Leave the World Better than We Found It


Introduction to A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

Edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart

It’s hard to say where the idea for this book originated. It may have been in 2007 when we looked at Modern World History, the new global studies textbook our school district, in Portland, Oregon, purchased. The book began one of its three miserable paragraphs on the climate crisis with the statement: “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect.” And it was buried on page 679. This was the best that Portland could offer its high school students? (This widely adopted book, published by Holt McDougal, still anchors the official curriculum for Portland high school students’ sole class on today’s world.)

Or this book’s origins may have been at an excellent teach-in sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization in Washington, D.C., that same year, called “Confronting the Triple Crisis,” about climate change, the end of cheap energy, and resource depletion and extinction. A number of the contributors to this book presented at this extraordinary gathering: Vandana Shiva, Frances Moore Lappé, Bill McKibben, Michael Klare, and Jeff Goodell. We came away from that weekend convinced of the enormity of the crisis, but we also understood how each supposedly distinct crisis linked to all the others, and then tied back to the fundamental problem of a global economy driven by the quest for profit. The teach-in was our introduction to Annie Leonard’s short film The Story of Stuff, which captures many of these connections with humor and common sense.

The decision to launch this book—and how we imagined it—was no doubt heavily influenced by the powerful and interconnected analyses offered by the speakers at this teach-in. But we were dismayed that there was no discussion about what this all meant for K-12 education. How should environmental justice movements partner with the educators who work daily with the millions of young people learning their ecological A, B, Cs—or, perhaps too often, not learning them? Implicitly, the conference suggested that this was knowledge to be shared among adults. We left inspired and informed, but weighed down by the immense burden of figuring out how to “story” the environmental crisis through curriculum.

Power of Green Curriculum

Back home in Portland we initiated what we called an “Earth in Crisis” curriculum group, and invited colleagues to discuss and test out teaching ideas with one another. This collective nurtured many of the activities included in this book, and also identified key themes that weave through the book. One of these is that our curriculum must confront the false dichotomy between the environment and people. It’s a theme that Van Jones addresses directly in his TED Talk on “Plastics and Poverty,” included in Chapter One (p. 4). Jones points out that people were rightly concerned about the damage to living systems in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP Oil Spill. But he notes that we often do not seem as concerned when that oil gets to where it is “supposed” to go: for example, to petrochemical plants that dot Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where it then poisons the largely poor and African American people who live there. Yes, the “environment” is about polar bears, dolphins, redwood forests, and bees; but it is also about human beings—workers, consumers, families, and community members. We call this book a people’s curriculum for the Earth because we try to keep the focus on the inextricable link between nature and people.

And this suggests another theme that emerged in our Earth in Crisis curriculum work in Portland: Everyone on Earth is affected by the environmental crisis, but we are affected unequally—based on race, class, nationality, or location. This is maddeningly evident with the impact of climate change. Throughout the book we feature stories about individuals and communities—Matthew Gilbert and the Gwich’in (p. 74), Koleo Talaki in Tuvalu (p. 96), Anisur Rahman of Antapara, Bangladesh (p. 98), the Aymara people of Bolivia (p. 137), the Yup’ik teenagers of Kwigillingok, Alaska (p. 143), and too many others to list, whose carbon footprint is virtually non-existent and yet who are among the first to suffer from its ravages. Similar issues of race and class are at play when it comes to exposure to workplace pollutants (“Combating Nail Salon Toxics,” p. 280), lead poisoning of children in urban areas (“Teaching About Toxins,” p. 283), or the pollution from mostly foreign-owned manufacturing plants that blankets poor communities around the world with deadly consequences (“Reading Chilpancingo,” p. 288).

