Got Coal? Teaching About the Most Dangerous Rock in America

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. A lesson examining the motives, goals, and environmental consequences of the coal mining industry.

  • Time Periods: 2001 - Present, 21st Century | Themes: Environment & Food | Reading Levels: Grades 6-8, High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)

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The teaching activity is on the Rethinking Schools website.

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 24,000 premature deaths every year. More than 50 percent of this country’s electricity comes from burning coal: more than a billion tons of coal every year—almost 20 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. [Description by Bill Bigelow.] Continue reading.

This lesson was published by Rethinking Schools in an edition of Rethinking Schools magazine, “Climate Crisis in the Classroom,” (Spring 2011; Vol. 25, #3). For more articles and lessons like “Got Coal? Teaching About the Most Dangerous Rock in America,” order Rethinking Schools magazine, “Climate Crisis in the Classroom.” See Table of Contents.

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