Penn’s ‘My Climate Story’ takes science from abstract to personal

How the program developed

On an 83-degree day in April, teachers and their students reflected on how the program taught them how to make climate change more personal. The program is part of a grant that gives schools in the region tools that can benefit teachers in any subject.

Courses are embedded in classrooms across topics, even if they are not scientific or climate specific. Teachers apply and, if accepted, receive materials to accompany their lessons. Mariaeloisa Carambo, a former high school history teacher and current doctoral candidate at Drexel University, was one of the teachers selected.

Mariaeloisa Carambo
Mariaeloisa Carambo taught at Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia, where she connected her own experiences with nature to climate change and social justice. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY News)

“There was a gap in the kind of social justice that I was teaching,” Carambo said. “We need to organize at the grassroots level and remind the government and agencies that people exist at the end of these bills and laws. How do we want to sustain life on this planet? And what kind of life do we want? I think the most important thing is also the quality of life.”

Each participant had a personal story to tell about how the world changed before their eyes.

Carambo, a daughter of immigrants, recalled last summer’s wildfires and not being able to travel to the forests she frequented as a child. It was “shocking,” Carambo said.

Carambo also has two young children, ages three and five. She has struggled with the tension of caring for the earth to sustain human life versus the history of extraction.

“As a mother, when I think about what my children are going to experience when they are my age, I get emotional,” she said. ‘How do we teach our children not only survival skills, but also the ability to… reposition yourself in society? So you can survive as these environmental justice issues continue to worsen?”

Joni Woods, an English teacher at Palumbo Academy, wanted the opportunity to learn how issues overlap. Woods was surprised at how little climate education is taught in Philly’s schools.

Her application asked this question:

“Why should English be an island of thought when the stormwater from the Schuylkill can cause our schools to move to remote learning?”

Joni Bos
Joni Woods, an English teacher at the Academy in Palumbo, taught her class how climate change has been addressed in the past. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY News)

In her classroom, Woods learned how historical figures and movements have addressed climate issues in the past.

“We did some research after the 1970s on the Dust Bowl, the ozone layer or just EPA regulations,” Woods said. “It was really nice to see how hopeful students were when they realized that we actually have a history of tackling climate change. It is very important to give students the tools, and not just raise awareness. They need to know what actions they can take.”

The program allowed her to network with other teachers, like Carambo, from the 2022 cohort, who care about teaching this topic.

“If this gets people thinking about the climate curriculum, then this is enough,” Woods said.

Impact on students

Students like Hager Alsekaf, an 11th grader at Robeson School, felt more confident talking about the topic with friends and family. But Alsekaf suggests keeping it simple.

“Trying to understand what they know and what they don’t know so you don’t overwhelm them or make them feel inferior because they don’t know,” she said.

Hager Alsekaf, an 11th-grader at Paul Robeson High School, said writing her own climate story made it easier to talk about it with peers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY News)

Other students, like Isabella Smith-Santos, said learning about climate change gave her the confidence to make small changes in her everyday life. Smith-Santos’ personal story juxtaposes her grandmother smoking on her porch with a plume of smoke behind a passing bus.

She shared a post.

“Try to help the world in your own way,” Santos said. “Take responsibility, but also maintain a sense of empathy for everyone else. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you do for the world, worry about what you do for the world.”