This is not to say that people are not organizing in response to this toxic trespass, in the expression of ecologist Sandra Steingraber. They are. And some of them are featured in these pages: the Milwaukee students who blew the whistle on oil contamination in their neighborhood (p. 67), Maria Gunnoe’s passionate anti- mountaintop removal activism with communities in West Virginia (p. 210), the indigenous people described in Winona LaDuke’s “Uranium Mining, Native Resistance, and the Greener Path” (p. 321)—“resilient in the face of a deep history of genocide and destruction.” But there is a fundamental inequality at the heart of the environmental crisis—one that is central to the articles and teaching activities included in this book.

16Shorter Showers?

In our “Earth in Crisis” group, teachers kept returning to our students’ responses: They wanted to know what they could do personally. Early in our work, we concluded that we need to help students recognize the inadequacy of responding to the environmental crisis solely as individuals. As we mention in the teaching ideas for Chapter 3, “Facing Climate Chaos” (p. 174), there are entire books that urge students to consider their individual carbon footprints, suggesting that our personal patterns of consumption are a root cause of global warming. Students are urged to think about the frequency of their baths, their electricity use, the stuff they buy. Yes, of course, we want young people— and everyone—to be mindful of the Earth as we go through our daily lives. And we want students to recognize the power they have—collectively or individually—to make the world a better place. But it’s wrong to direct students primarily toward individual solutions to create change.

In his Chapter Five essay, “Forget Shorter Showers,” Derrick Jensen confronts this problematic celebration of individual action:

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? As students’ awareness of the environmental crisis grows, this consciousness can be misdirected by social forces that have an interest in how young people respond. The energy industry would much prefer that our students change their light bulbs, recycle their soda cans, or even install solar panels than organize a demonstration at the state capitol to shut a coal-fired power plant, testify at a public hearing against fracking, or otherwise gum up their fossil fuel machinery.

And there is another way that this celebration of the individual needs to be questioned in a people’s curriculum for the Earth. Individual property “rights” have long been seen as synonymous with “liberty.” “Liberty! Property!” was a cry of the American Revolution. But there were other more democratic cries as well, like Benjamin Franklin’s famous assertion that “Private Property…is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing.”

What happens to the Earth if we respect the “right” of the fossil fuel industry to manage their assets however they please? More and more, the headlines are filled with the answer to that question: superstorms, drought, heat waves, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, species extinction, floods, drowning islands. A curriculum on the climate, and the environmental crisis more broadly, needs to address patterns of ownership and decision making. Our curriculum needs to confront the myth that private property is, in fact, private. The fate of the Earth “belongs” to us all.



Helping students acquire a critical consciousness about the environmental crisis means we need to consistently encourage them to ask “Why?” Why is it that the future of life on Earth has been put at risk? It seems an impossible question to answer unless weengage students in thinking about the nature of global capitalism. Throughout the book, we draw students’ attention to this broader systemic context within which the environmental crisis is unfolding. Activities like “The Thingamabob Game” (p. 147) and the trial role play, “Who’s to Blame for the Climate Crisis?” (p. 163), explicitly confront students with the fundamental clash between an economic system that prizes wealth accumulation above all else and people’s need for a healthy environment. Capitalism insists that key productive decisions be made on the basis of what will yield the greatest profit. It grants God-like powers to unelected elites whose livelihoods depend not on creating a world of equality and environmental sustainability, but on making the most money. If we’re going to help our students not just describe, but explain, the environmental crisis, it is essential that educators name this elephant in our classrooms.

Joy amid Crisis

As this book heads to the printer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to release what news outlets indicate is its most dire report to date—another in a string of reports, each with more urgent language and frightening scenarios than the one before. The new IPCC report warns that at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to avoid a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degree Celsius) rise in global temperatures over pre-industrial times (see “The Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers, p. 180 and “A Matter of Degrees,” p. 192). The consequence of exceeding these limits would “almost certainly have catastrophic effects, including a mass extinction of plants and animals, huge shortfalls in food production, extreme coastal flooding, and many other problems,” according to the New York Times, which received a draft of the report.

