Neelam Patil: TIME Innovative Teachers 2022

LElementary school students in Berkeley, California, gathered on November 17th to plant saplings. Neelam patil (a teacher of science at Cragmont, Oxford Elementary Schools) showed three students in Berkeley Unified school District how to grow Miyawaki forests. These dense and biodiverse microforests were popularized first by Akira Miyawaki. “It eliminates a lot more carbon than a normal forest, it grows faster than a normal forest, and it lets in more wildlife,” fifth grader Leo Niknejad told TIME.

It all began in Afforestation Project. TweetPatil received a tweet from a friend about Miyawaki forests’ benefits to combat climate change. California saw a loss of 2.65 million hectares due to wildfires between 2001 and 2021. This made California the nation’s number one state for tree destruction. Patil was inspired by the tweet to find out more and to have a discussion with her fifth and fourth graders about how fast deforestation is happening in their lives. “I could see how inspired my students became and wanted to involve them in a project on the ground in Berkeley,” she says. SUGi Project provided funding and she got to work. This group plants Miyawaki and creates urban forests throughout the globe.

Today, the “pocket forests” at the three schools are overflowing with 3,300 drought-tolerant, native saplings that grow faster and require less water than normal trees. There are many benefits to Miyawaki forests: They improve mental health and reduce air pollution. Patil claims that forests are the heart of the campus and have transformed it into an oasis. “You can’t go anywhere on campus without seeing it,” Patil tells TIME. “It just brings a great sense of peace and hope for the children.”

Patil’s efforts have helped Berkeley become the first school district in the country to fund Miyawaki forests, along with the first school district in the country to fund climate literacy through a historic resolution passed last year committing $65,000 to train students in the science and solutions around climate change. Patil is also part of the Berkeley Schools Climate Literacy Working Group, and the teacher says she aims “to bring about systemic change so all students grades K-12 will possess a working knowledge of the causes and solutions for climate change.” The resolution is path-breaking for grounding students in the fact that climate change is a civil rights issue that disproportionately impacts low-income groups and communities of color. It is already having an impact. Los Angeles passed a similar climate literacy resolution earlier in the year.

It’s clear why students cannot afford to wait. Calling her students “activists,” schoolchildren in Patil’s classes are already expressing climate anxiety. “Climate change is happening right in front of us,” says Evelyn Lloyd, a 4th grader in Patil’s class. “I’m not very happy about [climate change]. It’s going to destroy the life on Earth,” adds Ella Cody, a 10-year-old student at Cragmont Elementary School. “We are doing nothing to stop it, and if we don’t stop it in the next ten years, then the world is done,” says Kanav Deorah, 9.

They’re not alone in feeling this way. Save the Children reports that today’s students are more susceptible than their grandparents to experiencing extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and wildfires. An overwhelming majority of schoolchildren today say humans are failing to take care of the planet, with three-quarters of schoolchildren believing the future is not only “frightening,” but more than half saying that climate inaction will spell doom for humanity.

Patil, however isn’t willing to allow her students to succumb to the dooms and gloom. We always want to partner every topic with the solution,” Patil says, adding that she often starts each class with some movement and a breathing exercise to help students transition into a problem-solving mindset. Cragmont has a Green Team where students can talk with Patil about their ideas for the planet. This time can be used to solve problems or talk about how to cut meat consumption, and why some areas in low income countries are experiencing severe tree loss. “We know what we can do to fix climate change and we can even spread the information,” Niknejad says.

Patil gives his students tools that will help them look beyond school for answers. “We need to arm and educate children,” Patil says, “and equip them with the tools and capacity to problem-solve and be adaptive.”

“The fact that students can learn about deforestation, which is a primary contributor to climate change, and actually do something tangible as part of their learning experience to address this issue is pretty empowering,” says parent Ana Vasudeo, whose sons, Kavi and Sebastian Vasudeo, are in Patil’s class. “I love that she instills a sense of responsibility in the students as stewards of the earth.”

Dan Gluesenkamp is a friend and fellow parent. “It doesn’t need to be ‘The sky is falling.’ Because the most important part is what we’re doing right now to reverse that,” he says. “There’s a huge message of hope there, and I gotta tell you, it’s not just for the kids.”

Patil looks forward and is optimistic about the potential for students. Green Pocket Forests was her nonprofit to help Miyawaki forests reach schools in the U.S. She is also a member of the International Association for Human Values. The group has planted more then 22,000 Miyawaki forest worldwide as well as 81 million trees across dozens countries. Patil’s class is also the subject of a year-long documentary about students taking care of the Miyawaki forests, and the teacher is continuing to advocate for the California state legislature to fund Miyawaki forests in every schoolyard.

“It gives them a chance to feel like they’re doing something to mitigate the climate crisis,” says parent Alisha Graves. In the end, Patil says while it’s commonplace for students and teachers to feel increasingly powerless as the planet warms up, she’s hoping the solution she’s introduced in schoolyards will help students chart a different path ahead.

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