Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Richard Beach

February 15, 2022 Lindsay Persohn Season 2 Episode 20
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Richard Beach
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Richard Beach talks to us about a transdisciplinary approach to education, systems thinking, case studies, digital media, and how, together, these ideas can help us to imagine the problems and solutions of the future. Rick is known for his work in the areas of language, literature, writing, digital literacies, and, most recently, climate justice and sustainability literacies. His episode focuses on work related to his 2017 co-authored book Beyond Teaching about Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference. You can find a link to this work on Rick’s guest page on ClassroomCaffeine.com. Dr. Beach has authored or co-authored more than 150 articles and book chapters and authored, co-authored, or edited 30 books, including two books currently in press. Drawing on Students’ Worlds in the ELA Classroom: Toward Critical Engagement and Deep Learning  and Teaching to Exceed State English Language Arts Standards will both soon be available. Rick has served as President of the Literacy Research Association, President of the National Conference on Research in English, and Chair of the Board of Trustees for The Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English. Rick was recently named winner of the 2022 John J. Gumperz Memorial Award for Distinguished Lifetime Scholarship by the Language and Social Processes Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Dr. Beach is Professor Emeritus of English Education at the University of Minnesota.

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. In this episode, Dr. Richard Beach talks to us about a transdisciplinary approach to education, systems thinking, case studies, digital media, and how, together, these ideas can help us imagine the problems and solutions of the future. Rick is known for his work in the areas of language literature, writing, digital literacies, and most recently, climate justice and sustainability literacies. His episode focuses on work related to his 2017 co authored book, Teaching About Climate Change to Adolescents Reading, Writing and Making a Difference. You can find a link to this work on Rick's guest page at ClassroomCaffeine.com. Dr. Beach is authored or co authored more than 150 book chapters and authored, co authored, or edited 30 books, including two books currently in press. Drawing on Students Worlds in the ELA Classroom Toward Critical Engagement and Deep Thinking and Teaching to Exceed State English language Arts Standards will both soon be available. Rick has served as President of the Literacy Research Association, President of the National Conference on Research and English, and Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Beach is Professor Emeritus of English Education at the University of Minnesota. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Rick, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Rick Beach:

Thank you, Lindsay.

Lindsay Persohn:

So I have a few questions for you. From your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Rick Beach:

I think one of the moments I want to share was about about five years ago, I went to the University of Miami as a consultant on a project called Imagine the Future. And in that project, faculty from the University were working with middle school students to create digital stories, and these digital stories were stories about their perceptions of the future worlds they're gonna inhabit, including climate change effects. So in the same visit, I was out jogging in Miami, and I was jogging along and I looked over and here is this huge pile of boats sitting in the water. And I thought, oh my gosh, look at that. And it was a hurricane, one more hurricane caused this huge pile of really nice boats. Florida in the last 25 years has had about 25 hurricanes, many of them have been very destructive, costing billions of dollars. So back to the middle school students, the final day of my visit, they all came together in a big auditorium with their families and stuff and they presented their digital stories. And it was I thinking, Okay, here's this place that's gonna like Miami, have all these problems, it's going to also has flooding all the time. But then here are these students thinking about their present time, and the extent to which they are imagining the future through narratives. And, and they were amazing. They were very visual. They were, you know, defining the potential problems, but they're also thinking about solutions for the future. And I thought, you know, this generation down the road, they're going to be dealing with this constantly. But maybe we need to think about helping them think about and imagine a future in which they can live. So it's like, yeah, maybe literacy, in addition to science, maybe literacy activities like that. Thinking about narratives and the values associated with narratives can be valuable for helping them learn about thinking about climate change.

Lindsay Persohn:

As Florida resident, that story certainly resonates with me, the piles of boats that we see after every hurricane, the flooding, the, you know, catastrophic damage to people's homes and businesses, and ultimately changes to the community. So I really appreciate thinking and helping young people think about what those problems are and how they may face them in the future for some sort of potential solution. So and using digital stories, I think is a really powerful way to do that. So I'm hoping that you're going to share a little bit more with us and response to my next question. So Rick, what do you want listeners to know about your work?