The news is bad. But despite the dimensions of the environmental crisis, students can approach this frightening content in ways that are lively and playful. Not long ago, we participated in a weeklong teach-in for 6th through 8th graders about energy issues at Sunnyside Environmental School, a public school here in Portland. Throughout the week, students heard speakers and participated in activities about everything from mountaintop removal coal mining to catastrophic oil spills to the civilization-threatening consequences of climate change. They also encountered people working on solar and wind power, local food initiatives, and other innovative responses to environmental challenges; but the week definitely offered an adult dose of planetary crisis. Nonetheless, in classrooms we visited during the concluding activist projects that students worked on, these middle schoolers were anything but grim; and their small- group work was electric with idea sharing and laughter. As with adults, we’ve found that students are able to live with contradiction; students grasp the sadness and injustice at the heart of the environmental crisis while finding joy and humor. For the book, we’ve selected activities that address key environmental concerns, but these activities do not invite despair. They are engaging, and feature collective work that triggers student playfulness and imagination.



Throughout the final stages of working on this book, we collaborated with Portland teaching colleagues Chris Buehler, Julie Treick O’Neill, and Matt Plies on a role play about La Vía Campesina. Despite the fact that La Vía Campesina may be the largest social movement in the world—with more than 200 million small farmers in its affiliated organizations—it’s pretty much impossible to find its work described in today’s mainstream textbooks. We conclude A People’s Curriculum for the Earth with La Vía Campesina’s efforts because we think that it highlights the way a deep response to any one crisis—for example, how to feed a world populated by perhaps a billion hungry people—addresses other social and environmental crises.


La Vía Campesina’s presents a grassroots, “agroecological” challenge to agribusiness’s globalized, free market, chemical-drenched, genetically modified prescription for the world’s food production. The peasant movement shows that addressing hunger can simultaneously address climate change, inequality, public health, unemployment, forced migration, and much more. These are the kind of interconnections that infuse our curricula with hope— offering students the sense that fundamental change is not only desperately needed but also possible.

Challenging Curricular Apartheid

The teaching we observed at Sunnyside Environmental School showed us what happens when teachers collaborate across disciplines. Unfortunately, in too many schools, the environmental crisis seems to have become a kind of curricular hot potato. No discipline wants to claim the crisis as its own. We get it. We are both high school social studies teachers and we often bump up against our own shaky grasp on scientific concepts, trying to recall details from past biology and chemistry classes. While teaching one climate lesson at Lincoln High School, a student made an assertion about the impact of methane versus carbon dioxide that stumped us both and sent us combing through IPCC reports that evening. We try not to let these moments force us to retreat into the silo that traditionally has been considered social studies. And we’ve spoken with science teachers who feel that analyzing the social causes and effects of climate change reaches beyond their curricula or of their own knowledge. Similarly, teachers in language arts, mathematics, world languages, business, physical education, or art may wonder, “What does this have to do with my class?”

But in this moment of crisis, it’s imperative that we reject artificial barriers between disciplines. Throughout this book we’ve featured stories from educators who consciously cross conventional curricular boundaries—see for example, “Carbon Matters” (p. 110), “Science for the People” (p. 273), “Measuring Water with Justice” (p. 297), and “Facing Cancer” (p. 309). Throughout the curriculum, educators can collaborate to help students become the scientist-activists they need to be. Confronting the toxic injustice that has become one of the defining features of our time requires us immediately to begin constructing a fossil fuel-free world built on principles of ecology and justice, rather than profit and endless growth. No matter which classes we teach, educators need to find ways to help young people develop the analytical tools to understand the causes of the environmental crisis and to exercise their utopian imaginations to consider alternatives.

Political and Educational Context

In an article in the Guardian, Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, laments the “bad timing” of the climate crisis:

Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude—that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.

