Reflections of a Maine Middle School Teacher

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to have participated in a “Healing Walk,” led by Canada’s First Nation Cree, through the tar sands regions of northern Alberta. There, I witnessed a pipe ceremony. Remarkable in many ways, the prayer that accompanied the rising smoke was addressed not only to the ancestors but also to the unborn—not alone to those who have preceded us and passed on but as well to the human beings preparing to come.

My whole experience of that ceremony was of something far more anciently “American” than anything the European immigrants and settlers brought with them during the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s.

It felt as old as the rocks.

I want to briefly share three reflections about art and activism from my years of teaching history and science to Maine middle school students, including climate science. Each of them, for me, is illuminated by my recollection of an invocation to “the unborn.”

First, it has been my experience that quickly, insightfully, and with a great deal of earnestness, young people “get” it. You’ll not see a one of them, ever, cradling a snowball on the Senate floor to mock the very idea that the globe is warming.

Second, that the poor and marginalized are typically those who suffer first and most from the effects of an unraveling climate is something that fires compassion and outrage in the students I have taught. They seem to bring with them into the classroom innately a sense of what cries out for change. And they are eager to act on it. Climate justice? The students can teach the teachers.

Third, they tend to be pretty good artists,

Some random examples:

Chisholm 1

chisholm 2 Boston Plastics copy 3

ARRT! banners, painted by Friends School of Portland middle schoolers, subsequently made their way into many a climate march. The march shown here took place in 2016 in Boston—approximately the same time as the Paris Climate Accord.

Chisholm 3My students unfailingly have a love of animals. They are acutely aware that it is not only human beings who are suffering from a changing climate.

These animal paintings (with the exception of the initial black and white drawings on left, an endearing product of a younger group’s art class) all were created by students of the Friends School of Portland in the winter of 2019.



chisholm 23a Friends School Five

Friends School Five

A little more than a month preceding the first big student strike in March 2019, the Friends School Five shown above were among the first in Maine to step away from school to make a protest for the climate.

chisholm 20Aschool strike for climate

Chisholm 22 Action

Chisholm 21 Action

Friends Middle School students in September 2019, at a student strike, and a few sitting down in Monument Square, Portland, to mark Fridays for Future, which Greta Thunberg initiated the previous fall.

CHISHOLM 26 ArtBuild Send Off MaineClimateProtectorsPetition

Student ART BUILD for the send-off of the Maine Climate Protectors petition for rule-making to enforce a 15-year-old Maine law and the subsequent petition send-off itself in Portland City Hall.

Chisholm 17 Puffin BlueWave

Chisholm 19 BlueWave

Chisholm 20 installation

The Blue Wave, shown here affixed to the east-facing windows of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, represents a student-teacher collaboration comprising part of the EcoArts Gulf of Maine Exhibit.

Each creature depicted has been a vital part of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem for thousands of years and is threatened by the rapid warming of the Gulf. All of them—including the tiny Zooplankton Calanus Finnmarchicus, the Sugar Kelp, and the Puffin speak of their lives in the first person—short autobiographical sketches from beneath the waves.


Lee Chisholm has been a faculty member of the Friends School of Portland since 2008. In ways represented above, some of his students have used the visual arts to express their yearning for climate justice and a livable future.