The question—What kind of access to environmental news stories do we have?— is one that arouses concern in my classroom. According to my high school students, unless you’re taking an AP Environmental Science class, chances are slim that climate change is being addressed, let alone mentioned. This is troubling for students who are mindful of the fact that the behaviors we practice on Earth Day need to be practiced every day. It calls to mind Aldo Leopold’s description in A Sand County Almanac of how the ecologist might choose to “harden his shell” in the effort to distance himself emotionally from the facts of environmental devastation, as he feels alone in “a world of wounds.”
Writing teachers have a unique opportunity to help students communicate stories about the climate crisis that we all need to learn. Environmental storytelling transcends disciplinary boundaries—when my students are able to weave their learning from their biology class with their learning from their history class, they exhibit a sense of satisfaction that they can bring the seemingly disparate hours of their learning day together. We can support emerging environmental storytellers by integrating ways of thinking about our connections to the natural world with our focus on literacy instruction. As we help students craft narratives with an audience in mind, we can reflect on how to broaden the reach of environmental storytelling and ideas for problem-solving.
During remote learning here in Los Angeles last year, some of my students had passed the time watching YouTube videos of crafty things that they could do at home. They loved learning about making zines: the tactile experience of creating a magazine in miniature allowed them to explore and document sources of passion or objects of curiosity. Because a zine is curated to reflect something meaningful to its maker, it seemed a fun way to foster environmental storytelling: my students and I would make mini-zines and share them with an audience of sixth-graders at a nearby middle school.
We’d been exploring environmental podcasts, and again and again, my students mentioned how much they appreciated the shorter, “bite-sized” podcast episodes they found. We decided to make 8-page zines to choose an aspect of environmental stewardship we wanted to educate about, aiming for the clear, conversational brevity we associated with podcasts episodes found on TILclimate Podcast, and the podcast format of How to Save a Planet, where every episode ends with a specific call to action.
Barriers to Access
Creating mini-zines was a way to address a perceived vacuum in accessible news reporting about the climate crisis. We drew on storyboard methods I described in my October post about designing environmental justice comics. During this series of lessons, I wanted to think more concretely about why this vacuum exists. We discussed the applicability of Rob Nixon’s definition of “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction dispersed across time and space…” Because we cannot comprehend the scope of ongoing environmental degradation such as deforestation or the acidification of oceans in one glance, stories about the climate crisis are not easily adapted to TV news segments that average 3-4 minutes in length.
Moreover, the most convincing and credible sources of scientific data are found in documents requiring multiple sittings to read. The recent UN Climate Report (IPCC 2021), written by 234 authors and containing 14,000 citations from scientific studies world wide, is nearly 4,000 pages in length. In discussing what what the most important takeaway for the stories we wanted to tell, we decided that communicating the relationship between the zine topic they chose and the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon (critical for keeping the global temperature from rising to a catastrophic degree) was key to effective storytelling.
Due to the compact nature of a mini-zine, we strove to convey the essentials of our stories in three parts: impact, access, and practice. Being able to describe an environmental problem in terms of its impact is vital because the impact can be difficult to discern. It was important to us to engage in storytelling that provided concrete ideas for taking action, but was also accessible to a younger audience. This knowledge helped us adjust the scale of intervention our zine stories recommended. The calls to action embedded in the mini-zines were designed to be local and doable.
One of my students playfully invoked story tropes related to superheroes. Her zine described the biggest villain of all: pollution. She directed us to join other superheroes at a nearby recycling center and to remember: “Your impact may not be seen but the earth 100% feels it.”
A zine called “Saving Green Eggs and Ham” addressed local food waste and connected solutions for it to concerns about malnutrition. This student was able to thread solutions for an environmental problem with a public health emergency, indicating how frequently the two are linked.
As seen below, a zine called “Friendly Fashion” taught readers about the relationship between carbon emissions and fast fashion. The author suggested some of the best places to support eco-conscious brands in Los Angeles, while explaining the difference between fast fashion and sustainably made clothing, upcycling, and thrifting.
In his zine, “Save the Bees,” one student brought up the idea of rewilding in one’s own yard or community garden (planting lavender, sunflowers, and mint for our native honey bees). Sometimes we think rewilding has to be large-scale, but tilting the balance locally “in our own corner” is just as important.
As I read a student’s zine about a neighborhood menace called “litterbugs,” I saw how effectively the author was teaching his readers to rethink what is expendable and disposable: “This menace isn’t anything super villainous or evil, but they look like the average person. They are just average people…they are litterbugs.”
These were such fun days in class: watching students do research on a topic they care about but looking for ways to make information clear and digestible in a colorful, foldable format. Reading their zines and seeing my students teach younger students made me realize much of environmental storytelling is about adjusting mindsets for new habits. Crafting a story for an authentic audience affects the stakes of the storytelling: you hope the message finds a home in a specific listener’s heart. But there is a multiplying effect as well. Young people sharing stories of environmental problem-solving are a vital model for other youth voices, especially when accessible environmental news stories are hard to come by.
How do you foster environmental storytelling in your classroom? Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.
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