Teaching Climate Justice, Climate Change and Emotionality to Graduate Students

“One thing we know is that taking action helps us fight anxiety and despair. So does working within community. So educators and students working together to find solutions and take action seems like a pretty good place to start.”


This spring our graduate program, Education for Environment and Community (EEC), included a new course —  Climate Change, Climate Justice, & Emotionality. We talked with Renée Comesotti, who designed and taught the course and Dr. Déana Scipio, Ph.D., IslandWood Director of Graduate & Higher Education Programming to hear about this new addition to the graduate program curriculum.


Members of the EEC graduate program (class of ’22) participating in a group discussion observed by Dr. Déana Scipio, Ph.D., IslandWood Director of Graduate & Higher Education Programming.

What is the course about?


Renée: This is a course about teaching and learning in a time of climate crisis, with an explicit goal of realizing education for justice and action. In other words, it’s a course in what it means to be an educator –or a student–in the Anthropocene. (The most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet.)


Education is wrestling, in a number of ways, with the problem of teaching about climate injustice and climate change. There’s the pedagogical problem of how best to help students understand the science of climate change and climate change mitigation. Then there’s the much more complex problem of how to help students envision and prepare to enact the social and political changes that will be necessary if we are to fight the current and historical systemic injustices that have led us to this point and build a more just and sustainable world. To do that, educators have to make real changes in how and what we teach.


Alongside these is the emotionality of the entire topic. Climate anxiety, eco-fear, guilt, grief, and despair are very real phenomena that are already impacting even very young children – and of course, impacting educators too. How do we begin to help our students to fight climate despair, when we’re subject to it ourselves? So, this course begins with graduate students taking a deep look at their own emotionality and beliefs around climate injustice and climate change. We ask ourselves how we can deal with our complex emotions and use them to help us envision and enact the changes we need to make, personally and as a society. We look at the many intersecting injustices which feed into climate change and climate injustice—and which, at the same time, can point us toward solutions. And then we consider how we can create learning environments and experiences for young people that will do the same for them, helping us all toward a sense of justified hope for the future.


One thing we know is that taking action helps us fight anxiety and despair. So does working within community. So educators and students working together to find solutions and take action seems like a pretty good place to start.



Renée Comesotti, M.Ed. MEDL, EEC Mentor Coordinator, with an EEC graduate student on IslandWood’s Bainbridge Island campus.

What were the outcomes you were hoping for graduate students taking this course?



  • On the most practical level, I hope the grads come out of this with a good sense of how they will go forth as educators in the Anthropocene – in this time, this moment in the history of the Earth and the Earth’s peoples – and with knowledge of where they stand, and what they will stand for, as educators and responsible human beings. What their responsibility is, and how to act upon it. What the shape of their practice will need to look like, to support today’s young students toward future thriving.
  • I hope they come out of this with a sense that their teaching practice has got to be sustaining and sustainable – that the work IS hard AND we can do it. That there is still plenty of reason for joy– and our young students need us to be joyful, even though it’s hard. And with the tools and knowledge they need to maintain that sense of justified hopefulness.
  • To solve the problems we face, we can’t use the same kind of thinking that created the problems. I hope these graduate students leave the course possessing new evidence that we need to think in new ways and find new ways of creating, sharing and valuing knowledge. One of the emphases of the course is in helping grads to find ways to center youth voices. Young people know so much about possibility, that older people no longer understand. If we listen to our students, we can learn from them. And we can teach them that we believe they are worth listening to.
  • And finally, this is explicitly an action-oriented course. I want our grads to walk away committed to finding new ways to support young people in understanding and taking action on climate injustice and climate change.


Given the action orientation of the course, what actions have grad students been taking through their work in the course?


Renée: Well there’s been a LOT of doing, imagining and making involved. Students are conducting research, interviewing youth activists and conducting case studies, and finding ways to elevate youth voices in schools and in community. They’re designing tools for educators, and writing new or re-imagining existing curriculum. They’ve held focus groups, community gatherings and intergenerational discussion groups. Many of the students are exploring the arts as both a personal expression of climate/justice emotion and a tool for bringing people together for action, and there have been some public art creation events. And of course, they’ve designed and implemented new curriculum for IslandWood’s own School Overnight Program.


A laptop, water bottle, and tea cup belonging to an EEC graduate student in their classroom.

What inspired the addition of this course to our graduate curriculum?


Déana: The inspiration for the course comes from one developed and taught by Dr. Philip Bell and Nancy Price at the University of Washington. We knew this was something that would really resonate with our grads and felt like an important addition to our EEC graduate program curriculum, which hasn’t previously explicitly addressed climate change. I’ve wanted to make sure that our grads have an opportunity to learn about climate change and, in particular, to think about their own relationship to the emotional responses to the reality of climate change.


Can you share some of the texts utilized in the course for folks that might want to dig in more?


Renée: Absolutely! Here’s a small handful if you’re looking for encouragement and ways forward for the climate crisis:



P.S. While this is the first time that a course explicitly addresses climate change in our graduate program, one of the ways IslandWood has been addressing climate change for the past several years is via our Teacher Professional Development programs, funded through the State’s ClimeTime initiative.


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