Educating Heather

First-person narratives bring climate change closer to home

By Lauren G. McClanahan

Illustrator: Lauren McClanahan and Kwig High School students

Kwigillingok as seen from the air.
The Bering Sea is in the background.
Photos: courtesy Lauren McClanahan and Kwig High School students

So, is her house actually sinking?”

“Yes, Heather, it is.”

“But, that’s so sad! I want to do something about that!”

No doubt my preservice secondary education student, Heather, is familiar with the topic of climate change. Everywhere we look, we see media coverage. But there still seems to be something missing. There still appears to be a disconnect, for my preservice teachers, anyway, between what they read about online and what they see in their day-to-day lives. And this has huge implications for their futures as public school teachers. One way to address this disconnect has been to put a face to the topic of climate change. By connecting all of my “Heathers” to students who live in places where climate change is having actual, observable effects, a topic that was once only theoretical to many of my students becomes real.

Kwigillingok, Alaska, vs. Bellingham, Wash.

My teacher-ed students at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., come from multiple walks of life, are at different points in their educational and working careers, and have different goals for their futures as middle and high school teachers. However, one commonality that my students tend to share is their geography. Most hail from western Washington state?up and down the “I-5” corridor. Take the freeway north, and in 15 minutes, you’re in Canada. A few hours south, and you’ve crossed into Oregon. On a daily basis, my students don’t give much thought to climate change. No doubt, many claim to be “green” through-and-through. They recycle, use compact fluorescent bulbs, and buy local whenever possible. And these efforts are important; but as for the big changes?the catastrophic ones happening in our circumpolar regions?my students just don’t see it. In contrast, the students of Kwigillingok, Alaska, see these changes every day and can document firsthand how their village is changing because of them.

Kwigillingok is a small Yup’ik fishing village in western Alaska that sits along the Bering Sea. With a population of about 400, the residents depend on a subsistence culture to survive, much as they have done for thousands of years. Fishing, hunting, and creating and selling crafts are as integral today as they have been for centuries. However, our warming earth is now threatening that culture.

I began working with the students of “Kwig” several years ago, when one of my former students was hired to teach in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. What started as a simple pen-pal relationship between her high school students and my college students slowly transformed into the project described here. And while the students have changed over the years, the questions that they were asking of one another became more focused, until we decided that the topic of climate change was the main issue that everyone wanted to discuss.

The biggest challenge faced by the residents of Kwig is the melting of the permafrost, that layer of frozen ground that lies just below the earth’s surface and that is supposed to stay frozen year-round. Recently, that permafrost has begun to melt, and as a result, major changes are taking place. Many homes and other structures in the village are beginning to sink, leaning to one side as the permafrost they were built upon begins to shift. In addition to sinking homes, new, invasive species of plants are beginning to take root and grow, which in turn is slowly changing the migratory patterns of big game such as the local musk ox populations. Fishing, too, has been affected by the warming trend, and fish camps have had to relocate depending on the changing location of the fish. These are big changes that can be seen and felt and experienced daily in the lives of Kwig’s high school students. It was these changes that they wanted to tell us about, to tell the future teachers “down there” to share with all of their future students. They wanted to let everyone know that climate change is real and has a face and a name?hence the “First Person Singular” project. This was a project to create a warning for the rest of us, those of us who do not have to prop our houses up with sandbags or who do not have to go hungry due to a lack of fish in our rivers. Or at least not yet.

The “First Person Singular” Project

As mentioned, the relationship between Kwig and WWU began when a former student of mine was hired into the district. I had always been interested in Native cultures and found this to be an opportunity to weave that interest into the literacy classes that I teach. The more the students shared with us about their culture and their harsh, yet beautiful landscape, the more I felt as if I had to visit. In an initial visit, I met with the teachers and students at several village schools. I saw firsthand what the students of this region had to share with my students, not only from a cultural perspective, but also a scientific one as we delved deeper into the issue of climate change and its effect on their culture.

Recently, one of my current students approached me about completing his student teaching internship at the Kwig school. “I just want a very rural, very challenging school setting,” he told me. Well, did I have the place for him! Luckily, my intrepid student would not mind hauling his own water, which is what he would have to do, since many of the buildings in Kwig have no running water. He did, however, have the luxury of a newly installed incinerator toilet in his cabin?preferable to a Honey Bucket. Before he left, my student (a future English teacher) and I had talked about doing a project with his students that would combine disciplines and allow the students’ own voices to be heard. The concept of place-based education, of focusing curriculum on local issues, had been an important part of our university classes, and my student wanted to try it out. He liked the combination of using the local setting as the classroom, and letting his students “direct” their learning?two of the main components of place-based education. So, with his students’ input, a project was decided upon, and I made plans to come up and help facilitate the project after he eased into his new role as student teacher. I figured that another visit would give me an opportunity not only to formally observe my student teacher, but also work in person with this project and these students that I had been thinking about for some time.

Before I traveled to Kwig for the second time, I asked the high school students (with whom I communicated by email) to photograph any evidence of climate change that they could see in their village. Then, once I arrived, my student teacher and I sat down with each student to talk about the photos they had taken. This technique of using “auto-driven photo elicitation” (as it is called in the field of visual studies) proved to be beneficial. Auto-driven photo elicitation is simply when people involved in a research study take their own photographs, and use those photos as the basis for later interviews (Clark, 1999). The photos gave us a starting point?something on which to focus our conversation. Otherwise, I was afraid that the conversation might become too abstract, or even too uncomfortable (seeing as how the students had never met me face-to-face, but only through email). However, by focusing on the photos, we were able to get to the heart of what was important to the students. After all, we were talking about their photos, of evidence of climate change in their village.

