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Middle-school teacher Lindsay Butson, centre, with students Gunalan Vigneswaran, left, and Ananda Regault, weaves education for sustainable development into each subject.

Thomas Bollmann/Handout

It wasn’t that many years ago when environmental education in middle school amounted to learning a bit about pollution and cleaning up the neighbourhood creek for a recycling project.

Today, students and teachers have elevated environmental studies to a whole new level.

“This year our class is taking water samples from a local watershed, Highland Creek, and testing the pH, dissolved oxygen and turbidity,” says Linsday Butson, a Grade 8 teacher at Charles Gordon Senior Public School in Scarborough, Ont.

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“We will then evaluate the results and link them to the effects of climate change – making the connection because freshwater acidification is a direct result of increased carbon dioxide emissions.”

Welcome to 21st-century education in Canada, where education for sustainable development (ESD) has moved from the world of activists right up to the head of the class.

ESD has changed the way school boards, teachers’ colleges, administrators, teachers and students all look at the environment and how it affects life in their cities and communities.

Climate-change education has been woven into the curriculum because the issues are increasingly prevalent, as well as to ease young peoples’ anxiety about the environment.

“There have been more expectations at all grades to enhance ESD,” says Richard Christie, senior manager of sustainability at the Toronto District School Board.

“Kids are living in an era of climate crisis and we don’t want to scare them,” he says. “We want them to have tools for citizenship and to galvanize them.”

The board’s commitment to improve environmental literacy for all students and establish environmentally sustainable operations and teaching facilities has strengthened considerably over the past 15 years.

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EcoSchools, a program run through the board’s sustainability office, is devoted to raising standards in ESD by supporting students and staff in learning about, caring for, and protecting the environment, starting with schools.

Schools that measure up to a list of ESD criteria are designated as EcoSchools; to date, there are more than 300 designated schools in the TDSB and 2,000 across Ontario.

For teachers, environmental courses are now offered for Additional Qualification certification across the country, with school boards, faculties and not-for-profit organizations providing resources, programs and professional development conferences.

One such nationwide not-for-profit organization, Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF), publishes a teachers’ resource book – Connecting the Dots – and supports school activities both in and beyond classrooms, such as the program Ms. Butson runs at her school.

The methods encompass formal education (in class), informal (teachable moments within the school day) and non-formal (opportunities to learn about a subject that arise outside of school).

LSF president Pamela Schwartzberg says the organization, which is funded by school boards and corporations, has just completed a nationwide survey on climate change education, to be released this year.

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“[The survey] will look at how teachers are working with the climate-change issue, what methods they’re using and what kinds of supports they need,” Ms. Schwartzberg explains. “We find that engaging kids in a real issues empowers them.”

Ms. Burton agrees that making students “global citizens” is part of a teacher’s responsibility.

“You get a couple of teachers who are really engaged and there is a snowball effect,” she says. “My lens is through the students’ perspective, responding to what’s on their minds.”

Students are “afraid for the future,” she says, adding that some tactics do alarm them. “When they hear that countries could be under water and that the Amazon forest is being destroyed, it’s daunting and they feel helpless.”

Incorporating ESD into each part of the curriculum, with the intention of exploring solutions to climate change, develops confidence in children, as it allows them to have a say in what they’re learning.

“It’s a powerful thing for them to see, be part of, and actually contribute to something they can change,” says Ms. Butson. “A lot of our kids don’t have background knowledge about climate change when we start, but once they learn about it, they become quite passionate.”

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Beyond analyzing pH levels for science, for example, language arts for her students can mean researching and creating their own podcasts and exploring solutions for social injustice and the extinction of animals.

Gunalan Vigneswaran, 13, recently participated in the making of a four-minute video about environmental fieldwork being done by Charles Gordon Senior Public and other schools. The video, part of the Water Docs @ Schools program, was shown at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

His motivation? “I don’t want to be living in a world where there are no trees, where we’ll be wearing gas masks and where huge storms will be causing irreparable damage,” he says.

Students then integrate their learnings beyond the classroom, by starting extracurricular clubs and activist groups to change the behaviours of their local community, for example, urging parents to drive kids to school less frequently and calling on people to stop buying bottled water.

“It has to look like it’s not so hard, then students can buy into it,” says Ms. Butson. “If they learn the big picture at school, they may start to think it’s worth it to take five-minute showers, or not drive to school.

“That’s how it starts. That’s how is started with me.”

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Further afield, in the global arena, the climate-change issue has sparked millions of students of all ages to walk out of school on Fridays to demand a more vigorous response from national, civic and business leaders.

The students in Ms. Butson’s class say that not only are they apprehensive about the future they are annoyed when they don’t see older generations doing enough about climate change.

Ananda Regault is also in Ms. Butson’s class. The 13-year-old joined the climate strike in Toronto last month because, as she puts it, “It’s my planet and we’re ruining the future.”

“Youth shouldn’t have to be worrying about this.”

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