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Where Are the Climate Change Superheroes?

Systems Thinking and Climate Activism in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest
Where Are the Climate Change Superheroes?

Olivia Wise

At the end of our year studying climate change, two of my 4th-grade students sat down together and wrote a prose poem from the perspective of the resplendent quetzal, a Central American bird threatened by global warming. One stanza, in particular, stuck with me:

My Uncle Frederick said that climate change was a terrible thing. It would ruin our homes and flush the avocado trees into the ocean like a toilet flushing its contents. Then us quetzals would starve and die out. Before the conversation, I didn’t believe any of it. But afterwards I knew it was real. And I was in big trouble. With your help, we can stop climate change and be superheroes.

This stanza struck me as a fascinating exploration of how our choices as educators can shape the frameworks our students have for understanding climate change and climate justice. Uncle Frederick aimed to alarm his niece or nephew with a provocative simile. He emphasized the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change. The young quetzal was not too depressed by the speech and in fact left feeling empowered to “stop climate change.” But did the young quetzal have the tools and knowledge necessary to effect real change? A superhero is nothing without their superpowers.

Throughout my year of teaching about climate change from scientific, social, and literary angles with my 3rd- and 4th-grade students, I wrestled with the same conundrums facing Uncle Frederick. How do we teach students about the complex realities of climate change without leaving them hopeless? And what kinds of knowledge do they need in order to be empowered advocates for climate justice?

Moving Away from Abstract Causes and Effects
When I designed this unit, I was teaching at a K–8 independent school in Winchester, Massachusetts, that serves a gifted and “twice-exceptional” (gifted students who also have special needs) student body. Because of the structure of the school, each year I’m able to invent a theme-based curriculum from scratch. For the 2016–17 school year, I chose climate change: I felt the urgency of educating students about this topic and I was excited by the mosaic of subjects that fall under the larger climate change umbrella.

I entered the year believing I would spend much of my instructional time helping students investigate the basic science and social factors behind climate change. With a firm understanding of human influence on natural systems, I reasoned, my students could move on to thinking about solutions. I designed mini-labs surrounding the science of heat and light, and students worked in groups to create artistic representations of fragile balances that were being thrown off, such as melting glaciers and disruptions in El Niño and La Niña. However, by the end of October I began to realize a shift was necessary. 

Two major problems arose. First, while some students identified with the subject they had researched for the artistic modeling project, others had not been emotionally engaged. The abstract concepts of oceanic currents and sheet ice were not the easiest to identify with. While students could intellectually process that climate change was “bad,” they didn’t feel an emotional stake in the issue. Also, these lessons had not left students feeling empowered. During one of our early discussions about the greenhouse effect, Sophie exclaimed, “Why are we even learning about this if there’s nothing we can do about it?” Disengaged and depressed was not what I was aiming for.

I thought that my students needed a more concrete angle to understand the effects of climate change and the possibilities for climate justice. I decided we should focus on biodiversity, with hopes that thinking about the interaction of plants and animals with climate change could leverage my students’ strong empathy for the natural world. In addition, biodiversity and ecosystems inherently lend themselves to systems thinking.

The challenge of thinking from a systems level is particularly acute for 3rd- and 4th-grade students, many of whom have just recently begun to develop their capacity for abstract reasoning.

Throughout the year, we had pushed ourselves to think about concepts such as interdependencies (How does an international climate agreement affect the ability of people living in poverty to purchase air conditioners?) and feedback loops (How do jellyfish contribute to climate change, and how might climate change lead to surging jellyfish populations?). I hoped to solidify these kinds of thinking through a more extended unit.

The Resplendent Quetzal
I wanted my students to begin our study of biodiversity with an emotional connection, so the first thing we did was go to a local park. Students created “sound maps” of the natural and human-made noises around them, rubbed leaves between their hands and shared the smells with each other, and searched for interactions between different species. For children — and really, for all people — biodiversity manifests itself primarily through the sounds, sights, and smells of the natural world. 

Next, we considered the link between biodiversity and the resiliency of ecosystems. Adapting an activity from Kate Lyman in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, I helped my students create a physical model of a food web (using string) from two different ecosystems: one that was biodiverse, and one that was not. The same species was wiped out in each of them. While the biodiverse ecosystem stayed relatively stable, the other ecosystem literally fell apart. 

With these foundations — emotional and intellectual — I felt my students were ready to investigate a more complex situation: the resplendent quetzal.
The previous summer, I attended a course in Monteverde, Costa Rica, that focused on the interaction of people and the biology of the cloud forest. In the cloud forest, the effects of climate change are already being viscerally felt. Torrential rainstorms regularly damage roads, bridges, and houses. Key crops such as coffee and chocolate have become more difficult to grow and more susceptible to diseases. And the astonishing biodiversity of the cloud forest is threatened. These were complex systems that required thoughtful solutions.

