Environmental justice (2 of 3)

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Students will be able to 1) ask questions of an informational documentary; and 2) collaboratively refine the definition of environmental justice.

Big Idea

Environmentalism is a social movement that aims to protect and improve the health of the environment for all stakeholders. How might we identify effective strategies from environmentalism movements that promote environmental justice?

FRAME: Environmental justice and environmentalism

What is environmental justice? As describe in the UNIT FRAME, environmental justice is essentially the idea that all people should have access to healthy environments. The Environmental Protection Agency describes Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights act as one of the several federal laws that help "to prevent minority communities and low-income communities from being subject to disproportionately high and adverse environmental effects." Environmental justice, then, is a legal framework occupying a central place in a STEM course. It effectively answers the question of purpose for this course. Why do we need to know environmental science? Because this is a science that can potentially improve communities and transform lives.

This "Environmental Justice" lesson sequence introduces students to the concept over three lessons.

The first lesson explores environmental justice through a case study of water rights. Students will watch purposefully selected excerpts of the film Blue Gold to generate ideas about what environmental justice is. Additionally, students will discuss ideas and refine definitions through a deep dive into issues raised by Blue Gold.

The second lesson pushes students to refine their understanding of environmental justice through exploration of A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary about environmental justice and the environmentalism movement. Students begin to understand how groups have historically pursue environmental justice in communities.  These strategies are then incorporated into students' revised definitions of "environmental justice."

The third lesson asks students to teach each other about a topic from A Fierce Green Fire in order to provide concrete examples of strategies used to increase environmental justice. Students engage in a "Learning Ambassadors" activity to accomplish this work. Finally, as a culminating assessment for this lesson sequence, students will develop an essay synthesizing understanding from this unit. This essay will serve as formative assessment for the teacher. What do students understand? What areas do students struggle? What needs to be retaught before moving onto the topics of maps and geospatial technology?

By the end of this lesson sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. analyze multiple resources in order to synthesize a definition for environmental justice through the lens of clean water access
  2. propose a policy solution to foster environmental justice as it relates to water rights.
  3. ask questions of an informational documentary
  4. collaboratively refine the definition of environmental justice.
  5. ask and answer questions about the presentation of environmental justice in a documentary film
  6. communicate information about environmentalism to peers
  7. evaluate Sunset Park through the lens of environmental justice.


  • The attached PROTOTYPE ASSESSMENT GUIDE contains an overview of activities that students will complete as an overall evaluation of learning during and after the third lesson in this sequence.
    • Documents for download that are specific to learning activities in this lesson sequence are located in the RESOURCES section of those activities.
  • ONLINE RESOURCE: Environmental justice website with topics list that could be used for this lesson sequence.

FLIPPED: A Fierce Green Fire trailer

What is the purpose of this section? 

Students continue to explore multimedia "texts" to dive deeply into the concepts of environmentalism and environmental justice. By the end of this section, students should be able to describe how A Fierce Green Fire is similar to and different from Blue Gold using evidence from a website resource.

What will students do?

Students explore the website for A Fierce Green Fire for 15 minutes and develop responses to the following questions:

  • What is the focus of this film?
  • How does this film connect to Blue Gold?
  • How does this film appear to portray environmental justice issues?
  • What images from the trailer are interesting to me?

ENGAGE: Environmental justice and environmentalism

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students learn about Greenpeace through one of its media campaigns.  The teacher can elicit ideas from the class about what they think "environmentalism" is. By the end of this section, students should be able to provide a general definition of "environmentalism" from content in a short film.

What will students do?

Students will watch the brief presentation from Greepeace and answer this prompt:

Greenpeace is an organization that is parts of the environmentalism movement.  One of the aims of this movement is to promote environmental justice.  Based on this clip, what do you think are the core beliefs of Greenpeace?  What evidence do you use to develop your ideas? 

Students will share responses with each other in small table groups and then each group will select one idea to share with the class.

What will the teacher do?

My role will be to facilitate a brief discussion about ideas shared.  What are the similarities?  What are the differences?  What is environmentalism?  How do groups like Greenpeace advocate for environmental justice?  Definitions and ideas are publicly charted for the remainder of the unit.