That same war has been waged in the education arena. At the precise moment we need our schools to educate and engage the next generation about the historic global challenges we face, public education is under attack from the same private and corporate interests that have polluted our natural and social environments. Curriculum is being standardized and narrowed to what can be poorly measured by bubble tests. Decisions about what schools should teach and children should learn are being moved away from classrooms and communities to the same politicized bureaucracies and monied interests that are undermining democracy. This too is “bad timing.” At a time when we need an urgent national conversation about how schools and curriculum should address the environmental crisis, we’re being told that the problems we need to focus on are teacher incompetence, government monopoly, and market competition. The reform agenda reflects the same private interests that are moving to shrink public space—interests that have no desire to raise questions that might encourage students to think critically about the roots of the environmental crisis, or to examine society’s unsustainable distribution of wealth and power.

* * *


This book is not so much “a people’s curriculum for the Earth” as it is an invitation to begin to build that curriculum. And it’s encouragement to educators to demand the right to effect a curriculum that honestly and deeply addresses the environmental crisis. Some of this work will go on in our classrooms; in meetings with other teachers; in teacher social justice conferences in San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle; in our professional organizations; in the pages of Rethinking Schools magazine; and at the Zinn Education Project and This Changes Everything websites. And some will go on in our unions, community organizations, and other activist organizations where we fight to teach about crucial issues in the world.

The intertwined social, economic, and environmental crises that confront humanity require us to be audacious. As Naomi Klein writes, this is “the fight of our lives.” For educators, this is the curriculum work of our lives. And, yes, it is a fight, too. We need to demand and organize for the right to teach about what really matters, and not be forced to toe the textbook line or obey “rigorous” standards, developed afar, that may or may not help students appreciate and act on this moment in history.

We educators need to imagine, cooperate, create, hope—and at times, defy and resist. And we need to see ourselves as part of a broader movement to build the kind of society that is clean and just and equal and democratic. One that seeks to leave the world better than we found it.


Editorial: Teaching as Defiance

Originally published in Rethinking Schools VOLUME 29, ISSUE 4 — SUMMER 2015.Editorial1Recently, we posted an article at the Rethinking Schools Facebook page that listed reasons why parents should opt their children out of standardized testing, including “standardized tests narrow the curriculum.” The article went on:

What’s on the test is what’s taught. PARCC and Smarter Balanced [versions of the Common Core tests] only evaluate math and literacy, and thus science, social studies, and the arts are lost to spend maximum instruction time on the tested material. There is no time for creativity, collaboration, and curiosity.

A Rethinking Schools reader, Texas educator Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, wrote to say: not so fast. Rodriguez pointed out that teachers are still “creative and collaborative, and encourage curiosity in spite of the high-stakes testing environment.” She argued that we need to distinguish between what teachers are being pushed to do and what they are actually doing. Yes, the tests have made it more difficult to teach critically and authentically, but Rodriguez pointed out that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, doesn’t make it so.

Rodriguez is right. Teachers continue to resist the high-stakes testing machine by teaching what matters, by doing everything possible not to narrow the curriculum to test prep. And when we say that the corporate school reform agenda has killed critical, imaginative teaching for social justice, we have declared defeat while the fight rages around us.

Since its inception almost 30 years ago, Rethinking Schools’ mission has been the defense and transformation of public schools. These go hand in hand. Yes, we need to fight the myriad ways that the forces of privatization and privilege seek to discredit and destroy public education. But one front in that defense is the effort to revitalize classroom life, to ensure that students’ time in school is worthwhile—for students personally, and for the larger communities and society they belong to. As we argued in the first edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, back in 1994, classrooms should be grounded in the lives of our students; critical; multicultural, antiracist and pro-justice; participatory and experiential; hopeful, joyful, kind, and visionary; activist; culturally sensitive; and academically rigorous. We set ourselves the task of creating curriculum and finding teaching stories to bring these principles to life.

Teaching to the Tests

Is this kind of teaching made much harder by today’s standardized testing mandates? No doubt. Valuable classroom time has been hijacked by the tests and test prep. New legislation and policies threaten teachers with bad evaluations or worse should their students fail to perform adequately on the tests. In some school districts, armies of clipboard-carrying curriculum cops circulate through classrooms to enforce scripted teaching strategies. These are tough times, and we do not mean to minimize the power of this bullying to stifle good teaching.

