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Captain planet to the rescue: using superheroes to explore environmental activism

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As educators, superheroes can be a catchy lens through which we can approach many topics, from bullying to pollution. Superheroes provide a context in which it is easy to discuss the idea of fighting for "what is right". When it comes to environmentalism, teaching our kids to fight for our planet is a worthy lesson.

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Of course the colourful costumes and dynamic comic / movie formats certainly help with the fun factor. While I am a firm believer that learning can (and should) be fun without all the flashing lights, superheroes can be just the right amount of glitz to make the genuine context of learning from role models just a little bit shiny.

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Environmental activism is littered with commercial and often gimmicky attempts to engage both kids and adults in the issues. While superheroes can certainly be thrown into this category, as I said I think there is validity within this context. In general, superheroes are examples of moral beings who make the right choices in tough situations to protect and/or fight for a cause. This is a great way to approach activism of any sort - Environmental activism can be a meaningful learning experience when it comes from a place of identifying something a child feels is unjust, and recognizing that they have both the strength of character and skills to impact change.

Here are a few ways that superheroes can connect to environmental activism. I realize that this isn't a groundbreaking curriculum tool. Nevertheless, whether to shape a unit on energy conservation or a school-wide Earth Hour activity, I hope you can find a spark of inspiration.

Environmentally Friendly Superheroes

When I think eco-superhero, the early 90s TV show star Captain Planet automatically comes to mind. In fact, just a few years ago a mini-revival of this flying planet protector started, and he is even slated for a comeback with the full gang of "planeteers" as a 2014 live-action movie. Until then, check out the planeteer website which is drumming up enthusiasm for showing how you help the planet.

Back to the point at hand though. I was actually quite surprised to realize how many existing superheroes have direct connections to our planet. Some are protectors of habitats, like Swamp Thing and Aquaman. Others have a special connection to nature, like Tarzan and Animal Man. This is a great place to start looking at how existing superheroes can be eco-role models. Students can analyze what "powers" can help protect our planet, and which superhero would be the best advocate (or spokesperson) for a chosen environmental cause.

Further still, any favoured superhero could become an eco-role model. What would Spiderman do if he knew how polluted our waters were getting? What would Wolverine do about clear cutting old growth forests? This is a nice way to incorporate superheroes into a light activity, or to attach them to a deeper study. For example, I can envision a lively debate on an environmental issue where students are role playing as a chosen superhero character.

Eco-Superpowers

Some existing superheroes have powers relevant to current issues. DC Comics' Iceman would certainly be an interesting character to weigh in on global warming. However, student creativity could shine if they were challenged to invent their own superhero with an environmentally related superpower. Here are some kid-created superhero ideas to start the ideas rolling. The students could even create a superhero version of themselves, which could be totally fantasy based or connected to real-life. Who doesn't want to wear a cape for a culminating project/presentation? At the link above, one girl suggested a power to turn anything (like landfill) into viable life. I would love to hear her suggestions of how she could work to achieve the same end without the magical means.

We all have "Superpowers": Becoming a Superhero for Mother Nature

It's easy to think of how environmental scientists may have some special skills when it comes to mother nature, but how about Jay-Z or Drake? Mr. Eco is a great example of how one person took something they love and applied this skill to help our planet. He is a university student who turned his penchant for rapping into a Youtube stream of eco-activism. Everyone has an interest or a talent that they can apply to fighting for a cause. Help your students identify how their skill set can become powerful actions. Help them realize that while not necessarily superhuman, they too have superpowers.

—Sonia Satov
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