Rick Beach:

In working on this, and this lot of this started with a co authored book, published in 2017, called Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents Reading, Writing and Making a Difference with Jeff Share, and Allen Webb, thinking about how you can integrate climate change instruction with science and social studies. And I think that's one of the things I think it's really becoming more and more important is adopting a transdisciplinary approach to teaching about climate change, because often it's assumed, oh, they're gonna deal with that in their environmental science classes. They can but the research shows that simply acquiring knowledge about the facts of climate change, or what causes climate change is insufficient in terms of getting students to assume activist roles. The research shows that students also need a sense of the moral and ethical aspects of climate change. They need to think about what kind of a systems shape the ways in which our current life or current systems are working. So what that suggests is a need to go beyond simply the facts, which are important, to the larger frameworks, how they think about things. As example in the digital storytelling narratives, narratives reflect ways of thinking how characters act in terms of their beliefs, and values. So one of the things I think, again, is really important is the adoption of transdisciplinary and structure, both in teacher education programs, as well as in schools. And that involves saying, okay, maybe there ways of drawing on what's called Cli-fi literature. And at the University of Minnesota, we're developing this new climate lit resource site, ClimateLit.org, and that's in the show notes, to think about how Cli-fi literature portrays a future, as did the middle school students, it was characters or the how are they going to deal with all it? How are their lives going to be changed? And what kind of what kind of strategies are they going to use to think about really re conceptualizing life and reconceptualizing systems? So I think that's that transdisciplinary focus is important. There's also excellent, and this is in the show notes, excellent resources on transdisciplinary instruction for climate change at the InTeGrate project, at Carleton College that's InTeGrate, lots of rich curriculum for thinking about combining science and social studies, and art and music and with English language arts. Now, part of that too, and this is from often a social studies perspective, is the issue of climate denial. And James Damico at Indiana University has a new book coming out on called Confronting Denial, Literacy, Social Studies and Climate Change. And that climate denial is a real, it's still out there because people still don't think about climate change as inevitable. They often frame climate change as a matter of an either or, well, there's two sides to this. There are no two sides to this. Climate changes here. It's affecting us. Last night where I live in Minnesota, last night in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa there were tons of severe weather effects, as severe weather effects occur when when the temperature goes through the roof. Last night in Minnesota, the temperature was at 58 and it dropped to 24. So you have these extreme weather events and that's conflict gonna be more and more the case in the future. So Climate Analysis out there, Katie Werth in her book called Miseducation, Teaching Climate Change in America talks about how the fossil fuel industry has produced books, it has consultants going into classrooms, talking about climate change as an either or. You know, maybe these people say this, but maybe other people think differently. Again, that's not the case. So I think a second focus beyond a climate change. And by the way, this, there's specific in a handout, it's in the show notes. There are specific links to all resources about each of these topics. I think the second topic really is systems thinking. System thinking involves saying, Okay, we have these systems out there. The agriculture system, the energy system, the transportation system, the urban design system, the legal system, the political system, the, these are systems, each of which is going to have to be totally transformed in order to address climate change. So for example, the energy system certainly has to shift to renewable energy. And that has to occur fairly quickly. Scientists say we need to do a lot of these changes by 2030. That's eight years, that's not a lot of time to totally change these systems. The agriculture system is a really interesting system. Right now, a lot of our agriculture generates about 30% of emissions, that has to do with the ways it was crops like grown, the use of cows they emit methane, the ways that use a fertilizer. So that agriculture system, the word is said a regenerative agriculture needs to change totally. Urban systems, urban design systems are really important. We need to move to more mass transit, we need to move to buildings that don't emit a lot of heat emissions. We need to have more bike lanes. We need to move to more sidewalks. That's an example of how do we redesign urban systems in order to reduce the amount of emissions? So thinking about that, well, then how do you deal with this in a classroom? Well, I think one way of doing it, and this is my third topic, is through case studies. So you do a case study about a particular situation, and which you study how these systems operate. And at the recent LRA conference, I talked about the whole example of a case study, studying the city of Atlanta because the conference was in Atlanta. So Atlanta's emissions have increased over a 20 year period 87%. Why, because of the traffic. And because of the often clogged road roads, where traffic is stalled. The lack of mass transit, a lot of times the mass transit only went so far, because the suburban people didn't want the people from urban areas out in their suburbs. So they stopped mass transit out in the suburbs. So that that led to the development what's called the Beltline, which is a system which had more light rail around the periphery of Atlanta. And that did result in some change. But then the housing around the Beltline became more expensive. So it's an example of how racial discourses, how housing, how thinking about the future can have positive, but also negative effects. So I would have students say, Okay, let's look at our local community, or let's look at our school. What kind of transportation system do we have? What kind of urban design aspects are there in terms of bike lanes. I live in a city, which has probably right usually rated the best bike lanes in the country, it has the best one of the best park systems, those are very positive things. Students can study that. They can also study their school and think about how energy system is operating in this school or campus. I work with a local school, which just has a school garden. And the students are they have a club, their climate change club, and these students and teachers have been working on a school garden. And they look at this garden as a example of regenerative agriculture, in terms of how they plant things, in terms of how they use food, and so on. Students could look at the food system in their cafeteria, what kind of food is produced? Are they using a lot of meat, which comes from cows who create methane? So that would be the use of a case study where you find some specific example of, of a local potential climate change effect or actual climate change effect and study this and then have students sort of create reports about how you how we're going to deal with this in the future. In a local suburb here, in Minneapolis, students at St. Louis Park High School, they study local climate change effects. And then they give the local city council grades on how they're dealing with. So you're going to have a B on your ability to do X, or you're going to have a an A on your ability to do Y. The fourth, fourth and final thing, then leads into the use of digital media. Young people now this is how they communicate. They don't just use five paragraph essays to communicate their concerns about climate change. They use digital media. And right now I'm engaged in a project involving studying youth produced media about climate change. And so we're studying videos on YouTube and Vimeo that they've created. We're studying social media that they're using to show their their demonstrations and protests, to show their documentaries, where they would go to a local place and interview people about climate change effects. This is how they communicate. And a lot of them see this as a way of communicating beyond the classroom, to audiences all over the world. So this is a very important thing to help students use digital media as a tool for voicing their concerns about climate change, and then communicating with audiences outside the world. So those are four things of many, that teachers and students could be doing to address what's really an existential problem.

