Imagining Climate Futures
Fifth and Sixth Graders Write Place-Based Speculative Fiction
Illustrator: Brian Stauffer
As I prepared a new climate change curriculum for my students, I came across the work of deep ecologist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. Macy writes:
We are in a space without a map. With the likelihood of economic collapse and climate catastrophe looming, it feels like we are on shifting ground, where old habits and old scenarios no longer apply. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bardo. It is frightening. It is also a place of potential transformation.
How could climate pedagogies begin to provide maps to these futures, to these crises and transformations? One route I was curious to explore was speculative fiction. I hoped that writing stories about the future of the places we love could help students begin to envision the realities and possibilities of the coming decades. Perhaps fiction could start to fill in the imaginative gaps between the world we are living in and the world we are moving toward.
At the time, I was teaching 5th and 6th grade in a multi-age inclusion classroom at the Mission Hill School, a Boston public pilot school. I decided to weave climate justice work into a district-mandated ELA rain forest unit — which had vague conservation undertones but lacked a clear political analysis. I introduced a series of essential questions for the unit, including:
• How is the climate crisis affecting people and places around the world?
• How are organizers working together to protect people and the planet?
• How can we take action about the climate crisis through storytelling?
During a month-long multidisciplinary project, students investigated the present of a special place in their lives by writing odes and taking photos, and then wrote speculative fiction to imagine the future. Finally, the class combined our poems, photos, and stories to create an interactive digital map that we shared with our school and city communities.
This article focuses on the speculative fiction pieces. For resources connected to the poems and photography, see Michelle Nicola’s “Teaching to the Heart” (Rethinking Schools, summer 2017) and Mary Beth Meehan and Julie Nora’s “Seen from Within” in the Resources section of this article. A folder of resources from my curriculum is also provided there, along with a link to the class’s map.
* * *
Each student began by choosing a special place in their lives. Many students chose parks or beaches in Greater Boston. One student chose her uncle’s hotel in Cape Verde. I struggled with how much to push them to choose natural places versus human-constructed ones. Of course, this boundary is messy, and human-made places will also be impacted by climate change, so I ended up allowing a few students to choose organizations or businesses: a local café, an animal shelter. As a guideline, I thought ahead to our writing projects and considered whether they would be able to research and imagine possible impacts of climate change on these places.
At the beginning of the unit, although a handful of students reported having heard about climate change, almost no one said they were comfortable explaining what it meant. For students to write about the ways their special place would be affected by climate change, I knew they needed to deepen their understanding. Although we did read some of the district-mandated curriculum resources about the rain forest, we focused on analyzing excerpts from climate-focused books by authors such as Naomi Klein (annotated for accessibility), Molly Bang, Harriet Rohmer, and Loll Kirby (see Resources).
As they read, students took notes on graphic organizers about the causes and effects of the climate crisis — as well as possible solutions and organizing tactics. They saved these resources to use while planning their stories. We also used Bill Bigelow’s “Stories from the Climate Crisis: A Mixer” to further engage with ways people around the world are being affected by climate change.
Finally, to build students’ sense of climate organizers as real people, I invited several local high school members of the Sunrise Movement to have a Zoom meeting with my class. I wanted to make climate justice activism feel concrete and approachable for my students.
* * *
After several weeks of building background knowledge, students were ready to begin writing their speculative climate stories. During writer’s workshop, we gathered together to plan our stories. I asked students to visualize their special place and how it might change between now and 2050.
“Close your eyes and picture it’s 28 years in the future — the year 2050. You’re standing in your special place. Look around you. What’s the same? What’s changed? People have been taking bold action to fight the climate crisis, but some changes have happened nonetheless.” I demonstrated with my own example of a special place, a nearby beach I’ve visited since childhood. “There is still lots of sand, but the beach has moved higher up the hill because of flooding. Rocks are scattered along the beach because of storms. My friend’s house nearby had to be taken down because it was too close as the waters rose. My favorite oak tree is still standing on the path to the beach, though. I look in the water and see stinging jellyfish — the water is warmer so they can live there now. Do I still want to swim? What can I do to help protect this place from further change?”
After the visualization, students began to take notes for their draft. I listed the requirements:
• The setting for your story will be your “special place” in the year 2050.
• Your story will have a fictional protagonist who is a kid or teenager.
• As part of your story, you will show an effect of climate change and a solution to climate change. Your solution could be either something that helps protect people against the effects of climate change, or something that helps prevent more global warming.
• Your story will use one of the text structures we’ve studied in the unit (e.g., cause and effect, descriptive, chronological).
• You will also practice using sensory details and figurative language (e.g., similes and metaphors).
Students moved through scaffolded planning stages from characters, to climate effects and solutions, to setting, to plot. I taught mini-lessons to help them outline each of these features of their stories.
They began by designing their protagonists. Mia asked whether she could write from the perspective of an animal. I asked her not to, since I wanted her to focus on the human costs of climate change. But was that a mistake? Amitav Ghosh, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, asks: “What does it mean to live on Earth as though it were Gaia — that is to say, a living, vital entity in which many kinds of beings tell stories? And how does the planetary crisis appear when seen from that perspective?” Perhaps allowing Mia to take the point of view of a non-human organism would have been an important way to shift her, and her classmates’, frame of reference.
