Columbus Protest at UW-Madison

Time to Abolish Columbus Day

By Bill Bigelow

Once again this year many schools will pause to commemorate Christopher Columbus. Given everything we know about who Columbus was and what he launched in the Americas, this needs to stop.

Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain. Columbus described those he enslaved as “well made and of very good intelligence,” and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies. A year later, Columbus intensified his efforts to enslave Indigenous people in the Caribbean. He ordered 1,600 Taínos rounded up—people whom Columbus had earlier described as “so full of love and without greed”—and had 550 of the “best males and females,” according to one witness, Michele de Cuneo, chained and sent as slaves to Spain. “Of the rest who were left,” de Cuneo writes, “the announcement went around that whoever wanted them could take as many as he pleased; and this was done.”

Taíno slavery in Spain turned out to be unprofitable, but Columbus later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Book: The African Slave TradeThe eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, also assigns responsibility to Columbus for initiating the African slave trade to the Americas. According to Davidson, the first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was issued by the king and queen in 1501, during Columbus’s rule in the Indies, leading Davidson to dub Columbus the “father of the slave trade.”

From the very beginning, Columbus was not on a mission of discovery but of conquest and exploitation—he called his expedition la empresa, the enterprise. When slavery did not pay off, Columbus turned to a tribute system, forcing every Taíno, 14 or older, to fill a hawk’s bell with gold every three months. If successful, they were safe for another three months. If not, Columbus ordered that Taínos be “punished,” by having their hands chopped off, or they were chased down by attack dogs. As the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, this tribute system was “impossible and intolerable.”

And Columbus deserves to be remembered as the first terrorist in the Americas. When resistance mounted to the Spaniards’ violence, Columbus sent an armed force to “spread terror among the Indians to show them how strong and powerful the Christians were,” according to the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas. In his book Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale describes what happened when Columbus’s men encountered a force of Taínos in March of 1495 in a valley on the island of Hispañiola:

The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and [according to Columbus’s biographer, his son Fernando] “with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.”

WoodcutIf Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday. The fact that we have this holiday legitimates a curriculum that is contemptuous of the lives of peoples of color. Elementary school libraries still feature books like Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, by Peter Sis, which praise Columbus and say nothing of the lives destroyed by Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

No doubt, the movement launched 25 years ago in the buildup to the Columbus Quincentenary has made huge strides in introducing a more truthful and critical history about the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Teachers throughout the country put Columbus and the system of empire on trial, and write stories of the so-called discovery of America from the standpoint of the people who were here first.

But most textbooks still tip-toe around the truth. Houghton Mifflin’s United States History: Early Years attributes Taíno deaths to “epidemics,” and concludes its section on Columbus: “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section’s only review question erases Taíno and African humanity: “How did the Columbian Exchange change the diet of Europeans?”

Too often, even in 2015, the Columbus story is still young children’s first curricular introduction to the meeting of different ethnicities, different cultures, different nationalities. In school-based literature on Columbus, they see him plant the flag, and name and claim “San Salvador” for an empire thousands of miles away; they’re taught that white people have the right to rule over peoples of color, that stronger nations can bully weaker nations, and that the only voices they need to listen to throughout history are those of powerful white guys like Columbus. Is this said explicitly? No, it doesn’t have to be. It’s the silences that speak.

sis_page_wcaptionFor example, here’s how Peter Sis describes the encounter in his widely used book: “On October 12, 1492, just after midday, Christopher Columbus landed on a beach of white coral, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain, knelt and gave thanks to God…” The Taínos on the beach who greet Columbus are nameless and voiceless. What else can children conclude but that their lives don’t matter?

Enough already. Especially now, when the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to look deeply into each nook and cranny of social life to ask whether our practices affirm the worth of every human being, it’s time to rethink Columbus, and to abandon the holiday that celebrates his crimes.

More cities—and school districts—ought to follow the example of Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Seattle, which have scrapped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day—a day to commemorate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, and not just in a long-ago past, but today. Or what about studying and honoring the people Columbus enslaved and terrorized: the Taínos. Columbus said that they were gentle, generous, and intelligent, but how many students today even know the name Taíno, let alone know anything of who they were and how they lived?

Last year, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant put it well when she explained Seattle’s decision to abandon Columbus Day: “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of Indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and poverty that Indigenous communities face to this day.”