25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students will learn about the graphic organizer tool that they will use to extract meaning from A Fierce Green Fire.  They will then apply this tool to "Act 1" which focuses on the conservation movement of the 1960s.  Their goal is to look for examples of environmental justice (or injustice) and to identify strategies that conservationists utilized to increase environmental justice.  The teacher has an opportunity to gauge students' ability to make connections between historical movements and scientific concepts.  The teacher is also able to provide students with a compelling experience of environmental issues that students generally lack. By the end of this section, students should be able to describe strategies used to create environmental justice within communities.

What will students do?

First students will read the following description of the first part of A Fierce Green Fire and share reactions.  What is the focus of Act 1?  Can we identify possible strategies used by environmentalists?  Do we see possible examples of environmental justice issues?

Act 1: Act 1 focuses on the conservation movement of the ‘60s, the Sierra Club, David Brower and the battle to halt dams in the Grand Canyon. It grows out of three earlier battles to halt dams: Hetch Hetchy, which was lost; Dinosaur Monument, which was won; and Glen Canyon, which was sacrificed. Saving the Grand Canyon looks like a lost cause until David Brower places ads denouncing the dams. The IRS retaliates and the uproar becomes front-page news. Opposition grows until Congress bows to pressure – canceling and finally prohibiting dams. It is the biggest victory yet, a pivotal battle that brings the flowering of conservation. However, Brower is soon forced out of the Sierra Club. He is coming to a larger vision, just as Earth Day heralds a new environmental consciousness.

Source: http://www.afiercegreenfire.com/synopsis.html#1

Similar to the activity in the previous lesson, students will create a list of guiding questions that they will use to interact with the multimedia "text."  Students will then use these questions to critically view A Fierce Green Fire at viewing stations

What will the teacher do?

The purpose of this activity is for students to gather and synthesize data in order to identify strategies used by environmentalists to promote environmental justice.  As such, I will spend most of this activity providing actionable feedback to individual students and student groups.  This feedback will push students to engage in higher order thinking.  What does the information mean?  Why did some groups used one strategy and other groups another?  How does each group define environmental justice?  How do these definitions influence strategies to used to promote environmental justice?  Students need to understand not just what happened, but how environmentalists engaged with environmental justice issues and why they chose specific strategies.

EXPLAIN: Definition revision and strategies

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students assess a definition of environmental justice from the Environmental Protection Agency and revisit proposed definitions from the previous lessons in this unit.  The teacher assesses students' developing proficiency with the environmental justice concept as well as students ability to revise prior understanding with new information from A Fierce Green Fire. By the end of this section, students should be able to present a revised definition of environmental justice that incorporates the activist work of environmentalism.

What will students do?

Students will paraphrase this definition of environmental justice provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Students share these definitions in small groups and each groups post a working definition on the whiteboard.  Next, students freely move around and annotate definitions using information from Act 1 of the film using a "keep, change, add" framework.  What part of the definition should we keep? What part of the definition should we change?  What should we add?  Students might use different colored whiteboard markers for this activity if needed.  Additionally, students should provide any descriptions that will help clarify meaning?

What will the teacher do?

My primary role is to facilitate a discussion of what we should keep, what we should change, and what we should add.  The goal is to have one to three definitions that the class generates together.

What are some examples of class definitions? (Student names indicates the primary author within a group.)

  • From Danny's group: Environmental justice is the definition in which people, regardless of race, color, or background come together and share a common goal of implementing changes in their environment to cultivate growth. 
  • From Alberto's group: Environmentalism is a movement that has to deal with the concerns of the environmental protection and ways to improve the environment. We will find the causes, effects, and possible solutions to our  environment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn using the research we find and our knowledge.
  • From Dylan's group: Environmental justice is having the privileges of being able to appreciate the environment. This means that these people are able to see the positive environmental changes in their neighborhoods. Some people don’t have those privileges because their neighborhood won’t provide them with it.
  • From Jay's group: Environmentalism is a form or a way of how the public shows their concern of matters that have deleterious effects on the environment.  Some motives of such concern is that since human beings depend on the Earth to survive, it is vital to ensure a mutual relationship with the environment so that the environment would not be harmful to our human society. Therefore, how might we synthesize our analysis of environmentalism movements and what we previously learned about environmental justice so that we can discern what contributed to the environmental injustice in Sunset Park, aftermath of such injustice, and develop a feasible plan to resolve that contemporary issue.



EXIT: Next steps

5 minutes

Student read through the summary section of the rest of A Fierce Green Fire and groups choose an "Act" that they think is most interesting.  Groups are assigned to this act for the next day as a Learning Ambassador activity. As an EXIT, student groups tell the class which act they have chosen and why they have chosen that act.