Polar Bears on Mission Street

Fourth graders take on climate change

By Rachel Cloues

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

In June, when my students and I reflected on the highlights of their 4th-grade year, I was moved to learn how deeply the class was affected by our Polar Bear/Global Warming Project. They felt a strong sense of accomplishment about this community service project, which for me had been a big lesson in activism and hope.

“The project was a lot of work, but it was fun too,” one student told me. Several of them asked, “If we want, can we keep working on it over the summer?” One of the students, Cecilia, explained that at first her dad did not believe in global warming, but by the end of our project she felt she had convinced him it’s an important-and real-problem.

It all began with an article, “Feeling the Heat,” in Time for Kids magazine, about the sad plight of the polar bears as they face melting summer ice. I read the article out loud to my class, hoping to familiarize them with the issue of global warming. Not surprisingly, the text brought up many complex concepts for my 9- and 10-year old students, all English language learners, some of them newcomers. (My school, Sanchez Elementary, is located near San Francisco’s Mission District and is comprised of 63 percent English language learners, predominantly Spanish-speaking). I struggled to find clear ways to answer their questions and respond to their comments, realizing that although I understand the basics of climate change, I wasn’t prepared-emotionally-to talk about it with children. I felt completely hopeless about the possibilities of slowing global warming or doing anything that could help the polar bears.

“I know!” one student, Maria Luisa, offered enthusiastically. “Let’s collect money to save the polar bears!”

“This isn’t really the kind of problem money can just fix,” I responded curtly. I admit that I was overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem and my students’ earnest, yet understandably naïve, desire to find a quick solution. How could I explain to 4th graders that the world, especially this country, has a (literally) life-threatening addiction to fossil fuels? Or that the oil industry dominates government decisions? Or that policy change moves slowly and often backwards? I couldn’t figure out how to convey hope to my students, or in any way be positive about the looming crisis of global warming.

Of course we had a brief discussion of simple, proactive steps offered in the article (turn off lights, drive less) but after that, I pretty much dropped the topic of global warming. I didn’t feel like I had the tools or the inspiration to tackle the issue with my students. However, it kept coming up in my classroom, over and over during the next several weeks; my students were fascinated by the polar bears!

“Polar Bear SOS”

In the springtime, my principal asked all of the teachers at our school to carry out a community service project with our classes to honor Cesar Chávez, whose birthday is a state holiday in California. He suggested simple possibilities such as cleaning the school yard, working with younger students, or collecting garbage at a local park. Our timeline: one week to carry out the project and present it to the school for Cesar Chávez Day.

Around that same time, a friend forwarded me an e-mail from the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council asking for contributions to fund an educational advertisement for national television. NRDC’s “Polar Bear SOS” campaign was supporting a proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bears as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and it was also raising awareness about global warming. The poignant ad, narrated by children, showed photos of polar bears struggling to survive in their melting habitat. Viewers would be encouraged to submit comments online at NRDC.org in support of the Endangered Species Act proposal. If the bears become officially recognized as “Threatened,” then the government will be required to take steps to protect them. And since melting arctic ice is now indisputably linked to global warming, this opens up possibilities for legal support requiring car manufacturers and industries to reduce carbon emissions. I decided to tell my students about the campaign, retract my statement about money not being helpful in solving the problem of global warming, and see if they wanted to raise funds to send to NRDC.

There were a few other ideas for community service projects, but the 4th graders voted unanimously to take on a fundraiser for the newly named Room 18 Polar Bear Project. They really liked the idea of doing something in response to the article we had read, which seemed to have created significant empathy for the polar bears. Taking into account that my school’s families are generally poor (71 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch), I adopted a very modest attitude about the project. “If you want to ask your parents for a couple of dollars to donate, that would be great,” I told them. “Bring in what you can.” I also told my students that we would be spending the next few days learning as much as we could about global warming.

