Climate Education Bill: Advocacy in Action
In 2022, a groundbreaking $2.1 million Climate Education Bill was passed in the Maine legislature. This huge policy win, resulting in funding for climate education professional development for public school teachers, emerged from a youth- and educator-led, grassroots effort to make change in Maine public schools, and increase access to climate education for all Maine students. It is a bill that was dreamed up by Maine youth and teachers, supported by community organizations across the state, and supported by strong legislative champions. Members of NBEC’s Climate Education Advocacy and Stories for Change working groups have collaborated on bringing forward stories of people involved in the LD 1902, Climate Education Bill campaign.
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Here is the story of Brooke Teller, District Science Coordinator at Portland Public Schools. She was formerly a chemistry teacher at Casco Bay High School and interim outdoor learning coordinator for the Portland Public School district. She testified for LD 1902, the Climate Education Bill, as a teacher of climate change hoping teachers across Maine would benefit and receive support in climate education.
Teaching climate education across a school district
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your involvement with climate education?
For 26 years, I've been in science education. For 26 years, climate education has been important to me.
What does climate education look like at Portland Public Schools?
The latest efforts to support educators in teaching students has happened for elementary teachers attending professional development—through the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance—about unpacking the Next Generation Science Standards, understanding what it means to teach from phenomena. Really exploring the ideas, wanting students to figure it out—instead of the teacher just telling them answers—was helpful to elementary teachers especially, where science may not be their background. As a district, we have adopted an elementary science curriculum that engages students in phenomenon-based units of inquiry.
At Casco Bay High School (CBHS), climate education was part of our junior year scope and sequence–the junior year was all about resolving our dependence on fossil fuels. So we were doing a lot of work around things from understanding greenhouse gasses to public policy proposals to going on Junior Journey. In my chemistry class, we had an expedition that was called “The Air Up There”. In the expedition, students learned about the gasses in the atmosphere that play a role in climate change. They created a collection of short videos that we called the “Cougar Chronicles”. And we presented it to the fourth graders in the district at one of our elementary schools. They also wrote climate pledges that we said with the elementary kids. Students pledged to take care of the climate.
After the work at Casco Bay High School in chemistry class, students completed an interdisciplinary public policy project focused on environmental and social justice. Students had to come up with an idea for resolving our dependence on fossil fuels. Then they had to present it to a panel of experts. They had to present a slideshow with a defense of their ideas based upon evidence. So climate change concepts were easily taught through this approach in the expedition.
Finally, students at CBHS went on their Junior Journey. One year it was a trip to the Rockaways—after superstorm Sandy hit—and worked with Habitat for Humanity. We saw firsthand the results of intensifying storms due to climate change. We were immersing students in many different avenues of understanding the climate issues.
Another example of climate advocacy in the Portland Public Schools is when we had a middle school Green Team start a group called Solarize. It was about talking to our board and our city about getting off of fossil fuels, how we run our school buildings, and buying into solar farms. Those small moments of student activism can move districts and towns and cities in incremental steps towards moving away from fossil fuels, which are clearly a large contributor to climate change.
I know there are numerous other examples in each of our schools and we deepen the district’s commitment to climate education each year.
Why is it important for you to teach about climate change?
By 2050, we're going to have 2.1 billion climate refugees, based on the impacts globally. And, yeah, that can be a scary thing. But I think we also need to intellectualize it and understand what the causes are—how can we then change how we're contributing to those causes? Maybe I'm a little more pragmatic.
I think it's also in the way that the teacher presents the information: If I am anxious about the state of the world, my students are going to feel that as well. But if I give them the facts, and we're talking about chemistry, and how do these molecules get into the air, and what are they doing, and here's what we can do about it. I think that's helpful.
Being high school students, I think there's not that level of anxiety that can build up. There's an understanding that we're not going to fix it all, but we do need to start to take our part to move the work forward.
Understanding the science behind climate change is really important. And I think the general population just hasn't done that deep dive. I did it with my students, because that was important to me. But that's not everyone's experience. And so I think that's when it becomes easier to deny a situation is if you don't understand the contributing factors.
What was your involvement in the LD 1902 campaign?
I wrote a testimony about how Portland schools has been teaching climate, it would not be a new concept for us to be teaching climate science to the students of Portland.
I think it's important to meet people where they are. I can speak for the Portland teachers: middle and high school teachers are teaching climate change. So what would be the next step? Like, what would help make their unit more robust or sophisticated? What's the next step for them might be very different from another part of the state where they're not teaching it yet, and they just need some really strong curriculum to go from.
How does climate education connect with outdoor learning?
We are embedding experiential, outdoor learning experiences into all of the elementary units. It will become seamless that when you're doing science, you're also out outdoors engaging in the outdoors. You might also be learning about indigenous worldviews. All of that will be part of our elementary students experiences.
Interview with Carey Hotaling, April 2023.