Environmental justice (3 of 3)

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Students will be able to 1) ask and answer questions of a documentary film; 2) communicate information about environmentalism to peers; 3) evaluate Sunset Park through the lens of environmental justice.

Big Idea

Environmentalism is a form of social action against perceived injustice. How might we use our conceptual understanding of environmentalists' strategies to identify the causes, effects, and potential solutions to environmental injustice in Sunset Park?

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.

ENGAGE: Focus!

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Student groups build on the final activity from the previous lesson by developing a guiding question to answer for a chosen segment of A Fierce Green Fire.  The teacher steers students towards focus questions that are answerable and that will be easy to develop into student-delivered mini-lessons.  By the end of this section, students should have selected a guiding question that they will answer through short presentations to other groups in the class.

What will students do?

Student groups critically reread the synopsis of the "Act" they choose from the close of the previous lesson and respond to the following prompt:

Our goal today is to analyze Sunset Park through the lens of ideas from A Fierce Green Fire. To do this we will engage in a Learning Ambassadors protocol.  For this protocol, your group will prepare a presentation about your chosen Act from A Fierce Green Fire to be given to other groups.  Only one member of your group will teach all the other groups about the Act you have chosen; however, the group will collaboratively develop the presentation.  To make this protocol as rich as possible, please define a guiding question for your act.  What do you think this Act will be about?  How will this act help us to better understand the concept of environmental justice? Why will it be important to understand the content in this Act?  Use your ideas to generate one guiding question.  The answer to your guiding question will become a THREE MINUTE presentation to the other groups in the class.

Students collaboratively generate a list of possible guiding questions.  Each group will choose one guiding question to share with the class.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will need to differentiate this activity to meet the needs of diverse student populations or cohort abilities.  The teacher's primary role is to assist students with developing appropriate guiding questions that can be answered quickly.  Rather than providing students a question, however, the teacher needs to elicit better questions.  What kind of information do you think your group will need to answer the guiding question?  Do you think that you can find that information in the segment that you chose? Additionally, students may struggle with finding a question of appropriate scope. Teachers may want to model questions that are too broad ("What is environmental justice?") and too narrow ("What year was Greenpeace founded?").

ELABORATE: Learning Ambassadors

40 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students teach each other about core environmental justice concepts and environmentalism strategies using examples from a Fierce Green Fire.  This student-centered activity purposefully privileges students' voice as the source of expertise in the room.  The teacher gathers evidence of students' understanding of environmental justice concepts, students' proficiency in Common Core speaking and listening skills, and uses identified student misconceptions to inform future lessons in this unit. By the end of this activity, students should be able to describe an example of how an environmentalist group worked to increase environmental justice in a community.

TIMING NOTE: Depending on the class, this activity could easily extend to two class periods.  Students groups will work at different paces and may want to change a focus questions.  Depending on the constraints placed on the teacher, if a goal for learners is to be able to fully answer original questions about a nonfiction documentary, then additional time may be necessary.

What will students do?

The Learning Ambassadors protocol has six parts:

  1. Watch-Collaboratively view the chosen Act from A Fierce Green Fire.
  2. Synthesize-Collaboratively answer the guiding question.  This should be done while viewing and viewing SHOULD STOP once the question has been answered.
  3. Presentations-Collaboratively develop a presentation.  This presentation should teach the answer to the guiding question.  The presentation includes a visual.
  4. Teach-One member of each group will be the Learning Ambassador.  The Learning Ambassador teaches the answer the guiding question to all of the other groups.  Presentations should last for approximately TWO MINUTES.  This is enough time for the Learning Ambassador to provide the guiding question and present the answer.  
  5. Summarize-Learning Ambassadors return to their original groups.  Original group members teach the Learning Ambassadors about all the presentations.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher supports student groups in answering the guiding question and facilitates the Learning Ambassadors protocol. One important teacher move is to project a large digital time for students to track work. Additionally, for the first time through this protocol, teachers should model student group movement BEFORE the start of the activity. Where do groups start and where do they finish? In what order do groups visit each other?

EVALUATE: Environmental justice in Sunset Park

5 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students synthesize understanding of the environmental justice concept and apply this understanding to the local Sunset Park Community.  The teacher assesses students' ability to develop evidence-based claims about environmental justice in the Sunset Park community. By the end of this activity, students should be able to make a strong claim about the nature of environmental justice in Sunset Park using resources from this lesson sequence as well as suggested resources in the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE.

What will students do?

Students will work through the activities in the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE and respond to this prompt: 

IS THERE ENVIRONMENTAL INJUSTICE IN SUNSET PARK?  (Hint: What are the causes, effects, and potential solutions for environmental injustice? )  

After reviewing the resources that investigate environmental justice issues--Blue Gold and A Fierce Green Fire--write an argumentative essay that addresses the question.  Support your position with evidence from resources used in class.  Be sure to acknowledge competing views.   

Well-developed essays will:

  • reference ALL relevant resources
  • define environmental justice
  • establish a claim with evidence
  • consider counterclaims 
  • consist of at least 500 WORDS.

Do you need help thinking of a claim?  Try this generic TEMPLATE to push your thinking.  

How will teachers use this student work?
This work is primarily useful as formative assessment data. Can students develop a strong claim with appropriate evidence? Can students consider counterclaims? And most importantly, do students understand the concept of environmental justice and the strategies to achieve it in the context of their local community? Students receive narrative feedback for these questions. Teachers make note of struggle students and provide them with target support during the mapping portion of this unit.