I gingerly held the blue glass ball in my palm, noticing the point where sunlight cast a tiny blue-tinted shadow on my skin.
A minute ago, while visiting my sister at work, I was telling my sister’s boss about my interest in learning about other countries. Her boss seemed energized by me, a high school junior, and the way I expressed my passions. She reached into her desk and brought out a rattling tupperware full of marbles. Wordlessly, she opened it, selected one, and placed it in my hand.
“This blue marble is for you,” she said.
“Thanks,” I replied, a little puzzled.
“You clearly care about the world. Keep this marble as a symbol of your commitment to making our world a better place.”
The marble stowed safely in my pocket, I turned to walk out. Before I could, she handed me the whole tupperware, telling me to “pass them along.” I took those marbles home with me, and they sat in my bedroom for a long time.
I went off to college and embarked on a pathway to become a high school English teacher. Throughout those early adulthood years, I maintained my global perspective and became increasingly aware that climate change is one of our world’s greatest challenges. I reflected on my carbon footprint, took environmental studies courses, and read widely on climate-related topics ranging from agriculture to paleontology. I had always loved hiking, but developed a bittersweet fondness for the ecosystems I walked through, knowing what was at stake in the climate crisis.
As I learned more, I began to wonder how I could make a bigger impact.
After graduating from college, I began experiencing my first feelings of climate anxiety. Red skies, hazy horizons, and yellow grass in a Minnesota summer felt apocalyptic. I was used to droughts and wildfires from growing up in California, but I never thought I’d experience them in the Midwest. Climate change became both a scary reality and a call to action. The English education master’s degree classes I was taking at the time felt unrelated, at times pointless. I wondered if I should have become a science teacher or gone into climate non-governmental organization (NGO) work instead. Teaching reading and writing felt empowering, but unconnected to my anxiety-fueled passion for climate.
In the last month of my master’s program, I finally found a connection. I was taking a class called “Adolescent Literature, Youth Activism, and Climate Change Literacy.” In it, we read young adult novels and learned about the power of teaching climate awareness through fictional stories. A fellow student teacher and I were assigned to design a two-week unit for our 11th graders to wrap up the school year. We decided to apply what we’d learned in our climate literacy class. Everything clicked.
We taught a unit centered on climate change texts — documentaries, picture books, poems, social media posts, and more. My 11th graders asked thoughtful questions; their eyes grew wide with realizations; they led their own class discussion. As majority students of color, they were energized by the intersection of social justice and climate change. In short, they leaned in. It was the most engaged I’d felt as a teacher all year.
On the last day of school, I fished a tupperware of blue marbles out of my desk. Holding one up to the light, I told my blue marble story, then gave one marble to each student. Soon, the room was filled with clinking, tapping, and the occasional giggle as a few marbles rolled under desks.
“This is your blue marble,” I told them. “Hold it gently and don’t lose it. Let it represent one thing you can do to help our planet, our blue marble.”
Students filed out of the class and into their summer vacations, voicing commitments to buy less, drive less, and eat less meat. As I listened to them, I worried my lesson on the importance of collective action hadn’t fully sunk in. Would students forget that it’ll take more to address climate change than bringing reusable shopping bags? But I wasn’t discouraged. These were 11th graders, and this was a start.
Since then, I’ve doubled down on my passion for climate literacy. I’m now a fully-fledged teacher with my own classroom and four sections of 9th grade English. I’ve joined several climate education organizations, including The Center for Climate Literacy, founded by the University of Minnesota professor who taught the class that started it all.
This September, a former student visited my classroom. We reminisced about her 9th grade experience and I wished her luck. She walked towards the door, but just before leaving, she turned back.
“I still have my blue marble, by the way,” she said. “It’s on my dresser, so I see it every morning as I get ready for the day.”
This is why I’m a teacher.
Abby Hartzell is a Language and Literature and Leadership teacher at a Fridley High School, an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School located in Fridley, MN. She is passionate about teaching climate literacy through stories to empower youth with knowledge of climate change, climate justice, and creative solutions. She has participated in climate educator fellowships through the University of Minnesota Center for Climate Literacy and The Climate Initiative. In the classroom, Abby shares her love of community building, lively discussion, reading, and music with her students. Outside of the classroom, Abby enjoys baking, hiking, bicycling, and listening to audiobooks on neighborhood walks.