I believe that, with the right educational approach and priorities, we can raise a generation that is better equipped to live in harmony with our planet, and the people and communities it sustains. The information we share with kids, and the experiences we offer them, all create the basis for forming long-term beliefs and philosophies. Instilling in children a love of the natural world has never been more important as we face the most difficult challenge humankind has ever encountered – climate change.
Last summer I saw a glacier for the first time. I vividly remember glimpsing Grinnell Glacier from the top of the last stretch of a beautiful, treacherous trail in Montana’s Glacier National Park. It was breathtaking. Imagine a huge expanse of pure white ice and snow sweeping down from the mountains into a lake that looked as light blue as the Caribbean sea. From the lake, a beautiful waterfall tumbles down a cliff face into the valley below.
I climbed down so I was level with the glacier, took off my shoes and walked through the frigid water in an almost meditative state. Later, I sat on a rock on the shore of the lake with my feet in the water thinking how lucky I was to have the chance to see the glacier before it was gone because of climate change. I sat alone in the quiet of the melting, my feet turning blue in the crystal clear water. I felt heavy and melancholy.
Being at Grinnell Glacier and seeing impacts in such an observable way was a stark reminder that climate change is real and affecting the world around us. I was immediately set into motion, determined to become a more outspoken climate activist. This experience at the glacier was inspiring in and of itself, but the most amazing aspect of it was that I was there on a school trip. I traveled to Montana as part of my class on glaciers called “Don’t Have a Meltdown.” Standing there at Grinnell Glacier — my temporary, real-world classroom in Glacier National Park — I was reminded why I care so much about the issue of climate change.
For two years I have gone to Jefferson County Open School, an alternative, public, Pre-K through 12th grade school located in Lakewood, Colorado. The school lives by its strong core values and philosophy, valuing direct experience through hands-on learning and travel, as well as an emphasis on individual growth and community involvement. Through self-directed projects and out-of-school learning experiences, students discover and explore their passions, and demonstrate their readiness to address many complex and demanding situations in the “real world.”
Graduates from the Open School enter the world knowing what they are passionate about, and are socially, personally and intellectually ready for the challenges ahead of them. Students design their own learning plans, and go at their own pace, whether that is faster or slower than normal. The community is supportive and connected – everybody knows everybody. We have a successful school garden, and we offer non-traditional classes (including classes on environmental issues) along with the basics.
The Open School also has an amazing travel program, with students taking many trips to supplement their classroom learning. Our students have been all over the world on school trips – from Paris to Tanzania to New Zealand. Instead of looking at text book pictures, we actually go out and experience what we are learning about – just like we did in Montana for the class about glaciers.
During my two years at the Open School, I have gone on many trips, including a road trip last fall to the Bioneers conference in California, which focused on innovative solutions to global environmental challenges. I learned so much, and connected with other youth from all over the country. I have also gone on many school wilderness and river trips in Utah and Colorado.
The school instills a respect of nature and the environment, which for many students evolves into love. Kids that spend time in nature, whether it be in the middle of a wilderness area, or playing in the dirt of our school garden, are driven to appreciate and protect natural things. Why would you want to save something you have never seen or experienced? The best way to get kids to live in an environmentally responsible way is to encourage them to connect with nature.
With the image of Grinnell Glacier still fresh in my mind, I attended the “People’s Climate March” in New York City on September 21st. It was by far the biggest climate rally in history – over 400,000 people participated. At times, the march stretched more than four miles long. It was incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by thousands of people who, like me, care a great deal about climate change. Although this wasn’t a school trip, I had the courage to go because of my experiences at the Open School. More recently, I took a significant step forward by starting a climate action club at my school. I have big plans for what we will accomplish, and am excited about the club’s future.
Small things lead to big changes. Education through experience is the key to inspiring future leaders. The more empowered kids become, the more responsible leaders we will have when our generation inherits the Earth. Our generation has power. Our generation has influence. Encouraging students’ early recognition of these truths through education will, in the end, save us all.
About the School: Jefferson County Open School has provided a viable, vibrant and life-changing alternative to conventional schooling. JCOS features a Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade environment with multi-age groupings throughout the school. At all levels students work closely with their Advisor in the development of their personal curriculum.