We don’t have to wait for the federal government to transform Columbus Day into something more decent. Just as the climate justice movement is doing with fossil fuels, we can organize our communities and our schools to divest from Columbus. And that would be something to celebrate.

Columbus Day Protests

edited by Bill Bigelow , Bob Peterson

billbigelow-100x100Bill Bigelow was the co-editor of Rethinking Columbus. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited  A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Rethinking Columbus cover

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This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History

Published on: Huffington Post.


Solidarity with Seattle Education Association

Dear Seattle Education Association,

Rethinking Schools editors and staff express our solidarity as you go on strike for better schools for your students along with their families and for just compensation and working conditions for your members. We have followed your negotiations carefully and we know that this is a strike for justice.

  • As Seattle has become one of the country’s most expensive cities, you have gone six years without so much as a cost of living increase and with no increase in educator health care.
  • You’ve been assaulted by standardized testing, which distorts the curriculum and robs students of essential instructional time. Students are not even guaranteed recess by the Seattle school district.
  • You are straining under enormous workloads, which results in students who cannot get the attention they deserve, and over-worked and exhausted educators and support staff.
  • You’ve noted unequal discipline policies and procedures that have led to vast racial disparities that need to be addressed immediately, in every building.

Seattle educators have said “Enough!” You have bargained in good faith and now are striking for your members, for your students, for the broader community—and, really, for people everywhere who are working for vital public schools and social justice.

Rethinking Schools thanks you for your vision and for your sacrifice. We will continue to spread the word about your important struggle and do everything we can to help you win.

Urgent Action Alert: Chicago Hunger Strike

OLB & MTEA #StandForDyett

Members of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and the Overpass Light Brigade show their solidarity! Photo Credit: Joe Brusky

Rethinking Schools expresses solidarity with the 12 parents, grandparents, educators, and their supporters who are in the second week of a hunger strike for the Dyett High School of Global Leadership and Green Technology, an open enrollment public high school in Chicago’s historic African American Bronzeville neighborhood.

Our friends and colleagues with Chicago’s Teachers for Social Justice summarize the background of this struggle:
“In 2012 CPS voted to phase out Dyett after years of disinvestment and sabotage. It closed this last spring despite years of protest, organizing, arrests, and pleas to the mayor-appointed Board of Education. Dyett was the LAST open enrollment public high school in Bronzeville, where gentrification is intense and charters proliferate. The plan for a revitalized Dyett (an academically rigorous, culturally relevant, community-grounded, critical, inquiry-based, social justice school focused on preparing young people to be community and global leaders and stewards of the earth) was developed through an intensive four-year process in collaboration with a coalition of community partners

“The fight for Dyett is the focal point of the racial justice, anti-neoliberal struggle to defend and transform public education in Chicago. It pits African American parents, students, teachers, and community residents and their Chicago Teachers Union and city-wide allies against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his political and corporate allies. This is a critical battle. Twelve people are risking their health to fight for the right of African American children to have a high quality public education in 2015.”

Visit the Teachers for Social Justice website for updates and images.

Express your solidarity and help give this struggle as much visibility as possible. Teachers for Social Justice recommends:
Please use your web pages, organizational ties, media connections, and
creativity to:
    • Post solidarity messages to the hunger strikers on Facebook: Dyett High School of Global Leadership and Green Technology
    • Tweet about the hunger strike using #fightfordyett #wearedyett
    • Advocate for media coverage, op-eds, send to bloggers for posting, etc.
    • Use your webpages and education contacts, coalitions to organize solidarity actions/messages, etc.
    • Call/fax/send letters to:
Alderman Will Burns
435 East 35th Street
Chicago, IL 60616
Office: (773) 536-8103
Fax: (773) 536-7296
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
121 N LaSalle Street
Chicago City Hall 4th Floor
Chicago, IL 60602
Office: 312.744.5000
Seattle #StandForDyett

Jesse Hagopian (editor) with other educators & community members from Seattle showing their support.

Black Students’ Lives Matter: Building the school-to-justice pipeline

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Read the full article on our website:

David Bacon

We’re at a tipping point. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride—and far too many other African Americans—have put to rest the myth of a “post-racial” America. In death, these Black youth—shot down with impunity because of the color of their skin—have provided a tragically thorough education about police terror and institutional racism, and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was originally created by queer Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as a call to action after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in July 2013. Their battle cry went viral and then turned into a national uprising when Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. The movement exploded when Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for choking to death Eric Garner.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, Black students have played a pivotal role. For example, at Seattle’s Garfield High School, some 1,000 students, led by the Black Student Union (BSU), walked out the day after the non-indictment of Wilson was announced. As 17-year-old Issa George, vice president of the Garfield BSU, told the Seattle Times: “This is our time, as youth, to speak. . . . The waking up that America has done in the past couple of months—something that us as youth get to witness and get to be a part of—has been extremely powerful.”

