“Although we were all coming from different places in life, our stories resonated the same theme. What used to be, isn’t anymore . . .” -Jill Shannon, counselor at Golden Charter Academy
Jill Shannon expressed a common sentiment among participants at this year’s Climate Generation Summer Institute. During the three-day institute, now in its seventeenth year and its third year virtually, fifty educators from California joined over three hundred others from across the country and around the globe. Based on the concept of “Our Shared Future,” sessions explored climate storytelling through the arts and sciences and through empowering examples of educators and youth addressing climate justice issues now—embracing the changes we are experiencing as a catalyst and opportunity for action. Although she was a first-time attendee, Shannon was among the featured presenters who showcased inspiring work already underway at her public elementary school in California’s Central Valley.
To help focus on other local assets, the California Cohort Day, hosted by Ten Strands, provided an overview of the state of climate literacy education, connected folks to representatives from statewide educator networks, and featured recently released, California-specific curriculum materials such as those created by Save California Salmon on Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Department of Water Resources on sustainable groundwater management in different hydrological basins. Through discussions and simulations, we came to an important understanding: Our “shared future” includes more than just people—all the beings in our ecosystems are experiencing climate change in their own ways. They, too, have stories to tell.
To bring forth such stories, Shannon and Golden Charter Academy’s (GCA) founding principal, Mandy Breuer, hosted a version of the Council of All Beings. Originating from principles of deep ecology and the work of Joanna Macy over thirty years ago, the GCA team adapted it for use with elementary students and staff in Southwest Fresno, California. As a trauma-informed practice that they led with their staff and K–4th-grade students, this circle activity allows participants to take on the perspective of other life forms and express their grief and anger for what we have lost through climate change and habitat destruction. In their role as California native plants, animals, rivers, and rocks, council participants then offered their gifts to humans to help cope with their pain and also stir them to action in protecting what we can still save.
People often think climate education is for secondary students, but that, too, is changing. At Golden Charter Academy—the school of environmental stewardship and the nation’s first-ever TK–8th-grade zoo school—the staff is shifting the paradigm of education in the Central Valley by offering students action-driven interdisciplinary learning that puts even the youngest students in the center of community change. When CEO & president Robert Golden, a former NFL player, returned to his hometown to found the school in 2020, he knew he had to create something with the power to disrupt cycles of negative outcomes faced by his marginalized neighborhood. Through his former teacher at Edison High School, Golden partnered with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to build a school that would nurture environmental stewards through best practices centered in place-based learning, environmental education, and universal design for learning.
The Climate Generation Summer Institute provided members of the team the chance to find their own places in GCA’s pursuit of equity, stewardship, and access. Liana Pellegrino, GCA’s assistant principal, said, “As a new educator and leader of environmental stewardship, it was invaluable to meet, see, and collaborate with others across the nation that spoke and understood the same language we are speaking in Fresno. I felt affirmed, heard, and inspired.”
Shannon reflected, “It’s my job to share the stories I have had the privilege of hearing, as well as to continue expanding my knowledge in climate change and environmental justice. As a woman of color and educator, I’m in a prime position to elevate communities and their voices within these spaces. I want to be able to hold safe spaces for students and families to explore their connections with nature, ultimately reiterating how integral nature is to all life. We’re currently working to build empathy within our students, and I’ve learned that it’s easiest for them to empathize with nature. They have an innate and relentless care for the earth, so equipping them with the educational and social tools are the next steps.”
Sue Jones, a TK teacher, said Climate Generation sessions “stretched my understanding that everyone must have a seat at the table when developing climate solutions or actions so that our actions don’t cause harm to the most vulnerable people in a society.” As 5th-grade teacher Gina Contreras explained, “Those people must include students, and collaboration between youth and elders in restorative justice can contribute to creating more equitable schools and communities impacted by climate change.” After the institute, Contreras said, “I felt more confident in having strategies to bring back in the classroom to cultivate a more safe and empowering environment. It was inspiring to see how young people can be changemakers in addressing climate justice issues.”
“We lovingly say at GCA,” Breuer explains, “‘Little hands do big things.’” This includes winning honorable mention for the Civic Learning Award, a precursor to the State Seal of Civic Engagement. Throughout the year, units of study culminate in some type of environmental action. Examples from just last year include planting trees in some of the most polluted areas of Fresno with the lowest tree equity scores in the state, establishing pollinator gardens in the city, designing climate-friendly buildings based on biomimicry principles, hosting silent discos to educate the community about human-caused noise pollution, and redesigning pocket parks at a local cultural heritage museum and inviting the larger community to partner in the cleanup and installation.
For Breuer, the Climate Generation Summer Institute brought new eyes to look deep at the plans for GCA’s all-staff professional learning prior to the beginning of the new academic year, and “we collectively knew we needed to get our faculty and staff directly experiencing nature so that they would feel more confident in sharing this connection with students.” Although Kings Canyon National Park is only an hour away from the school, the majority of GCA staff members had never seen its giant sequoia trees. Just as the students receive rich, hands-on, action-oriented instruction, GCA’s professional learning program connects educators not only to state and national colleagues but also to place-based learning in and around the community.
GCA’s work clearly resonated with other teachers as well. Susan Seyan with Reed Elementary School in San Jose said, “The Summer Institute was transformational, not simply because of the content presented, connections with peers and mentors forged, and climate education resources provided, but because of the way information was shared and conversations led. The facilitators modeled a respect for all beings that underpins their social and climate justice perspective. This created a safe space for learning and quietly underscored the urgency of their message. I would recommend the Summer Institute for Climate Change Education to any K–12 educator, especially in California!”
Photos in this story are by Dustin Verzosa.