The corporate school reformers’ vision of a successful classroom was on display this spring in a front page New York Times investigative article on New York’s Success Academy, the charter school chain founded by Eva Moskowitz. Politicians and millionaire philanthropists have championed Moskowitz’s program as a model for education reform. The article, by Kate Taylor (“At Charters, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics”), paints a harrowing portrait of classroom life, with every teaching move subordinated to standardized tests. An email from an assistant principal (a “leadership resident”) at Success Academy Harlem 2 to her 4th-grade teachers in the wake of disappointing results on a three-day practice test offers a glimpse: “You must demand every single minute,” she wrote. “We can NOT let up on them. . . . Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack (test-taking strategies) will go to effort academy (detention), have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt [by] the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

Teaching for Life

Since Rethinking Schools began publishing in 1986, there have always been odious requirements that teachers have confronted and resisted: basal readers, detailed “scope and sequence” instructions, “competencies” to be met, “anchor assignments,” required textbooks, and overbearing administrators. Indeed, in the very first issue of Rethinking Schools, RS co-founder Rita Tenorio described how she resisted the imposition of a Scott Foresman basal reader on her kindergarten students. Instead she provided experiential, playful, and collaborative literacy activities far more appropriate for young children than a dreary succession of worksheets.

And today, in the midst of the launch of Common Core tests, teachers continue the resistance. Sometimes this is an individual who defies the system to teach toward her ideals. During a dinner conversation, a 2nd-grade teacher in New Mexico told Rethinking Schools editors how she brings authentic literacy lessons to her classroom: “They have taken over our literacy block with a mandated, scripted curriculum, but I use read-aloud time to engage students in reading and writing that matters.”

Sometimes it’s a collective effort. In Portland, Oregon, teachers at several high schools are collaboratively constructing and teaching curriculum. Social studies teachers at one school, for example, created a unit on the Russian Revolution that was taught in 14 classes. At another school, language arts teachers developed and taught curriculum on local school desegregation as a follow-up to reading Warriors Don’t Cry when a student asked, “So what happened in Portland?” After they taught the unit, the teachers traveled to each other’s classrooms to discuss revisions and adaptations, and to look at student work. Two articles in this issue of the magazine, Jerica Coffey’s “Storytelling as Resistance” and Stephanie Cariaga’s “Research as Healing,” are the result of an inquiry group created by teachers at a school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (see Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience).

Throughout the country, teachers are constructing curriculum that challenges students to think instead of memorize, to connect their lives to broader social and ecological issues. Through this kind of engaged scholarship, students discover the joy of learning—joy that rarely accompanies a lesson that starts “Today, I will learn. . .”

This resistance is fueled by networks of social justice teachers in groups like Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, Chicago Teachers for Social Justice, the Educators Network for Social Justice in Milwaukee, Teaching for Change, the Oregon Writing Project, and Free Minds, Free People. These organizations, and many others, inspire critical teaching through conferences, workshops, and inquiry-to-action groups—defying the corporate push toward standardization.

Rethinking Schools’ two latest books, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice offer further proof that teachers across the country are working with one another to address vital social issues at the same time they strive to develop academic skills. Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When it comes to the climate crisis, endless war, growing income inequality, and the disregard for the lives of people of color as shown by the regularity of police killings, the social train we’re on is headed off a cliff. Teachers need to do our part to stop and redirect that train.

As we oppose the hegemony of standardized tests, the budget cuts, the school closures, the pro-charter legislation, the infiltration of Teach For America, and other privatization schemes, we also should demand teaching and learning conditions that allow us to create an alternative vision of classroom life. In order to design curriculum that speaks to students’ lives, we need more prep time, more time for teacher collaboration, more professional development worthy of its name. We need to nurture a grassroots conversation about social justice teaching—one that refutes the notion that learning and high test scores are synonymous; and one that opts for joy over misery.

