different angle than folks who are still building up their core science knowledge.

And then they'll come together to do things like curricular planning or really examining a community in depth and looking at impacts of climate change.

Jeremy Rogoff

And what is the vision for who this the certificate is for? Is it just for teachers that are in the San Francisco Bay Area? Is it for teachers more broadly? Who are you thinking of targeting?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Yeah, no, we are we are looking at teachers more broadly. We are going to be using what's called a low residency model, meaning that teachers will not need to be here at San Francisco State University. For most of the program, we are going to have an in-person component because we think that that's really important, both because we're going to be modeling place based education.

And so we need people in a place together to really to really be looking, you know, be really be thinking about what that what that looks like hard to do on Zoom. And so we'll have we will have kind of in-person intensives. But the idea is that teachers could be coming from far away and that a fair amount of the program would take place online.

But again, in cohorts that are really focused on building, building community and collaboration. And so we're looking at where we're aiming this at veteran educators. But I use that kind of broadly, like, you know, folks who are already in the classroom or in informal education, you know, so people who work in outdoor education, they may not be classroom teachers, but they are definitely educators and would be really great participants for this program.

So we're looking at educators broadly, but we are aiming this at folks who are kind of who are already in the field as opposed to people who are still in their teacher education program.

Jeremy Rogoff

And when we were preparing for this podcast, you shared the concept of a low residency, which I wasn't familiar with. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the why behind a low residency, what it allows in terms of access for teachers and what's what's in it for the teacher and what might be in it for the school or the district that they're coming from?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Yeah, So I've come a long way in my own thinking about this. I used to be in all like in person all the time. That's how you know, that's how, that's how school just needs to be. And I was coming around before the pandemic, and I I'm not really sure how much we should take from the pandemic, because that was that was crisis learning, you know, But but it but long before that, there's been this real tension.

Educators want professional learning opportunities. They don't want to be isolated in their classrooms feeling like they're having to seek out learning entirely on their own. But teaching is exhausting. It's time consuming, and sometimes it's not a fabulous use of time to spend all day teaching and then commute for, you know, 45 minutes, an hour and a half to sit just to sit in a room with people.
And so we want to make really good and thoughtful use of in-person time. So, for instance, having an in-person institute in the summer where we bring folks together and do a really and it's really clear why we're all there so that, you know, what does that look like? That looks like we are out in the field, we are collecting data.

We are at we're debating where we're probably going to move around locations. But we as a state has a Sierra Field campus and we're thinking about offering an option where where folks would spend a week or two. They're really immersed in place based education. So we want to make really thoughtful and good use of our in-person time. And then we want to honor the fact that educators are fitting their professional learning into the rest of their very busy jobs.

And so what that looks like is during the school year, providing ways to come together that take commute out of the out of the equation. That is a kindness to our local teachers, but it also allows us to broaden who we're serving so that it's not just educators in the San Francisco area that we can look at teachers all over California potentially or potentially further who who can come together in community and learn from each other.

And I think that has that has benefits in being able to serve communities that may not have as much access to, you know, to higher education institutions, but it also helps broaden educators views. I've I've taught sort of accidentally in five different school systems across the country. And it has it incredibly broadened my view of what education can look like.

And we want to do that in a really thoughtful way so that teachers are learning from each other and not just in their own system.

Jeremy Rogoff

And it sounds like an incredible learning opportunity for a teacher. I am wondering, though, you know, like you said, that they have to fit this into their schedule and time is most limited resource. Is there any is there any other incentive for a teacher to participate for a school or a district to encourage their teacher to participate, especially given, as you mentioned, there is maybe a little bit of a lack of alignment between the goals of this program and the standards. So, you know, just making that that kind of pitch to a teacher in a school or district.

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Well, just to clarify, I wouldn't say there's I wouldn't say there's a lack of alignment within GSA. I actually think it's pretty well aligned. We just want to at the lower grades, we want to focus in on kind of the the what are called the cross-cutting concepts and in the GSA, there's particularly issues around like systems and patterns of change to really show how the building blocks of climate change are are can be brought up in those lower grades.

But, you know, for somebody who's not thinking of this from a science perspective, from a science teacher perspective, yeah, there there could feel like there's a mismatch. We do have some funding to support teachers to do this. We we feel pretty strongly that individual teachers should not have to pay for this. And we're working on working on finding more kind of more ongoing funding and for more teachers.

But at least in our initial years, we are you know, this is something that teachers will be able to to and it's a 12 unit program and they'd be able to do it funded So so that's that's one thing. And then the other thing I think a lot of a lot of districts are looking for ways to integrate integrate climate education into their school systems.

And what we would encourage is that teams of educators from a given district participate in this together so that, you know, one of the one of the benefits is that they come back to their district and can be leaders for systems change, not just, oh, I did this great program. And so now I personally and this is what often happens with professional learning, right?

We had these really enthusiastic educators who take advantage of all the programs, and they are phenomenal teachers and sometimes they have limited ways of spreading that. And so what we're hoping is that this will be a seed and that districts will then support dissemination and really having the folks who participate in this program serve as leaders to to bring a climate justice lens to their to their system, not just to their classrooms.

