Honoring Students’ Emotional Response to Complex Global Issues

Editor’s Note: For years, Noah Zeichnera National Board-certified social studies and Spanish teacher at Ingraham High School in Seattle, Washington, taught about complex global issues, including water and pollution, in his classroom. The urgency in teaching these topics renewed itself when he watched Chris Jordan’s new documentary ALBATROSS. Here he interviews Chris Jordan about his film and shares tips for teaching about difficult and emotional topics in the classroom. 

By guest blogger Noah Zeichner

UNSDG14.pngUN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #14 (Life Below Water) is to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resource. While only a tiny portion of Goal 14’s targets address pollution, it is widely known that the problem is immense, if not catastrophic. On World Water Day this year, the journal Scientific Reports published a study that claims that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is four to sixteen times larger than first thought, covering an area about four times the size of California. The estimates now are that 87,000 tons of plastic debris are floating in the Pacific and that approximately 94% of the 1.8 million trillion pieces of plastic are microplastics. At the same time, more than three quarters of the total mass of the Garbage Patch were found to be much larger pieces of plastic. These larger pieces will likely break down into nearly invisible microplastics over time.

One of the best resources that I have found for teaching about how plastic pollution impacts the oceans and marine life is the work of artist and activist Chris Jordan. A few years ago, Jordan was the keynote speaker for my school’s World Water Week festival; his photographs and videos moved students and teachers to tears. Chris has documented the tragic impact of plastic pollution through his powerful photography of albatross birds on Midway Island. You may be familiar with this heartbreaking photograph:


Interview with Chris Jordan

This spring, Jordan will be releasing his long-awaited film ALBATROSS.The film provides an opportunity for teachers and students to witness up close how plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean impacts the lives of these beautiful birds, but it also offers a window into how we can help our students process the often shocking and overwhelming feelings we experience when learning about any complex global issue. Learning about the human tragedies that result from the lack of clean water or sanitation or the suffering many species of wildlife experience due to ocean pollution can be difficult for both students and teachers. We don’t always stop and think about how these issues impact our students emotionally. I recently asked Chris Jordan a few questions about how we might use his upcoming film in the classroom to do just that.

How do you hope this film will register with youth?

In many ways, I made ALBATROSS for young people. Everywhere I go, I meet young people who are incredibly smart, engaged, insightful, and self-aware. And it frequently happens that when I talk at a school, a teacher or the school principal will warn me beforehand that the kids are totally disengaged and suggest that I try not to be too offended by all the texting and talking. Then I show up with my photos of dead birds filled with plastic, and you could hear a pin drop in the room. I think young people today see right through the veil of our profoundly broken systems, and they aren’t putting up with it anymore.

How do you suggest teachers prepare students for watching the film?

For me, the main thing is to talk openly about feelings. Despite everything we know about the importance of feelings in forming our identities, world views, attitudes, beliefs, relationships, etc.—on both an individual and collective level—we still give astonishingly little attention to emotional intelligence as an educational priority. There is no expectation that anyone is supposed to feel something in particular, or cry during ALBATROSS. Maybe you will feel something, maybe you won’t, and either way that’s okay. 

What emotions can we expect while watching?

Grief is the heart of what ALBATROSS is about. As I say in my narration, grief is not the same as sadness or despair; grief is the same as love. In this way, grief is not a bad experience; it is a deeply connective one. If we could collectively summon the courage to grieve all that is being lost in our world, to really feel it, be in it together, bring forth our collective tears, and hold each other in that sacred space, we would step into a new world together.

When I viewed an early screening of ALBATROSS, I certainly experienced grief. And I began to wonder how we might create more opportunities for students in our classrooms to care more deeply about the people, animals, and places most impacted by water scarcity; the health of our oceans; climate change; hunger; and the many other critical issues addressed in the Sustainable Development Goals. Is it the same as teaching empathy? Do existing social-emotional learning (SEL) programs in our schools and programs offer some insight into how we might make more explicit links between the emotional needs of our students and the global issues we teach?

We want students to feel empowered to take action to improve conditions on our planet. But many young people feel so overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems that they don’t know how to start. They are unable to move past the wall of emotions they feel (grief, anger, sadness, etc.). Chris Jordan’s suggestion to slow down and take time to explore the emotions we experience may be the key to helping more young people see the potential for action.

Tips for Honoring Emotions

Here are some tips for teaching about global water issues while keeping students’ emotions in mind:

  • Pay attention to your own emotional response to the global issues that you teach. If you are feeling uneasy, helpless, or frustrated, there’s a good chance your students will too.
  • After you use a powerful photograph or video clip, provide time for students to reflect in writing. Have them write a list of the emotions that they are feeling. Create a safe environment for students to share their reflections, but don’t force them to share if they are not ready. And it’s okay to share how you are feeling too.
  • Read other teachers’ reflections on how they create a safe space in their classrooms for students to process their reactions to challenging issues through writing and discussion. The archives of Rethinking Schools magazine is a great place to start.
  • See what you can learn and apply from existing social-emotional development programs like RULER or Second Step in your school, district, or program. They can provide helpful strategies for helping students understand and express their emotions.
  • Try using Chris Jordan’s photographs and/or film in your classroom. The film will be available for school and community screenings starting April 22 (Earth Day) and will be released widely on June 8 (World Oceans Day). See www.albatrossthefilm.com for details.

Connect with NoahChrisHeather, and the Center for Global Education.

Photo used with permission of Chris Jordan.

UN SDG #14 image used with permission of the UN Department of Public Information

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