Teacher Spotlight: Ashley Nelson

Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

Aug 16, 2021

As an innovative learning coach at an elementary school in Richmond, VA, Ashley Nelson helps educators incorporate STEAM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) and other innovative practices into their teaching. She has previously taught second grade, third grade, and STEAM. She is a member of SubjectToClimate's Teacher Taskforce.



In your work coaching other educators, h𝗼𝘄 𝗱𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘁𝗮𝗹𝗸 𝘁𝗼 them 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗼𝗿𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗰𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲 𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗿 𝗰𝘂𝗿𝗿𝗶𝗰𝘂𝗹𝗮?


I don’t really phrase it as “let’s add in climate change to the lesson.” I might say, “let’s bring in more contemporary issues. Let’s think of what we can do to create some kind of relevance to the students.”


𝗪𝗵𝘆 𝗱𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗲𝗱𝘂𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗶𝘀 𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗮𝗻𝘁?


I think it’s super important, because you always hear people say, “I never learned how to balance a checkbook,” or “I never learned these life skills,” and I think that climate change is kind of one of those things, right? That people might say, in fifteen years, “I never learned this in school.” I certainly didn’t learn about it in school.


This is really going to affect our students majorly. We need to educate them on what exactly is going to happen— in a way that’s developmentally appropriate for their age, but also gives them some kind of knowledge, because it’s a real-world situation that they’re facing. And I just think about that, when people now are like, “I never learned how to change a tire! We didn’t have real-world skills!” I think we’re letting down students.


𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗱𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘀𝗲𝗲 𝗮𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗯𝗶𝗴𝗴𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝗯𝗮𝗿𝗿𝗶𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝘁𝗼 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗲𝗱𝘂𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻?


I think one of the barriers is time. Time is always an issue in education. 


This year, our school day has been shortened, so we’ve had much less time. So a lot of the time teachers are thinking “what do I have to do this year?” and not “what kinds of things can I add?” I do think next year, there’ll be more teachers who are open to climate education.


Another issue is education of the teachers, which is why I’m so interested in SubjectToClimate. Because you’re giving teachers exactly what they need to teach without having all the information and all the scientific facts, but just enough to make them feel comfortable that they can provide this kind of lesson and not have to reinvent the wheel.


And in Virginia, climate change is not really part of our standards for elementary school. You know, we teach the hydrosphere, we teach the oceans unit, but our elementary schools don’t have standards that relate to the carbon cycle. That doesn’t happen until middle school. We have our own state standards, kind of like Texas. We don’t use the Common Core. 


And then, I haven’t encountered this, but possibly in some places, families being upset that kids are learning about it. Or climate denial in the schools. I haven’t really come across that with my teachers, but I’m sure it’s possible in some places, where people are saying, “I really don’t want you to do this lesson.”


𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝘀𝘁𝘂𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗲𝗺𝗼𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝘄𝗵𝗲𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝘆’𝘃𝗲 𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗲𝗱 𝗮𝗯𝗼𝘂𝘁 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗰𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲?


They’re like, “wait, this thing is happening? What are we doing to solve it? What are the adults doing?” So I do think there’s a level of climate education that we need to do for families as well as students. Because they might come home with questions that families can’t answer. Depending on the student, there can be an emotional reaction and a feeling of betrayal.


𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗱𝘂𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗼𝗿𝘀 𝘀𝘂𝗽𝗽𝗼𝗿𝘁 𝘀𝘁𝘂𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝗳 𝗯𝗲𝘁𝗿𝗮𝘆𝗮𝗹?


I’ve never had a student be totally distraught, maybe momentarily so. But I have heard stories of students reading about the polar bears and it becoming a real obsession and worry. So I think it’s helpful to lead them from “what do you mean? Everyone knew about this? Why is it still happening?” to “okay, let’s think of some actions. Let’s talk to your family, talk to some people around you about it.”


𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗱𝘀 𝗼𝗳 𝗺𝗶𝘀𝗰𝗼𝗻𝗰𝗲𝗽𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗾𝘂𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝘀𝘁𝘂𝗱𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗵𝗮𝗱?


A lot of misconceptions. For example, in the ocean unit, the students were talking a lot about recycling. And I was teaching them about recycling. And it’s like, well, what’s the good thing to teach them? Because of course, recycling is part of our state standards. But we know that 80 percent of plastic bottles will not get recycled and are just in a landfill, and then will end up in the ocean. So we’re trying to teach the kids how to care for the ocean, while also not really having a solution for how to care for it. Our state standards aren’t really working with the current science.


𝗔𝗻𝘆 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗶𝗽𝘀 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗲𝗱𝘂𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗼𝗿𝘀 𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗶𝗻 𝗰𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗰𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗲?


At the elementary level, make it experiential. Elementary kids learn well hands-on. Try and create as many images and visuals as possible.


It’s helpful to find some kind of solution or something that they can do, to ease that emotional burden of “wait, this thing is going on. Well, what can I do? I really don’t have a lot of control over my circumstances.” I think that that can really frustrate them. As soon as kids at that age know about it, they’re like, “oh, well, we gotta do something. What can we do?”


𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗮𝗱𝘃𝗶𝗰𝗲 𝗱𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝘀𝘁𝗿𝘂𝗴𝗴𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝗿 𝗵𝗲𝘀𝗶𝘁𝗮𝗻𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗼𝗿𝗽𝗼𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗰𝗹𝗶𝗺𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗶𝘀𝘀𝘂𝗲𝘀 𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗶𝗿 𝗰𝘂𝗿𝗿𝗶𝗰𝘂𝗹𝗮?


You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to know everything about climate change to teach it. You can say to students, “I’m not really sure. Let me look that up,” or “Why don’t you look that up and let us know tomorrow?” I think people, especially teachers, can get overwhelmed by being the expert. You don’t have to be the expert on climate change to teach it.


Also, if people are worried about teaching to climate deniers, or families of climate deniers, and the kid coming home and the families being upset, I would just say to tie it to your state standards.


Contact like-minded people and see that you’re not alone in wanting to teach climate in schools. And maybe find someone on your team or in your district, maybe your science coordinator, and see how you can increase the number of lessons that are incorporating climate change.


𝗪𝗵𝘆 𝗱𝗶𝗱 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗷𝗼𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗮𝘀𝗸𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗰𝗲?


Because I believe we need to have more resources for educators who want to teach climate change. When you search “climate change education,” there are a couple of websites. But to have everything all together— I just feel really passionate about this resource, about what it can do for hopefully thousands, maybe millions of students. Because teachers will see that site and say “oh wait, I can incorporate this.”


𝗙𝗮𝘃𝗼𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗰𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝗻𝗮𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲?


I used to live in Thailand. There’s this one place on Phuket, the island I lived on, that’s just beautiful mangroves on the ocean. That was my favorite spot to go to.


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