Teaching through COVID-19: Voices from the Climate Resiliency Fellowship, IV

We’ve asked teachers from our 2019-2020 Climate Resiliency Fellowship cohort to offer their thoughts on teaching about climate change – and teaching in general – through COVID-19. The Fellowship brings participants together over the course of a year for a series of learning retreats that combine inspiration, creativity and teamwork.  An outcome of this program is the design and implementation of an interdisciplinary climate action project. 

The Teachers:

Laurie Hickey, Language Arts Teacher on Team Phoenix, Hunt MS, Burlington, VT

Jana Fabri-Sbardellati, Global Citizenship Teacher on Team Phoenix, Hunt MS, Burlington, VT


Their Climate Action Project: Our team at Hunt Middle School has embarked upon an interdisciplinary unit about climate change and resiliency through the content lenses of social studies, science and language arts. Students began the project by learning about the science of climate change. In social studies, students then explored the historical, political, and economic factors contributing to climate change. Additionally, students were introduced to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The intention was to complete the project with individual research projects, rooted in students’ passions and which resulted in proposals to make some areas of our lives more sustainable.


How have you transitioned and adapted your climate change education work to a distance learning format? How has the COVID-19 crisis shifted your goals and expectations of your students?

When distance learning began in March, we thought we could continue the research piece of the project. In reality, we found that we weren’t able to give the students the individualized support they needed to be successful from a distance.  As a teaching team, we decided to “put the ball down” and to move onto other learning targets.

Additionally, we were told by the school district to focus on skills, rather than project-based work during this distance learning time.  We were also informed that the district would now shift to emphasize consistency across content teams instead of pursuing interdisciplinary work. Given these directives, we narrowed down the project. In social studies, students were given the opportunity to choose the topics they wanted to study: climate change, ancient world civilizations and current events. To our surprise and delight, at least half chose to continue the climate change study.

We look forward to trying this interdisciplinary project again, or an iteration of it, in the future.


What has been the biggest challenge for you as a teacher during this time and what have you needed to learn to meet this challenge?

Laurie: One of my most difficult take-aways is understanding what my own limits are. Instead of thinking, “I dropped the ball,” I’m now thinking, “I put the ball down.” 

Jana: We wanted to have students have voice and choice. In order to do that we need all kids engaged. How do we go about creating enthusiasm and energy for kids who aren’t engaged while we are teaching online? Also, teaching with students in their own homes has really highlighted the glaring equity gaps in resources, access and support that exist within our school community.

Laurie: Yes. The distance part of distance learning–not being in a peer group–led to the erosion of kids’ engagement in school. Additionally, there is the difficulty of communication when we’re not in a shared physical space.  The situation emphasized the challenge of how we do school–how do you help reluctant students to buy in and create something that helps them build the necessary skills? 


Emergence and Unexpected Gifts

What has surprise you about distance learning and teaching? What unexpected gifts have emerged for you and your students?

Jana: Something I realized is the need to be really intentional about my teaching. What do I really want them to learn and how am I going to help them to learn it?  I needed to continually plan and organize learning around specific learning targets: “Here’s a learning target. What’s the assessment? What’s the intervention? Repeat! “  Everything we’ve done for my social studies class has been a gradual release of skills and practice. During this period of distance learning,  I have found a way to do more intentional check-ins and have students  see me performing and applying the skills. It’s become so intentional, more step-by-step. I’m now more aware of these processes.

Laurie: There are students that I’ve been able to work with through Google Meets in a very deep way. That has been a huge gift. The one-on-one time has been invaluable and I’m connecting with students who might not have reached out to me in the physical classroom.

Laurie and Jana: Technology has also been an unexpected gift.  We’ve really needed to learn new skills. We are now much more proficient at online grading, creating movies, using Google Meets, meeting virtually–in using technology as a means to an end. This has forced us to become more tech-adept teachers. 

Laurie: It’s changed my thinking. The prospect of going back to school and having kids in masks and teachers in masks–it’s hard to read faces.  I may have to do a flipped classroom–use video so that they can see me. We might have to teach on two platforms to meet the needs of all students.


Has your view of the role of education in our society and world shifted? When you imagine returning to in-person schools in the future what shifts do you hope to see in our educational system?

Jana: This is going to get us to rethink how we do education. We have to reinvent for the future. I think the first thing I’ve learned from this is that we really do need to personalize learning more than we do it now. Give 3 pathways instead of one, have on-demand access to teachers when students need it. Get more student voice involved in education! Realize that having students from 8-3 doesn’t have to limit the extent of their learning about topics in Global Citizenship. Also, we need to increase access to the outside world as a space for exploring and demonstrating student learning.

Laurie: I agree across the board on everything Jana has said. This requirement has really reinforced the value of a physical place for students called ‘school’. I value the physical setting more now because I see how necessary it is for students to have a more even playing field. This experience of the past few months has underscored the inequity amongst our students. How do we make those changes towards equity within our own public school? It makes me think differently about the space–the emotional space, about what we provide to students. Our public schools can be the space to build up all of the kids.

Jana: I don’t know how we go forward, but I do know that as we go forward we need our students to understand the problems, ask critical questions and be creative problem solvers. 

Both: As teachers, we’ve been modeling how to fix problems as the problems are unfolding. We’ve had to change how we teach as we’ve been teaching.  Let’s shed this idea that we can always go back to how we’ve always done things.  That will help students as they go forward and need to face the problems that come up in their own lives, along their own pathways.

Systems work the way they are designed. We are going to have to be really vigilant on how we respond to the system and push out on the systemic pressures that want us to go back to the way it was. That concerns me. 

This pandemic has shown the importance of having scientists, creative problem-solvers, compassionate caregivers, effective leaders, critical consumers of information, and civic-minded citizens. How can we make sure our learners are on the path to having the knowledge, skills, and agency needed to prevent, address, and solve the kinds of societal problems presented by challenges like COVID—not just in the future, but quite literally today?

From “Responding, Recovering, Reinventing: Three Jobs That Matter for School Communities Navigating a COVID World” (p. 7)

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