Rethinking Schools encourages teachers to continue to subvert the test-and-punish system by doing everything we can to teach for the benefit of our students—and the world. Every child-centered, socially aware lesson plan is a gesture of defiance to those who endeavor to make test scores the sole criterion of educational success. This kind of teaching that matters is part of the broader struggle to defend and transform public schools.

Magazine Call for Science Submissions

You asked and we listened! Rethinking Schools needs more articles that focus on science. We are looking for submissions from you that show what engaging students’ sense of equity and justice looks, sounds, and feels like through the teaching of science.  We seek justice-centered, equity-oriented, story-rich, and critical articles that describe science teaching and curriculum in PK-12 classrooms, community spaces, or PK-12 teacher preparation.

What we need and what to write

Science is more than worksheets, textbooks, and memorization. Science touches everyday lives of all people. We encourage stories from a diverse range of science fields such as natural, physical, earth, and life.We invite you to submit a story that shows science teaching that is sensitive to cultural, historical, environmental, and socioeconomic contexts. We want stories that show how learning science helps students better understand the forces that shape their world. We want educators of all types to share how they use science to enhance learning, promote critique, and address real-world social, cultural, political, and ecological problems. We are especially looking for articles that discuss:

  • teaching science in classrooms from a social justice/equity perspective
  • students and teachers working together to use science as a tool to enact social justice
  • science in everyday practices of various cultures, families, and communities
  • culturally relevant/culturally revitalizing/culturally sustaining science teaching 

How to write

Students’ voices are important; make sure we can hear them! Rethinking Schools is purposefully not an academic journal. We want the writing to be lively, conversational, and to avoid needless jargon. Please approach your story as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, filled with anecdotes and the voices of students, teachers, parents or guardians, caregivers, family, and/or community members.

Before you begin writing, check out the writers’ guidelines. The best way to understand what works forRethinking Schools is to read through several issues ofthe magazine noticing how the authors show what they do and how they integrate information about the academic topic into the article. Specific models you might want to refer to include:

For additional details, review our call for submissions:


When and where to send

Cycle 1 submissions due August 1, 2015. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis until August 1.

To submit your submission: http://tiny.cc/RSscience

For inquiries, email: science@rethinkingschools.org 

We look forward to receiving your submission!

RS Science Submissions Committee:

Amy Lindahl, Bejanae Kareem, Jana Dean, Jean Aguilar-Valdez, and Vera Stenhouse,

29.4: Teaching as Defiance, 4-Year-Olds Discuss Marriage, +more!

29.4 Cover


FREE 4-Year-Olds Discuss Love and Marriage

By A.J. Jennings

An early childhood educator shows how far-ranging discussions can open children’s eyes to a broader understanding of relationships, including same-sex marriage and not getting married at all.

FREE Los niños y las niñas de 4 años hablan sobre el amor y el matrimonio

Por A. J. Jennings, Traducido por Nicholas Yurchenco

Una maestra de preescolar demuestra cómo una variedad de conversaciones pueden ampliar el conocimiento de los niños sobre las relaciones interpersonales, incluyendo los matrimonios del mismo sexo y las parejas que no se casan.

FREE Baby Steps Toward Restorative Justice

By Linea King

A middle school teacher tries to implement restorative practices in her classroom. It’s harder than she thought.


Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience

By Stephanie Cariaga and Jerica Coffey

Teachers form an inquiry-based study group to support each other as they look for ways to build on the resilience of their students.

Storytelling as Resistance

By Jerica Coffey

After a critical look at how their community is described by others, high school students interview and tell the true stories of people in their Watts, Los Angeles, neighborhood.

Research as Healing

By Stephanie Cariaga

As 9th graders focus persuasive letters on community issues, their teacher realizes she must be open about her own pain to empower students to be open about theirs.


