Graceann Griffin was in the middle of revamping curricula when the state released its new climate change learning standards in 2020. 

Griffin, who teaches both STEAM and Gifted and Talented classes at Kenilworth Public Schools in Union County, said she included climate change in her lessons before it became a requirement. However, implementing it as a New Jersey Department of Education standard has made the process more intentional for Griffin. “I zero in on it more and cover different aspects of it,” she said. “I know I have to hit these standards.” 

A Global Approach While climate change is a natural fit for science and STEAM, the New Jersey standards were the first in the nation to embed climate change across subject areas. The 2020 directives covered all content areas except for English language arts and math; new standards for those subjects will be released this year with a climate change requirement. 

The NJDOE provides climate change performance expectations for each grade level, but districts are encouraged to develop their own ways to create “authentic learning experiences” in subjects such as social studies, world languages and visual and performing arts. 

Samantha Heimple, director of curriculum, instruction and innovation at Kenilworth Public Schools, welcomes the challenge of bringing climate change education into every classroom. “We are just beginning to see a deeper understanding of how these standards can be incorporated into all subject areas,” said Heimple, who recently attended a professional development session on climate change presented by Gilbert Gonzalez, director of the NJDOE’s Office of Innovation. 

The standards are designed to engage students in thinking about the long-lasting environmental impact of their everyday actions, Heimple explained. “Students will learn how to consider multiple perspectives, analyze data and propose solutions. This is why it is so important that climate change is broached across all subject areas and not isolated to the sciences,” she said. 

Heimple is pleased to see Kenilworth teachers channel their enthusiasm for the standards into planning activities and lessons. 

Hands-on Learning Media teacher Karen Goger has found fun and age-appropriate ways to weave the standards into K-5 students’ lessons. She uses a small garden behind the school to teach the youngest students about the environment – and to bring to life the books they read together about plants and taking care of the earth. 

Older grades study climate change and the environment as part of their technology instruction. The lessons can take different forms, but all involve critical thinking skills, Goger noted. “Some students watch videos about how humans impact the environment and then use an applied digital skills lesson to create a photo journal. Other grades read articles on climate change and then use an applied digital skills lesson to decide if the article is credible or could be biased,” she said. 

Instructional coach Dawn Horling is also working to bolster climate-centered activities in the district. She was so inspired by a professional development workshop on creating devices that power green energy, she sought grant money to replicate the experience for students. 

“I’m really excited for them to collaborate on something that lets them work with real-world problems and come up with real-world solutions,” Horling said. 

The total of $8,660 in funding, from Sustainable Jersey for Schools and an NJDOE  Climate Awareness Grant, also is being used for environmental science students’ work on the high school courtyard and pond, among other projects. 

Other Kenilworth teachers are also encouraging active learning about sustainability and climate change. Some high school students and teachers are participating in a crop/food-sharing program to benefit a local charity. A sixth-grade teacher has planted trees with her students around Arbor Day. 

Griffin, the STEAM teacher, helps her fourth-grade students learn about coastal erosion by simulating natural conditions in a pan. The students place “houses” on a beach made of dirt and rocks and see if the houses hold up when they pour in water. Her sixth-grade students explored sustainability by building cardboard arcade games from reusable materials as part of the Global Cardboard Challenge. 

When her students are creating hands-on projects, Griffin takes a hands-off approach so they can “try and succeed on their own,” she said. 

In doing so, students develop the critical thinking skills that are so integral to climate change lessons. Griffin even teaches a unit on divergent thinking. 

“It’s out-of-the-box thinking, it’s not just a yes or no answer. We talk about how it’s not just two plus two equals four … it’s all the different ways we can make four,” she said. “It’s a different way of thinking, and we are going to need all of that. An out-of-the-box thinker will create the next solution for the climate.” 

Sheri Berkery, works with New Jersey school districts as a senior account manager with laura bishop communications.