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.