Our Changing Planet

By Constance Moore, Trena Noval|September 15, 2020

Environmental justice IS community building. They go hand in hand. And when we include all people and perspectives, we bring creativity and learning to our practice and world.

~Our Changing Planet teacher

At 22, our first US Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, has given us wisdom to live by: We don’t burst into a new world; we begin it (May 4, 2020). As we face an uncertain future amid rapid global social, economic, and ecological changes, we feel the urgency to equip our students and teachers with the ideas, knowledge, and tools to better meet these challenges. Thus, a deep dive into recognizing, studying, and observing local ecosystems is imperative. Taking this deep learning into the realm of solutions requires an integrative learning approach, one that relies on thinking and strategizing creatively in order to solve problems flexibly, imagine, and envision. We want to share the story of one solution underway in the Alameda Unified School District, taking an integrated approach to teaching and learning that weaves social justice, environmental literacy, and the arts together to come up with creative strategies.

The island of Alameda, California, is home to one of the most socioeconomic and culturally diverse communities in the Bay Area. The Alameda community faces the challenge of being one of the first land areas in the Bay Area to struggle with sea level rise as a result of climate change (City of Alameda, 2019). In response to this urgency, last September we launched Our Changing Planet (OCP), a district-wide project of Alameda Unified School District for teacher professional development in environmental literacy, justice, and creativity. This year-long professional development program takes an integrated learning approach to understanding the changing environment, and points our youth, teachers, and their communities toward the movement that Gorman meant when she said, “We begin it.”

Teachers share ideas for learning around justice, the environment, and creativity

What is the integrated learning model used in OCP?

What has shifted for me is seeing integrated learning as more about the connections students make in one curricula area to another; the use of similar practices, methods, and strategies; and the questions from students that arise from this type of learning.

~Our Changing Planet teacher

Throughout the 2019–2020 school year, teachers from across the district attended monthly OCP professional development sessions, where they learned from the thinking and actions of environmentalists, scientists, artists, designers, and community activists who are developing more sustainable relationships between people and their environments. Through participating in arts and science experiences that were integrated into the community and connected to current events, OCP teachers began to adapt these actions and experiences into their teaching practices. They gained a deeper understanding of how creative disciplines facilitate student engagement across curricular areas by using an integrated arts and science lens to provide multiple strategies for students to make their learning and ideas visible and actionable. With the arts and the environment at the center of their learning, students make deeper connections to the curriculum and learn to value their own thinking, supporting the development of an inquiry-based lens on the world. Integrated learning models help students become the creative change-makers and solutionaries that our communities need to survive and thrive in this new world.

Our Changing Planet uses three key practices as its integrative backbone.

Teachers map curricular projects including one that turns a playground into a forest

Creativity and the arts

The creative practices of imagination, curiosity, student-led inquiry, and creative expression allow for open pathways and multiple ways for students to explore and talk about their learning. Making is deeply intellectual. We are able to create new stories for understanding the world when we transfer our thinking into new languages. The languages of creative practice have a structure but not one that is predetermined, so students have to come up with a way to translate their ideas into this new structure in order to sense and make meaning. This process is rigorous and takes deep academic thinking. To tell your story you really have to understand how to compose things through a creative lens. We believe this might be one of the most important practices for students to develop in order to be the creative designers of a better future. Creative processes should be at the core of every learning experience.

Intersectionality

We cannot think about a community without considering the environment or space in which we live. We cannot think about the environment without considering the people who are there (or were there or will be there). Our Changing Planet has helped me begin to widen my thinking around the intersections of people and places.

~Our Changing Planet teacher

The environment is made up of natural systems at the intersections of culture(s), peoples, and places seen from multiple perspectives and disciplines. Our Changing Planet helps teachers explore and understand the interrelatedness of people and place through the integrated practices of environmental justice and creative solutions. We have been inspired by the work of many practitioners who can help us create learning experiences with these lenses and who have developed frameworks for us to practice and live by and more fully support the lives of black and brown students:

Applying these frames to experiencing environmental practices, getting curious, and applying creative solutions supports our teachers and students in taking action.

Teachers give feedback to each others big ideas

Building understanding

I feel confident in bringing awareness to my community, acting locally and nationally to bring change, and, above all, helping my students find their voice and inspiration for change.

~Our Changing Planet teacher

Participatory practices, collaboration, collective thinking, and shared hands-on, minds-on learning is foundational. Understanding takes time, and learning needs to happen with loose and long examinations of our world. This is one of the focal learning strategies we are moving teachers toward with Our Changing Planetlearning as a long process and not something to be delivered and measured in incremental units. By creating flexible learning environments, teachers make space for students’ inquiry to take hold. OCP teachers have started to understand how their role around understanding our changing environment is not just a teaching moment, but a moment of participation and equity that puts students’ local knowledge (what they bring to the table), curiosity (the questions they want to dig into), and imagination (their problem solving skills and ability to envision solutions) at the center of learning.

