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Teachers Fold Wildfires And Other Crises Into Lesson Plans


We've been speaking with students and teachers for our New Normal series. We wanted to hear how they're coping with all the dramatic changes of recent months - the sudden shift to distance learning amid a global pandemic, and in many places, ongoing protests over social justice that fill the streets and the news.

Along the West Coast, students and teachers can now add wildfires to that equation along with everything that comes with them - dangerous air quality, orange skies, ash in the streets and sometimes having to flee your home on short notice.

We wanted to know how teachers are handling all this and how they might be bringing all this into their classrooms, albeit virtual ones, so we found Noah Canton. He teaches middle school science in Oakland public schools.

Mr. Canton, thank you so much for talking with us.

NOAH CANTON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And also with us, Jessica Mallare-Best, who teaches history at a public high school in Portland.

Thank you for joining us also.

JESSICA MALLARE-BEST: Yes, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let me just start by asking both of you - you know, wildfires happen every year where you - both of you live. Does this feel different to you?

MALLARE-BEST: Oh, yes. This is very, very different. Where I live, just right outside of Portland, we have not seen this kind of air quality. In my lifetime, I have not seen it. And the amount of acreage that is on fire right now in the state of Oregon is unprecedented.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Canton? Does this feel different to you? And what about to your students? I mean, obviously, they haven't been around as long as you have. But does this feel different to you and to them?

CANTON: Yes, it does. You know, starting last year, there was a day or two where we didn't go to school because the air quality was so bad due to fires. This year, you know, for example, Wednesday morning, this past Wednesday, we woke up to a dark orange sky. It was the most surreal experience we had ever witnessed.

You know, and so when we started class, we just expressed how we felt. We just listened to each other a lot. And, you know, we talked about what's going on. How do you think this is happening? And so the students would make different inferences based on the science they understood. But then, you know, we checked out some news clips, listened to what meteorologists said.

So, yes, it's a science moment where we can learn. But at the same time, it's so much bigger than that. We're afraid. But at the same time, we don't go about this through the doom-and-gloom method. We look at this as an opportunity to fight - you know, to feel empowered. So it brings hope to us as well.

MARTIN: So can I ask you, Mr. Canton, would this have been part of your curriculum at this point if this weren't happening? Like, is the thinking that, look, this is so obviously affecting everybody that we've got to deal with it and teach kids how to look at what they're seeing? How did you think that through?

CANTON: Yeah. So on one hand, ironically, in eighth grade right now, we're learning about mass extinctions (laughter) throughout time. In another class, you know, last year, I decided to sort of say, enough's enough. We've got to do something about this.

So in the summer of 2019, I put together a plan to say, all right. We're going to be teaching science Monday through Thursday. On Friday, we learned about direct actions. We learned about young people fighting for the climate. So this year, I'm saying, OK, hold on. I've put together a program called social justice and climate change literacy, where I'm having students engage and analyze and reflect on different social justice issues and climate issues.

MARTIN: Ms. Mallare-Best, you teach history. Have you talked about what's happening in Portland, both the wildfires and the summer's protests, in your classes? Because I can imagine that your students would be really interested in that as well.

MALLARE-BEST: Yes, absolutely. I actually teach a class I created called critical race studies. And it's an elective, but it is a class that focuses on learning about systemic racism and engaging in conversations about race and then moving into an action orientation.

And so yes, we talk about everything that's happening all of the time. I definitely bring in what's happening now or where our youth are seeing what's happening now, how they're feeling about what's happening now, and then engage history by saying, well, how did we get here and learning more about themselves through a historical lens.

MARTIN: You know, I've spoken with teachers in places where dramatic and even traumatic events have been happening. Some take the view that the classroom should be an escape from what's happening outside. I just wanted to ask each of you about that. Mr. Canton, maybe I'll start with you because you started by saying you - part of what your job is, is to help them sort of analyze the science around what they're seeing outside. I'm just wondering if any of the students find talking about it traumatic and would rather not.

CANTON: Right. It's a delicate dance. And so what I'm always doing - I'm constantly reflecting. I'm constantly checking in with the students to see how they're feeling about it. You know, going back, 2013, I think it was, when I started teaching, but I did have a parent tell me that their child had trouble sleeping due to being afraid of what we were talking about in class. So that made me realize, OK, I've got to go about this in a gentle way but also a very solid way.

MARTIN: Jessica Mallare-Best, what about you? I mean, how do you handle that?

MALLARE-BEST: Yeah, I can imagine that teachers who say that the classroom should be a refuge are, you know, wanting to care for our young people. And I wonder what that refuge means or what that looks like. As a woman of color, no matter what space I'm in, there is no refuge from the experience of racism. The school I work at is right downtown in Portland, so some of the young people that I teach have been at these demonstrations.

Some of the young people that I teach our organizers of these youth demonstrations. And so it is imperative in my opinion that we don't avoid this and we utilize it to empower our young people to show them that their voice actually does count, that it matters, that they should continue to be engaged. And then our job, in my perspective, as adults who care for them is to wrap our arms around them and say, what are you needing, and, right, kind of put them in a direction that will allow them to thrive.

MARTIN: How are you keeping your students on task and focused and feeling engaged and not discouraged by everything that's going on around them?

MALLARE-BEST: Yeah. I believe in multiple truths, so I think, you know, feeling hopeful and feeling discouraged can live together. So for me, the six classes that I teach - that's 180 kids - they're, like, I want to learn about racial justice, and I want to engage in it. I think that's a testament to the fact that young people have been ready to engage in this.

MARTIN: That's Jessica Mallare-Best. She is a high school history teacher in Portland, Ore. And we also heard from Noah Canton. He is a middle school science teacher in Oakland, Calif. I thank you both so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again. And good luck with everything.

MALLARE-BEST: Yes. Thank you.

CANTON: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN DU VOYAGE'S "ANITYA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.