That evening, I spent some time thinking about and planning a few lessons to get us started. I was aware of the short timeline, but I felt like breaking away from our nominally scripted curriculum and desk work and focusing on an issue relevant not only to our school community, but to the global community. In the spirit of Cesar Chávez, who confronted injustice directly and thought out of the box, it seemed worth tackling. A key point I wanted to help students comprehend is that the polar bears are in danger of losing their unique habitat due, in large part, to the actions of humans. By understanding and teaching others about the causes and effects of global warming, we could begin to help solve the problem. A different part of this project, I realized, was teaching students that another way to create change is by financially supporting organizations that work toward the same goal on a larger scale.

I found helpful resources on San Francisco’s excellent Department of the Environment web site (sfenvironment.org). I downloaded and copied short, kid-friendly articles with graphics in both English and Spanish. I asked students to work in small groups and use highlighters to pick out and discuss interesting facts and concepts. Then, as a large group, we talked about what questions had come up. I tried to clarify confusing sections, for example those involving the atmosphere, by drawing pictures and making diagrams on the whiteboard. The next day I took my class to the computer lab where we explored NRDC’s web site, including the polar bear ad. We read about how cars and industries overload the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, exacerbating the greenhouse effect. Because we live in an urban community, it was easy for my students to see how too many cars on the road create air pollution, and understand the benefits of public transportation. My students underlined these important facts and other information in their copies of the articles, and each of them went home that day with the information in Spanish. I asked them to share what they were learning with their families.

In an attempt to better convey the concept of the greenhouse effect, which was difficult for my students to grasp, I designed a simple, age-appropriate model. I used a small, stuffed cloth earth ball and put it inside a plastic zip-lock bag. In front of the students, I blew air into the bag and sealed it, to show them how the atmosphere is a thin layer of air around our planet. I took the earth ball out, dampened it with water, and put it back inside the bag. We put the model in the sun for an hour or so, and while the water heated up, evaporated and condensed on the inside of the bag, the children began to see how the earth stays warm enough to sustain life.

“It’s just like the windows on our car,” one student said. “When it’s sunny outside, it gets really hot inside!”

“Exactly,” I replied. “Some heat feels good and is important so animals and plants can live on Earth. But pollution in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide, traps heat and makes the planet too hot.”

“That’s why glaciers and ice caps are melting!” My students seemed to make the connection back to the polar bear article. The plastic bag did, indeed, function as a real greenhouse. It was a rough model, but it was better than nothing.

I suggested that the class figure out a way to share their learning with other students in the school, so that our project might have a bigger impact. An artistic group, the students quickly decided to make bilingual posters to put up around the school, in the shape of polar bears, with tips to stop global warming. All over the school we posted these messages: “Take the bus instead of driving,” “Ride your bike and walk more,” “Turn off your lights when you’re not using them,” and “Donate money to NRDC.org in Room 18 to help the polar bears!” If we had had more time, it would have been great to send pairs of students from our classroom to visit each classroom in the school. As it was, a couple of students wrote a letter to distribute to every teacher, to be read out loud to their classes. The letter explained our project and asked for contributions to our campaign for the polar bears. “Dear Teachers and Students,” it began. “We are learning about Global Warming in Room 18. You can help by not using your cars because the pollution is going into the atmosphere…”

Esteban’s Success

On day three of our project, an amazing thing happened. One of my students, Esteban, arrived with his parents at our classroom door, holding fistfuls of money, which he eagerly thrust toward me-crumpled dollar bills and coins, all spilling onto the floor. Excitedly, he explained to me that the previous evening he had walked down Mission Street-the bustling, lively center of the predominantly Latino Mission District where he lives-and talked to passersby about our Polar Bear Project. Esteban had carried around his copies of the bilingual articles, which explain the basics of global warming, and he shared them with the strangers who stopped to talk with him on the street. “If they spoke English, I showed them the article in English, and if they spoke Spanish, I used the one in Spanish,” Esteban explained to me when I asked him how he had approached the passersby. “I just told people about why it’s important to help the polar bears, and how we can stop global warming. I told them our class is raising money to send to NRDC.”