College, high school, and even middle school students have staged protests and school walkouts in cities around the country. According to reporting by the Nation’s George Joseph and others, student activists of the Baltimore Algebra Project held a die-in when their local school board voted to shut down the first of five schools. The board fled, and the students took over their chairs to lead a community forum on the closures.

Black students take these risks because they know their lives and futures are at stake—from police violence on the street; from the dismantling of their communities through foreclosures, gentrification, and unemployment; and from the destruction of their schools through corporate reform.

The School-to-Grave Pipeline

For the past decade, social justice educators have decried the school-to-prison pipeline: a series of interlocking policies—whitewashed, often scripted curriculum that neglects the contributions and struggles of people of color; zero tolerance and racist suspension and expulsion policies; and high-stakes tests—that funnel kids from the classroom to the cellblock. But, with the recent high-profile deaths of young African Americans, a “school-to-grave pipeline” is coming into focus. Mike Brown had just graduated from high school and was preparing to go to college when police killed him. According to a 2012 investigation by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by law enforcement, security guards, or vigilantes every 28 hours. A recent ProPublica report found that “Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

The Black Lives Matter movement inspires us to fight the school-to-grave pipeline as an example of structural racism, after decades in which anti-racism has been defined in excessively personal terms through anti-bias or diversity training. Anti-bias work focuses primarily, and often exclusively, on internal and interpersonal racism. In other words, if you strive to not be racist in your personal relationships, that’s good enough.

There is definitely a place for personal reflection and discussion of racist attitudes and beliefs. And there is no doubt that many individual police officers need anti-bias training and to be held responsible for their actions. But that’s not enough, as the statistics on police violence, incarceration, school suspension and dropout rates, inequitable school financing, and school closures make clear. These are all sharp indicators of structural racism. When Michelle Alexander says mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow,” she insists that the racist structures that have existed since slavery have mutated and changed, but they have not been eradicated. We can’t understand, teach about, or change what’s happening in this country if we don’t face this fact. And our students know that. Being an effective teacher in today’s society means taking the Black Lives Matter movement seriously.

For all the “students first” rhetoric of the corporate education reformers—who claim their policies are directed at closing the “achievement gap”—they are conspicuously absent from the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the corporate reform agenda is in direct conflict with the goals of the movement. In city after city, Black students are those most affected by the decimation of neighborhood schools, the “no excuses” discipline and rote teaching of charters like KIPP, the substitution of endless test prep for meaningful curriculum, and the imposition of two-years-and-I’m-gone Teach For America corps members on our highest needs students.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t just mean Black people don’t want to be shot down in the streets by unaccountable police. As anti-racist teachers and students, we need to expand the slogan to include:

  • Stop closing schools in Black neighborhoods.
  • Fund schools equitably.
  • Support African American studies programs and substantive multicultural curriculum.

When activists staged a Black Lives Matter die-in in Detroit last December, Will Daniels, from United Students Against Sweatshops, told the Nation: “As a Black student, my rationale for doing the die-in was that structural racism causes not only police brutality, but also the starving of majority Black schools. This is a subtler form of violence.”

Let Black Children Be Children

The murder of Tamir Rice exposes a connection between individual racism and structural racism with important implications for teachers. Tamir was only 12 years old when police showed up at the Cleveland park where he was playing with a toy gun and shot him down within two seconds of their arrival. When his 14-year-old sister ran over, she was tackled to the ground and handcuffed. The officer who called in the shooting described Tamir to the dispatcher as a “Black male, maybe 20.”

Overestimating the age, size, and culpability of Black children is a widespread phenomenon, according to The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, based on research led by Phillip Atiba Goff and Matthew Christian Jackson of UCLA. One of their studies involved 264 mostly white female undergraduates who were asked to assess the age and innocence of white, Black, and Latino boys. The students saw the Black boys as more culpable and overestimated their age by 4.5 years. “Perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race and, for Black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said Jackson. “Black children may be viewed as adults when they’re just 13 years old.”