Due to the melting of the permafrost, many homes in Kwigillingok are beginning to sink.
Photos: courtesy Lauren McClanahan

After we spent time talking about the photos (individually and as a group), I asked students to pick a favorite photo and write about why it was the best choice to illustrate the effects of climate change. Because we had talked about the photos first, the writing part was easy. They could describe, in detail, why their photos mattered, and why their audience, my preservice teachers, needed to know about them. Then, after they had written their paragraphs, I asked students to read their paragraphs (or parts of their paragraphs) into a digital voice recorder so that we could incorporate their own voices (literally) into our final product. One of the students even volunteered to play the piano so that our project would have a soundtrack.

One of the students photographed a leaning building. He described it this way:

The world is changing. It’s getting warmer and warmer. Ice is melting everywhere, even underground. The melting of the permafrost causes hills, houses, and other buildings to sink. Permafrost is a section in the ground where everything is frozen. It melts and refreezes around the year, but lately, there has been more melt than freeze. If we don’t do something, we could lose this beautiful land that we lived in for thousands of years, forever.” He then wrote the same paragraph in his native Yup’ik language, and read them both aloud. This was powerful. Another student photographed seagulls that were hanging around later in the season than usual. She explained that “it’s unusual for them to still be here [in October], which suggests that [the ground] is not as cold as it looks.

Once the paragraphs had been written and recorded, students responded to several prompts that they created themselves, such as, “What is worth preserving in Kwig?” One student responded, “We don’t have a lot of money. We need to stay near the ocean so we can fish. We don’t want to have to move farther and farther back every few years. We can’t leave, but we can’t stay, either.” When asked what message they wanted to send to the preservice teachers in Washington, one student said, “Please understand that what you do down there has a great impact on us up here. Understand that we’re all in this together. Climate change doesn’t just affect polar bears?it affects people, too.”

The project’s final phase was to put our photos, words, and voices into a very short iMovie. The students helped plan the sequencing, and then we put it together. And while the “film” was only four and a half minutes long, it sent a strong message to the preservice teachers it was meant to educate. After viewing the movie, one of my preservice teachers wrote, “Now that I know this?now that I have seen these kids’ faces and heard their stories?I can’t ?un-know’ it. Now I have to decide what I can do about it, both in my classroom, and in my everyday life.”

Larger Implications

Place-based education, while not a new concept, is particularly well-suited for the inclusion of student voices. With its aim of grounding learning in local phenomena and students’ lived experience (Smith, 2002), it can be easily adapted to fit any number of school curricula. For example, nearly every city or town has local issues that can be studied in greater depth, be they environmental issues (toxic wastewater), social justice issues (migrant workers’ access to health care), or issues dealing with the economy (how city taxes are used to fund local schools). In the case of our project, climate change was an obvious topic for exploration, given our fortunate connection with students in the far North. Plus, the topic fits nicely into the definition of “sustainability education.” Within WWU’s Woodring College of Education, our underlying assumption is that education for sustainability (as opposed to education about sustainability) will result in citizens who are more likely to engage in personal behavior or contribute to public policy decisions in the best interest of the environmental commons and future generations (Nolet, 2009).

Personal Implications

When students take control of their learning, and take control of how that learning can be demonstrated, amazing things can happen. For the Kwig high school students, they learned that they had not only some very important things to say, but also an audience that was receptive to and respectful of their words and ideas. For my preservice teachers, they learned that they are not the experts on everything, and sometimes they have to step aside to let the experts step forward (in this case, the students themselves). This idea of relinquishing power in the classroom can intimidate a new teacher, but it is an important lesson, especially regarding student engagement.

After viewing the high school students’ film, my preservice teachers had a lot to say about place-based education, and how this project connects students to their local communities, and society as a whole. One student commented, “Obviously, the kids in the movie care about what is happening to their homes and land. We need that heart in schools, or what they are learning means nothing.”

Many students also commented on the topic of climate change. “Now I know why I take the time to recycle! It’s not much, but it’s a small step I can take to help preserve the world’s cultures.” Another student said, “Now that I know this?about the challenges facing Kwig due to climate change?I feel obligated to do something about it.” Climate change now has a name and a face. It’s personal.

Similar projects that focus on topics of local concern could be created within other curricula. Any place-based study could benefit from hearing the voices of those most affected. Travel to each place is certainly not mandatory. Using even simple technology such as email or Skype could connect classrooms across town or across the world. Because, in the end, it is all about the relationships that can be forged as a result of storytelling. The more we know about others through their stories, in their own voices, the more inspired we might be to recognize those voices in our own.


Clark, C. (1999). The autodriven interview: A photographic viewfinder into children’s experience.
Visual Sociology, 14, 39-50.

Nolet, V. W. (2009). Preparing sustainably literate teachers.
Teachers College Record, 111(5).

Smith, G. A. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are.
Phi Delta Kappan (April), 584-594.

Lauren G. McClanahan ( is a professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.