Q & A with Michael:
Q: Your US Teacher of the Year status allows you the opportunity to have a serious advocate’s voice for education in all areas of impact. You’ve established a platform for helping students think more broadly about global impact. Moving forward, how are you positioning your work regarding climate change and circular economy issues?
A: Empowering students to have a positive impact on their community and environment is something that has always been a passion of mine. Children should not have to wait until they graduate to see the relevance of what they are learning in school. For the generation of students in school right now, there is nothing more relevant than addressing the impacts of climate change and the need for a sustainable, circular economy. Early in my career, the majority of my students’ service projects focused on our local, rural community. Over time, however, I realized that if I wanted my students to change the world, they needed to understand more about it. As video conferencing services like Skype became available for free to use in the classroom, I began giving my students experiences that broadened their worldview. We had song exchanges with classes in other countries, visits to museums and national parks, discussions with authors, interactions with astronauts in space, and a plethora of other global learning experiences. Through these interactions, my students gradually began to understand the interconnectedness that we share as inhabitants of this small planet, as well as the intrinsic joy of helping others. One group developed a learning exchange with children in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi in which my students taught the Kenyan children conceptual mathematics with materials in our classroom in exchange for weekly lessons in Kiswahili. Another class, after learning of a dilapidated bridge in Bungoma, Kenya that prevented children from going to school, designed a new bridge and fundraised to get it constructed. Each year my classes would identify an issue they wanted to address and would learn the curriculum through that social good initiative.
In recent years, students have increasingly decided to focus on climate action and environmental issues. A group of fourth-graders started a composting program as part of a school garden that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the community. One of my fifth-grade classes designed aquaponics units out of recycled materials to help friends suffering from the effects of climate change in Malawi grow food with 90% less water.
The platform that I have been given as a Global Teacher Prize Top-10 Finalist and Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year has allowed me to help other educators see the value of students learning through social innovation, including climate action and circular economy issues. While the work my students have done serves as inspiration, I have given teachers and schools practical tools, strategies, and guidance on how to incorporate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Problem-Based Learning, the engineering design process, and educational technology to allow students to learn the required curricula in this powerful way. This year, I have partnered with Dr. Jennifer Williams, co-founder of the TeachSDGs movement that has grown to over 30,000 teachers, and Koen Timmers, 2018 Global Teacher Prize Top-10 Finalist, to establish Take Action Global (TAG), a non-profit organization focused on empowering students and teachers around the globe to take action for social good.
Q: We applaud the project your students did to help Nairobi with their need for clean water. What other projects are you aware of and promoting from your leadership position inside NGOs and educational organizations?
A: In October, 100,000 students in more than 100 countries will unite to learn and fight climate change as part of the 3rd annual Climate Action Project being facilitated by TAG. This project that Koen Timmers started in 2017 continues to grow in impact and is supported by the United Nations Foundation, Dr. Jane Goodall, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and many other organizations from around the globe. The project is free for any K-12 teacher to join at climate-action.info. Over four weeks, students will learn about climate change, analyze data, explore causes and effects, and finally commit to action. Throughout the process, classes from around the globe will share learning with each other through video and videoconferencing. A teaching guide is available to help teachers find resources and plan lessons.
Q: If we are calling the development of children to be socially conscious a “movement,” then what, in your opinion, does it take to create the change needed to really put fire to the effort?
A: As a society, we have chosen to publicly fund education because we understand that education, as an institution, is the driving force behind the wellbeing of our communities. In recent decades, however, the focus in education has been solely on the economic health of society. Because of this, many of our children, our schools, and our communities are not holistically well. We must embrace a broader, more comprehensive approach if we are to meet the challenges on the horizon. As I wrote about in Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, schools must find the balance between focusing on the technological innovation that is currently driving our economy and the humanity, relationships, and empathy that are vital to the future prosperity of our children and our society. This is the key to our future. If our students learn to innovate in order to improve the lives of others and make their world better they will learn the competencies needed for the future workplace while also feeling the intrinsic joy of helping others. That joy is contagious. Once they experience the power of learning in this manner it becomes something that they continue to replicate in and out of school.
Most school district mission statements in the United States mention some combination of developing life-long learning, academic success, and good citizenship. Helping students see the power of using learning in school for social good allows us to meet those school missions so that they are more than just empty words published on the school’s website.
Q: What one simple thing can educators do around the world that would make a difference in their classrooms toward climate change or circular economy?
A: I’ve spent a lot of time as Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year working with pre-service teachers who are training to enter the profession. Each one of them is bursting with optimism and the belief that they will change the world. Yet, many current teachers have been disillusioned by the system to believe their job is to prepare students for tests, give grades, and control behavior. This is one of the driving forces behind our current teaching crisis in which current teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates and too few new teachers are replacing them. By beginning to incorporate the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Problem-Based Learning (PBL) focused on social good, and easily implemented projects like the TAG Climate Action Project mentioned above, teachers can both assist students in learning more and rekindle their passion for teaching. Many times, I’ve seen frustrated teachers reinvigorated when changing their approach to include this type of learning. It allows educators and our students to see the immediate impact of learning.
As students find relevance in the curriculum by applying it to climate issues and social good causes, they begin learning how to develop a more sustainable circular economy, while also finding emotional connections to content that will make them more academically successful.
Michael’s Networking Interests:
- Climate scientist with experience in K-12 Education
- US-based lawyer with expertise in international non-profit/NGO work
- Academic researching the impact of education systems on democracy