It’s not much of a stretch to see how this affects Black children in schools where the majority of their teachers are not African American. Any time teachers or administrators see Black children as older than they are, “just being teenagers” (or pre-teens, or little kids) becomes something threatening that has to be controlled or disciplined. How can children grow and learn if the adults around them see them as older and “guiltier” than they are? What will it take for school communities to eradicate this deeply embedded prejudice?

Why Not “All Lives Matter?”

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, some participants have questioned whether “All Lives Matter” is a more inclusive slogan. Although we recognize the serious impact of racism and other forms of oppression on many groups of people in the United States, we think it’s important to understand and talk with others about the historical and current realities behind this specific demand. As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s originators, explains:

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. . . . It is an acknowledgment that one million Black people are locked in cages in this country. . . . It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families. . . . #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide-reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

A civil disobedience demonstration that closed down the federal building in Oakland during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend highlighted the connections. Behind a banner reading “Third World for Black Power,” protesters identified themselves as Arabs, Filipinas/os, Latinas/os, Koreans, Chinese, Palestinians, and South Asians “for Black resistance.” As Filipina activist Rhonda Ramiro said: “The wealth accumulated through the enslavement of Black people in the United States enabled the United States to go around the world and colonize countries like the Philippines. We see our struggle for independence as linked 100 percent.”

Within that framework, how teachers apply this understanding will obviously vary from classroom to classroom, depending on how old the children are, their experience and knowledge about the issues involved, and the level of community that has been built in the classroom.

How to Make Black Lives Matter in Our Schools

So what does all this mean in individual classrooms and schools? Here are a few ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into our teaching:

>>Read the rest of the article on our website! 

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The Children of Gaza

This editorial is featured in our upcoming issue: Teaching in Black and White. Subscribe today!

Like millions around the world, Rethinking Schools editors have been horrified and angered by Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people of Gaza. Of the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed, the vast majority civilians, more than 500 have been children. The images of Israeli bombs destroying hospitals, homes, and schools are devastating—indiscriminate killing by weapons whose use in highly populated areas constitute war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch. This compounds the ongoing Israeli siege that has turned Gaza into an open-air prison where the Israeli military controls the entry and exit of people and goods—a collective punishment in violation of international humanitarian law.

Israel says it is acting against rockets. These have led to a total of six civilian deaths in Israel—tragic but inevitable as long as Israel maintains its illegal and unjust occupation and as long as it enforces its blockade on Gaza.

As we mourn the deaths, injuries, and destruction, we want to call attention to a less noted crisis: the long-term effect on the children who survive. According to Ziad Abbas, of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), himself a Palestinian refugee:

After this attack ends, children in Gaza who are 8 years old will have experienced three wars: 2008-9, 2012, and now 2014. They have survived, but social workers and psychologists working in Gaza say that the children have lost focus, they have insomnia, they wet their beds. Many have lost the ability to speak or to play. They live, but the Israelis have killed their childhood.

This trauma has a devastating impact on children’s ability to learn and develop. During the recent assault, half a million people were forced from their homes to seek shelter, often in local schools. There they stay, crowded maybe 100 to a room, with insufficient water and food. Then, many of the school shelters were themselves bombed. Either way, children come to associate school not with learning, but with terror and loss. In all, 141 schools were destroyed or damaged; six universities were also damaged.

As educators, parents, and activists, we have a critical responsibility to speak out against these attacks, paid for in large part with U.S. tax dollars. We can’t turn back the clock. But we can insist that Israel immediately end the seven-year siege of Gaza and respect the safety and human rights of Palestinians. We also call for an end to all U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and a just peace that can secure a future without war for the children of Gaza and all their neighbors.

“We will overcome and come back,” Abbas says. “As Palestinians we have learned to work together, teachers and parents, to protect the children and to help them see education as part of their resistance.” We invite the Rethinking Schools community to contribute in a small way to rebuilding Gaza’s schools. Since 2009, MECA’s Maia Project (maia means water in Arabic), in partnership with local organizations, has been installing low-cost water purification units in Gaza schools. The entire water system of Gaza—wretched even before the latest assault—was systematically destroyed, so the need for safe water is critical. To learn more about the Maia Project, go to

Girl in Gaza drinks clean water

A kindergartener in Maghazi Refugee Camp drinks clean water from a Maia Project unit installed in Dec. 2009.   Original Photo Credit: Mohammed Majdalawi

Finally, we urge educators to join together to create curriculum on Israel-Palestine that looks deeply and honestly at the roots of crisis and the prospects for peace. For our part, we will continue to work with teacher-writers who want to share their work.