Lindsay Persohn:

Rick, these are four really huge ideas that I think you have have packaged together quite nicely to give us not only things to think about but also some things to think with. I think even the idea of a transdisciplinary approach to learning, if we can introduce that into some schools, where we're we're still very siloed in thinking, I think that that leads to really this this kind of bloom of new thinking and ideas whenever we are able to, to cross ideas across different subject areas, across different kinds of learning. So I think that that, in itself is a huge idea. But you've also got me thinking about, about climate change, obviously. But really just how expansive the need for thinking about climate change is. I know personally, as much as I do think about the changing climate, I had not thought about the multitude of systems that we are so used to thinking with how all of those are going to have to shift and change for the future. And you know, I think in education, we always say, We're preparing students for a future that we don't know yet. But putting that in the frame of climate change, I think really not only changes everything, but it also increases that sense of urgency to help kids understand what a future could look like, and what kinds of possibilities for solutions. It really makes me think about solutions based thinking. And I think that whenever we can bring that kind of learning to young people, it does give them a sense of purpose and motivation for the work they're doing in school when we link it to the real world around them, and particularly the pressing issues in their own world. I also want to pick back up on the idea of case studies, because I think that that's such a great way to think about how these ideas come together, transdisciplinary thinking, systems thinking when we can look at issues in our own communities and our own schools. And then think about what are the systems that impact this? And how can we think across disciplines in order to really understand the situation, and then understand those potential solutions. And that fourth idea of digital narratives, I think, is so important. It also speaks to that designing a future and thinking about the things that will happen, not just now but you know, designing thinking and learning for future solutions oriented kinds of learning in our classrooms. The way you've packaged this is not only so eloquent, but I think also just really helpful in thinking about how we can create authentic engagement in classrooms and how we can help young people think about their futures and what what they want and how they want to shape the solutions that they envision for the future. So that it's it's a lot of, I think, really important ideas and tools to think with.

Rick Beach:

One example of thinking about this from a literacy composition perspective is, I work with a woman named Ellen Polk who's a Comp teacher at Stanford University, and in her Environmental Composition classes, she has students go out in the Bay Area and study particular examples of climate change effects students would go to Richmond, California and study issues of environmental justice, because often the case is in low income neighborhoods, that's where the power plants are. So that's where the emissions are. And that has adverse effects on health of the people living in those low income neighborhoods. So the students go out, they interview people about this, they go and study, for example, in Oakland, they went and studied issues of soil and soil degradation. And then they come back, and they, they do they write, but what's important is they also, she has a pitch their topics to journals for publication. So they're writing for the media. So they didn't just write for her, they're writing for the media. And that's, again, that's sort of frames in in terms of their agency as, okay, I know there's a problem, but I'm going to try to do something about I'm going to communicate what I'm finding to, to larger audiences. And so I think in our literacy classes that that again, in terms of the digital media, or having students, for example, students go out, and they use what are called digital mapping tools, these tools map emissions, so you can go to a certain place, a school or city or community and actually collect data on the emissions. And so where, for example, in these buildings are just emitting all this, you know, heat emissions, so then they can collect data about climate change effects, and then report that out and then communicate that to, to their local councils or to legislators. Because that leads me to another issue, which is the political system. The political system today, is still resisting a lot of this particularly in terms of climate change education, in her book, and her Katie Worths book on the Miseducation, she documents how across America, there's a wide disparity across states in terms of their support for climate change education. Some states, like now starting, like I think California, starting to require it. Whereas other states like Idaho, ban it. In other words, you have this disparity across America, and how much students are studying about climate change, which is very unfortunate. And I think that suggests the need for activism to change that political system. You also have the Build Back Better bill, which is stalled down in the Senate because of political opposition to some of the climate change things in it, and resistance. And so that's just another, students need to be engaged in and dealing with a political system, both at the local and national level to make changes. It's getting them to have a sense of agency, they know that their future is is going to be affected by this. How then, do you gain their sense of agency, you could do something about this, through your literacy practices.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, and Alexandria Panos, who I know you have worked with on on some projects, and she's a colleague and friend of mine, she's also a former Classroom Caffeine guest. And she talks a bit about some of this, and how we can help students develop the kind of thinking and language they need in order to be advocates for themselves. And really, and in order to understand the issues and and to be able to speak to those. And in particular, she suggests using two texts that may appear to be quite similar on the surface, but are potentially, maybe one is written by a group of scientists, and another is written by a corporation. And while on the surface, they may seem the same once students dig in, they realize, Oh, these are written with two very different sets of principles in mind, and helping students to develop that sense of agency and their sense of voice. So I think that that is really exciting work that can help students, as you said, become agents and become advocates for themselves in their digital literacy environments, by sharing through social media, creating YouTube videos and speaking out about the issues that are important for them now, but certainly for them in the future.

Rick Beach:

Absolutely. And I think that agency also occurs through teachers and that suggests the need for enhanced teacher education on this where we prepare future teachers to think about transdisciplinary approaches, think about systems thinking, etc. And you know, there are certain places which are really focusing a lot on this I know for example, an Alex at your university. So it but that that was gonna require, I think, rethinking a lot of what we do in in teacher education now, to integrate, because I think right now, a lot of the and the research shows a lot of the teacher education focus is environmental in science ed programs, less so in other programs. So faculty need to be talking across their disciplines about, okay, how can we work on this to start to think about integrating this. For example, I was a consultant working with the faculty at Purdue University. And they got together and they said, Look, how do we think about going across our different disciplines to create a set of integrated teacher ed curriculum, to deal with this? You know, we had some really good discussions about how to do that. And I think it was really productive. But those discussions need to occur. Some of the research shows that a lot of it has to do with administrative support, in terms of our administrators, promoting this, some of it has to do with the extent to which people are open to making changes, and often they're tightly packed curriculum. Because right now, there's a lot of challenges and learning how to prepare teachers for teaching, you know, anything, but now thinking about this new focus. But if there's a need for this, very, very strong need.

Lindsay Persohn:

And that that also brings my mind right back to political systems. I know working in Florida, we do have quite a bit of legislative and state oversight. And of course, you know, there are increasing challenges in what's required out of teacher prep programs. And you know, that ticking all the boxes to ensure that teachers have been prepared for problems of the past. But I don't know how much thinking there is about the problems of the future. And I might dare say that there are problems of the present as well, but but we really conceptualize what that looks like for teaching for students and for teachers of the future, I think that that that, to me is is a very pressing concern. And it is one that I think can be difficult to address when it comes to navigating the politics of teacher preparation.

Rick Beach:

Right. And there's also now in science education, the science standards are rich with climate change. But they are just they were way ahead, very innovative. But I think the challenge and this is something we talked about it LRA because we haven't had huge turnouts for our climate change sessions. One session, I announced the fact there were more presenters than attendees at our session. But one of the things we came out of our discussions was, if you just have something that says, Okay, this session is about climate change, that is, is somewhat limited. What we said, look, all we need to think about is how do you frame climate change instruction in terms of larger literacy practices. So maybe having session titles or sessions about, say, literature, teaching literature and climate change, or teaching of writing climate change learners, framing the curriculum, in larger terms of different literacy practices that are connected back to a climate change focus. And I think that in terms of getting teachers or getting teacher educators thinking about, I think that's one way that they need to maybe think about this, okay, here's a course on teaching reading. Well, what's that have to do with climate change? Well, what about having students think about reading cli-fi literature, and examples of cli-fi literature, that that are part of imagining the future? Or what about having them in a course on writing instruction or digital literacy, thinking about critical media literacy, because right now, students need to acquire critical digital media literacy in order to critique some of the climate denial propaganda that's out there. But they also need to have thinking about tools to create their own digital media for communicating. So you don't just say, Okay, what do we do to teach about climate change. How do we think about the literacy practices that we're already framing our curriculum? And how do we integrate in a climate change perspective in that larger framework?

