For USF faculty member Alexandra Panos, her work is about more than growing the literacy level of today’s students—it’s about providing young learners with the information they need to make sense of the world around them and have a positive impact on their communities.
“Literacy is necessary to understand the word and understand the world,” she said, citing critical literacy educator Paulo Freire. “That means, as literacy educators, as people who care about the literacies of the population of folks around the globe, we need to be thinking about the kinds of issues people need to understand deeply and how those issues are communicated.”
Panos, PhD, is an assistant professor of Literacy Studies and affiliate faculty in Measurement and Research at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include critical, disciplinary, and media literacy, spatial and geographic dimensions of education and the complex interdependencies of schools and their communities. Her recent scholarship explores how literacy educators can guide students through the study of climate change and how the literacy field can take an active role in addressing climate justice moving forward.
Panos says the world we are living in today is one of climate crisis. She gave examples of recent climate events, such as wildfires in California and Oregon, rising sea levels in Florida and the devastating hurricanes that impacted Central America and the Gulf states last year, and explained that because these events are happening in our communities now, educators need to develop skills that prepare them to teach about these issues and help students interpret the information they’re reading about them online.
“When we don’t have a literacy level around climate change, we do not have a literate public in terms of climate change impact,” Panos said. “The effects of climate change will continue to be and continue to compound upon those who are most vulnerable in our communities—no matter how deep those communities’ understanding of climate change is.”
Panos argues in her work that it is all of our responsibilities to deepen our understanding of the climate crisis. Previous research has found that the effects of climate change are felt most profoundly by underserved populations and front-line communities, such as those living in poverty, communities of color, women and indigenous peoples.
In her current work, Panos strives to amplify the expertise and needs of all communities by collaborating with educators who introduce controversial public interest issues like climate change into their classrooms. She helps teachers in local schools select texts, develop lesson plans and facilitate students’ discussions about the topics they’re studying and how they connect to their everyday lives.
Panos has also taken her passion and expertise for this topic and developed a new graduate course at USF titled “Eco-Justice Literacies.” The course will launch next spring as part of a new online graduate certificate in Digital and Transdisciplinary Literacies, a program developed by faculty in the College of Education’s Literacy Studies Program.
As someone who is passionate about addressing climate change and working with young people to protect the environment, Panos says teachers must be provided with the knowledge and skills they need to embed these topics into their curriculum.
“What I believe is that the climate crisis is an intersectional issue of justice,” Panos said. “To fully address issues of justice, the climate crisis has to be on the table.”
How can teachers prepare to introduce escalating social justice issues like climate change into their curriculum? Panos offers some tips in-service teachers can follow below.
Research and plan out the sets of text you’ll use in your classroom
When seeking out resources to use in instruction, Panos recommends finding texts that are appropriate for your classroom and that allow your students to practice the skills you are trying to teach, but that also cover current events and issues, such as climate change and other environmental topics.
“When we think about developing text sets for students to engage with, (and the) standards that we’re pretty used to implementing in K-12 classrooms around citing claims and evidence or developing an argument, climate change is a topic that can easily be engaged,” she said.
Use literacy best practices to guide critical thinking and facilitate discussions
Panos says using instructional techniques, such as scaffolding and critical questioning, is crucial because they can help guide students and give them the support needed to examine their own biases as they engage with a text.
“Having students reflect individually and then go into a social setting where they can talk about the specific claims and evidence within a text can be really helpful in supporting students to move from not necessarily being able to identify the kinds of motivated claims and evidence that are sneaky and might get by them,” she said. “Giving students that social space for discussion and deliberation is really important.”
Don’t be afraid to approach politicized topics
Climate change is a politicized topic in the U.S., but research from the Yale Climate Communication Program shows it is increasingly becoming a less polarized issue. Panos says some of the early feedback she receives from in-service teachers she works with often reflects their concerns about introducing the topic in their classrooms because its controversial nature may create tension.
In her research, Panos found the opposite occurred when teachers implemented inquiry units related to climate change in their curriculum. Even in the case of a teacher at a religious private school, she says, the parents and school principal were supportive of the lesson because its structure allowed students to lead the way and come to their own conclusions based on engaging directly with claims, evidence and injustices.
“That’s feedback we always get, (and many teachers say) ‘it’s nice that you can do that in some places, but we can’t do that here.’ I think you can,” Panos said. “We all care about the land we’re on, we all have connections to the communities that we’ve grown up with. When we’re here in Florida, we see the beautiful water and we care about our animal and plant life. That’s just true for everyone.”
USF’s Digital and Transdisciplinary Literacies graduate certificate focuses on transdisciplinary, research-based approaches to STEM-focused and digital literacies that address intersectional issues of equity and justice in partnership with K-12 schools, in educator training and alongside community organizations.
The five-course certificate is offered fully online and will welcome its first cohort of students in Spring 2022. For more information, please contact Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org.