As students visualized the settings of their stories, their observations and questions gave me some insight into their shifting understandings of possible climate futures. Victor, for example, asked me: “Wait, but why does this matter for us? Is climate change definitely going to happen no matter what?”
“It will definitely happen some,” I responded, “but how much is a question of how we act now to prevent further warming.”
“So all cities will be underwater in 10 years?” he asked, alarmed.
I explained that some places will be more affected than others, that it was true that some places in the world will be flooded or underwater in the coming decades — but that it’s also important to think about actions we can take to protect these places.
“So people will have to move to other places?” Victor responded.
“That’s true,” I replied, thrilled he was making this connection. “What do you think our government’s responsibility is to those refugees? To refugees from other countries?”
“They should give them places to live,” Victor replied, confidently, and made a connection to his own family’s history of immigration from the Dominican Republic.
I wanted my students to know that organizing for climate justice is essential, and that it has the power to dramatically alter the world they will inherit. However, I also felt it was important to prepare them for the reality that they will not be able to avoid the climate crisis entirely. To me, “critical hope” in climate pedagogy means imagining a future in which our world has changed, but within which people have taken action — and continue to do so — to transform our communities and protect each other.
In the 2050 of students’ stories, characters grappled with the consequences of climate change in many areas of their lives. One character in Angie’s story asserted: “The rent for my parents is getting too high because of climate change. We might have to move out, meaning I’ll have to leave my friends.” I asked Angie where she had developed the idea of this connection between climate change and rising rents, and she pointed out that a similar problem had happened to the person she represented in the climate change mixer from earlier in our unit.
Taking inspiration from Klein’s descriptions of heat waves across the world, Johnny wrote a visceral opening to his story, in which his protagonist plays basketball: “It was a close game and he had the ball and it felt hot as a sauna. He was sweating and breathing heavily . . . then Terry passed out.”
Students’ descriptions of the effects of climate change moved beyond dry nonfiction: They offered concrete examples of how climate change will weave its way into the fabric of young people’s lives. Students also demonstrated a growing understanding of how the effects of climate change are unevenly distributed. Lucas’ character, for example, developed respiratory problems from an oil refinery in his neighborhood. He beautifully articulated links between capitalism, extractivism, and poverty:
Jayden was coughing on his bed. His throat was really sore and his voice was hoarse. . . . TotalEnergies keeps putting bad oil inside the towers. The towers were first built 50 years ago, in the year 2000. And they were excited when it first came out because they thought they could get better jobs or better paying jobs. But then they found out that it was throwing out bad air. . . . They knew something was wrong, then it started throwing out black smoke, then it started catching on fire . . . and that’s what caused the disease.
Although some students made the climate crisis the center of their stories, others situated it within other problems of their protagonists’ lives: school bullies, conflicts with parents, sports games. Maria’s main character, for example, evacuated her home after a flood. But most of the story revolves around other concerns, which Maria introduced in the first lines:
Nurali wakes up to a bright light shining on her face and there it was: her report card on her desk. She knew she was failing, and her mom couldn’t afford a tutor since her dad left and he took all her savings and left Mom with nothing but disappointment. She wanted to give Nurali a perfect life, but it was hard since they had nothing.
This integration of challenges felt realistic. Climate change will not replace other interpersonal and structural struggles; rather, it will continue to amplify them.
For students, developing realistic climate organizing actions and mitigation strategies in their stories was more challenging than describing the effects of climate change. At first, many listed “solve climate change” as the solution on their story planning document. I tried to push them to be specific: What actual action would their characters take? “Look back at your notes from your readings about climate activists and from the Sunrise Movement visit. What strategies are people using to protect people and places?” During individual and small group writing conferences, I encouraged students to envision responses that would correspond to the ways the climate crisis appeared in their stories. Students came up with a variety of creative solutions, many of which revealed an intersectional understanding of climate justice and the multitude of ways our communities will need to take action.
Some of the characters responded with local mitigation efforts. For example, Annalee’s story involved students leading reforestation efforts along a beach:
After school, I went to the Home Depot to get the seeds and Avery went straight to the beach. When I got there I got right to work. We didn’t have enough time to plant as many seeds as we wanted to because it got late fast . . .
In Rex’s story, caretakers at an animal hospital invested in cool rooms to reduce heat stress. Chloe’s character built a network of volunteers to care for a local pond ruined by an algae bloom.
Other characters experimented with strategies to force politicians to take action. Angie’s character staged a protest at a school talent show attended by the mayor:
So we all went on the stage and we started protesting about climate change. Saying things like stop cutting so many trees down. . . . We could see Mayor Jasper’s face turning red but we kept protesting and the crowd helped us and then mayor agreed to help with climate change and then there were rules like no cutting down a lot of trees or no polluting the air . . .