Articles from the Archives:

Independence or Catastrophe? By Samia Shoman

A social studies teacher uses conflicting narratives to engage students in studying the history of Palestine/Israel, focusing on the events of 1948.

Portland to Palestine: A Student-to-Student Project Evokes Empathy and Curiosity by Ken Gadbow

U.S. students talk directly with Palestinian youth and learn what it is like to live in a war zone.

From Tucson to Palestine by Gabriel Matthew Schivone

A generation ago, students led the movement in the United States to divest from apartheid South Africa. Today, student leaders are shaking Arizona as they defend Tucson’s Mexican American Studies (MAS) program.


Books About Contemporary Palestine for Children by Katharine Davies Samway

It’s difficult to find accurate books on Palestine for young readers. A former teacher educator describes resources for K-8 students, including picture books, nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

“This Is a Test”: Educating to End the School-to-Grave Pipeline in Ferguson and Beyond

By Jesse Hagopian

“We were at graduation, me and him, and we were talking. He said he wasn’t going to end up like some people on the streets. He was going to get an education.”

Hershel Johnson, a friend of Michael Brown’s since middle school

Mike Brown grad photo

Graduation portrait of Michael Brown from Normandy High School in Ferguson County, MO

In the wake of the police murder of the unarmed 18-year-old African American high school graduate Michael Brown, and the ensuing uprising of the people of Ferguson, the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced classes would not resume for the school year on Aug. 14 as planned, and as of today, school is still not in session.

The unrest between police and protesters prompted Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to declare a state of emergency in Ferguson and then impose a curfew. Comedian John Oliver described Gov. Nixon’s curfew announcement as “patronizing,” and charged him with speaking in the tone of a “pissed-off vice principal” attempting to further restrict the freedom of the people of Ferguson. Oliver’s school analogy may have been prompted by Nixon’s statement that,

“. . . to protect the people and property of Ferguson today, I signed an order declaring a state of emergency and ordering implementation of a curfew in the impacted area of Ferguson. . . . But if we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test.”

For all of his authoritarian scolding, Gov. Nixon is correct about one thing: This is a test. But it isn’t one that will be scored accurately by a police force or a political class that sees itself as above the law.

Ferguson, like cities around the nation, has plenty of problems of race, class, and education to choose from. The schools in Ferguson—like too many districts across the nation—are still separate and unequal. 77.1 percent of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are black, and some 68 percent of white students who live in the district attend schools outside of the district. Black students make up a disproportionate 87.1 percent of students without disabilities who receive out-of-school suspensions, according to 2011–12 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And the black youth continue to be targets when they leave the schoolhouse and enter the streets. Last year, black residents accounted for 86 percent of the vehicle stops made by Ferguson police and nearly 93 percent of the arrests made from those stops, according to the state attorney general. FBI statistics show that 85 percent of the people arrested by Ferguson police are black, and that 92 percent of people arrested specifically for disorderly conduct are black.

The city of Ferguson is 67.4 percent black and 28.7 percent white, yet five of the six city council members are white and six of seven school board members are white. The first African American superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Dr. McCoy, was forced out of his position in March by the then all white school board. Normandy High School, the alma mater of Mike Brown, has a poverty rate of 92 percent. As Daily Kos related,

“The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.”

“Career and college ready” are the new buzzwords in the education reform world and every teacher certainly hopes their students achieve these personal successes. Yet to limit education to only these puny goals is to extinguish the true power of education. Education must also be in service of transforming our very troubled society.

Mike Brown was to have started attending Vatterott College on Aug. 11, two days after he was killed, exposing the fact that the work of educators to help students achieve a diploma means little if our society succumbs to lawless police who gun down our unarmed children in the street. Many black youth have had their caps and gowns snatched from them and replaced with orange jumpsuits, as students are funneled into what is commonly called the “school-to-prison-pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as zero tolerance discipline and high suspension rates, overbearing police presence in schools, and high-stakes exit exams required for graduation. But increasingly, it appears police are intent on constructing what I guess we now must term the “school-to-grave pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as giving police weapons designed for war zones, the disproportionate policing of areas frequented by black youth, and incentivizing police to shoot black people by not arresting them and giving them paid leave when they do. The school-to-grave pipeline is not only a problem in Ferguson. Nationally, a study revealed that a black person is killed by police somewhere in the United States every 36 hours. When there are witnesses, or when onlookers are able to capture these murders on a cell phone camera, we get to hear about their case—people such as Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and many others. Yet too often, black people are shot down by police and discarded with little attention.

