Liz Ransom High School Spanish Teacher, Student Newspaper Adviser, & SubjectToClimate Grade Band Coordinator
My experience as a high school teacher has taught me that students crave guidance to navigate the complicated world we live in. Current events can overwhelm students at times, especially as they’re bombarded by inaccurate messages on social media. Students sometimes struggle with finding helpful ways to share their raw emotions.
When it comes to the climate crisis, the majority of young people are wary of their futures and confused by inaction among adults. I’ve found that student journalism offers a framework for young people to make sense of climate news and exercise their right to free speech, providing an important outlet for student voices.
The following climate journalism lesson plans grew out of a two-day workshop for aspiring student journalists that I presented at my school, where I am a faculty adviser for the student newspaper. A small group of ninth graders and I brainstormed trending climate journalism topics likely to interest and educate student reporters. Our school didn’t offer a formal journalism program at the time, so I found examples of excellent climate journalism and delved into the basics of reporting and writing. In addition, we wanted to ensure that students had a grasp of climate change science and solutions, as well as the ability to address issues such as climate justice and climate denialism.
Taken as a whole, the four-lesson scholastic journalism unit guides students through the necessary steps to produce a publication-ready climate article from pitching the idea to research and fact-checking, planning and conducting interviews, and finally writing, rewriting, and editing.
The unit also includes ample activities and resources that can be implemented or assigned independently from the lessons. This approach would work well in a student club, an ELA classroom, a high school journalism course, or even a science class.
Below is an outline of how I used activities from this unit in a workshop format. Although our two-day workshop didn’t allow enough time for students to write a complete climate change article, it did provide students with an introduction to important elements of climate journalism.
I’ve noticed that, with tight deadlines, student journalists often rush to put words on the page. This frequently results in significant rewrites or, worse, a rejection of their article for publication. Common missteps in student journalism include the need to report more facts, the need to include a broader range of interviews and confusion about the role of objectivity. When it comes to climate journalism, students sometimes lack the experience to identify the range of possible topics or assume they already know all the facts, so they skip the research.
This lesson begins by exposing students to exemplary models of climate journalism from a variety of news outlets through a scavenger hunt activity. Next, students learn to recognize distinguishing characteristics of news and feature articles, choose a climate topic, and plan their approach to research and reporting. The lesson ends with an assignment to write a persuasive pitch for their article.
Teachers can gauge their students’ knowledge of climate change and modify the lesson accordingly. If students are fairly knowledgeable, the video in the Investigate section will be sufficient. However, students with less climate awareness may need more support. The Teacher Tips section at the end of the lesson includes links to resources about climate change, such as NPR’s Climate Guide. In addition, teachers can rely on MIT’s Climate Change Explainers to help answer students’ climate questions. If students are stuck on article ideas, they can use this climate crisis tip sheet from the Society of Environmental Journalists.
If you’re teaching the whole unit, it’s not necessary at this point for students to vet all the sources on their list, since the next two lessons center on identifying credible sources and addressing equity. However, if this lesson is being taught on its own, it’s worth using a resource like the CRAAP test to guide students in evaluating their resources and taking the time to discuss the issues raised in this guide from The Solutions Project, Covering Climate Equitably.
The second lesson in the unit begins by exploring Covering Climate Now’s climate journalism best practices, written by and for working reporters. With my students, the jigsaw activity in the Inquire section encouraged 100% participation and allowed students to interpret the best practices in their own context. From this point forward, you’ll notice many activities in the unit are preceded by an identification of the best practices addressed.
When it comes to climate change, student journalists shouldn’t shy away from skepticism, but rather should fully take on the responsibility for the credibility of their sources. The Cranky Uncle game in the Investigate section empowers students to identify faulty reasoning and science denial techniques, so they can avoid “getting spun” or falling prey to propaganda.
Before students wrap up the lesson by completing research for their article, they’re invited to consider their article’s audience. In addition to using the Yale Climate Opinion Map to understand their audience’s perspectives, students reflect on what their audience needs to know about their topic, and make connections to their local communities.
Both the climate journalism jigsaw activity in the Inquire section and the Cranky Uncle game in the Investigate section can be used as 20-30 minute stand-alone activities in an ELA or science class, or student-run newspaper club.
The third lesson in the unit tackles two daunting obstacles for student reporters: addressing implicit bias and making the most of interviews. To begin, students observe a painting and compare what they see. Many encountering this artwork for the first time miss significant figures. Starting with this activity helps students understand that everyone has implicit bias. Part of a journalist’s job is to overcome this bias in order to report on the whole picture. It’s important that students have the opportunity to connect these ideas to their own lives, and the discussion prompts in the lesson invite them to do so. However, before my students talk about personal experiences, we always agree to adhere to our class norms. Discussion guidelines ensure students have an honest and productive conversation about difficult topics.
For a deeper dive into the topic of implicit bias in journalism, this article by Isaac J. Bailey on the website for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard is a nuanced, wide-ranging, and sensitive exploration that will give both students and teachers much to think about.
Next, students use an equity checklist as a tool to review their plan for reporting and interviews, then analyze how quotes are woven into examples of recent climate journalism. Students prepare questions for their own interviews after listening to the advice of reporters from the Solutions Journalism Network to lean into their curiosity and ask detailed questions.
The interviews for students’ articles will most likely need to be conducted outside of class. I recommend taking time during class for role-playing. Interviewing adults, or even peers outside their social circles, can be intimidating for students. Teachers can use the “fishbowl” technique to allow students to observe and practice how to initiate an interview, express courtesy, seek clarification, and ask follow-up questions.
After planning, researching, reporting, and interviewing, students are finally ready to weave what they learned into a coherent, compelling story.
Students begin the fourth lesson by considering the “hook,” or the opening sentence designed to draw readers into their article. Real examples from media outlets once again provide models for students’ own work. Next, students determine an outline for their article, revisiting the feature article format introduced in the first lesson of this unit.
The Investigate section delves into the climate reporting best practice “Know the science but talk like a real person,” drawing on ideas from Susan Joy Hassol in her article The Right Words are Crucial for Solving Climate Change. Then, students try their hand at rewriting jargon-laden declarations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, comparing their results with those written by the staff of Covering Climate Now.
In the last part of the lesson, students write, peer edit, and rewrite their articles. This section can easily be modified to reflect feedback routines already established in an ELA classroom or student paper. For example, student section editors for our school newspaper provide two rounds of feedback on first drafts before a writer submits a second draft. Often, section editors work with writers one-on-one to fact-check and improve wording. Later, student editors-in-chief copyedit and proofread articles during the lay-in process.
Although this unit focuses on producing articles for student publications, the lessons on best practices for climate journalism apply equally to other outlets, such as social media or podcasts. During their October 2023 Climate Week, NPR published these examples of podcasts on climate change from students in elementary to high school. The Climate Curious podcast offers a model for a hip, youth-oriented take on climate themes.
Youth feel the climate crisis looming over their futures and disrupting their current lives in big and small ways. Journalism education empowers young people as they investigate not only climate problems but also climate solutions. Investing time in student media programs can provide students with a practical hope and give them a reason to feel optimistic as they chart a path forward.