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A climate education bill, spearheaded by teachers and students, gets a spotlight in Salem 3/8/2023 Julia Silverman,
At Lake Oswego High School, Stephanie Leben (at center, in glasses) and her students discuss Lydia Millet's "A Children's Bible," which is an allegorical climate change novel. © Julia Silverman/ At Lake Oswego High School, Stephanie Leben (at center, in glasses) and her students discuss Lydia Millet's "A Children's Bible," which is an allegorical climate change novel.

Teens in Stephanie Leben’s senior English course at Lake Oswego High School are immersed in novelist Lydia Millet’s blistering climate change allegory about grown-ups who’ve thrown up their hands in the face of a warming planet and their offspring’s last-ditch attempts to reconcile with the world they are inheriting.

The storyline of “A Children’s Bible,” and its horrific climate-linked events, strike them as familiar. As they parse the book’s biblical allusions — the flood that propelled Noah and the animals two-by-two onto the ark is echoed in a devastating hurricane in an early chapter — Leben’s students relate them to climate disasters they’ve lived through, like the 2020 Labor Day fires that swept across the Santiam Canyon and the stultifying, deadly heat dome that settled over Portland the following summer.

Examples of student work hanging in English teacher Stephanie Leben's classroom at Lake Oswego High School. The school districts is trying to incorporate climate education across all grade levels and all subjects. A proposed bill would do the same statewide. © Julia Silverman/ Examples of student work hanging in English teacher Stephanie Leben's classroom at Lake Oswego High School. The school districts is trying to incorporate climate education across all grade levels and all subjects. A proposed bill would do the same statewide.

It’s Leben’s second year teaching the book, part of a concerted, still-developing effort by the Lake Oswego School District to incorporate climate education into every subject and every grade level, pushing beyond the science classrooms where the subject has been most commonly taught.

This week, state lawmakers will discuss spreading that approach statewide, an idea a coalition of teens and their teachers from around Oregon say is long overdue.

In practice in Lake Oswego, that means everything from more time spent on outdoor education and water quality testing for elementary school students to high school social studies students considering the impacts of conflict on the environment, from World War I to the Russian war in the Ukraine.

“From my own experience as a storyteller, I don’t know if science always speaks to every student,” Leben said. “Sometimes stories are what gets to people. That’s why it was important to me to find texts that were about climate change, so that stories could [reach] students that might not understand or connect in the science classroom.”

Oregon is one of 20, mostly left-leaning states to have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, a national framework that, among other matters, lays out a road map for incorporating climate change into science education. But sustained progress on integrating climate education into every classroom, for every age group has been sporadic, even spotty.

Portland Public Schools embarked on an ambitious program to realize that goal as far back as 2016. But momentum stalled amid pandemic disruptions and leadership changes. Last spring, the school board recommitted to the concept, but specifics have been sparse, though courses are rolling out at the high school level.

In Eugene, the birthplace of youth climate justice activism in Oregon, teachers and students have been working together for years to develop and expand lesson plans for teaching about climate changes across grades and subject matters.

On Thursday, Oregon’s Senate Education Committee will hold a public hearing on a far-reaching proposal to incorporate climate education across all grades and disciplines, starting in the 2026-2027 school year.

The proposal, Senate Bill 854, requires every Oregon school district to “develop written plans establishing [a] climate change instructional program for kindergarten through grade 12.” The goal is to give students the tools to understand the current and future implications of climate change, including the impacts that personal and collective choices have on the planet. Districts would have to ensure that students are prepared for the effects of climate change, and understand what’s needed to mitigate them. Lessons would convey the disproportionate impacts on Indigenous tribes, people of color and high poverty communities.

The bill also would require the state Department of Education to develop model curriculum plans and set program standards; districts that fail to comply could be in danger of losing some of the funding from the corporate tax-fueled Student Success Act, which channels an extra $1 billion a year to Oregon schools.

Though Oregon prides itself on its environmental bona fides, New Jersey has beaten Oregon to this particular punch. That state in 2020 adopted learning standards requiring K-12 teachers to incorporate climate instruction across all subjects. But Oregon would be the first to codify that into law, should Senate Bill 854 pass this session. (A similar effort in Minnesota died in a legislative committee there in 2022.)

Passage in Oregon is no sure thing, despite the state’s environmentalist bent and the full-throated efforts of the passionate coalition of teachers and student youth climate activists who worked together to draft the bill. It is sponsored by Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene and Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, neither of whom sit on the Senate Education Committee.

In written testimony submitted to the Senate Education Committee ahead of the public hearing, Kyler Pace, a fifth grade teacher in the Sherwood School District and a former co-president of that district’s teacher’s union, summed up some of the likely objections: “Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to implement additional unfunded mandates…Others will tell you that this bill will not create more work for teachers. I can assure you that this assertion is false. We will have to take already established curriculum and modify every subject to meet the requirements of this bill. Even with additional resources, reframing what is taught will put an additional burden on teachers who are not climate experts.”

The bill’s supporters know the arguments against their mission, and say they are prepared. Lottie Rohde, a senior at Churchill High in Eugene where they are the president of the climate action club, said the objections of climate change deniers are personally motivating.

“I’m from a more conservative family and I was never told what climate change was,” they said. “It was something that no one believed in—it was considered too political. So a big reason why I’m here, why I do this work is because I want to make sure that the kids who are in those families that don’t have those conversations have the chance to learn about this, not only the scientific side of it, but also the anthropological side, and what they can do to help combat it.”

Breck Foster, a Spanish and social studies teacher at Lake Oswego High who worked on drafting Senate Bill 854 as part of Oregon Educators for Climate Ed, said the group also considered regional differences in how climate change is both perceived and experienced. That’s why, she said, the bill as written emphasizes land stewardship and natural resource management and would expand high school job training programs for climate-related careers.

Rohde and others said that a broader and considered approach to climate education like the one proposed in Senate Bill 854 could also help alleviate the creeping anxiety and stress that the subject can stir up among their generation.

Sarah Ruggiero Kirby, a science educator from Eugene who also worked on drafting the legislation, said educators at all levels have a responsibility to not allow one particular moniker — “Generation Dread” — to stick for their students. Science teachers cover the whys of climate change, she said, but it is her colleagues in other subjects who are best equipped to help explain the resultant policy impacts to students or teach them about jobs that can not only make them money but help them save the planet.

“We are asking for this legislation so that students know it’s not just a one and done — like, the world is dying and good luck with that,” she said. “It is negligent to educate about the science of it and not the solutions or how it impacts communities and our natural resources and our mental health.”

—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman,

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