What we learned, where we landed

I was able to come to an understanding of the environment as a critical piece of our community rather than another thing to teach students about.

~Our Changing Planet teacher

Our Changing Planet has created natural leadership in teachers who choose courage over comfort. After our first year, teachers have a greater sense of advocacy for themselves as teachers and for their students and the role they play collectively as advocates in their communities.

Our Changing Planet is building a district-wide community of practice in which teachers learn from one another across schools, disciplines, and grade levels. Our teachers now understand that people are a part of the environment: caring for people is caring for the environment. You can’t fully care for the environment without caring for the people who live there and, importantly, acknowledging the histories of the people who have cared for the land. OCP teachers see how social justice movements must be integrated into environmental learning in order to empower students whose voices have not been heard. 

When we turn learning over to students, their curiosity and inquiry create pathways of engagement. We have learned that this work is important even with the youngest students. Kids know what is happening in their world. They can handle what we think of as tough topics, and their ideas can be the seeds for change and new thinking. Their imagination and wild brainstorms bring us hope. The arts help students to transform environmental learning into creative actions in their communities. This is liberatory learning.

Trena Noval and Constance Moore would like to acknowledge their partners in this work who have greatly contributed to this project: Lindsey Shepard, Indi McCasey, and Terri Elkin.

Constance Moore
This article was written by Constance Moore

Constance Moore is an artist and educator based in Oakland, California. She earned her MA from Brown University in museum studies, her MFAIA from Goddard College, and holds a single subject teaching credential in the visual arts. Constance is the arts integration specialist and art studio teacher at Maya Lin School in Alameda, California. Constance has taught in the Integrated Learning Specialist Program (formerly of Alameda County Office of Education) and co-leads and facilitates Our Changing Planet for Alameda Unified School District. As an educator, Constance uses the work and processes of contemporary artists to help students connect to and express environmental and social justice concerns. She shares her students’ love of color, and hopes to transmit their spirit and freshness into her work. Her interdisciplinary art practice is rooted in the power and meaning of storytelling, often borrowing from and reimagining natural forms. Constance is concerned with presence, creating work about people, objects, and ideas that are felt but not always seen in this world. You can see her illustrations in the children’s book Brown: The Many Shades of Love (Cameron, 2020).

Trena Noval
This article was written by Trena Noval

Trena Noval co-leads Our Changing Planet; is cofounder of Bay Area Integrated Design for Education, the Arts, and Leadership (IDEAL), a new organization whose mission is to foster innovative teaching and learning through integrative creative practices that cultivate liberatory learning spaces; and, along with veteran educator Ana Raquel Thomas, is a cofounder of Creativity Lab, a new science and environmental literacy project. Trena is an artist, educator/activist, and writer, whose work engages participatory research, cross-disciplinary platforms, learning pedagogies, and community engagement. At the heart of her interests is the investigation of social and natural ecologies—relationships of people and place with a focus on justice, the environment, and creative actions. Trena’s work in education has focused on integrated learning practices and pedagogies in program design and leadership development in both public and nonprofit educational sectors, creating communities of practice that engage liberatory spaces for learning. She is one of the founding faculty of the Integrated Learning Specialist Program, where she developed principal and teacher leadership initiatives and supported integrated learning demonstration sites across the county. In collaboration with UC Berkeley Principal Leadership Institute, she is a co-lead for a leadership research initiative that examines school leaders who practice leadership through integrated learning pedagogies. She serves on the board of directors for Youth Art Exchange, and she is a member of the 2019/2020 Stanford Arts Institute's Creative Cities Working Group. Trena teaches at California College of the Arts.

Comments:

  • Louise Music

    Thank you Ten Strands for lifting up the work of Trena, Constance and Bay Area educators implementing engaging and creative learning experiences that prepare all students to continue to solve problems and discover solutions for our future!

  • Julia Marshall

    Wonderful, inspiring work.

  • Cammie harris

    Thank you Trena, Constance and team for inspiring teachers to include social justice and action in their work.

  • Judy Goodwin

    Thank you Team OCP for envisioning the integration of social justice, the environment and the places our students call home. When we deepen educators understanding of integrated learning we expand learning and opportunity for all students.

  • Amos White

    There can be nothing more important nor more powerful for our children and our future at this time, than an integrated approach to education that centers the environment at the core of its framework. So excited to learn more and to support it across Alameda!

  • Marci Nettles

    The experiences, tools, and practices I am developing by participating in the OCP professional development are helping me to meet the many challenges of distance learning. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I fall back on the lessons and practices that were modeled with us. Using the OCP lens is grounding and reminds me about what is essential and foundational in all I teach.

  • Kate E Casale

    Amazing, critical work. This is how we ignite personal and community change and make education transformational (not transactional). Blessed that my kids will be co creators in this!

  • D Shepard

    This was a very well written article. As a science educator, I would have appreciated specific examples of cross-curricular educational learning that have worked well.

  • Sarah

    Truly revolutionary pedagogy, centered in place and in community. Thank you for this work. We need more of it.