University of Pennsylvania: Partnering with Philadelphia teachers to inspire climate action

So, now days, once full of sledding and punctuated with abundant hot chocolate, are melting away. Trees bloom before last frost and flowers freeze on their branches. Heavy rains overwhelm city sewers and flood until “you can smell climate change,” says Lucy Corlett.

These stories live on the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities’ Storybank, where the changing climate in Philadelphia and around the world is painted in a multitude of brief vignettes. Each post shares a climate story—a personal account of how climate change has altered the lives of everyday people.

“On a globally changing planet, everyone has a climate story,” says Bethany Wiggin, professor of German and founder of the My Climate Story project, which collects climate stories and teaches people how to share their own.

Now Wiggin has banded together with 10 high school teachers from across Philadelphia to bring the program directly to students in their classrooms. Together, the teachers will work with the project’s curriculum and continue its development to help their students research, document, and share the climate stories of Philadelphians, collecting stories from across the city and creating a model for how climate education can be incorporated into classrooms around the world.

Local beginnings
The project was born of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, which Wiggin founded in 2014 seeking to work towards a more sustainable world by building bridges between people of different disciplines. In 2020, she realized that part of achieving that goal meant building climate literacy across education levels, so she began the My Climate Story project. Along with students from the environmental humanities program, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and the Graduate School of Education, Wiggin began developing a series of workshops to help people tell the story of how climate change had affected their communities and wrote a freely available, illustrated climate storytelling workbook that forms the basis of the project’s curriculum. Full of “recipes” for aspiring climate storytellers, the team calls it their “cookbook.”

An image from the My Climate Story Workbook, which the cohort will use as a resource for their climate classrooms. (Illustration: Elle Powell)
The workshops were built on the understanding that “climate literacy is a matter not only of big data and knowing how much global average temperatures have already risen,” says Wiggin. “Climate literacy may be more effectively taught as we recognize emotionally and personally how climate change is impacting our own lives and our communities.”

Wiggin says this local understanding of climate change’s effects is central to sparking the work required to avoid climate disaster. “Without climate literacy, you have no climate action.”

The My Climate Story team presented the workshops first online and then in person around the city and Philadelphia region, collecting dozens of climate stories from school groups and climate advocacy organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, and building partnerships with members of the City Council and the city’s Office of Sustainability in the process.

The success of the program heartened Wiggin, and she believed that through these partnerships, Philadelphia could become a hub for climate literacy. But she knew that to do that, she had to seek out those who were already experts at educating: teachers.

Wiggin received support to create 10 “climate classrooms” through a Making a Difference grant, a School of Arts & Sciences program that “encourages faculty to explore innovative ways of applying their expertise and working with students to address societal challenges at the local, national, and international level.”

A call to area schools was answered by a crush of applications. The team chose teachers representing magnet, neighborhood, and special-admit public schools from across the city, teaching everything from algebra and biology to history and English. The diversity is intentional: Wiggin sought to capture the experiences of as broad a set of Philadelphians as possible, reflecting the different climate impacts faced by members of each community.

Together, the teacher cohort will develop a climate curriculum and begin incorporating it into their regular instruction over the course of the 2022-23 academic year. As part of this instruction, their students will collect climate stories from around their communities and attend storytelling workshops held by Cosmic Writers, a group founded at Penn that offers free creative writing education to school-aged children. In October, the roughly 300 students involved in the project will meet each other for the first time, at “Listen Up! Philadelphia Youth’s Climate Stories,” a two-day program on Penn’s campus, Oct.12 and 13.

The year-long program will culminate in a storytelling festival during Earth Week in April 2023, where students will present their communities’ stories through writing, photography, and video to the other participating classrooms, community members, and local leaders.

For some of the teachers, this public platform is not just a capstone, but an essential part of the project. “School District of Philadelphia students often don’t feel listened to,” says Rebecca Yacker, who teaches 10th and 11th grade English at Walter B. Saul High School, located in the city’s Roxborough neighborhood. “That fact that the project puts so much focus on publishing students’ stories and giving them this broad audience, that’s what really excited me, because it feels like real change.”

First meetings
Chris Sikich (left), a teacher at Philadelphia High School for Girls in Olney, talks with Ikym Simon (right), an undergraduate student and public research intern with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. (Image: Courtesy of Mia D’Avanza and Bethany Wiggin)
Late in June, the project kicked off with its first workshop for teachers, and the teachers came face-to-face with each other and the small team Wiggin has recruited to facilitate the project.

Over the course of the day, the group began to get to know the program and each other, forming connections over their shared concern for the planet. “As educators, we often feel really isolated,” says Yacker. “Having a program where you are working together and have leadership to guide those visions was really exciting.”

A small group of Penn undergraduate and graduate student fellows also took part in the meeting and will aid the educators throughout the program as well as conduct their own research: collecting photographic stories of climate-related events throughout Philadelphia and exploring the connection between climate storytelling and empathy. The individual research projects are designed to dovetail with the project as a whole, and the teachers and Penn students have already begun shaping collaborations that will last throughout the program.

As the teachers began to decide on goals for their curriculum, their commitment to helping their students became clear: Teaching their students civic engagement and climate literacy were top priority when Wiggin polled the group. And while she initially envisioned each teacher adopting the climate curriculum for a single classroom, many of the teachers sought to expand the program to every class that they taught, multiplying their workload in order to reach more students. “We are seeing that there is a hunger for climate curriculum across the high schools,” says Wiggin.

This dedication reflects the urgency felt by the teachers, as well as the anxiety of their students. “The kids are coming into my class already really upset about the climate. Once you’re in that mindset of extreme anxiety mixed with powerlessness, there’s no movement,” says Frankie Anderson, who teaches history at the Academy at Palumbo. “My job is trying to move that needle to feeling like there is hope in action.”

Global aspirations
Even as the nascent program builds out its curriculum, Wiggin is already planning for growth beyond Philadelphia. “We are hoping that this incredibly talented group of 10 high school teachers will create a curriculum that will become a model that other cities and schools can use,” she says. “We have been in early-stage conversation with potential collaborators in other cities around the world to think about expanding the project in future years.”

These conversations have included workshops with teachers and students in Portugal and Iceland, as well as talks with UNESCO, the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural arm, which will help distribute the climate curricula and stories created by the project.

For now, the teachers will focus on building their climate curriculum for the coming fall, and the program will support the 10 educators as they teach climate literacy in their history, English, environmental science, and biology classrooms—and harness the power of storytelling.

Paul Robeson High School history teacher Mariaeloisa Carambo is highly attuned to the power of stories. In the early stages of the program, she was invited by the city’s Sustainability Office to present her climate story to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and others gathered for the Cherry Street Pier Earth Day Festival, and introduce the My Climate Story project to a milling crowd of spectators near the banks of the Delaware River.

Carambo told of how she, the daughter of immigrants, found solace in the U.S.’s shrinking forests and grew up to become a teacher and an activist, one who would eventually band together with a small group of fellow educators to inspire students to fight for an ailing planet. Towards the end of her speech, she lingered on the importance of using story to build movements: “Storytelling was here before there was civilization, before there was a printing press, before the internet, before TikTok,” said Carambo. “Story sharing and story circles deepen our understanding of experiences, but more importantly, unleash power, unleash community.”