Lindsay Persohn:

And that brings me right back to transdisciplinary thinking, where we're not just teaching reading in reading, but we're using reading to also teach science literacies, climate change literacies, civic literacies, you know, all of those really important things that I think will propel us into a hopefully more productive future when it comes to thinking about how our worlds will shift and the kinds of tools and dispositions and strategies that students are going to need in order to navigate those changes for the future. So Rick, given those challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Rick Beach:

Well, I know a lot of concern. We've had Some very energized sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English. And the show notes include examples of teachers' presentations in our annual roundtable, we've had a roundtable last four years. There are very specific presentations that are rich examples of teachers teaching English about climate change. And I think what I hope is that teachers, and they, I know that they are from these presentations and from working with teachers, I know they are concerned about the need to have students think about and address these issues. What I think is important is they think about imagining the future, to go back to the University of Miami thing. How do we have students imagine alternative futures, in which we have different ways of using energy? We have different ways of transportation, we have different ways of growing crops, how do we have them imagine those futures, because through imagining those futures, they then become the agents for creating those future systems that are going to be different. So if a student is, is very much interested in urban design, they're going to be engaged with thinking about how do I redesign a community? If they're thinking about working in the area of digital communication, how do they think about use of social media, or digital media for communicating about climate change? So I think that involves really having students think, you can imagine a different future. You can then learn how to take action, learn how to use literacy practices for creating your future, that's going to be very different. But it's going to need to be different in order to cope, to deal with both adaptation to climate change, and mitigation of climate change effects.

Lindsay Persohn:

Those ideas of adaptation and mitigation, I think, are really key in how we might support students in that thinking about the utility of literacy to become agents of change for their own future. So I appreciate that. I think that that is really important. And to me, those are key words for thinking about how we could envision this kind of work taking place in classrooms. The other thing that I keep going back to is this vision of education that you've painted for us, this transdisciplinary, critical systems thinking, case studies, digital media. In my mind, this looks quite different than many of the classrooms I've spent time in. So this is a shift in thinking, I think, for schools as well, to think about how we can help students become agents of change, and how we can help them to navigate a future that none of us quite know what is going to look like. But we do know it's going to look different. So I think that this is just a real testament to the fact that in order to have different outcomes, we are going to have to start thinking differently about what opportunities in school look like. So I thank you so much for for that wisdom and also for pushing thinking in that direction. Because I think that as I said, we in order to handle the future, we have got to do some things a bit differently.

Rick Beach:

Yeah. Well, thank you, Lindsay.

Lindsay Persohn:

Oh, Rick, I've so enjoyed talking with you. And I appreciate your time today and I appreciate your tremendous contributions to the field of education.

Rick Beach:

Thank you.

Lindsay Persohn:

Dr. Richard Beach is known for his work in the areas of language, literature, writing composition, digital literacies, and most recently, climate justice and sustainability literacies. His episode focuses on work related to his 2017 co authored book Teaching About Climate Change Adolescents' Reading, Writing and Making a Difference. You can find a link to this work on Rick's guest page on ClassroomCaffeine.com. Dr. Beach has authored or co authored more than 150 articles and book chapters and authored, co authored, or edited 30 books including two books currently in press, Drawing on Students Worlds and the ELA Classroom Toward Critical Engagement and Deep Learning, and Teaching to Exceed State English Language Arts Standards will both be available soon. His work has appeared in journals such as Voices from the Middle, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Language Arts, Journal of Literacy Research, Reading and Writing Quarterly, Educational Researcher, and Reading Research Quarterly. His influential work has been a part of books such as Languaging Relations, and Teaching Literacy and the Language Arts, The International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy, Literacy Research, Practice and Evaluation, Best Practices and Digital Literacies in Forming English Language Arts Instruction, Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension, and Handbook of Writing Research. Rick has served extensively for the National Council of Teachers of English, as President of the Literacy Research Association, President of the National Conference on Research in English, and Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Beach is Professor Emeritus of English Education at the University of Minnesota. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to an episode, learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at ClassroomCaffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.