How to Engage and Empower Your Students

How to Engage and Empower Your Students

Let’s be honest. Many times we have students that know more about a topic than we do or who are experts in something we know little about (anime, anyone?). We also have students that are deeply passionate about current causes or social issues like immigration, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+, or global warming. As teachers you always want to engage and empower your students into meaningful action, pointing them in directions where they can keep learning and find a place for their voice. 

If you’re a teacher whose students are passionate about climate change—whether they’re sharing tips to reduce carbon footprints, checking the recycling number on the bottom of plastic containers, or exhibiting anxiety over current weather extremes—this blog will help you guide your passionate learners to meaningful resources, helping them to learn, process, and channel their feelings about climate change.

I’ll briefly discuss each of the seven resources and explain how they can help teachers engage and empower passionate learners. As a classroom teacher, I’ll also share my ideas for quick practical activities and larger project-based learning that your students can engage in with any of your lessons or units.

The Best Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Climate Action

Resource Type: Video

This video is just over four minutes long and is great for students who want to make a bigger impact beyond turning off lights and shopping with a reusable bag. Using concrete data, the video encourages students to make a “meaningful difference” by considering bigger changes to their food choices, transportation, and vacation styles. While the video acknowledges the practical difficulties students and their families face by driving or flying less, it presents the ideas in a way that will help passionate learners examine social patterns which will engage and empower them to make meaningful changes that can affect larger cultural practices.

Because this resource uses facts and categories that are easily relatable to students of all ages, teachers in any grade or subject can assign this video for students to watch independently as extended work or as an activity for when they’ve finished classwork early. The video is a good starting point to engage passionate students who are already aware of ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Teachers can easily use this video as a jumping-off point for students to go in many directions.

Using the video as a learning tool, teachers can have students jot down three facts or stats they learned from watching the video, then explore those specific facts or stats further. Teachers can promote content-based exploration by encouraging students to explore the math behind the statistics, like what units are used to measure carbon footprints or the measurement differences between kilograms per year and tons per year.  Students can compare the global and national values for average carbon emissions and find the unit rate for their particular statistic. 

Broaden the lesson’s range to project-based learning by directing students to pick one category highlighted in the video: driving, flying, eating, or having children. Teachers of younger grades can help students develop a question to research while older students can be encouraged to come up with several research questions, narrowing down one to focus on. Social studies or science teachers can encourage students to focus on developing a hypothesis and research plan. Teachers can either encourage students to have a general goal that develops as they engage in their research or a content-specific goal aligned to standards. For example, students can explore cultural shifts and carbon implications of eating less meat, or research data for specific ways having one less child reduces carbon emissions over a generation.

My Climate Story

Grade: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, English Language Arts, Social-Emotional Learning, Climate Action

Resource Type: Lesson Plan, Activity

This resource is a teacher toolkit with eight ready-made lessons that can be used individually or as a whole, depending on your time availability. This is the perfect resource for any teacher that wants to start incorporating climate issues into their curriculum. With a focus on “awareness to action”, the teaching guide is a great example of a multi and interdisciplinary approach to climate change education by using plant science and narrative storytelling to help teachers and students process feelings about climate change into action. Descriptive and thoroughly-annotated graphics show the progression of emotional awareness that is easy to understand in a classroom environment.

With a heavy focus on climate anxiety, this resource helps teachers address the social-emotional learning component. As a teacher, this resource is a good example of how I can weave social-emotional learning standards into my content area. I learn how to engage my own feelings and provide opportunities for my students to express their emotions within a content-specific lesson. The last page of the overview includes four key questions breaking down the progression of awareness to action. Each key question then includes three sentence starters that teachers can use to help students immediately engage.

This resource can be used regardless of where students identify in their climate journey. Elementary teachers can implement the entirety of this 8-lesson unit within their science and language lessons, or choose a couple of lessons to supplement an existing unit on plants or story writing. Using the four key questions and various sentence starters, elementary teachers can display the graphic and walk students through each question either as a class or as independent work. 

Middle school English teachers can implement the toolkit as a mini-unit focused on writing; it encompasses the entire writing process from brainstorming and outlining to crafting and peer editing. Because this is a complete package, teachers can use this resource with a whole class or assign it as a separate project for individual students. Lessons six and seven include four climate stories from real people representing different people groups and occupations, allowing students to select one of the people for further research. Students can work independently or in pairs and develop a digital or poster presentation. 

