Earth Day Journal 2022
I arrive at work just before 7:00 am, park in my usual spot but stay in the car to listen to the BBC world news on the campus/community radio station. Russia is launching its new strategic military intervention on the eastern region of Ukraine, the Ukraine is calling for more weapons to be supplied by western allies, the World Bank is predicting increasing famine in Somalia as wheat supply is affected by the war, and devastating floods destroy thousands of homes in Durban, South Africa. No mention of Earth Day, but we can make the connections. I plug in the car and gather my things to enter the school.
My running shoes crunch on the ice and snow still covering the ground after the huge, freak late-April snowstorm on Wednesday. Snow is in the forecast today as well, meaning the community clean-up activity we planned will have to be postponed until snowmelt uncloaks all the litter. My card beeps on the card reader and I hear the lock click open. I pull on the metal handle and step across the threshold. I have about 45 minutes before the kids get here and I definitely need every minute of it to wrap my head around the day and get myself organized. Laptop is dead so I plug it in and try to remember my list of things to do. Print worksheets, get paper trays from the storage room, find, and talk to other grade 8 teachers about the plan for today.
Kids start showing up with their backpacks and winter coats, finding a seat at one of the tables. The bell rings and the PA announcement begins. We listen. Updates for grade 9 field trip, reminders about badminton practice. Nothing about Earth Day… because I forgot to add it to the announcements script yesterday. We do attendance — there are 6 students missing. Normal for a Friday. Kids ask, “what are we doing today?” and I summarize, “today is Earth Day, so we’re going to do some Earth Day activities, math, reading etcetera.” We move the tables aside and put the stools in a rough circle shape to do our weekly sharing circle. The warmup question is would you rather fly like bird or swim like a fish? I go first and say, “I would rather fly like a hawk, high up and gliding.” For his turn, the kid on my left says, “I would fly like a hummingbird.” Almost everyone says they would rather fly than swim, but most just mumble the one-word answer, “fly,” when it’s their turn. They are shy and awkward even though we’ve been doing sharing circles since the beginning of the year, and they are with each other every day for 4 hours. They are 13 years old, turning 14 this year. They were born in 2008, the year that smart phones became ubiquitous. And their entire junior high experience has been in a pandemic. Teenagers have always been awkward, but this cohort has ample excuses if they lack in-person, face to face social skills.
The next question for the sharing circle is, “how do you feel about climate change?” Cutting straight to the heart on this one. I go first as a teacher example, but I struggle to answer the question. I stumble through something about feeling worried, feeling confused that people don’t seem to care or prioritize the issue, feeling responsible myself and wishing there was more I could do. I try to say something simple, honest, relatable… but as my mind races to sum up the vast dread and grief that I feel, my words don’t manage to bridge the generational gap in the way I had hoped. As kids take their turn to speak, some echo my worry, one says, “I’m worried about the future because we don’t know what will happen.” Some say, “pass,” or a sarcastic comment muttered. One says, “I don’t know enough about climate change because we don’t learn enough about it in school.”
We watch some YouTube videos about Earth Day. One that was posted in 2020, explaining how the global lock down at the beginning of the pandemic forced factories and travel to stop for long enough that the air, water, and land had a break from pollution. We reflect on this time capsule reminder from two years ago. To review and start the conversation I ask, what happened because of the lock down? A student who rarely participates in class discussions offers a quiet reply, “nature replenished.” I repeat it so others could hear. A welcome shred of evidence that life on earth can regenerate if given the chance. A mumble of hope.
We brainstorm, what is one thing we can do to help the planet? As a class we decide we can try to be better at recycling, sorting our garbage and recyclables. We can re-use paper with a tray for scrap paper in our classrooms. And we can reduce electricity use by turning off some of the overhead lights as long as we can still see to do our work in our windowless classroom. A kid asks, “can we make art for Earth Day?” So, I change the plan from calculating our carbon footprint, to making posters promoting our class Earth Day goals. I hand out re-used paper, old photocopies with one blank side, and write our three goals on the board as a prompt– re-use paper, sort our recycling and use less electricity. Kids start to work on their posters, despite the temptation to slack off and chat in their small groups. As I walk around the room, checking in at each table, I am impressed to see thoughtful work emerging. They are engaged in a way that doesn’t happen often, especially not on a Friday. Maybe it’s the right timing in the morning, and they are more awake, maybe it’s the low light with the lights turned off, maybe this issue matters to them. For whatever reason, they work steadily until snack break and gym time.
When we come back after some free time with a choice of basketball or badminton, they continue working on their posters and most complete the task — strong messages with effective designs! Pictures of the planet half green and blue, the other half grey. “Life is only possible on Earth, so let’s protect it.” A large cell phone screen filling the entire paper with message bubbles showing a conversation about taking action for the planet.
This may seem like no big deal to someone outside the context of a high-needs junior high pandemic classroom, but to put it in perspective… with most tasks assigned in class, I can expect 15 out of 30 students to be unable to engage due to lack of skill, confidence, ability, motivation. Out of those 15 that do engage, only 10 of them will complete the task and only 5 of those 10 will be working at grade level. Many of my students missed weeks and months of school in the last 2 years due to lack of technology, lack of Wi-Fi, lack of support, family crisis etc. Many are dealing with serious mental health challenges due to disrupted sleep, isolation, loneliness, online bullying, and stress at home. I adapt and modify the work, support with examples, templates, diverse culturally responsive sources… and I’m happy if they can engage and focus for 20 minutes in an hour and show me that they are trying their best. Today we work on making posters for over two hours. They are ready to put up in the hallway for the rest of the school to see. A huge win.
School ends for the day. I collect the posters and the kids put their chairs on top of the tables to make it easier for facilities staff to sweep the floor. We have a staff meeting and work on budgets for supplies and online student database entries, planning for the end of the year. My grade 8 students are scheduled to graduate from high school in 2026. I can’t help wondering often what awaits these kids as they navigate the journey into adulthood, responsibilities and making a living. What are we preparing them for? Will anything they are learning now be relevant when they are 22 in 2030? It’s unsettling and exhausting to think about.
What does this snapshot of a Friday morning mean in a bigger picture? Zoom out to behold the planet. The oceans, the land, the 8 billion humans expanding development/destroying natural habitat at an unprecedented pace. This is a world where kids feel they learn more from TikTok than they do from teachers, and can’t concentrate in school because they were up all night on their phone or playing video games. It’s a world that is obsessed with the worst news, the most violence, biggest disasters. It’s the world we live in.
Where will I be in 2030? When I think realistically about the state of the planet, I want to drop everything and throw myself in front of logging trucks, blockade pipeline construction, protest capitalism in front of the stock exchange, give away all my things and live like a medieval ascetic. When I feel the loss of the diversity of life on Earth, the plants, animals, insects, fungi and our intricate interdependence as it is subsumed by human greed, I want to curl up in a ball and weep, or wail like an ambulance siren. But I don’t. I go on, getting groceries, cooking dinner, walking the dog, hugging my partner, texting a friend, going to work, teaching humanities, navigating the daily highs and lows of the company of teenagers.
I leave the building at 4:00 and head to the parking lot. Somehow the day has left me feeling better than I felt yesterday. We didn’t do anything earth shattering. But that’s kind of the point. Reduce the harm. Focus on healing over productivity or progress. It’s ok to go slow, to scale back. One thing at a time. Nature can replenish, given a chance.