Listen to the Children: Addressing the Climate Crisis with Students

Oct 15, 2020

by Jen Rankey-Zona

The Trinity Episcopal School Honor Code includes a cherished line: I Pledge to Celebrate the Joyful, Beautiful, and Enduring. This line constantly reminds us that to celebrate these things, we must notice them and also protect them. We see the joyful, beautiful, and enduring in our planet, and when it is in crisis, we act.

Trinity Episcopal School opened 21 years ago with a determination to embrace and cultivate the land upon which it is located. Taking advantage of our Uptown Charlotte location, we started with a rich urban gardening curriculum that revolved around composting, outdoor classrooms, and food sharing through service-learning. As the school grew, our dedication to environmental protection and activism grew as well.

As a school, we teach children to advocate for those things they are passionate about. We teach them how to use their voices to create change and to protect the good they see in the world. Climate education happens in authentic and powerful ways through our curriculum at Trinity. Each year’s lessons, experiments, and experiences build on prior years. Some lessons grow well beyond our science curriculum.

In eighth grade, students travel to DC to put advocacy on a wide range of issues into practice. On these annual trips, eighth-graders meet with elected officials, armed with concrete, powerful arguments they have fashioned to support their positions and proposals. A few years ago, a group of eighth-graders chose climate change as their area of interest and advocated for the New Green Deal. They studied the bill, identified supporters, and requested meetings with dissenters. To watch a group of teens navigating the halls of political power can be breathtaking. Sitting in an office listening to them deliver passionate and well-researched messages without fear is incredibly hopeful!

One of those eighth-graders, Mary Ellis Stevens, continued her activism when she entered high school with weekly climate strikes at the Government Center, inspired by the actions of world climate activist Greta Thunberg. Last November, Greta joined Mary Ellis for a rally in Charlotte. Our whole school walked up to the Charlotte Government Center for the event, which became an incredible curriculum opportunity that helped us to teach children about the power of youth voices and what it looks like to start a global conversation when you are passionate about an issue. During the event, Greta and Mary Ellis invited second-grade students who have named climate change as one of their passions to join the stage with them. Only eight years old, these students courageously addressed a large crowd on the importance of recognizing the climate crisis and working towards protecting the planet that they and their fellow students will someday inherit. Inspired by their peers, the full second-grade class has now started a weekly ritual whereby they share a “green tip of the week” with the whole school during one of our regular assemblies. All of this has served our community with a powerful reminder: listen to the children.

In our middle school, weekly meetings of a Climate Justice group bring together students who identify climate change as one of their advocacy passions. These students brainstorm ideas for making our campus more environmentally friendly, create campaigns to encourage younger children to be active, and most importantly, ask hard questions.

One question the Climate Justice group often comes back to is: “What can we do?” The students look for intentional ways to educate and tackle climate issues with an energy that is contagious. When the communitywide Cool Globes art project kicked off, the group decided to use the power of public art to advocate for climate justice. We quickly realized that narrowing down to ONE aspect of the climate crisis was not an easy task. “Do we have to narrow down? Why not tackle multiple issues in one?” In the end, the proposal was layered with multiple different facets of climate change and activism. From top to bottom, the issues represented are:

  • School Strike for Climate
  • Alternative Energy
  • Accountability and Responsibility
  • Stop Single-use Plastics
  • Scientific Evidence
  • Composting and Food Waste

To watch these young artists and activists navigate the ins and outs of public art, environmental issues, and visual representation was wonderful. When the global pandemic put an end to in-person work, the students organized Zoom calls, had parents deliver materials to school, and continued to push their work forward from afar. Months later, with the help of a few dedicated adults, the globe was finished and delivered to its current space on North Tryon Street in front of the McColl Center.

As we start our new school year, our dedication to teaching personal advocacy and climate education continues. Students use the climate to learn different writing skills; they read about the climate in books and articles; they create works of art inspired by the climate; and they learn the science behind climate change. Hearts and minds are constantly evolving as students work through these academic endeavors, learning about various causes, and devising ways to use their young voices to drive positive change.

‘Listen to the Children’ by the students of Trinity Episcopal School. Photo by Nancy Pierce (

Jen Rankey-Zona is the Director of Visual Arts at Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte, North Carolina.