Healthy Environment, Healthy You

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, English Language Arts, Health, Social-Emotional Learning

Resource Type: Lesson Plan, Activity

This teacher guide from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is 11 pages and includes three student handouts focused on helping students engage with feelings of happiness, anxiety, and self-esteem. The guided journaling worksheets create an outline and space for students to engage with the outdoors, including checkboxes, closed and open-ended questions, a space for drawing, and a section for small or large group discussion.

This resource will help passionate learners identify and explore their feelings. The last three pages of this guide include a list of actions and discussion points for students, sorted by feeling: happiness, anxiety, and self-esteem. Teachers with students who experience anxiety can use this to help their students find best practices for managing their anxiety. Passionate learners could further research how nature affects human moods and emotions. Teachers can have younger students develop personal lists of actions under each of the three feelings that help them connect to nature and their emotions. 

Any teacher wanting to lead their class in a guided mental health support day can use this in one class period. It would involve printing out the guided journaling worksheets and having students pick one of the three feelings they want to engage in for the class period. Once chosen, the teacher takes the class outside and finds a place within the school property for students to spread out. Teachers can assign 15-20 minutes for students to go through the guided journaling worksheet, then block out time at the end of class for students to share how they felt about the experience or one thing they learned. This simple activity would be great in between units, after a big test, in the middle of state testing, or anytime you sense that your students need a mental and emotional support class period.

This teacher guide can be used in the classroom or adapted for independent exploration. Students who engage in this three-part journal experience can meet together to share their explorations. Teachers can encourage students to find a different local outdoor location to fill out each guided journal worksheet. Intuitive students can articulate similarities and differences with their feelings and make connections to nature. Math and Science teachers can encourage students to explore the data referenced in the activities section of the guide or study the evolutionary/neurobiological relationship between feelings and nature.

The Guide: A Biologist in Gorongosa

Grade: 11th, 12th, AP® / College

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Biology, History, English Language Arts, World Languages, Spanish

Resource Type: Video

This resource includes a short film that explores the story of a young man who grew up near Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, and the significance of his meeting with a world-renowned biologist. Accompanying materials are provided, including a downloadable one-page teacher guide summarizing key points of the video, listing curriculum standards for NGSS, AP, IB, and C3, and providing chapter connections to two textbooks. The resource also includes downloadable transcripts of the video in both English and Spanish.

With this resource available in both English and Spanish, teachers can use this in either language for native speakers and language learners. For science teachers who want more practical ideas, the resource includes three one-minute clips demonstrating how other teachers used this video in AP Environmental Science, for data-based inquiry on history and ecology, and to explore energy flows in food chains.

Two additional activity choices allow high school science teachers to assign extended work to students. Teachers can also encourage students to research the conservation efforts of other national parks in any country, comparing and contrasting scientific methods or discussing which methods are better suited for particular regions. Social Studies teachers can use this video and have students explore the history and social dynamics of the Gorongosa National Park within the framework of a given time period or larger African context. English teachers can use this video as an example of how to tell a scientist’s story, encouraging students to pick a current conservationist and detail their efforts in the form of a narrative.

Spanish teachers can use the Spanish-language version of the video to engage students in non-fiction listening, reading, and writing. It could be assigned as extra practice or for advanced students looking to connect language learning to climate change. Native Spanish speakers in ESL or general education classes could use this to further science and climate change learning in their native language, empowering them to engage independently.

The Flight Free Podcast: Confessions of an Eco-Hypocrite

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Social-Emotional Learning

Resource Type: Podcast

This podcast is just over 29 minutes and explores the idea of “eco-hypocrisy.” It acknowledges that while people may be concerned about fossil fuels, we live in a society that is increasingly reliant on fossil fuels in many ways. Recognizing the tension between individual ideologies or actions and larger societal norms, the podcast creates a safe place to express feelings of guilt or shame as they relate to climate action. The podcast helps individuals reframe these feelings and move from “how can we be less bad” to “how can we be more good.”

This podcast is a great alternative for auditory learners or for students who may struggle with reading or processing written information. It also helps students who primarily identify with feelings of guilt and shame as they relate to climate change. Teachers can use this podcast to empower passionate climate change learners in a more positive framework focusing on collective action.