I spoke with local guides and ecologists to find a representative example to bring back to my students. I knew I wanted my students to investigate how the biodiversity of the cloud forest was coming under threat due to climate change. One of the guides suggested that I look into the resplendent quetzal.

The resplendent quetzal is endemic to only narrow swaths of Central America. This magnificent bird played an important role in various Mesoamerican mythologies. It is the national bird of Guatemala and is considered a symbol of liberty in other Central American countries. The quetzal is also predicted to be one of the species most threatened by climate change. Adult quetzals are mainly fruit eaters, particularly eating various species of wild avocado. In Monteverde, for example, quetzals migrate through five different life zones, up and down in elevation, following the fruiting of different patches of avocado trees as they ripen at different times. 

As the climate changes, the zones that the avocado can live in are moving up in elevation. The avocado tree is dependent on the quetzal and only a few other species of birds for seed dispersal because its large seed (pit) can be consumed only by birds with specialized adaptations. Unfortunately, quetzals and other fruit-eating birds are not moving the seeds of the avocado to these new zones: There are no avocado trees there already, so there is no incentive for the birds to go there. With fewer avocado trees remaining, there is less available food for the quetzal. To add to the quetzal’s woes, the toucan, which used to live primarily in lower elevation zones, has been moving up into the quetzal’s territory as temperatures increase — and sometimes eating the quetzal’s eggs. Also, much of the quetzal’s habitat has been deforested for farmland. The narrowing of the range of the wild avocado may lead to the narrowing of the range and the possible extinction of the resplendent quetzal. 

In order to model this system and help students consider possible solutions, I developed a board game: The Quetzal Conundrum.

Introducing the Game
I began by introducing my students to the location they would be playing in: The Children’s Eternal Rainforest. I showed them Costa Rica on a world map and explained, “Today, we’ll be exploring one of the most biodiverse places on the planet: the rainforests of Costa Rica. Climate change is already having lots of different impacts here. We’re going to be looking at some of these impacts today, and thinking about what solutions there might be.”

Next, I shared the story of how the Children’s Eternal Rainforest was created. This rainforest’s name has an empowering origin story: one elementary school class in Sweden inspired a worldwide student fundraising drive that ended up raising more than $2 million toward the protection of thousands of hectares in the Costa Rican cloud forest. The students definitely responded well to this story, as well as to the photos I showed them of my time there. “Wait — kids raised millions of dollars for this?” exclaimed Marta.

After this, I introduced the relationship we would be examining: the connection between the resplendent quetzal and the wild avocado. I played a video of the quetzal eating a wild avocado, digesting it, and then — to the astonishment of the students — vomiting up the pit. “Play that part again!” they insisted. “This is one of the only ways the wild avocado can move its seeds around,” I explained. “It used to be eaten by large animals that died out during the last ice age. Now, the quetzal has a specific adaptation that allows it to eat such a big fruit.” I showed the class a picture of the wild avocado pit next to the skull of a quetzal. “The pit is bigger than the skull!” exclaimed Joseph.

Finally, I introduced the premise and logistics of the game. I informed the students that they would be playing in pairs and half of them would be playing wild avocados and half would be playing resplendent quetzals. I let them know that they would be able to choose which they would play, but that we needed to ensure that we had enough of each role. Anticipating that there might be more kids who wanted to play the quetzal than the avocado, I first asked for volunteers for the avocado trees. “Who wants to be the source of life and nourishment for this ecosystem?” This drew enough volunteers.

Once the students had their roles, I asked the class to gather around the game board so I could model how the game worked. “You’ll be playing the game in three rounds,” I explained. “In each round, you will be playing at a different time period. The first round will take place in 2017, the second in 2025, and the last in 2050. So do you think that you’ll actually be playing as the exact same birds or the exact same trees each round?” I made sure that the students understood that in rounds 2 and 3, they would be playing as the descendants of their “characters,” not the original ones. 

“Your goal for this game is simple: Work together with your partner to survive the changing climate.”

I showed the game board to the students. The background is a satellite image of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest with four “life zones” drawn as concentric circles. The central life zone is the highest elevation, and the outermost life zone has the lowest elevation. “Will it get colder or warmer as we move up the mountain?” I asked. For students who hesitated, I showed a couple photos from Costa Rica, one of the windy, foggy top of a mountain, and one of the hot, humid lower elevation forest. 

I helped my students notice that each life zone contained a temperature marking for 2017 (round 1), 2025 (round 2), and 2050 (round 3). These temperatures increased for rounds two and three as a result of climate change. For the sake of easy game play, the temperature increases are greater than what are actually predicted by climate scientists, and I explained this to the students as well. 