If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face in their communities, in our nation, and in our world, then it isn’t really an education at all—it is an indoctrination designed to reproduce oppression. As Richard Shaull explains in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s masterwork, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The way you know that those who control the education system—the many corporate-style education reformers who push high-stakes testing and standardized curriculum—are not actually interested in nurturing black youth, closing the achievement gap, or supporting education that undermines oppression, is that you won’t hear any of them publicly defending Michael Brown or calling for the arrest of his murderer, Darren Wilson. (Or maybe Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee carpooled and got lost on their way to the rally in Ferguson?). On the issues that most deeply affect the lives of African Americans—mass incarceration, police terror, unemployment, housing discrimination—these education reformers and officials have nothing to say, content to prattle on with the exhortations about “accountability,” “career ready,” “21st-century education,” and other hollow pronouncements devoid of the social supports that would make them a reality.

Thankfully, educators in Ferguson and around the nation are rising to the challenge of redefining the purpose of education with the intent of building a more just society in wake of the killing of Michael Brown. On Aug. 17, Dr. Marcia Chatelain tweeted a call for resources for parents and educators to talk to young people heading back to school with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus. People from around the nation began collecting and retweeting articles, books, videos, and photos to aid educators in lesson ideas that engage students in a critical dialogue about the meaning of Michael Brown’s death and the mass uprising it has inspired.

Jackie Gerstein, EdD (@JackieGerstein), tweeting with #FergusonSyllabus, wrote:

And Caryn Riswold (@feminismxianity) tweeted:

Some of the best lessons ideas shared on #FergusonSyllabus include a link to the video “Race the House We Live In,” about redlining and housing discrimination, a Rethinking Schools lesson on teaching about The Murder of Sean Bell (a young African American killed by New York City Police), Christopher Emdin’s essay, “5 Ways to Teach About Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” and Teaching for Change’s “Teaching About Ferguson.” Any teacher of American history or civics would do well to discuss Amy Goodman’s essay, “The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” outlining the case of the slave (buried just down the street from where Mike Brown was killed) who took his case for freedom to the Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

National Public Radio ran a story on Aug. 19, “Ferguson Teachers Use Day Off as Opportunity for Civics Lesson” where they reported, “So this morning, instead of being in the classroom, 150 area teachers took part in some unusual professional development: picking up broken glass, water bottles, and tear gas canisters from the street. “It says ‘Defense Technology’ on it,” says social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes, showing off a busted canister from his trash bag.”

When the schools reopen in Ferguson, teachers would do well to close up the jingoistic textbooks, discard the bubble tests, and ask students what they think about the fact that our nation spends more on “defense technology,” militarized policing, and mass incarceration than on education. It might not be on the new Common Core exams, but the killing of Michael Brown is a test for our nation’s schools nonetheless.

As I prepare to head back to the classroom, I pledge to Michael Brown and his family that I will do my best to foster a classroom that allows for the emotional intensity and critical dialogue vital to achieving a world that puts institutional racism in its final resting place and gives our black children a bright future.

This post originally appeared on Jesse Hagopian’s blog: Jesse is a writer and editorial associate for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. He is also the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book (available for per-ordering from Haymarket Books) More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Jesse teaches history and is the co-advisor for the Black Student Union at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Follow Jesse on his blog at or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian.

Teach About Mike Brown. But Don’t Stop There.

By Renée Watson

by flickr user: no scream @ the end

by flickr user: no scream @ the end


This time last summer, I researched articles and collected poems about police brutality, racial profiling, and the murders of black men in the United States. The George Zimmerman verdict was fresh on my mind and I wanted to talk about it with my students once school was back in session. I revised a lesson I had taught six years prior on the murder of Sean Bell that asked young people to turn their pain into poetry ( And now, here I am again, swapping out the articles I used last year on Trayvon Martin with articles about Mike Brown. I have accepted that I may have to teach this lesson every school year.