When we counted out Esteban’s money, it turned out to be over $100, and nobody could have been prouder than Esteban (though his parents were very proud, too). His classmates and I were amazed and impressed, and everybody was energized to try to raise more money. “I’m going to ask everybody in my apartment building to donate money!” shouted several students.

By the end of the week, Room 18 had raised almost $300, and everybody in our school was talking about the Polar Bear Project. Children from other classrooms would come to our door to drop their quarters, dimes and nickels into our can. Teachers, volunteers, and our school principal all contributed money.

What thrilled me the most, however, was the way the term global warming was rolling off the tongues of my 4th graders. They were able to articulate, to anyone dropping by, concepts like what produces greenhouse gases; how the atmosphere traps heat; why polar caps and glaciers are melting; and, most importantly, many of the simple ways we can all help curb the problem. I was relieved to realize that the project had moved beyond a “Save the Polar Bears” campaign and toward genuine understanding of a complex global problem. When I looked around at my class-100 percent engaged in making posters, writing letters, reading more information, and counting money-I also realized they were getting an authentic taste of activism. Esteban, who is a smart but sometimes socially awkward kid, was the obvious leader and hero of our campaign.

Cesar Chávez Day

The Polar Bear Project culminated on the day before Cesar Chávez Day, when our school welcomed Rita C. and Lydia Medina, the sister and niece of Cesar Chávez, who spoke to students and staff. These women, along with other family members, have established non-profit organizations to promote and apply the legacy of Cesar Chávez. Rita Medina, well into her eighties, continues to march each year in support of farm workers. After some inspiring words from these great activists and leaders in the farm workers’ movement, each class presented their community service project.

My students were visibly proud. Together as a class, they stood holding their posters and talked about the issue they had taken on and the money they had raised to help the polar bears, who, they explained, are part of our global community. “The ice where polar bears live is melting, and we want to help save them. We need to stop global warming,” they told our school community. Rita and Lydia Medina congratulated me and my students and told us how impressed they were with our example of activism. They said their brother and uncle, Cesar Chávez, would be proud. They pulled out their pocket books in front of everybody and contributed their own donations to our can of funds. It was an incredible honor to be recognized publicly by two such inspiring social justice leaders.

That evening, I sent our donation to NRDC. My attitude toward teaching about global warming had completely changed. I still feel overwhelmed by the problem, of course, but the feeling of hopelessness has been replaced with a real sense of hope. I am inspired that a classroom of kids cared enough to go out and ask for money to help save the polar bears. By deciding to walk down Mission Street and talk about global warming, Esteban inspired many of his classmates to go out and talk about what they were learning. Their ability to speak two languages was clearly an important tool.

The children felt empowered by the information they learned from reading and discussing, as well as the sizable fund they collected. Everybody, including myself, seemed energized after stepping away from textbooks, workbooks, and standardized tests and focusing on a hands-on project. They acted, spoke, and felt like activists. Then, fortunately, they had the opportunity to be recognized by adult activists who look like them and share their linguistic and cultural background.

I also realize that I can and should teach students about global warming, whether it is overwhelming to me or not. It is a community service project-in the largest sense of the word community-to which all teachers can contribute by sharing information with their students. NRDC sent polar bear bookmarks and a handwritten thank-you card to my class. They ran their ad on television and thousands of people responded in support of placing polar bears on the Threatened and Endangered Species list.

There is growing publicity and, perhaps, a shift in consciousness regarding global warming in our communities. The example of Cesar Chávez and his family reminds me that turning knowledge into action is powerful, and creates the potential to overcome what at first seems impossible.

Good Resources:

Global Warming Alert!by Richard Cheel
Teaching About Climate Change: Cool Schools Tackle Global Warming
edited by Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn.

Time For Kids Magazine online
(search: global warming)

Environmental Protection Agency

“What Is Global Warming?” 
(article available in English, Spanish, and Chinese) www.sfenvironment.com/aboutus/school/teacher/fact_sheets.htm

Rachel Cloues (rkcloues@hotmail.com) teaches 4th-5th grade at Sanchez Elementary in San Francisco. Her article “Learning from Worms” appears in the new edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms: Volume 1.