One of my students also noticed the red “T” marked under the temperature readings for certain zones for certain years. I clarified that this “T” indicated that there were toucans living in that life zone for that round.

I had a student read out the goals for the quetzal. “Each of your three quetzal game pieces needs to eat from a fruiting avocado tree each round in order for its descendants to survive to the next round.” Next, another student read out the goals for the wild avocado. “In order to survive to the next round, a quetzal must have dropped your seeds in a life zone with a suitable temperature.”

Each rule of the game is designed to represent a biological reality. For example, the wild avocados can only live in life zones that have a certain temperature range. The quetzals need to be placed in the same life zone as an avocado tree because they need something to eat. Avocado trees can’t walk on their own, so they can be placed only in life zones where there was a quetzal in the previous round (to drop their seeds). 

(For a detailed overview of game play, consult the lesson plan in the Resources section at the end of the article. I’ve also included links at the end of this article to printable game boards and materials, as well as a video demonstration of how to play.)

“The Game Is Rigged!”
For each round of the game, pairs of students place their pieces strategically, then take turns rolling a die to simulate the fruiting of avocado trees and other events. Based on what happens in the round, their pieces either survive to the next round or are removed from the game. The goal is to work together to survive all three rounds.

After I demonstrated a round, the students went off to play the game, and I circulated to clarify the instructions. Whenever possible, I avoided answering the questions myself, and instead pointed students to the relevant part of their character role sheets. I reminded students to record their surviving pieces before and after each round.

Students were highly engaged in their roles. One avocado player was imitating a tree’s branches with his arms as he played, and one quetzal “flew” over to her work spot in the classroom, flapping her arms.

Every time someone rolled a six, opening up the quetzals to an attack from the toucans, I heard a collective groan. Students cheered each time their pieces survived a round. One group even did a little dance after all their pieces made it through the first round.

I heard partners scheming together about where to place their pieces between rounds. Even Sasha and Leo, two of my most competitive students, had channeled this competition into a remarkably collaborative effort to survive climate change:

“I’m going to place most of my trees in life zone four,” suggested Sasha. 

“Wait, there are toucans there. Let’s avoid that zone,” countered Leo. 

“OK, good idea,” Sasha agreed. 

After about 15 minutes, the students began to move into the last round of the game, which represents the year 2050. 

If the students play the game correctly, there is almost no way their quetzals will survive through the last round. The number of available life zones for trees shrinks, the toucans encroach on the quetzals’ territory, and in the end, there’s almost nothing left for the quetzals to eat. 

As I circulated, I reminded the students that they were acting like ecologists, trying to observe what was happening so we could help find solutions. As climate change took its toll on their quetzals and avocado trees, I wanted to make sure the students were able to step back a bit and observe without getting too upset about losing.

I watched as Tom and Simon finished the game. They were struggling to place their avocado trees in the two life zones remaining. Simon said, “Let’s put one at the top of the mountain.” Tom countered, “We can’t — there hasn’t been a quetzal there ever!” Simon, looking peeved, glanced up at me and muttered, “The game is rigged!” 

Well, yes, the game is rigged. This is, however, precisely the point. Given current climate estimates, the quetzal will most likely go extinct — unless we intervene.

Later, when the group gathered together to debrief, Simon complained: “What is the point of playing the game in the first place if there’s no way to win?”

“What do you think?” I asked the class.

“You want to depress us!” Ben suggested. 

I chuckled. “That’s one possibility. Are there any others?”

“Well, maybe we can do something about it now that we know what’s happening,” Tom offered.

“Precisely! Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out exactly what was going on here. We can’t help if we don’t know what’s happening.”

Immediately following the game, each pair used a reflection sheet to analyze what happened to the quetzals and avocados. Now, I guided the class through a reflection on how the effects of climate change they observed in the game were interconnected. As a group, we tried to coalesce some of these elements together into a systems diagram: 

“Why couldn’t the avocado tree keep moving up the mountain as the climate warmed?” I asked. 

“The quetzal wasn’t moving its seeds there!” Simon responded.

“OK. So there was a problem with seed movement.”

I wrote “seed movement” on the board.

“OK, what happened next?”
“The avocado trees started dying because they didn’t have any place to go!” a student responded. So I put on the board:

seed movement > avocado population

“Then what?”

“The quetzals didn’t have enough food, so they starved.”

seed movement > avocado population > quetzal population

“What impact would that have on the avocado trees?”

“There would be even fewer quetzals to move the seeds!”

seed movement > avocado population > quetzal population > seed movement

“Wait,” Sophie interjected. “Isn’t this becoming a loop?”