I am moved by the Twitter handle, #FergusonSyllabus. It gives me hope to know that educators are willing to have difficult conversations with their students, that poetry and essays will be written to honor the lives of those we’ve lost to senseless murder, that healthy discussions will happen across the country between young people. But I hope we go past one lesson, one unit. I urge us to think about how our classrooms and curricula challenge or support stereotypes, how they liberate or stifle our young people. It is not enough to teach one “social justice” unit. My hope is that we move from isolated lessons and units and commit to creating classrooms that intentionally and consistently provide opportunities for learners to not just know about injustice but fight against it and begin creating a just world.

As educators, we are not just teaching science, math, or English. We teach culture and norms. Our students notice the jokes we laugh at and the ones we don’t. They pick up on our low expectations when we overly praise them as if we are surprised they could actually complete the assignment we gave them. They are learning whose stories matter by the books we assign. They see who we kick out of class and who we give second and third chances to.

Black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students ( The school-to-prison pipeline is a very real epidemic and I believe it has common denominators with the issues of police brutality and racial profiling. Some of them being the assumptions, fears, and dehumanizing beliefs we have about black boys and men. So when educators ask, “What can I do?” and “How do I teach about Ferguson?” My response is don’t just teach about Mike Brown and Ferguson. Take time to comb through your syllabus, to look at the posters hanging on your wall, to review and maybe revise your classroom management strategies and practices. Make sure your classroom represents the world in which our young people live. Make sure your policies mirror the values you hold as an educator. Address the assumptions you have about your students and be intentional about getting to know them as individuals.

This is not advice for black teachers only or for teachers who teach students of color. I believe these are good teaching practices, in general, and just as important for teachers who teach in all white or predominantly white schools. On the blog, Manic Pixie Dream Mama, a white mother writes:

My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America.

For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons.

It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying.

Your sons may become the shooters.

This mother thinks about the possibility of the shooters being in her home. I think of the possibility of the shooters being in our classrooms.

That is why I so adamantly believe that social justice pedagogy is not for students of color only. We need all young people to examine our world, critique it, and vow to change it. I believe children should be nurtured to practice empathy, to not judge one another based on the color of skin. I believe teachers should commit to exposing our young people to a variety of stories, that we vow to take a personal inventory and deal with our own biases and not be confined to what Chimimanda Adichie calls the “single story.” (

I am grateful for movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and publishers like Lee and Low Books who understand that young people—all people—need to read a “mix of ‘mirror’ books and ‘window’ books…books in which they can see themselves reflected and books in which they can learn about others.” Lee and Low’s checklist for creating diverse libraries asks the following questions: Do all your books featuring black characters focus on slavery? Do all your books about Latino characters focus on immigration? Are all your LGBTQ books coming out stories? Do you have any books featuring diverse characters that are not primarily about race or prejudice? The list also reads, “Consider your classic books, both fiction and nonfiction. Do any contain hurtful racial or ethnic stereotypes, or images…If so, how will you address those stereotypes with students? Have you included another book that provides a more accurate depiction of the same culture? ( ).

These are important questions. And no, I don’t believe that diverse books alone is the magical answer to America’s race problem. But I do believe that sharing stories is one way to humanize marginalized people, it is a way of seeing past labels.

I believe we are gatekeepers. I believe that what we bring into the classroom, in both content and attitude, will impact our young people in ways we might never personally witness.

As we think about teaching about Ferguson, let us remember to share with our young people stories of courage, hope, and solidarity.

Here are four activities that can help young people learn about the historical context while also giving them an opportunity to take action—even if the action is small.

  1. Teach about Emmett Till. Discuss Mamie Till Mobley and her decision to let Jet Magazine publish the photo of Emmett and how that got the nation’s attention. Ask students to think about the role of social media in the murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. What can they do via social media to continue to bring awareness about what is going on in Ferguson?
  2. Bring in music that addresses social issues (“What’s Going On” by Marvyn Gaye, “Rebel” by Lauryn Hill, etc.). Have students write a song or poem that asks a question or responds to the injustices of today.
  3. View Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings and ask students to create a work of art and display the work on a bulletin board in the hallway.
  4. Find poems of hope (examples: “Still Here” by Langston Hughes, “For My People” by Margaret Walker, “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton) and discuss the timeline of African American history in the United States. How does each generation gain hope from the previous generation? What hope can they pass on?

Please do teach about Mike Brown. But don’t stop there.

Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. In June 2014, Renée gave lectures and talks at many renown places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. Her forthcoming YA novel, This Side of Home (Bloomsbury), will be available February 2015.