With climate education, Hitchcock Center looks to help children envision ideal world


Staff Writer

Published: 01-19-2023 11:46 PM

WHATELY — While winter’s warmest days remind us that our climate’s future could be bleak, the future generation reminds us that it may not have to be.

Stephanie Apanell’s fourth grade class at Whately Elementary School joined forces with Amherst’s Hitchcock Center for the Environment this October for a series of climate-related explorations. Students engaged in hands-on activities over the course of three sessions at Whately Elementary, as well as during one visit to the Hitchcock Center. Monya Relles, the Hitchcock Center’s environmental educator who headed the program, said they primed their lessons to make climate-related education about more than “just being hopeless.”

“In my personal work, I keep coming back to (climate activist and writer) Adrienne Maree Brown who said all climate education is science fiction,” Relles said. Climate education is “inherently revolutionary,” centered around envisioning an idealistic world that has yet to exist, they elaborated.

And what better catalyst for the revolution than a child’s imagination, they reasoned.

“In broad strokes, I think key pieces of teaching children about climate change is to be hopeful and ... to be solution-oriented,” Relles said. “I think students thinking about themselves as problem-solvers is really important.”

Relles’ lesson plans revolved around “deconstructing the idea that nature is somewhere.” Rather, nature is everywhere, they argued. At Whately Elementary, they introduced students to a confluence of human innovation and the natural world: “solar panels we can play with.” Working within “the language of engineering and of problem solving,” the children were presented with real voltmeters, circuits and other related paraphernalia to expose them to “what’s actually getting done” to preserve the climate.

“A really key piece is not telling them how to feel and letting them come to their own conclusions,” Relles said.

Aside from being “a place to dream and feel hopeful,” the Hitchcock Center facility delivered a lesson merely by existing as a “living building,” or a self-sustaining structure that operates and is dependent on natural cycles, such as rainfall. Additionally, staff gave visiting students insight into how career actuarial architects and engineers think, Relles recapped. After a tour of the center, the children were tasked with drawing something beautiful they observed before shifting gears to redesigning wind turbines.

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Relles feels “incredibly lucky to be a teacher working outside of public schools and working with pieces that can sort of supplement” a rigid state curriculum.

“If you look at the state standards for science … it specifically says it does not include climate change,” Jeanne Powers, director of teaching and learning for the Gill-Montague Regional School District, said of Massachusetts’ curriculum at the elementary level. “I think the foundational skills they learn … allow for more complex thinking about climate in the older grades, so I think it’s a good progression.”

“For instance, in third grade, students study Earth and space, including climate data about temperature and rainfall, and summarize weather conditions of different regions,” explained Karin Patenaude, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning with the Greenfield School Department.

Exposing children to climate education early into their formative years is paramount to fostering optimism in the midst of widespread negativity, Relles argued. Commonly in society, they observed, climate rhetoric implies that human beings are inherently a negative influence on the world in which they live. Relles said they hope children recognize through their lessons that people can serve the opposite purpose, and even reverse the course of climate change if they act quickly.

“I think the biggest challenge is trying to shift that identity,” they said.

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com.

Climate Change at Home is presented by Whalen Insurance.

An earlier version of this article used incorrect pronouns for environmental educator Monya Relles. Relles uses they/them pronouns.