I found Susan huddled in the corner making a new cover for the book. She had drawn cartoon flames leaping around angry faces, and as I peered over her shoulder she wrote enormous bubble letters across the top: “Stupid Book of Wrongness.” I looked at her quizzically. “Well,” she replied, “that’s how I feel about it!”
This moment was indicative of my students’ initial reaction to the book the Heartland Institute ostensibly sent to every science teacher in the country, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming. My students yelled, they cackled, and even as they “silently” read and annotated a Newsela article about the Heartland Institute’s campaign, they continually interrupted with loud objections.
Another teacher at my school had received the book in the mail and immediately showed it to me. I had been teaching about climate change with my 3rd and 4th graders all year. We had experimented with heat and light, created artistic models of melting glaciers and deforestation, analyzed primary documents by figures from the Industrial Revolution, and sent letters to our representatives in local and national government advocating for reforestation and sustainable energy legislation. At times I struggled to convey the abstract concept of a changing climate to my young students. In one sense, then, I was pleased to see their vehement reaction to the Heartland Institute’s book. Their objections showed I had convinced them of the reality and urgency of climate change.
Yet my initial reaction was soon complicated by an insight from one of my students. Ben came over to my desk and asked, “Mr. Eric, I don’t understand why you’re showing us this book. It’s completely against everything you’ve taught us this year!” I asked him what he thought. He said he wasn’t sure and sat down to ruminate. I saw him looking around at his peers yelling out. A minute later he came back. As often happens, his answer was steps beyond what I was thinking.
“I get it now. See how angry everyone is at this book? Imagine if you had taught us, instead, that climate change wasn’t real, and then showed us a book about climate change. We would have had the same reaction,” Ben said. “So, you’re trying to show us how people react when they see something that’s totally against what they’ve learned.”
From Ben’s perspective, his peers’ reaction wasn’t exciting — it was troubling. And, the more I thought about it, the more I had to agree. The students were responding the way any 9- or 10-year-olds would have responded to information that contradicted their opinions. I was fortunate to be teaching in an area where the various bubbles the students lived in — school, family, community — were pretty much in agreement as to the reality of climate change. But in a different school space and with a different teacher, they could have just as easily been reacting to a scientific article about how greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change.
We gathered together for our article discussion and students continued to pass around the book. When we talked about how we wanted to respond, their most frequent idea was that we should “sue the Heartland Institute for sending out wrong information.”
However, when Ben shared his insight with the group, the conversation shifted to the importance of education. Another student recalled an opinion piece we had read earlier in the year by Felipe Caldern, the former president of Mexico and chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, who asserted that education is the most important weapon in the fight against climate change. The students decided that they wanted to respond to the Heartland Institute’s act of misinformation with their own act of education: a packet about climate change to send out to other schools.
We brainstormed various ideas about what to include in the packet. Some students wanted to videotape our discussion about the Heartland Institute. Others wanted to create a play about climate change. It was almost the end of the year and we didn’t have much time, so we settled on four items to create and include in a packet: a short podcast, a list of resources for teaching about climate change, climate change poems, and a “mythbusters” brochure about common climate change myths.
For me, the podcast was perhaps the most powerful of these items. It reminded me that — despite all our training and expertise — students are often the most effective at communicating important ideas to other students.
Christian, for example, wrote in his podcast script:
“Did you know that chocolate may disappear?”
“Yes. The climate is not suiting the plants like cacao, so they may vanish.”
“No! The world wouldn’t be the world without chocolate!”
“Maybe we can keep chocolate forever, if we can find people to act quickly and spread the word!”
“We need your help to make things right. Please help us stop climate change. Because it could affect you as a human.”
“And if you do, you will be noticed for your good deeds.”
“Yes, you will!”
This experience reminded me of the power we as educators hold to shape the way our students see the world. Terrifyingly, in a recent survey of 1,500 U.S. teachers published in Science (“Climate confusion among U.S. teachers“), 30 percent reported teaching that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” and an additional 12 percent did not emphasize human causes. As teachers and as students, we need to reach out to our peers across the country to help shift the way climate change is taught.
. . . and Rethinking Schools vs. the Heartland Institute
In the spring, Rethinking Schools learned that the free market, fossil fuel-funded Heartland Institute was in the process of distributing its propaganda book, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, to every science teacher in the United States. Their grand effort to sow doubt among teachers and students about the very existence of climate change came as the climate crisis continued to announce itself with increasing fury, as Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, and as Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was busy removing every environmental regulation he could find.
In response, Rethinking Schools launched a campaign to distribute hundreds of copies of our book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, to teachers in the six states that, according to VICE News, have been most polluted by climate-denial education legislation — like the binding senate resolution in Idaho that eliminated any mention of “climate change and human impact on the environment” in the state’s science standards. In addition to Idaho, the five other states are Florida, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
We posted a call to the Rethinking Schools community for donations to support this campaign. Our appeal noted that “teachers desperately need resources to teach the truth about climate change and to counter the Heartland Institute’s materials that are flooding into schools.” More than $7,000 in donations poured in, many with comments attached, like this one from Heidi Schran: “As a high school science teacher in Ohio, I was recently outraged when I received a copy of the Heartland Institute’s propaganda in my school mailbox.”
Requests for copies of our book came from teachers in each of the six states. We expected mostly to hear from science teachers, but teachers across the curricular spectrum were infuriated by the Heartland Institute’s book and wanted alternative materials for their classrooms. We asked teachers to tell us a little about themselves and why they wanted a copy of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth to use with students.
A middle school language arts teacher in Texas wrote: “I teach on the southeast side of San Antonio, in a school where 90-plus percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Climate change has the greatest impact on those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum. I hope that my students are inspired to make change that benefits their community and also the world.”
A high school science teacher from Tallahassee, Florida, wrote that she wanted a copy of the book “to educate students about the truth of climate change and the huge problem we are faced with in the future if we don’t do our best to stop it and make a cleaner earth.”
Over the summer, we shipped hundreds of copies of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth to teachers in the six states.
As egregious as the Heartland Institute’s book is, the sad truth is that the textbook industry has long adopted a skeptical stance toward the human causes of climate change. This is one reason the school board in Portland, Oregon, unanimously adopted a “climate justice” resolution in 2016, calling on the school district to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”
It’s critical that schools reject the Heartland Institute’s propaganda, but it’s no less important that teachers, parents, and community members work to create a curriculum that helps students think deeply about the causes and consequences of climate change — and what all of us can do about it. The hostility of the Trump administration to climate sanity makes this work urgent.
— Bill Bigelow, Rethinking Schools Curriculum Editor