Jeremy Rogoff

Yeah, I think that's a good segue way to talk about the design of the program itself, because one of the reasons I was really excited to have you on the podcast and talk about this is not just the content, but also that you yourself are so passionate about adult learning and professional learning and making sure that it has an impact in the classroom. And so I'm curious, given your background, what elements of effective adult learning have informed the design of the program itself?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Yeah. So as I said, so I was a I was a classroom teacher for ten years before I and I actually still regularly teach kids. So I've really strong I, I know about adult learning theory, but I also have really strong opinions in terms of it. You know, as a teacher who has been through some really fabulous professional learning and some less effective professional learning.

So, you know, one of the things that we know is that there's this there's this balance in teacher professional learning in particular where educators want and need to be engaging in new content. So in this case, learning about climate science and climate justice. But that but that the learning needs to be really clearly connected to their professional roles and goals.

And so that's a little bit of a balancing act because on the one hand we don't want a model where we just hand people curriculum and say, Here, go do this. You know, that was my least favorite kind of professional learning when I was a teacher where I would go attend to this workshop and they would hand me this thing that I was basically supposed to read as a script and call it teaching, right?

Like, because that erased my own judgment and autonomy. And so so we don't want to be handing them a script. But on the other hand, we don't want to be teaching this kind of esoteric content. And then teachers are on their own to figure out, well, how am I, you know, what does this thing I'm learning about physics have to do with my first grade classroom that we we want everything that they're learning to be really intentionally connected to their ability to use some part of it in their own teaching practice.

So one of the ways we're doing that is we're pairing the science learning with. So we'll have a science expert and an education expert and we're going to peer that coursework so that, you know, if you've just finished learning about something really heavy related to atmospheric science, you're not waiting a year to figure out what that looks like in a third grade art lesson that that there's an immediate discussion of that and working on that and modeling of that, you know, what might this look like for in high school biology?
What might this look like for middle school art? What might this look like in a health lesson for elementary schoolers? So so that's one way where a kind of working with what we know about adult learners and educators in particular. So and then the other thing is to really lean into this idea of place based education that's really critical to kids learning about climate change, but it's also a really useful tool in learning in general.

So for instance, our our teacher learners might have an assignment where we ask them, since they're not always going to be with us physically, we might ask them to do a tree survey in two really different neighborhoods in their own community. And then we use that to learn about the role of trees as carbon sinks, understanding, you know, the chemical processes that are going on that allow that to happen.

Looking at the impact of urban tree cover on things like heat island phenomena and then looking at inequities based on affluence of different communities, on how much tree cover there is and how that has real impacts on residents exposure to extreme heat and storm damage and air pollution, and then have them think about, you know, how would a community address this?
And then also what could you do with kids of different ages? You know, I've done tree surveys with first graders, and that looks really different than the kind of then the kind of tree survey work you might do with high schoolers that both of them can engage in in some way. So really giving these really vivid examples is how you can use the place you are to teach really important scientific and socio scientific ideas at a lot of different levels.

And then the other thing is, as I mentioned, this is going to be cohort based. We really want to focus on building collaborative networks. We want to help educators learn together and to feel less alone Teaching. Even though you're surrounded by people all day long, teaching can often feel really lonely. You know, you close your door and there's this idea that you're supposed to just change the world on your own, right?

And and we want to really disrupt that. Climate action works best grounded in community and collaborative action. And so too does education change. So we really want to build use the cohort model to build these professional networks that we hope will expand and last beyond the program so that people have a network of other educators who are engaged in this work together and that they can really lean on each other, learn with each other, and continue this forward beyond the program itself.

Jeremy Rogoff

Yeah, it's really powerful. And since it is such a new program, how are you thinking about kind of evolving and understanding how it's going, like being able to actually improve it year over year or semester over semester?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

So my background as a researcher is in practitioner research, it's the kind of research I most often do myself. And it's also one of the things that I teach in our in our master's degree program right now. So it's a model of really looking at your own practice and making changes based on data. And data can look like a lot of different things, not just test scores, you know, interviewing your students, asking folks to engage in reflection, looking at looking at outcomes.

What are people actually doing when they're beyond the program? And so we're we're going to be engaged in iterative, iterative refinement of the program based on ourselves, engaging in practitioner research, really looking at the impact of each class in the program and the program as a whole, and taking the feedback from our teacher learners really seriously and using it to improve the program.

We're also going to be asking our participants to engage in practitioner research in their own settings, and their findings will impact not only their own practice but also ours, because we'll be able to see, you know, what are they taking, what are they taking from this program? How are they using it in their own settings? What are things that we could support more effectively?

So that's one of the things I'm most excited about actually is being able to collaborate with educators on researching how to best implement this, both at the K-12 level and in terms of the certificate itself.

Jeremy Rogoff

I recently interviewed Peter DeWitt, who's a professional learning expert, and he talks a lot about the shared reciprocal nature of learning that the people who are providing professional and he don't just need to be the deliverers of the content, but are people that are learning along with you what's working, what's not working. And it sounds like that's this in practice.

