Interviews & Profiles

Helping young students understand the urgency of climate change

An interview with Lindsay Rosoff, a seasoned teacher and Fordham University Graduate School of Education student who pivoted her focus to protecting the planet, and who wants to help other educators do the same.

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A lifelong educator, Lindsay Rosoff is currently a PhD student at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. With expertise in literacy, early childhood education and special education, her focus has shifted to an area with great need, urgency and few resources: climate education for all students, at all grades and beyond the science classroom, particularly in urban schools, low-income communities, and elementary schools.

New York Nonprofit Media caught up with Rosoff to discuss her career in education, how she started the conversation on climate change with her students and how she hopes to help other educators do the same. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were some defining moments in your career as an educator that had an impact on your path or approach?

My career started over 20 years ago as an inexperienced public school teacher in Newark, N.J. I was a white teacher with a class of Black second-graders who I didn’t know anything about, let alone how to teach them. I learned so much from my kids and their families. I remember noticing during that first year how little of the pre-packaged curriculum related to my students’ lives, experiences, and histories. This disconnect was particularly glaring in social studies, where the workbooks and textbooks lacked relevance to my students’ lives. I decided to get rid of those materials and focus on our local community, letting the students’ curiosity and questions guide the curriculum. We went out and explored, visiting landmarks and interviewing people who worked in the community. There was a monastery right next to the school that no one seemed to know anything about, so we went over there and interviewed the head nun. It was fascinating! Another year, we focused on the park that was one block from the school, investigating not just social studies and science but math and literacy through our questions about the park. My students were highly engaged and motivated in this place-based work.

Did you have any a-ha moments from your time in the classroom?

One defining moment happened after lunch one day. As most teachers know, the time after lunch can be fraught with energy and emotions, and on this day, the kids’ feelings were particularly heightened. I realized I couldn’t proceed with the afternoon’s agenda until I had given them the space to talk and process what they were feeling. What came out was a lot of pain and sadness, it was almost a collective pain. We just sat in a circle, allowing everyone to share and be heard. That experience actually transformed our classroom community that year and reconstructed how I thought about my role as a teacher. We decided to meet in that circle almost daily, and it gave everyone such a strong sense of connection. Too often, school priorities overshadow the opportunity to create belonging and community for our kids, but it truly makes a difference in their lives and learning. That group of students connected deeply, and they learned much more than can be captured on a standardized test. I reflect on that moment now, when I think about the emotional toll that the climate crisis has on our children. 

You’ve been a classroom teacher, a resource teacher, a professor and teacher of teachers, and also a mom – when and why did you decide to go back to school for a Ph.D. in education?

Not long ago, I went through a phase where I no longer found fulfillment in my work. It felt like there was something else I needed to do, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I tried on several ideas, like becoming a librarian or a soccer coach, and nothing felt quite right until my mentor asked if I ever considered getting a Ph.D. When those words came out of her mouth, my heart said yes. It felt right from the very beginning. Honestly, it scared me a little because I never imagined that goal. I knew nothing about getting a Ph.D. or what it entailed, but I knew it was right, so I moved forward, one tentative step at a time. 

What led you to start exploring climate education for young students?

As I engaged with my coursework, I was drawn to all of these fascinating areas, yet no topic seemed to relate to the other. I investigated the structures and policies constraining teachers and schools, causing burnout and high teacher dropout rates. I spent time researching learner agency, what it looks like in different communities, which populations we empower in their learning, and which populations we disempower. I explored transdisciplinary learning, which is all about the deep learning and motivation that happens when instruction focuses on a real, local issue. I loved these topics but had no idea where this research was going. I honestly felt lost and uncertain at times. 

Then, one day, I was looking at a piece of art capturing the realities of climate change for people living in poverty, and I had an a-ha moment. These distinct topics I had been studying came together like puzzle pieces, and I could finally see the complete picture. I realized that I need to focus on addressing climate change in our schools. Today, children are living in a climate emergency, and nothing is more essential than giving them the tools to face an uncertain future and find solutions. Young people have been largely silenced and disempowered in decisions about our planet; it’s time to flip that script. 

What have you noticed about our current approach to climate change in schools?  

I feel both excited and concerned about what I have seen. I’m excited about New Jersey, whose Department of Education recently created interdisciplinary climate change standards for every age level, K-12, and every content area. Now, climate change can and should be taught in literally every classroom across the state. With this mandate our students and teachers can blaze new trails, and others will follow. 

My concerns are the barriers that teachers face to fulfill this mission. First, these are standards, but not detailed curricula or lesson plans. Barriers include the misperception that climate is only a science topic, lack of relevant knowledge and resources, and the absence of preparation in their education coursework. Not to mention current policies and agendas often overemphasize outcomes and accountability at the cost of listening to our students' voices and concerns. 

Meanwhile, research shows that our kids feel afraid, anxious, helpless, and sometimes paralyzed by climate change. Teachers tell me that their students raise the topic spontaneously during a lesson that might relate in some way to the climate. In this sense, despite all the barriers, our kids are a resource for climate education. As we move forward, teachers and students in different classrooms and communities will work together to determine what climate education looks like.

Can you describe the work that you hope to do? How do you plan to support climate education?

My goal is to help teachers who may hesitate to start integrating climate education due to all the barriers I already mentioned. I don’t see myself as an expert in what this looks like since the teachers are the ones who know their students and their community. We know that climate education in our classrooms needs to be interdisciplinary and action-oriented. This means focusing on real issues within the local community that kids can explore through various disciplines and actually find and act upon solutions. We also need to incorporate the unjust social, political, and historical factors that continue to shape the climate crisis and disproportionately harm indigenous people and impoverished groups, a topic often excluded from climate education. Different age levels will approach this differently, based on their developmental needs. Older students might identify an issue and write letters to Congress. Younger learners might sort through the cafeteria garbage cans to determine what recyclable and nonrecyclable items need to be addressed in their school community. I want to support teachers and students in developing their agency as they embark on this journey. The other essential ingredient is that this work is collective. There has been a false message that we need to focus on our individual carbon footprint. In reality, we need to work together as groups of people who care about each other and the planet. Our schools are a great place to embark on this effort, and I envision working with groups of teachers who support each other as they develop their climate pedagogy.    

If there was one thing you’d like every teacher, educator, or public official to know, what would it be? 

Given the gravity of the climate crisis and the outcry from our youth, we don’t have fifty years to wait for education research to reach the classroom. We need to act with urgency and engage our young people, our resources, and our collective energy to start implementing changes now. We need to rethink the purpose of our school system. Business as usual does not work in an emergency.

How do you hope your work in climate education will have an impact? What do you hope your work will contribute?

A key goal of this work is to empower our youth to take action to protect the planet and everyone living on it. Young people, especially those living in poverty, are the least responsible for climate change yet will experience the most significant impact. We need to empower this group of future leaders and give them a voice. Additionally, we need more examples of climate education in different schools in diverse settings. Right now, there is a lot of research on climate education in high schools and predominantly white upper-class independent schools. But what does it look like in urban schools, low-income communities, and elementary schools? How are diverse groups of teachers and students taking action for the planet and its people? Sharing stories and lessons from different school communities will benefit all of us. Finally, I hope to develop teachers’ and students’ sense of collective agency to nurture climate justice, sustainability, and well-being.