In a First-Grade Classroom, Lessons on Optimism and Climate Change
Cara Buckley, a Climate reporter for The New York Times, visited an elementary school in Lawrenceville, N.J., where students are encouraged to talk about complex environmental issues. explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together. In June 2020, New Jersey became the first state in the country to . Under this mandate, which went into effect during the 2022-23 school year, K-12 public schools must integrate discussions of the environment into classes like science, social studies and even the visual and performing arts. The goal is to further young peoples understanding of climate change and create a generation of climate-conscious consumers. Cara Buckley, a reporter on the Climate desk at The New York Times, went back to school in May (for half of a day) to understand how climate change is taught in classrooms. She observed a first-grade class at Slackwood Elementary School in Lawrenceville, N.J., as students participated in discussions about the environment, animal extinctions and one that really got their attention the implications of shark poop. In an interview, she shared more about her experience at the school, including students reactions to the recent and the unsavory topic of vegetables. This interview has been edited. I write about people who are working toward small-scale climate change solutions. We need huge shifts to combat climate change; some are underway. But Ive always been curious about what people are doing in their everyday lives to fix things. My editor, Lyndsey Layton, had flagged this news to me in New Jersey. A lot of parents really wrestle with talking to their kids about climate change; they worry about freaking them out. Understandably, some people are terrified and heartbroken. That fear was where this idea came from. Its not curriculum. Its more like education standards broad learning goals that school districts are required to integrate into classes. Theres that offers educators ways to achieve that. At Slackwood, for example, the P.E. teacher might talk about how climate change affects the health of people, animals and plants; why there are longer allergy seasons; or how kids and their families can ride bikes or walk instead of drive. I learned that kids really want to help and are open to new experiences. One teacher had a hydroponic wall near her classroom and was growing romaine lettuce and spinach. She showed the students how it worked. The kids were so excited to try the lettuce and spinach, which isnt something kids would usually be excited about. Only one spit it out. What struck me was how excited they were to talk about the environment. Climate change is often presented as a controversial subject. Journalists are naturally inclined to write about friction points and have been criticized for writing about both sides of arguments and emphasizing them equally. In researching for this article, I learned that say they want children to learn about it. There been some resistance to these education standards there, but I resisted the urge to make the pushback seem bigger than it was. A teacher sent me a recording of a recent lesson. In the clip, the kids talked about the wildfire smoke, where it came from and how to stay safe. They felt safe, even though it was scary outside. They knew it wasnt going to be scary forever. The teacher also sent me a photo of the kids; she asked them to express how the wildfire smoke made them feel. They did this pantomime of terror that was hilarious and adorable. One parent I talked to said: This is the reality were facing. These lessons take some of the burden of explaining climate change off me, and theyre teaching it in a very kid-friendly way. Another parent said that having their child think about the environment meant they would become good human beings. Parents just seemed relieved. The kids were so excited about this stuff, too. I was so struck by the way the teacher really got them to think. One of the big discussions in class was, What would happen if sharks disappeared? It immediately sparked this conversation about the importance of shark food, their poop and how it helps some fish and the ecosystem. The kids were paying attention to every bit of it.