Legislation Would Create Resources for Climate, Environmental Education in Classrooms


Bills pending in the Rhode Island General Assembly support teaching students about climate change. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — A bill that would introduce resources on climate change education into Rhode Island classrooms is being met with support, although critics say it would overload already-stressed teachers.

Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Valerie Lawson, D-East Providence, have introduced the Climate Literacy Act (H7275/S2039) in both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill requires the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to compile resources for educators across all curriculums to add climate literacy and environmental programs to existing classes.

“It’s an opportunity for us to provide those people that instruct people in all these areas more resources to do it,” Lawson said. “This is something that we all value as educators, and kids too.”

Survey data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 77 percent of Rhode Islanders believe students should be learning more about climate change. Despite stringent curriculum requirements, RIDE doesn’t require state educators to include environmental or climate education in the classroom, but advocates are keen to change that, with a broad approach across grade levels.

Under the proposed legislation, RIDE would be required to consult with environmental experts and current educators to create a resource bank containing lesson plans and other curriculum materials that teachers could draw from to incorporate environmental or climate change themes into the classroom. The resources would be available to any public or charter school under RIDE’s jurisdiction. Language in the legislation would also provide resources for potential career paths in the green economy.

Advocates stress the need to tailor the resources to both class and grade level.

“You don’t talk to a 5-year-old about p-values in research articles, about how everything [with climate change] is death and destruction,” said Jeanine Silversmith, executive director of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association. “You get them excited about the natural world, encourage good observation skills, how to argue what they are seeing, debate what they see with another student, or give peer feedback. It’s all good science skills. It’s just using climate change as an anchor phenomena.”

The bill received broad support in a recent House Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing from educators and trade groups. It is the second year in a row climate literacy legislation has been introduced.

“What we found very appealing in the bill last year is the way it’s structured,” said James Parisi, a labor representative from the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. “It’s not adding another ornament to the Christmas tree, it’s not adding additional requirements [for graduation].”

But not everyone agreed with that assessment, and some expressed concern about overwhelming already time-strapped teachers with requirements and professional development overload.

“We passed the Right to Read Act a few years ago and it had major implications for teacher training,” said Tim Ryan, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association. “Some teachers have spent over 100 hours on Right to Read training.”

One member of the public testified at the House hearing in opposition of the bill. “I think that climate literacy is a controversial topic,” Scituate resident Laurie Gaddis Barrett said. “We’re introducing political ideology into the classroom.”

Cortvriend said during her remarks that at least one teacher told her they avoided the topic because it was too controversial.

“All the more reason that we do need to teach it, because this is really about science,” she said. “If we all understand the science, then we can discuss the politics of what we do about addressing the scientific challenges [of climate change].”

The bill was held for further study.


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