Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 15 pages.
A lesson examining the motives, goals, and environmental consequences of the coal mining industry.
In 30 years of teaching, I’d never taught explicitly about coal. Coal appeared in my social studies curriculum solely as a labor issue. We read passages about the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of striking coal miners and their families in Colorado, and watched John Sayles’ excellent film Matewan when we looked at early 20th-century labor struggles. But coal was mostly invisible in my history classes. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the world cannot afford this kind of curricular invisibility today. Forty percent of the main greenhouse gas produced in the United States, carbon dioxide, comes from burning coal for electricity; so does two-thirds of all the sulfur dioxide pollution.
According to the American Lung Association, coal is responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year. Almost 40 percent of this country’s electricity comes from burning coal: a billion tons of coal every year—more than 15 pounds of coal burned each day for every person in the United States. And most coal mining in the United States these days is strip mining—the Earth is essentially skinned alive to get at the coal seams within.
Coal companies have sliced the tops off 500 mountains in Appalachia and dumped the waste in the valleys, burying 1,200 miles of streams and poisoning residents’ water. The term for this is mountaintop removal, and it’s not a metaphor.
So I decided that it was time to break my curricular silence on coal.
In this teaching activity, students have the opportunity first to play and later to analyze a game created by The American Coal Foundation. In this way they learn to think critically about the coal industry’s motives and goals. By writing creatively from the perspective of the coal-mining environment, its residents, and environmental activists, and by watching excerpts from films portraying the effects of U.S. coal mining after playing the game, students also expand their contextual knowledge of coal mining and its consequences.