Whenever I eat lunch with my first graders, they like to play a game with me that they invented which I like to call, “Sad Heart”. They make a heart with both of their hands and shout, “Teacher Becca!” When they catch my attention, they slowly break the heart in half by pulling their hands apart. Then I am supposed to make a really sad face and whimper. The first graders think it is the funniest thing and they practically fall on the floor because they are laughing so hard. I’m not so sure when this game started and why it is so amusing to them but it’s been going on for a while now.
One day in the middle of playing this game, one of the girls made a circle instead of a heart with her hands and shouted, “Teacher Becca!” Confused how to react because she was going off script, I did a little whimper and shouted, “Oh no!” But this time she didn’t laugh. I asked her in Chinese why she made a circle instead of a heart and she responded, “It’s the Earth.” When I asked her why she was breaking the Earth in half she said, “Because we waste the water and electricity and there is trash everywhere.” Shocked by this simple yet intelligent description from a first grader of how our society is ‘breaking’ our Earth, I probed her for more information. I asked her if she thought it was important to protect the Earth and why. She said it was very important because then her family, friends, and community would have a clean home. I asked her how she thought she could help and she said, “I need to remember to turn of the lights, use less water, and recycle.” At this point several of the other students who had been busy eating their food became interested in our conversation so I asked them too what they thought they could do to protect the Earth. We talked about reusing cups and riding bikes and wasting less food.
Although our conversation quickly ended when their favorite song “小星星” or “Small Star” came on and they wanted to sing and dance, I was overwhelmed by the earnest and intelligent answers coming from these first graders. Without even prompting her, a seven year-old girl had conveyed one of the most serious concerns that we are facing right now, the degradation of our planet at the hands of our society. And even more importantly, she had conveyed in the simplest terms why this mattered to her; because she wanted to have a clean home for her family, peers and community. She had effectively communicated something to me that politicians, professors, teachers, and many other leaders in our world can’t always seem to find the words to express. It hit me particularly hard because although my college degree is Environmental Studies and I fully recognize the importance of addressing environmental concerns for the sake of future generations who will live through the problems we create today, I had never heard a seven year old articulate these concerns to me with such clarity.
Fengbin Earth Day
A different day a few weeks ago I was teaching an Earth Day lesson to some third and fourth graders at Fengbin Elementary School. Two other English teachers and I designed an activity where we used pieces of cardboard to create posters that said “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” (the vocabulary we were teaching that day). A few students asked if they could write other words on the sign. When we granted them permission, a storm of creativity emerged. The students started drawing pictures and one student began writing several characters in Chinese. Suddenly every student in the class wanted to write the same characters on their poster. I went over to see what he was writing but I couldn’t understand. Based on the level of excitement, I assumed it must be some kind of swear or the students were trying to pull one over on the foreign teachers. We sent a picture to the English teacher at the school but she informed us it wasn’t a swear. In fact, she said it was the characters for someone’s name but she wasn’t sure whose name and what it had to do with what we were teaching. The bell rang for the end of class before we had the chance to figure out what the sign said.
I showed a picture of it to a few of my colleagues at Fu Shi the next day in hopes that they could help me to decipher the meaning. The dean of my school looked at the picture and immediately said, “This is about an Indigenous land rights movement in Taiwan. This is the name of an Indigenous person (a Toroko person from my understanding) who was protesting his land being taken away. Many people tried to help him get his land back.” When I got home I tried to do more research but found that my lack of Chinese was hindering me from finding information. I did learn that the man was a poor farmer and although I’m not sure who was taking away his land of for what purpose, I learned that this story started a protest and movement to protect this man’s livelihood. I also don’t know the outcome.
However, I found it very interesting that these third and fourth grade students (all members of the Amis Indigenous group) connected this Indigenous land rights issue to the concept of Earth Day. Perhaps they completely lost track of the assignment and wanted to make a poster that showcased what they knew protest to be in their community. This is very likely. However, I think that they somehow intuitively connected protesting Indigenous land rights to protesting for the protection of the environment. In college, I studied the connection between Indigenous land rights movements and the Environmental Movement and I find it very meaningful that these students perhaps made this connection. Regardless as to whether or not this was their intention, they had something important to say and they wanted to share it with us via their poster.
Both of these examples reveal to me that we need to listen to the voices of youth and recognize how they are impacted by our actions. Clearly they have something to say and it is important that we both listen and consider how much more their lives will be impacted by the problems we create today. They need to be at the center of the Environmental movement and part of important conversations about the future. Additionally, Indigenous peoples are more often not “frontline communities” or “those communities likely to experience climate impacts first and worst” so it is particularly important that we listen to the voices of Indigenous youth.
On a somewhat separate but related note, I believe that it is the responsibility of teachers and communities to reinforce good sustainable values into the minds of children. I see good values instilled in my students at school in Taiwan that I don’t often see in the US. They are in charge of turning off the lights and fans when they leave the classroom and bring their own bowls to school for lunch which they wash after every meal. They use reusable water bottles and they are in charge of organizing the recycling at the school. They are told to reduce food waste and anything that they don’t consume they compost and bring out of the classrooms for the local farmer to take. I hope that the US can teach students this level of responsibility because I think it is really important for the future of our planet.
Although this post seems to have turned into a rant about how we need to take some serious measures to address the current environmental crisis, I hope these stories and the lessons I’ve learned from my students at least makes anyone who happens to read this post think again about the stakes here. We need to take responsibility and work towards addressing these environmental concerns, and we need to include the youth and allow them to be leaders in this process.