by Donna Murphy
“Did you know that you have a constitutional right to a clean environment?” asked Julia Olson, lawyer for the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit. The answer would have been a resounding NO or silence at the beginning of an after school class I taught last year. Four days each week, January – May, I worked with about a dozen 4th-6th graders at an East Multnomah County elementary school to create an original opera entitled “Kids Teach Kids Climate Change”, which we performed this spring.
I recently retired from 20 years teaching multicultural, low income 4th graders in Portland Public Schools. During that time, I learned strategies from a New York Metropolitan Opera program for teaching children to create their own original opera on a subject that was important to them, with youth having a role in editing and adding important pieces to the script. The project was largely funded by a Multnomah County Cultural Coalition grant for bringing art into underserved areas of the county.
We started out studying theatrical skills, the science of climate change, and current events of Our Children’s Trust (OCT) lawsuit. OCT is a Eugene based organization partnering with children who are suing the government for their right to a clean environment. I didn’t want to alarm the kids with the heaviness of the topic, so we waded in gradually, always watching students for how far to go. Based on their reactions to images of animals that are going extinct due to climate change, it seemed to be too heavy of an emotional burden. But an optimism persisted, with one child notably announcing, “If humans made our Earth warm, then we can make it cooler.” That line became the theme of the opera, and the basis of optimism throughout the class sessions.
Along the way, we watched climate videos, analyzed many climate graphs, and kept an eye on the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit based in Eugene through videos and news clips. Plus, Isaac Vergun and Miko Vergun (also a former student intern at 350PDX), two plaintiffs from the Our C.hildren’s Trust lawsuit, visited to tell of their first hand experiences and inspire the students. Later we discussed and read the constitutional safeguards in the right to a safe environment
Half way through our time together, I passed out the script. Briefly, the opera’s story is set on a hot day in a front yard of a neighborhood child, with several neighborhood kids discussing the climate change science they are studying in their classes. One is a bully, one wants to be a scientist, one is timid, one is outgoing, and one wants to make a lot of money. In Act II the front yard scene turns into a courtroom as the youth act out a day in a court trial for the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit; the neighborhood kids become a judge, a fossil fuel company CEO, a scientist, and two plaintiffs from the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit.
Our half hour opera had three songs: one is the opening with a child thinking of how important her neighborhood and nature are to her, then the rest joining in. The second song was a trio round between one fossil fuel CEO counting their money, and a child worried about her habitat, and the third voice a scientist concerned about carbon messes in our atmosphere. The last song, always sung with gusto by the entire cast, was the climate song from Europe that starts “We need to wake up, we need to rise up, we need to open our eyes and do it now! now! now!”
This was the first theater experience for these youth, and theater conventions, like costumes, characters, lines, singing, and direction were a significant challenge for them. The Reserves turned out to be the musical “Hamilton,” which took their attention like nothing could during the six months. If Hamilton’s cool rappers wore unfamiliar costumes, then they could too. If those amazing Hamilton performers sang in rounds to show disagreement, then they would, too. And if the Hamilton performers memorized their lines, then they would too. It was a testament to the power of that unique musical.
Regarding the climate science: the students knew nothing about the subject, but moved through the material presented to become authorities in their regular grade level classes when climate change came up. At the beginning of the term, I often ran through what to do if an argument with a denying parent or student came about, but that never happened. Some of the classroom teachers thanked me for turning the science into art, and one parent was grateful her daughter, who played the opera scientist, now wanted to be a scientist. This at first reluctant performer phoned her father in another state to practice her lines, and he proudly put her on speaker phone to tell his friends what she knew. She then rattled offside lines from the opera, three of the main points of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study.
After watching a video of a 12 year old testify in Salem for the Carbon Cap bill, several wanted to do the same. Someone thought the boy should not be drawn into such a political debate. The class responded that this issue definitely involves children, and the children need to make sure their earth is clean and safe for them and their own future children.
The class accepted climate science at an entry level, with some music and theater to broaden their understanding of this complex issue. They achieved important understandings of theater and climate science and constitutional rights that will last them for a lifetime as they grapple with and fight climate change in their future.
My thanks to: MCCC, 350PDX and the valuable support from Adriana, Sandy, Mary Rose, Tarra, Bonnie, Pam and Tracy.