Happy 100th Birthday to the National Parks!

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Image courtesy National Park Service/Tim Rains
Image courtesy National Park Service/Tim Rains

The National Park Service is celebrating the 100th birthday of our national parks. In case you missed it, BJ McCracken discusses a climate change unit taught at Great Falls (Montana) High School and how schools can—and should—play a central role in educating students to be well-informed and proactive citizens.

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Glacier National Park had 125 recorded glaciers in the 1850s. Today there are 25 glaciers. It is predicted they will all disappear by 2030.

Citizenship and an individual’s responsibilities to society and global well-being should be a purposeful part of all curricula, not just social studies. There is a social contract within democracy that requires individuals to be informed citizens who seek quality information especially when determining what to believe in situations involving conflicting viewpoints. Basic citizenship skills should include knowing how to locate quality information, being able to apply that information to problem analysis or solutions, and using critical thinking skills. These are used in daily life.

Verb Citizens

This idea of personal responsibility for national or global issues and that an individual’s personal decisions can affect society, is often a foreign concept to freshman high school students. While they may have encountered concepts such as social contracts, citizenship, and stewardship in an abstract way, they often do not see what they personally can do to make a difference. In other words, these concepts are perceived as nouns, not verbs.  And unfortunately, education too often fails to clearly identify and emphasize that the choice to be a well-informed citizen is central to being an active citizen in a democratic society. Making the choice to be informed is just as proactive as choosing to recycle. Both actions require intent and effort. Education should be modeling the same intent and effort to proactively promote citizenship as an ongoing process of making informed choices.

Our Foundations of Science teacher at Great Falls (Montana) High School, Beth Thomas, wanted her climate change unit to move beyond the mechanics of science and into that awareness of personal citizenship responsibilities. To implement this unit she pulled together a collaborative planning and presentation team that included a literacy specialist, a classroom technology specialist, and what she calls an information specialist, the librarian. One of the team goals was to assist students in viewing themselves as “verb” citizens.

The entire climate change unit required seven weeks of class time and encompassed an anticipatory unit on glaciers and Antarctica, as well as the actual climate change unit. Antarctica and Glacier National Park were used as ‘drill down’ focus examples. The unit was primarily co-taught by the science teacher and the librarian, who was with the class through six of the seven weeks.

Linking Literature to Research

Students began acquiring background knowledge by reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, which provided vivid descriptions of Antarctica prior to today’s major climate changes. The literacy specialist introduced literary circles and roles. She spent three days with the students teaching them how to set up and implement SOAPSTone and ReadWriteThink text complexity strategies to decode content using a dialectic journal. The teaching team preselected important vocabulary relating to the chapter being read, which focused on everyday words to build reading and writing comprehension. Each day, the librarian presented a short visual geography unit, researched and answered complex or specific questions as they arose, and worked with the literacy circles. The final element to the Antarctic part of the unit was an interactive blog maintained by Mrs. Thomas while she spent a week in Antarctica as part of a scientific study team sponsored by the National Geographic Society for their Grosvenor Teacher Fellows.

Using interactive time-lapsed slides and videos to track glacial retreats, students learned about receding glaciers around the world. Student work included a guided response journal using eight video clips pertaining to glaciers, core drilling, effects on plant life, ocean and animal life, and Antarctica. They completed an Antarctic scavenger hunt and participated in an interactive teleconference with a park ranger at Glacier National Park. After acquiring a basic understanding of glaciers, students used this information to begin forming opinions about whether glaciers in general, and the glaciers in Glacier National Park and Antarctica in particular, are accurate indicators of climate change.

Confronting the Conflict

The next priority was to confront the debate about global warming: Is it real? Is it significant? Is it solely the outcome of natural processes, or do the actions of humans actively affect global warming?  This was an excellent time to begin weaving in the citizenship elements of quality information and the responsibility to arrive at informed decisions. Daily bell ringers and exit tickets were crafted to promote evaluative thinking and to require students to analyze information, arrive at conclusions, and make judgments. For example, one bell ringer was a Boggle based exercise where students had to locate climate change words, then use interactive technology to ‘show their work’ and explain its relation to climate change. Exit ticket strategies required students to review, analyze, and evaluate daily learning, to restate concepts, and/or to formulate questions to extend inquiry.

The climate change unit was presented using short presentations about an element of climate changethat were interspersed with student research or interactive discussions. Students became so invested in the learning that when a graph of climate changes over the last ten thousand years was presented, they questioned why there were radical changes at certain times prior to modern man. As per established practice, the librarian researched those questions and then presented the answers. Needless to say, the librarian was very happy to be involved in curiosity-driven learning that was used to promote critical thinking and informed decision-making. All but one student concluded that actions taken by man did, in fact, significantly affect climate change.

