Inspiring Students to Think Creatively About Renewable Energy

January 13, 2022 2 Comments

In my experience, children love to make a difference. One year, something of value (I think really high end headphones, but I’m having a hard time remembering) went missing from the ESOL teacher’s class and three boys in my class held a bake sale to raise money to replace them. Think about it. Alex’s Lemonade Stand, The Ladybug Foundation, Free the Children (now WE), Quepolandia, and numerous other foundations were all founded by children who had big dreams and wanted to make a difference in the lives of people with cancer or AIDS, of child laborers, to save the rainforest, and more. It seems like every time I read a “feel good” story these days, it’s about a 9-year-old making a difference in some meaningful way and it makes me so happy. Whitney Houston once said, “I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way…” in Greatest Love of All. Children are our future and they have the highest stake of all in our future, so of course they’re passionate about making a difference. They want to lead the way.

One major problem that looms large over everyone’s heads is that elephant in the room – climate change. Our children are watching and listening. Even young children know all about rising temperatures, melting ice caps, loss of habitat and extinction of animals, and renewable vs. nonrenewable resources. CCSS, Virginia SOLs, and Texas TEKS fourth grade standards all include identifying and classifying renewable vs. nonrenewable energy sources. With this lesson, my goal is to inspire students to think beyond that level. I want them to think creatively about using renewable energy sources in their daily lives. Using a mentor text to start is a great way to do that.

The Coal Thief, by Alane Adams

There’s so much to explore in The Coal Thief and the full version of this resource includes vocabulary, synonyms, antonyms, writing prompts, summarizing, social studies connections, and more. Today, I’m sharing how I would work with my students to help them understand renewable vs. nonrenewable energy.

The Coal Thief is set in the 1920s in rural Pennsylvania. People in the small town need coal for their fires. A train filled to the brim with coal from Virginia is rolling through. The protagonist, Georgie, succumbs to peer pressure from a “friend”, Harley, and steals coal from the train. Georgie knows stealing is wrong, but he’s so cold and there’s no coal at home. I want to challenge students to think about where we are – 100 years later. We are still very dependent on nonrenewable resources.

Renewable Energy Lesson:

I begin the lesson with the read aloud. If I have already covered vocabulary and some of the other skills, I might just review the text with a picture walk.

  • In the whole group, I ask students to retell the story by calling on different students and prompting them with “and then, what happened?” if necessary.
  • After we retell the story, I ask them to focus on coal as an energy source and distribute the renewable vs. nonrenewable energy resources sorting page. We discuss the differences between the two and then I release them to complete the sorting activity. I am (always) okay with them working with partners and if we’re working virtually or needing to social distance in the classroom, we can use ZOOM or Google meet.
  • Next, I ask them to think about ways to use renewable energy resources. I want them to be creative, but I also want them to support their ideas with evidence. Students can engage in some light research on the internet with guidance. Some options include: What is renewable energy?, Renewable & Non-Renewable Resources, Environment for Kids, What is energy?, and other sources.
  • After this, students will write to the prompt, “What are some ways that you can use renewable energy in your daily life?”
  • Finally, we reconvene and share our ideas. Sharing can take on a variety of forms – a whole group session, small groups, or a gallery walk. I also love to use FlipGrid for this purpose because students can record their own videos and their peers can watch the presentations at their own pace and provide written feedback.

The Full Resource

If you’re interested in digging deeper, the full book companion includes components I mentioned above (vocabulary, etc.). The social studies connections feature writing prompts on peer pressure, integrity, and restorative justice. The resource also includes two choice boards to keep your early finishers engaged and learning more about Pennsylvania, Virginia, coal, and more. IF you feel particularly ambitious, you can even grow crystals from coal by following the recipe and steps here (Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “How to Grow a Charcoal Crystal Garden.” ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021,

The Bundle

The Coal Thief book companion is the newest installation in a growing bundle of fiction book companions for upper elementary students. As of January 2022, the bundle includes How to Read a Book, Lotus and Feather, Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies, Those Shoes, Brave Irene, and Here Comes the Garbage Barge. I plan to add Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch in late January in time for Valentine’s Day. The individual companions feature a variety of engaging activities from picture tile puzzles, to writing prompts, to art prompts, to cootie catchers, to interactive notebook pages, and more!

Now, for the Blog Hop and Giveaway!

This time, I’m giving away a $25 gift card of your choice (Teachers Pay Teachers, Amazon, Target, or PayPal) to one lucky winner! You just need to follow me on one platform (or more for more chances to win) to enter. Make sure you visit each blog in the hop to read all about winter mentor texts for content areas and to join in their giveaways, as well.

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The Coal Thief, How to Read a Book, Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies, Those Shoes, Brave Irene, Here Comes the Garbage Barge, and Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.

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Currently, I teach fifth grade and have taught fifth grade since 2011. Before teaching fifth grade, I taught third grade, first grade, kindergarten, preschool, baby and toddler music, college, and graduate school. I am a mom of two daughters, a Maltese dog, and a tuxedo cat.

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  • Jennifer January 15, 2022 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for this thorough post on a book that was new to me! So much great information and so many different ways to use the resources!

    • amazingmaterials4you January 16, 2022 at 7:56 am

      You’re very welcome! I love it when I’m able to introduce teachers to a book they haven’t heard before. Enjoy!

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    The letters of my first name inspired the name of this blog and the names of my other business ventures, so when you think of me, just remember AM4Y. I started my teaching journey in 1987 and have taught every age from babies to fifth grade as well as college and graduate school in Tennessee, Florida, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Colorado, and Virginia. I have a B.A. in English and Psychology from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville and an M.A.T. in curriculum and instruction from The University of Memphis. In addition, I have completed more graduate work at The University of Maryland and The University of Colorado, Denver. I am a mom of two young adult daughters and a cute Maltese dog. When I am not teaching, you can find me traveling, reading, hiking, or cooking. Read More

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