Putting Social Issues into a Lesson About Energy

Image for post
Image for post

This weekend I worked on a lesson about energy and more specifically the different forms of energy that exist, how we observe them, and how we can communicate these observations. On the surface, the process of creating a lesson plan is about figuring out how to get your students invested in the content, having them participate in a meaningful and engaging activity, and then ending with a rigorous move that wraps up their learning and pushes their new knowledge. However, in order for a lesson, even one about energy, to truly meet EVERY student in any given classroom, it needs to be about so much more than this. While building this lesson I tried to capitalize on the small opportunities to include social and environmental justice pieces in order to make sure my lesson connected across social topics and ultimately connected to all my students. Here is a closer look at my thought process.

Social Justice in a Lesson about Energy

Social justice is the concept of, among many things, a fair distribution of opportunities and privileges among all people in a society. According to the NEA, “A world organized around social justice principles affords individuals and groups fair treatment as well as an impartial share or distribution of the advantages and disadvantages within a society.” When focusing on social justice, I incorporated two elements in my lesson:

  1. Employing diverse visuals

In a blog written by Caitrin Blake of Concordia Portland University, Blake writes, “Teachers must be aware of the messages sent by the learning materials they use. To determine if texts are privileging certain narratives, teachers need to analyze whether they recount an event …from multiple points of view or favor the dominant culture.” At the beginning of my lesson, I wanted to show a picture of a rock star performing in a concert because this has a lot of different forms of energy subtly displayed. However, I did not want my picture to perpetuate the narrative of an industry that has been dominated by males and more specifically, white males. So, at the beginning of my lesson I introduce this picture:

Image for post
Image for post
Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes

This is a picture of Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes. The Noisettes are an Indie rock band based out of London. Shingai Shoniwa is a Zimbabwean-British singer and basist for the band who has been described as the “living and breathing manifestation of the rock and roll spirit” by Rolling Stone Magazine. I thought that she was the perfect candidate for my diverse image because when you think of a typical manifestation of the rock and roll spirit typically depicted in mainstream culture, you probably think of…

Image for post
Image for post
Led Zeppelin

Instead, Shingai Shoniwa represents a new image of rock and roll. She represents a super cool, empowered female African immigrant who rocks real hard. She breaks the narrative of who can be a famous and successful rock musician. Using this picture (especially if you explain who it is of) connects female students, immigrant students, and students of color to the lesson right at the beginning of the lesson.

2. Creating opportunities for collaboration and for student voice to be heard

At the heart of social justice is providing equal opportunities for all. In my classroom, I try to stress that every voice deserves to be heard and valued. According to an article in EduTopia, creating classroom community is a pivotal step in preparing your students to create positive societal change. To practice this, I incorporated a chance for collaboration and discussion in the main activity of the lesson. Most importantly, I also built in differentiation tools that allowed each student to feel like they could access the discussion. For the activity, the teacher places 5 different posters in the classroom each with the name of a different type of energy (thermal, motion, light, sound, electrical). Each student receives a card that is either a picture, an example from real life, or a technology that uses one of the types of energy. Their goal is to figure out which energy poster their card belongs to and then engage in a discussion with others to create the poster that would remain a classroom resource for the rest of the module. Here are some examples of energy cards that students might receive…

Image for post
Image for post
Teachers would cut these out to make individual picture, real life example, and technology cards. Students would then try to figure out which poster they belong to. You can see here which posters the are intended for. The picture cards can be used for English learners that would be more successful with a visual. The technology cards could also be used as a challenge card.

In order to make sure all students feel like they can contribute to the conversation, I created discussion stems to place next to the posters. My goal for the discussion stems will be that they will be useful for students struggling to start speaking. I also hope it will provide ways for the students to feel empowered to respectfully engage each other in a conversation where they felt safe to agree and disagree. I also added a stem that encourages them to ask about each other’s life experiences.

Image for post
Image for post
These stems encourage students to listen to each other’s points of view, engage in academic discourse, and learn new information about each other.

Environmental Justice in Lesson about Energy

Environmental justice and social justice can be closely connected. According to the EPA, “ Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice is a particularly important topic to incorporate into classrooms with students that come from marginalized communities because they are the groups that are hit hardest by environmental injustices. This includes the impacts of climate change; those of low socioeconomic status bear the most consequences from climate change; you can read more about this in this article from the guardian.

The issue of climate change has lead to the creation of new technologies designed to reduce carbon emissions. My thought process was that, in order for students to be a part of the “meaningful involvement… in environmental policies”, they would have to first be informed people on environmental issues. I always teach a climate change unit so for this particular lesson, I decided to incorporate these new technologies into their main activity. On four out of the five technology cards that students will work to place on the correct energy card, the technology is an environmentally related technology; wind power, geothermal power, solar panels, and electric vehicles. The optimal outcome for these cards will be that they will spur conversations between students who have seen these technologies before and students who have not. There is information about how each technology works on the card and students can inform each other about them, and as any educator knows, sometimes students learn better from each other than from us!

Image for post
Image for post
Technology cards as a part of their collaborative classroom poster activity.

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Sometimes it can seem inconsequential or impossible to incorporate social issues into every lesson. However, by looking intentionally at all the small opportunities, I was able to incorporate social and environmental justice techniques 3 times in a 45 minutes lesson. Hopefully this means that this short lesson will have longer lasting effects on students.

For more information on social/ environmental justice and education, check out these additional articles:
Why Science Teachers Should Care about Social JusticeTop 10 Emerging Environmental Technologies
NEA Diversity ToolKit
NEA Environmental Justice Lessons K-12

Writing about issues in design and education.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store