Citizens: From Noun to Verb

As the issues surrounding climate change began making sense, students became overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue and felt inadequate to effect any change. It became apparent that the last active citizenship hurdle was to address those student perceptions. To frame the ability of one person or a small group of people to effect change, we started with Margaret Mead’s admonition to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The librarian then presented  instances of citizen-driven changes including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, the Dalai Lama, Tibetan monks advocating for a free Tibet, Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership, and scientific research that changed lives.

Once students understood that major change can start small, Mrs. Thomas moved into the application phase by brainstorming/teaching/demonstrating/modeling creative thinking about what one person can accomplish to change values and attitudes about environmental issues. Students extended learning by considering packaging, clothing, housewares, transportation, and manufacturing choices from an individual consumer viewpoint. They explored options for proactive choices that one individual can make to have an impact on the environment.

Part of the capstone project required students to distinguish between cause and effect. The librarian used formative assessment strategies to check student understanding of cause and effect in the context of climate change. One of the strategies used a series of nouns or noun phrases that related to climate change and required student collaboration in determining whether the term related to cause or effect. The series of nouns included items directly correlating to climate change such as mining and transportation nouns as well as less obvious items such as Big Gulp drink cups and swimming pools. This strategy was also used to assess the progress of students in making informed determinations. Unexpectedly, this exercise evolved into an in-depth examination of the terms from multiple perspectives as students began making cases for both cause and effect for each item. The lesson transformed into a mini practice in the information and decision-making principles used by conscientious citizens. Additionally, students began recognizing how daily life choices can have an impact.

Knowledge Products: Informed and Active Citizens

The capstone project was to create a news broadcast that met the redefinition element in the SAMR  model (Substitution, Augementation, Modification, Recognition). The broadcast content had to meet four evidence-based criteria: explain the issue, discuss the impact or effect, identify the possible causes, and present possible solutions. After researching, students were required to create a story board to ensure a focused presentation of quality content. Students were then trained by a classroom technology specialist in using PowerPoint with OfficeMix to create a multi-media product that synced student-filmed video and interactive illustrations they created using voiceover and inking.

Students filmed video segments in TV studios they created. Mimicking actual news stations, the “news crew” was featured at the beginning of the broadcast while the studio segment used anchors to introduce the issue. The video had to include “on-site” reporting segments and illustrations with interactive explanations and graphics. The groups truly showed their creativity, especially with on-site locations such as when the swimming pool was used in a segment reporting on rising ocean levels. The newscasts were played to class members to reinforce learning about the various elements of climate change.

This unit presents an example of how proactive citizenship can be taught outside the traditional curriculum box to provide students the opportunity to practice the principles of democratic society in an authentic approach. It showcases the power of inquiry, of defining a problem, of collecting information, of collegial viewpoint discussions, and of arriving at informed determinations with a purpose to take action. The lessons and activities all met the standards and benchmarks, but the most important learner outcome was understanding how to be a “verb” citizen.

Works Cited:

Morse, Ogden. “SOAPSTone: A Strategy for Reading and Writing.” CollegeBoard. http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/preap/teachers_corner/45200.html (accessed June 16, 2016).

ReadWriteThink. http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/promote-deep-thinking-choose-31023.html (accessed June 16, 2016).

“Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park.”  U.S. Geological Survey. https://www.usgs.gov/centers/norock/science/retreat-glaciers-glacier-national-park (accessed June 16, 2016).

Romrell, Danae, Lisa C. Kidder, and Emma Wood. “The SAMR Model as a Framework for Evaluating mLearning.”  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 18.2 (2014). http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1036281.pdf (accessed June 16, 2016).

Smith, Kevin. Teaching with Text-Based Questions: Helping Students Analyze Non-Fiction & Visual Texts. Routledge, 2014.


McCracken BJBJ McCracken, MPA, is a librarian at Great Falls (MT) High School. She earned her master’s in public administration from the University of Montana. McCracken is a member of ALA, AASL, and YALSA, and avidly follows intellectual freedom issues. She has written articles for Library Media Connection and School Librarian’s Workshop, and was guest editor of the January/February 2015 Knowledge Quest issue on Common Core. She is currently in the process of writing the documents to establish the Montana Association of School Librarians, which will create Montana’s first affiliate to the to the national organization. McCracken also teaches seminars, classes, and workshops. Her personal passions include reading history, gardening, and sports.

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