Young male corps member sits at table in front of flowers.

Empowering Students to Tackle Climate Change

In his first year of teaching, corps member Daniel O'Brien (Chicago-Northwest Indiana, '16) sparks a passion for environmental activism in his classroom.
Monday, October 23, 2017

After his first fall term, corps member Daniel O’Brien spent his winter break wondering how to make the rest of the year a success. At his school in Gary, Steel City Academy, he’d been consistently impressed with how his students had tackled big issues. “Whenever the kids grappled with a larger issue related to justice or society as a whole, they responded extraordinarily well,” Daniel says. One issue that was constantly in his thoughts emerged: climate change. “It’s an accelerating problem that is going to characterize our students' lives whether they know it or not, so how do we empower them to be at the vanguard of the solution?”

Student holding an alligator on a boat on a field trip.

Steel City was founded by Teach For America alum Katie Kirley, the first corps member to be placed in Northwest Indiana. After an interview with Katie, Daniel was convinced it was the right school for him, a feeling that remains strong a year later. “Her (Katie’s) devotion to people’s strengths, passions, and personal development has done wonders for the school. One-hundred percent of our staff is returning next year, which is unheard of.”

“Whenever the kids grappled with a larger issue related to justice or society as a whole, they responded extraordinarily well."

Every quarter, Steel City hosts a Gear and Flame Week. Teachers host credit recovery classes (the ‘Gear’), and both teachers and community partners host specialized electives (the ‘Flame’). Daniel saw this as the perfect opportunity for a deep dive into climate change, bringing in Teach For America alum and Steel City science teacher Carlos Cotman to help facilitate. “We came at this from a literary perspective and read Drowned City, which is a graphic novel about Katrina, and then we came at it from a scientific perspective, with Cotman leading a project where we were artificially creating the effects of CO2 in an isolated environment on plants.”

Students riding bicycles down a street.

In advance of the Gear and Flame Week, Daniel knew he wanted his students to see the effects of climate change up close, and so with other teachers and community members planned a trip to New Orleans. Eighteen of Steel City’s rising 8th and 10th graders spent several days exploring the lasting damage from Hurricane Katrina, and how Louisianans were responding to that and other environmental crises. They went on a bike tour with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, who took them through African American neighborhoods that are being impacted by the pollution of nearby factories. They went on an airboat tour through the bayou, and visited with protesters who are working to protect the local wildlife.

"When our kids are presented with a platform, they thoroughly make it their own."
Students and teachers posing outside of a house.

On the third day they volunteered with the organization Youth Rebuilding New Orleans. “After Katrina, a group of high school kids were frustrated that they couldn't help, so they went out on weekends and helped with cleaning and doing repair work. Right now they’re going to different areas to build homes for teachers. So we met with them and got our hands dirty,” Daniel says. While volunteering, one of Daniel’s students texted Katie, asking her how they could do similar work in Gary. Katie tweeted this question to her followers, and got a response from Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who was inspired by the student’s passion.

Student drawing a poster on a classroom floor.

Daniel and his students returned to Gary invigorated. Daniel is planning how to continue this work in the new school year. He’s committed to challenging his students in new and innovative ways, because he knows firsthand what amazing things can happen as a result. “When our kids are presented with a platform, they thoroughly make it their own. That provided a lot of hope, seeing kids draw these sweeping correlations between what it looks like to be driving down I-90 and what they saw in New Orleans, and thinking oh, these things might be byproducts of similar circumstances.”