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Exactly. And we want that with kids and we want that with adults. There's a lot of there's a lot of work, although it's I would say it's certainly not the norm, but there's something called Weipa Youth Participatory Action Research that is used in some settings to help youth engage in climate action rooted in their own communities. And and I think participatory action research is a model that engages communities not just as subjects of research but as co-researchers. And we really we want to model and implement that in this program.

Jeremy Rogoff

Yeah, I thought a good place we could end, which is to kind of go full circle, is going back to how this might ultimately impact students. And you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation this idea of the pedagogy of hope and contrasting that with maybe this idea of disaster pedagogy, everybody being so scared that they're almost paralyzed with inaction when it comes to climate change. Can you talk about an example of a teacher experiences this climate justice cert? They go back into their classroom and what looks different? What's an example of a lesson or a concept that might look different for a student?

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

So I'm I'm finishing up a book right now on teaching for climate science and climate justice in elementary settings. And I open the book with a vignette that was one of the catalysts for me writing the book. I was working with a group of pre-service elementary teachers, and I had asked a small group space like grade level teams to develop mini units that would take up some issue in science.

That was important, meaningful to their students and that they didn't think was addressed in the in the curriculum. And so this this team of third grade student teachers got up and gave their their final presentation and they said that they were taking up the issue of climate change. And they started their presentation by showing a photo of an emaciated polar bear floating on an piece of ice in the middle of the Arctic.

And and they went on to talk about how they you know, they knew their kids loved animals. And so they were going to engage in this animal study and they were going to learn about polar bears as a whole group and what was happening to them. And then they were going to have small groups of students learn about different animals.

They were you know, they were kind of there was a lot there that was promising. They were going to look at, you know, fit between the animal and its environment. But I looked around the room and I could see they were you know, there were some folks kind of shifting in their seats, not sure. And finally, when they were when they were at the feedback portion, people gave some some positive feedback.
And then one student raised her hand and she kind of hesitantly started and she was like, you know, I really appreciate how you're you're coming at this from something that kids love and are interested in, know, thinking about animals. But I got to say, when I looked at that photo, I had to look away and I just wanted to leave the room.

I just couldn't you know, it's and I worry that kids are going to be scared and maybe scarred if that's if they're seeing images like that. And I, I agree with that student. You know, I think we really need to stay away from this focus on disaster. We do have we have a climate crisis and we need to be acting every day in ways big and small.

And we know the way our brain works. When we are scared, we run away. When we are faced with disaster, we do what we have to do to do to survive in that moment, and we can't really engage in longer term thinking. So if we really want to be engaging in climate education and climate action in meaningful ways, we need to we need to know about the impacts adults need to, you know, kind of gradually learn what is going on in the world.

But we can't start and we can't live in that place of what, you know, let's dwell upon the disaster aspect of it. We really need to be focused on helping kids understand systems and understand actions. So it kind of counterexample. It's not about polar bears. I'm not really sure there's a great land to that. But but I a few years ago I worked with a first grade teacher who wanted to start engaging in some sort of climate education in her own teaching.

And she she every year she taught this kind of classic unit that's very familiar to early childhood educators where kids watched caterpillars turn into butterflies, you know, and the kids loved it. It was you know, it's you know, there's something really magical about watching a butterfly emerge.

Jeremy Rogoff

It just happened in my son's classroom.

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

They get so excited. And so we use that that really wonderful, exciting thing that kids just love as our starting point. And we I helped her design a study of pollinators. And there is so there's a pollinator crisis going on and it is it's caused by it but a bunch of things including climate change. But what we focused on was how, how pollinators were part of a larger garden system and then a larger kind of system of plants and animals.

And then we talked a little about how some of the there weren't as many of some of the pollinators as there used to be. And we talked with the we worked with the kids to think about what could they do to help support more butterflies and bee. So we studied butterflies and bees and and looked at, you know, how could we support there being more insect pollinators around us?

We were at a city elementary school. There wasn't a lot of nature around us, and we found this little strip of dirt by the sidewalk right outside the school. We asked permission to use it and the kids planted a pollinator garden and they made signs about the different. There was a parent who had a connection at a nursery, so we were able to get native plants and and the kids made signs about the different plants and what pollinators pollinated them so that every time the kids entered the school building, they saw this pollinator garden they had made.

And oh, my goodness, the excitement they had when like when they would be like, Stephanie, I saw a butterfly, right? They would just get so excited. So that's a way in to thinking about the systems that are impacted by it can be part of our solutions to the climate change that aren't focused on the disaster. They're focused on the on the positive action. I think that was a really long answer.

Jeremy Rogoff

No, it's helpful. And I think that the opportunity with this program and with this climate education more generally is it is so relevant, right? We're always looking for things that are relevant in a in the curriculum, in how kids learn. And this is something that is going to impact us for years and bringing it to a place where they can actually understand it, take action, not be paralyzed by it and not walk out of the room, I think is is so powerful.

So I just think it's a it's a great example of how to how to take something that is so seemingly intractable and make it much tractable. So, Stephanie Sisk-Hilton, thank you so much for being on The Best of Us.

Stephanie Sisk-Hilton

Thank you so much for having me.

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