Because this is a podcast, students can listen to this in class or at home. As a short assignment, elementary and middle school teachers can have students define eco-hypocrisy in their own words and give two to three examples after listening to the podcast. For project-based learning, students could make their own podcast interviewing classmates about the term eco-hypocrisy and using their own examples to educate a targeted audience of their peers. Additionally, students can use one of the interview questions from the podcast to create their own, such as: “What would you say to someone who feels overwhelmed by current circumstances and is therefore doubting their individual power?”

For social-emotional connections, teachers could have older students explore their own feelings of guilt or shame as they relate to climate change, guided by the podcast’s progression from individual feelings to collective action. High school teachers could have students explore and research the tension between individual power and collective action. Students could write a paper exploring the difference between the two questions “How can we be less bad?” to “How can we be more good?,” ending with a discussion on climate action steps of how we can collectively “be more good.” All options can end with various presentations as assessments to teachers, a class, or a larger audience.

Margaret Atwood: Hope is the Legacy We Build Together for a Better World (The Jane Goodall Hopecast)

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, AP® / College

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Biology, Civics, Justice, Social-Emotional Learning

Resource Type: Podcast

This is another podcast featuring a 20-minute engaging conversation between two women who have individually impacted society in their own fields: Dr. Jane Goodall and Margaret Atwood. As a young girl, I remember hearing and reading about Dr. Goodall’s work with chimpanzees. As an avid reader and English teacher, I am a fan of Atwood’s poetry and dystopian fiction. Both are also known for their environmental activism and conservation efforts, using their passions and achievements as platforms for environmental awareness.

This resource shows passionate learners that they can engage in environmental activism through different fields like Atwood’s professional writing and Goodall’s research in primatology and anthropology. Students can learn to use their interests and passions as platforms to bring awareness  and attention to specific climate change topics that they care deeply about. 

For a quick activity, teachers with 30 minutes to spare can have students listen to the podcast and jot down three things they learned, two observations, and one question. Optional follow-up activities include having students share one thing from their notes, briefly explore an answer to a classmate’s question, or identify two other famous people they’d like to hear discussing climate change and explain why.

High school English or creative writing teachers can encourage students to explore Goodall and Atwood’s “tightrope between utopian hope and dystopian doom,” challenging students to pick one climate issue and create a short story that exists in this hope and doom space. The podcast mentions the idea of a 6th Extinction. Science and Social Studies teachers can have students research and explore this idea from a scientific or social studies perspective, using data to explore a particular species’s extinction rate, or set within a broader social context. 

Coping With Climate Anxiety

Grade: 6th, 7th, 8th

Subjects: Health

Resource Type: Lesson Plan

This SubjectToClimate lesson introduces students to the idea of climate anxiety before guiding  them through different coping strategies, ultimately providing students with space to create their own “climate anxiety toolkit.” This lesson is a great example of how teachers can integrate the topic of climate change into a content-specific standard, using climate change as a vehicle to learn and practice content-specific skills.

Health or gym teachers needing a lesson in their health unit can use this lesson to teach students how to engage with feelings of anxiety. Homeroom teachers or advisory blocks can also use this to address social and emotional standards. Using the topic of climate change, teachers can guide students through their feelings of anxiety and help students identify various coping strategies. Creating an anxiety toolkit will ultimately be useful for all students as they face anxiety in any aspect of their lives. 

If you have 90 minutes or three 30-minute chunks of time, you can use this to engage and empower students through feelings of anxiety. As three mini-lessons, the first lesson can focus on a small group or class discussion on what climate anxiety is. The second mini-lesson can focus on exploring, practicing, and sharing different coping strategies from movement and drawing to writing and meditating. The last mini-lesson can be an individual or group creation of a one-page mini-poster highlighting one coping strategy. Teachers can display these mini posters and refer to them as class toolkits throughout the year.

Our young students have big feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming or paralyzing. These are just seven of many SubjectToClimate resources that we teachers can easily use to help students identify, understand, engage, and process their feelings. These resources can also help our passionate learners channel their feelings into individual action—moving from frustration, anxiety, or despair toward hopeful collective change. Providing outlets like these to our students will not only empower them, but also encourage us. I’m sure their youthful enthusiasm and hopeful passion will be contagious and inspiring. 

About the Author

I've been in public education since 2001, teaching multiple levels of English and math for middle school and high school in California and New Jersey. I've been credentialed in English, math, and introductory music. I have a doctorate in Educational Leadership. I love creating interdisciplinary curricula with student choice and assessments that can highlight different learning styles and knowledge applications.