TCNJ faculty make an impact on what New Jersey’s K–12 students will learn.
New Jersey repeatedly ranks as a top state for education. And now it seems to be setting the pace for new standards, too. It is the first state in the nation to create specific learning goals for climate change education in the earliest grades, information literacy, and Asian American Pacific Islander awareness. Behind the scenes, TCNJ faculty and a librarian brought their expertise and passion to help get these standards on the books. Here’s how they are influencing New Jersey’s K–12 school students.
The content connector
Lauren Madden, education professor
“Here in New Jersey, the effects we see of climate change are pretty magnified compared to a lot of other places geographically,” says Madden. “There are teachers that I’ve worked with in Asbury Park, for example, who teach classes that include multiple students who have lost homes in storms.”
So when New Jersey became the first state to adopt learning standards for climate change in all grade levels and subject areas in 2020, Madden was eager to help teachers across the state implement lessons that would satisfy the standards when they went into effect last fall.
“It’s somewhat easy to teach about climate change during science lessons,” says Cari Gallagher MEd ’03, a third-grade teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary School. “But the new standards call for an interdisciplinary approach. How can we bring it in through other subject areas?”
Madden is no stranger to answering such questions about K–12 standards. Since 2013, when the state adopted the Next Generation Science Standards that included climate change concepts at the middle and high school levels, Madden has been a leader in demonstrating ways to incorporate them into lesson plans. That includes training TCNJ’s pre-service teachers so they are ready from the start to address these issues in their future classrooms.
For these newest standards, Madden reviewed the science content for the New Jersey Department of Education and is now making sure teachers have easy access to age-appropriate materials. “There was some concern that teaching climate change to our youngest learners could be scary,” she says, referring to images of storm-destroyed homes or polar bears on melting ice caps. But working with Subject to Climate, an organization that compiles teacher-vetted resources into the New Jersey Climate Change Education Hub, Madden is able to direct teachers to information that is accurate, but doesn’t go to doom and gloom scenarios.
“Lauren is always looking to connect people,” says Gallagher. “She’s not only strengthening the education of TCNJ students, but forming relationships in elementary schools so that we feel confident while teaching in our classrooms.”
The information influencer
Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, TCNJ librarian
Dziedzic-Elliott, who grew up in Poland and attended elementary school as her country was shifting its political system from communism to a more democratic state, says she saw how information could divide generations. Those who were in school during communism, she says, held on to the mistruths that they were taught.
“Historians were uncovering primary documents and proving something different, but those who grew up with the other stories just couldn’t let them go.”
It’s why Dziedzic-Elliott fights for today’s American students to be information literate. And it’s why, in 2020, she joined the executive board of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, a group who had been working on writing legislation that would require New Jersey’s K–12 students to learn how to retrieve and evaluate information for academic purposes. Dziedzic-Elliott met with consultants and state legislators to push the bill through.
Governor Phil Murphy signed the legislation in January 2023, making New Jersey the first state to define the skills students need to accurately assess information and to use it effectively. “Information literacy is more important now than ever before, especially with the growing prevalence of social media and online news,” says Angelica Allen-McMillan, Murphy’s acting commissioner of education.
“There is absolutely a need to make sure that students develop those research-readiness skills before they come to college,” says Dziedzic-Elliott. Next up for her is the fight for all schools to have a certified librarian because that is who is highly trained in the research methods students will be expected to develop.
Vowing for visibility
Yifeng Hu, communication studies professor
Yifeng Hu testified in December 2021 during a press conference and rally at the New Jersey State House in Trenton, urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would include the stories of Asian American Pacific Islanders in K–12 education standards. “Not only is it imperative to make the young generation more aware of AAPI struggles, but it is equally crucial to celebrate AAPI contributions in the U.S. society,” she says.
As she spoke, it was with thoughts of the six Asian Americans who were killed in the spa shooting spree in Atlanta; the racist rhetoric surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic’s start in China; her AAPI students, who say they are often called “foreigners;” and her own son, who was once spat at because of his racial identity.
New Jersey has the third highest population of AAPI in the nation, according to Make Us Visible NJ, an organization dedicated to the inclusion of AAPI people and events in public education. The standards, which Governor Murphy signed into law in January 2022, will ensure that their stories, histories, and rich cultures are included in the state’s learning goals.
Gabriella Son ’22 joined Hu at the State House. She says the standards would have made a difference in her own education had they existed when she was younger. “I remember being disengaged when learning the story of our nation in elementary school,” she says. “When you don’t see people with your cultural identity in the history you learn, the message is clear: ‘Here are all the great American heroes — except you can’t be one of them.’”
Thanks in part to Hu, that will no longer be the case.
Pictures: Peter Murphy
Posted on June 12, 2023