When I sat down to write this blog I was immediately overwhelmed with the work to be done and how many factors need to be addressed in bringing conservation education into the classroom.

We thankfully have national standards that address global warming and humans’ effects on the planet’s ecosystem, but we need more specific, in-depth focus on the wider range of critical outcomes happening to our planet and lives: the tragic, extreme loss of our wildlife, the disproportionate effects of climate change on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, overpopulation, deforestation, the list goes on and on. It all ties together in an overwhelming and unwieldy system. So where do we start?

The study of conservation—the need to try and salvage and repair the damage that humans have done to the earth and her creatures—is critical. These are the times we live in. Climate change, which includes the effects on our plants, animals, and natural resources, is here and now and will be evident even more so when our students grow into adults. Knowing the causes, the repercussions, and the possible solutions is essential education. According to ourworldindata.org, “We’re not only losing species at a much faster rate than we’d expect, we’re losing them tens to thousands of times faster than the rare mass extinction events in Earth’s history.” This is critical, complex, and frightening.

It isn’t news that we all learn better and put more effort into areas of study that intrigue us. As a special education teacher, I have constantly needed to shift my approaches and my lesson designs so that I could spark interest within students and keep them engaged. It’s not possible to do this with every subject—and not every student will be drawn to the subject—but we can choose where we put more of our effort as educators and what lessons we deem especially important. (They all are important, I know—but really, they aren’t all equal.)

So, where do we start?

Animals. I think we start with the animals.

Animals are awesome and most kids can find one they are drawn to; from there, they can form a solid basis from which empathy and true interest can bloom. Instead of going over conservation efforts or deforestation as a broad subject, make it high interest, make it personal. 

I can see a language arts or writing class letting students choose an animal who is either newly extinct or in danger of extinction, and building a model of its natural habitat to go along with their report, or an artistic representation on their place in the ecosystem, matched like puzzle pieces with other students’ works. This gives the students a sense of their own discrete significance as they represent their animal, and a sense of their essential value in the ecosystem, and in the world. Other ideas: writing a letter to the President appealing for protections for the animals complete with reasons why, or a fictional narrative folk story about why this animal is essential to its community.

I can see a math class taking in data of recent decrease in population of the critically endangered orangutan, and comparing and contrasting with population data from 30 years ago. Or a different math class calculating how much food a wildlife sanctuary will need to accumulate to feed their tigers. The options are endless, but what it comes down to is that it has to be personal to be meaningful, and it has to be meaningful to last. We need it to last; we need what we teach to spark within our students a passion to fight for the lives of our endangered animals, and for our ecosystem, a just recovery.

There are, thankfully, wonderful ideas, worksheets, and book recommendations easily accessible on the internet. Many are available for free or minimal cost. And if using one of these resources—a single worksheet, a YouTube video, a book—is what you are able to use in your classroom, thank you for doing that. A spark of information can set a fire of inspiration.

But I believe that the lessons that stick are a little longer—the ones that pause, allow choice, foster curiosity, and enable empowerment. When planning the larger units of your school year, I encourage you to set aside time for further exploration, then let the fire grow and feed itself.

I hope that soon, we will have updated standards and resources and that we will not be hindered by political and philosophical divisions that curb our ability to teach what has been documented over and again by fact. Our planet is in danger, our animals are dying at an alarming rate, and humans have the ability to make choices to improve these situations, to ensure there will be a planet for humans, animals, and plants. We need each other. It’s an ecosystem. 

We, as educators, need to determine what lessons—and I mean cultural/society/life lessons—we need to get to the next generation of community leaders, eco-activists, voters, humans. We need to help curate a spark of empathy, understanding, and agency within our students. We can foster critical thinking and problem solving around these very real world problems, one at a time, from a familiar and motivating starting place. 

This is what they will take with them.




Beth Ricketson, M.A., RDT, is a special educator with 20 years experience teaching and learning from students on the autism spectrum and/or with other pervasive developmental delays. As an artist and an actress, Beth is passionate about arts-based education, activism, and community building. She is a long time member of Playback PDX, a storytelling and self-revelatory style of theater, and volunteers with 350PDX. In 2014, Beth moved to Portland, Oregon for the trees and is still stunned by the natural beauty around her every day.