“People say think globally, act locally. Well, if you think globally, it is overwhelming and you do not have enough energy left to act locally. Just act locally and see what a difference you can make!” – Dr. Jane Goodall
Goodall’s claim is simple: Think local. Act local. And sometimes the simplest ideas are the most profound wisdoms.
At the end of last school year, I attended a three day teacher workshop titled Climate Justice and Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Jeremy Five Crows, a member of the Nez Perce tribe who is the Public Affairs Specialist for the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was the first to speak. He shared Goodall’s teaching, a teaching that belonged to first nations long before Goodall’s time. The three days rang with the essence of local thought and action and lingered with me long after. The panel of indigenous speakers taught me about local tribes and their first foods, and salmon and lamprey eel restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest.
After the workshop, I realized I was overwhelmed by the problem of climate change globally. Despite the Northwest’s “Think Local” culture, I’d lost perspective. The native speakers at the workshop reminded me to think of home — Portland, Oregon and the Willamette Valley — before becoming paralyzed by the magnitude of any problem.
Increasingly, I’ve noticed my students’s anxieties and fears are similar to my own. They’re inundated with Instagram and Snapchat feeds of news about deportations and violations of women without justice and school shootings and the killing of unarmed black men. Many of them are living through verbal and physical assaults on their racial, sexual, and gender identities. I know my students are overwhelmed. However, they also approach complex issues with a youthful curiosity and hopefulness that I intend to cultivate and foster by asking them to think bigger by thinking smaller.
There are many remarkable educators doing this work, however I learn best by doing. I look to last year’s revision of my racial justice unit to help make my IB Lang curriculum focused locally for my juniors next year.
Prior to last year’s iteration, my racial justice unit asked students to examine texts such as the documentary 13th, Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Kehinde Wiley paintings, and music videos and song lyrics by Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar in order to develop an understanding of the African American experience. While these texts engaged students in thoughtful study, writing, and discourse, they’re not holistically representative of the issues of race and racism in Oregon and Portland.
In my latest unit’s revision we still watched 13th, but I truncated my students’ exposure to the issue nationally by reading Coates’ article “A Letter to My Son” and spent only one day on music. Shifting to the issue locally, I asked students to read the article “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America” by Alana Semuels in order to understand the city’s history of racist laws, redlining, and gentrification. Students examined excerpts from a recent report on the effects of Measure 11 in Oregon to understand how zero tolerance policies enacted in the 90’s affect Oregon youth today. They also read “Students Have the Right to #takeaknee” by the Oregon ACLU, which described an incident in their own school when football players’ first amendment rights were denied by their coach.
My students were eager learners for this unit, digging into the texts and discussion opportunities with a fervor that communicated their hunger for wanting to understand race and racism in their own community, even if they’d experienced racism first hand.
It’s with this model in mind that I will revise my English Language Arts curriculum for next year. My juniors will read the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and examine Portland as a city with one of the highest rates of sex trafficking in the nation due to its history and proximity to the I-5 corridor. We’ll examine wealth inequality and study how the minimum wage and gentrification is changing access to housing affordability and contributing to the houseless population in Portland, which jumped by nearly 10% last year.
My juniors and freshman will also engage in learning about climate change (yes, in their English class). We’ll move from looking at global effects to understanding climate justice in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll study first nations locally, first foods, restoration projects and local climate action such as the federal lawsuit filed by students in Eugene, Oregon.
Regardless of political affiliation or religious belief, I want my high school students to be empowered in knowing, to bolster their conviction and hope through education that takes national issues and contextualizes them here in Oregon. The more locally minded I am when shaping my reading and writing curriculum, the more I can support students’ understanding of their personal experiences with these issues, and understand their country now, when they vote, and beyond.
If I teach students that current events and issues are immediate and local, if I support them in seeing their own lives reflected in everything going on “out there”, I hope they won’t feel so overwhelmed by it all. They may even step outside their front door and see what a difference they can make.
See an excerpt from this piece as well as inspiring work from educators around the country in The Learning Network of the New York Times article, “When Schools Get Real: Teachers Connect Classroom Lessons to Current Events”