Empowering Student Empathy and Risk Taking through “The [Climate] Talk”

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Climate change is hard and I don’t just mean teaching the science behind the overwhelming data supporting its existence, or even executing solutions designed to reduce or limit its effect on our global systems. I mean talking about it, like really having a conversation about it and how it could or already is affecting us.

Fortunately, the good people at the Alliance for Climate Education or “ACE” have been putting together some outstanding resources on the website “Our Climate Our Future” to support students trying to do exactly that, have the hard conversations with their family, friends, even complete strangers. Their resources are tools I recently put to work at a pair of “21st Century Learning Days” being held at our local middle school.


Innovate Inside the Box is a follow up to Couros’ book “Innovator’s Mindset” which features “empathy and risk-taking” as two of the eight characteristics innovators embody.

The fabulousness of this resource comes in what it aims to achieve: empathy and risk-taking. Coincidentally, these are two attributes featured in George Couros and Katie Novak’s book, “Innovate Inside the Box” – a book I am currently reading as part of an online book study. ACE advocates and provide scaffolds for students to discuss their feelings about climate change and its effects, but does so in a refreshingly non-combative approach. Promoting the awkward but manageable acronym OARTAC, students are encouraged to gain the perspective and understanding of those they choose to have “the talk” with first through attentive listening and the asking of clarifying questions before sharing anything related to their own feelings and opinions. Built on psychological research (and 20+ years of limited gains through the still popular fact-minding, data-pointing approach  since the first release of An Inconvenient Truth) the scaffold and four-minute coaching video charges students not to force-change their counterparts opinion, but rather understand their perspective while using the opportunity to share their own.

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OARTAC is the bulky yet effective scaffold ACE promotes for students to engage in difficult (or dare I say risky?) conversations with others around climate change.

The formula empowers students to take risks not commonly taken by our communities and population as a whole. Collected statistics state that while 2/3rds of Americans are “moderately” or “very interested” in Climate Change, an equal percentage of Americans “rarely” or “never” discuss climate change with family and friends. Hard to imagine any change being made on a global initiative a significant majority never talk about. My Science Center partner, Wendy Pavlicek and I found the value of the conversation and supporting scaffold so great that we shared nearly the same presentation and exercise with the elementary science curriculum council.

Admittedly, students found the routine during the breakout session awkward and even uncomfortable. Not surprising as most still have more questions than any concrete answers when it comes to the when, why, and how of climate change, but that’s was ultimately the whole point of the exercise. Rather than have me spend 45 minutes to an hour sharing facts and merely answering questions ranging from earth systems science to fantastical doomsday scenarios, the time was spent empowering students with a easy to follow conversation routine that could be used for any variety of loaded conversations the students might be faced with in the future. (Talking about “The Talk” with middle school students… now thats taking risk!) The students were provided a tool to not only deepen their empathy toward those with differing opinions around them, but to take on the risk of opening a conversation fraught with political and personal landmines in a deliberate way that should ultimately lead to forging better understanding and relationships while keeping friends and family close.

I have shared the Google Slides presentation associated with this blog post here. You can also link directly to the Alliance for Climate Education here or their website “Our Climate Our Future” designed specifically for educators and students here.



About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in 6-8, Classroom Activities, Professional Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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