This was the magic moment where a system emerged from the “heap” of disparate parts. The students had discovered the reinforcing loop:

seed movement > avocado population > quetzal population > seed movement > avocado population > quetzal population > seed movement ...

“You just made an essential observation,” I informed the students. “This loop is going to reinforce itself, or get stronger and stronger as it goes along.

Right now, this reinforcing loop is resulting in dramatic decreases in all three: seed movement, quetzal population, and avocado population. Let’s imagine that we live in Monteverde. We could be dairy farmers; we could be ecologists; we could just be concerned citizens. We’ve discovered this reinforcing loop. What could we do about it?” 

“Save the quetzals!” said Sophie. 

“Yes, but how? Let’s look at our systems diagram. How might we intervene?”

“Well,” Tommy suggested, “if we stop climate change, the avocado trees won’t have to move.”

“That’d be like rewriting the rules of the game!” Sophie added.

“That sounds like a powerful potential solution,” I responded. “Does anyone remember when we simulated companies competing to produce products earlier in the year? We tried to ‘rewrite’ the rules of that game too, as consumers, factory owners, and government officials.” (This was an adaptation of Bill Bigelow’s “Thingamabob Game”.) “What kind of activism could we do here?” I asked my class.

“Write to people in government about renewable energy!” suggested one student. Another added, “Or try to get people to boycott polluting companies.” 

“Those are great ideas,” I responded. “We should definitely do both of those things, in addition to working to reduce our own carbon footprint. Let’s talk about how we could write letters to some of these stakeholders. In addition to this activism, considering what we just learned from the game about this specific ecosystem, are there any other steps we could take to help protect the quetzal and avocado from the impacts of climate change? Where in the systems diagram should we look?”

Pretty quickly, the students zoomed in on “seed movement.” They determined that we should try and help with seed dispersal for the avocado. “We could go and plant the avocado trees at the top of the mountain!” 

“OK, that’s a great idea. Let’s take a look at where we might want to plant these,” I replied. I pulled up Google Maps on the projector and searched for the satellite image of Monteverde.

“What’s all of that brown and light green land?” I asked the class. They weren’t sure, so I zoomed in more. Eventually, they were able to identify that it was farmland. 

“There are lots of dairy farms in Monteverde,” I explained. “This is one of the most important ways to make money for people who live in this area. Might this raise any issues, though?”

“You can’t plant trees on someone else’s land!” Sophie replied.

“Exactly. Does anyone have any ideas as to how we could address this?” “You could order people to plant seeds,” Marcel suggested.

Brian countered, “You can’t force people to do that! They’d have to want to do it first.”

Rachel suggested, “So I guess we’d have to teach them about why it would be helpful to them, too?”

Students were quickly able to establish that people’s emotional connection to animals and plants would be important in inspiring them to combat climate change. I pushed them to think about how this game might help us use logic and ethics as well, to convince people about the realities of climate change. 

The Quetzal Conundrum was one of the major foundations that led to the students’ writing persuasive letters to public officials. I gave them choice over what they would write about, and several students dove immediately into further research about reforestation. They found local species that were threatened by climate change and habitat degradation and explained their research in detailed letters to the Massachusetts governor and their senators and representatives. 

Later on in the year, students were able to research a local species (alewife herring), and how climate change and hydroelectric dams were threatening to push them into endangered status. Some parents were able to take students to the local Mystic River, where they investigated the new herring ladder that had been installed to allow fish to migrate past the dam. All the students took part in an online citizen science project to help ecologists determine the impact of this intervention on the herring populations. 

Overall, this board game was effective in enabling students to move from the abstract (a biological system in Costa Rica) to the concrete: taking action in their own communities. From a board game intervention, they can move into real-life interventions.

In their poem about Uncle Frederick, my students issued a call for the next generation of climate change “superheroes.” As educators, we have a responsibility to answer this call. Even young students need to confront the real, complex systems that are being impacted by climate change. Then, they need opportunities to intervene in these systems. All of our students deserve opportunities to grow their climate justice superpowers.

Resources: For a detailed lesson plan for The Quetzal Conundrum, an extension game (in which students act as dairy farmers and make decisions about whether to reforest their land), printable materials for both games, and video demonstrations of how to play both games, go to: bit.ly/TheQuetzalConundrumResources

Eric Fishman (ejp.fishman@gmail.com) is an elementary school teacher in Boston. His most recent article for Rethinking Schools was “Stupid Book of Wrongness: The Heartland Institute’s Climate Change Denial Book Meets Informed 3rd and 4th Graders” (Vol. 32, No. 1 Fall 2017). Olivia Wise is an illustrator living in Northern California. Her work can be found at oliviawisestudio.com.