The revision process helped students develop more precise descriptions of climate change effects and solutions. I taught a series of mini-lessons focused on different skills, from developing realistic characters to adding sensory details. Students used a one-column rubric with scaffolded questions to revise their own stories, to revise a peer’s story, and to conference with me. For example, connecting to a mini-lesson about creating a realistic setting, the rubric asked: “Does the story describe the setting (your special place) effectively? Does the story make it clear it’s the year 2050? Does it describe at least two ways the setting is different in 2050 than in 2022?”
These revisions also led to more realistic and powerful depictions of climate activism. In one student’s first draft, for example, the protagonist confronted an executive from a fossil fuel company and explained how the company is contributing to climate change. “Oh, really?” responded the executive. “I didn’t know it was harming the planet!” This scenario, of course, was hard to believe. In a writing conference, I reminded the student of a text we had read earlier in the unit, about oil executives deceiving the public about the risks of climate change. His later drafts involved the character and his friends organizing a protest of the company instead.
In Angel’s first draft, an experience with a dangerous storm made young people protest in a vague, generalized way. But after revisions, his protagonist led young people to launch a direct action campaign to demand funds from the city government to repair a damaged playground:
Since the storm was partially caused by climate change, the Boston government and the company must pay for their protection. So he started a protest. The first thing he did was post it on Instagram and every social media. Then, people started commenting and joining the protest. Damarius and other people met together by a river and decided that they would send emails to the school and the business that created the structure. They told people to strike and not work. They told people to boycott the company and not work or buy anything. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of people joined in this protest. They all marched to City Hall. There was a huge crowd. They were chanting “Protect the kids! No more harm! Safe places! Stop climate change!” They waited all day at City Hall.
I was impressed that Angel’s description contained many features of successful organizing. These approaches were drawn from examples of activism we had studied throughout the year: a clear target and demand; a diversity of tactics; recruitment and absorption; an escalation arc. He imagined a future where kids continue to successfully take action to demand reparations from governments and companies.
* * *
With final drafts prepared, students were ready to create an interactive map. Using Google My Maps, each student placed a digital pin on their special place. Then, they combined their photograph, their ode, and their speculative fiction piece into a humanized description for the place. This map links Boston’s present and future through stories. We shared our map and our process with the school community in an assembly and in our school newsletter, and with the wider Boston community through the Facebook group of the radical publication A People’s Guide to Greater Boston. Another time, I could imagine sharing our work through an interactive community forum — or even posting printouts of our art and writing at the special places students wrote about.
In a profile of Kim Stanley Robinson, Joshua Rothman asserts that one of Robinson’s climate-focused science fiction books “tries to do what a news report can’t. It wants to offer us the experience of crossing the pass before we cross it — to give us a feeling for the routes we might take.” In writing speculative fiction about places they love, students can begin to imagine the concrete impacts of climate change on their lives — and how we can act to protect our communities and build a more just future.
Thank you to Jeannia Dotel, Priya Kumar, Matt Shuman, and Lisa Nam for their support throughout the development and teaching of the curriculum described in this article.
The interactive map with students’ photos, poems, and stories is available here: bit.ly/MHSBostonClimate
Resources from the unit, including handouts and readings, are available here: bit.ly/climatestoryresources
Bang, Molly and Penny Chisholm. 2014. Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. The Blue Sky Press.
The Intercept. 2019. A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. youtu.be/d9uTH0iprVQ
Kirby, Loll, illustrated by Adelina Lirius. 2021. Old Enough to Save the Planet. Abrams Books.
Klein, Naomi with Rebecca Stefoff. 2021. How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Rao, Anuradha. 2020. One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet. Orca Books.
Rohmer, Harriet, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin. 2009. Heroes of the Environment: True Stories of People Who Are Helping to Protect the Planet. Chronicle Books.
Soto, Gary. 2005. Neighborhood Odes. Clarion Books.
Bigelow, Bill. 2023. “Stories from the Climate Crisis: A Mixer.” Zinn Education Project. bit.ly/3lMrtZs
Conklin, Christina and Marina Psaros. 2021. The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis. The New Press.
Fishman, Eric. “Where Are the Climate Change Superheroes? Systems Thinking and Climate Activism in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.” Zinn Education Project. bit.ly/413DWIq
Ghosh, Amitav. 2021. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. University of Chicago.
Macy, Joanna. 2020. “Entering the Bardo.” Emergence Magazine, July 20. bit.ly/3I9oVfI
Meehan, Mary Beth and Julie Nora. 2018. “Seen from Within: Photography, Culture, and Community in a Dual-Language School.” In Art as a Way of Talking for Emergent Bilingual Youth, eds. B. R. Berriz, A. C. Wagner and V. M. Poey. Routledge.
Nicola, Michelle. 2017. “Teaching to the Heart: Poetry, Climate Change, and Sacred Spaces.” Rethinking Schools. bit.ly/3YCQy7O
Rothman, Joshua. 2022. “Can Science Fiction Wake Us Up to Our Climate Reality?” The New Yorker, Jan. 24. bit.ly/412E9M7
Various authors. “Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors.” Grist. bit.ly/3z6JdSU
Wallace-Wells, David. 2022. “The New World: Envisioning Life After Climate Change.” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 26. bit.ly/3I9yP0W