FREE Can We Rescue the Common Core Standards from the Testing Machine?

By Peter Greene

Would the Common Core be OK if it weren’t for the tests? An activist/blogger says no.

Learning About Inequality

By Linda Christensen

A master English teacher uses dialogue poems to develop empathy and connect history to literature.

FREE Climate Change and School in a Yup’ik Fishing Village

By Jill Howdyshell

In a small village in southwestern Alaska, climate change is a current reality, not a distant fear. But it’s not in the curriculum or discussed at school.

Blood on the Tracks

By Amy Lindahl

Science teachers at a Portland, Oregon, high school ask how they can make their science classes more welcoming to Black students.

Colonizing Wild Tongues

By Camila Arze Torres Goitia

A teacher vividly describes her own experience of English-only schooling.



Teaching as Defiance

By the editors of Rethinking Schools



Seattle Students Vote with Their Feet

Poets Start Young

Schoolchildren Targeted in Baltimore

Global Teacher Unions Protest at Pearson Meeting

Teacher Fired for Get-Well Letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal


Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.


Thinking and Playing Under Pressure

Black with a Capital B


Rethinking Schools began as a newspaper—a tabloid. Most newspapers followed the Associated Press Stylebook, so we did, too. That included a lowercase b when referring to Black culture or individuals. Over the years, that made various writers and editors uncomfortable, but we pointed to the problems with inconsistency in our archives as a reason not to change.

Prompted in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, we decided to revisit our usage at a recent editorial board meeting. We based our discussion on a 2014 op-ed piece by Lori L. Tharps in the New York Times, “The Case for Black with a Capital B.” She builds a strong historical and political case:

Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the “New World,” we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures, and tribes. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks—anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.

After emancipation, as many individuals replaced their slave surnames with ones of their own devising, like Freedman or Freeman, they still bore the painful legacy of the labels they’d been given: black, negro, and colored. . . .

In the mid-1900s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors, and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. . . . The New York Timesrefused his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopedia Britannicainformed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of 12 million Americans and 200 million human beings a personal insult.”

Tharps says that editor changed his mind, as did many other mainstream publications, including the New York Times. She then notes the changes that the Black Power Movement of the 1960s had on how African Americans see and name themselves. She concludes: “If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?”

We found her arguments convincing. Editorial board member Jesse Hagopian explained it well: “Black with a capital B was won through political struggle. If we lowercase the b, we’re minimizing the importance of that collective, historical struggle.” In this issue of the magazine, and henceforth, we will write Black with a capital B. As always, we’re interested in your comments.  

From Rethinking Schools latest summer issue.

Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice

RR LC DW intro-hooked (1)

Our new book, Rhythm and Resistance edited by Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson, offers practical lessons about how to teach poetry to build community, understand literature and history, talk back to injustice, and construct stronger literacy skills across content areas and grade levels—from elementary school to graduate school. Rhythm and Resistance reclaims poetry as a necessary part of a larger vision of what it means to teach for justice.

Here is the introduction. Please purchase your copy today on our website.


Most people understand creating a poetry book with the word rhythm in its title, but resistance?
Some folks might think we mean students resisting poetry, but we don’t. Students resist when poetry rustles in dusty tomes, when they are asked to bow before sacred texts, and memorize terms and spit them back on multiple-choice exams. But when students dive headlong into writing poetry, when they share the living, beating heart of their own words, when they hear the pulse of joy and rage from their classmates, they are hooked.

The opening chapters of Rhythm and Resistance demonstrate how poetry can build classroom community and develop students’ confidence in their writing. In order for students to feel like they belong, they have to feel both visible and valued. As Alejandro, one of Linda’s former students wrote, “It wasn’t until we began to write poetry that I started to feel comfortable with writing. Poetry provided me the freedom to start in the middle of my thoughts and finish wherever I wanted. It was circular and allowed me to express myself. After I nervously read a poem in front of the whole school, I finally understood the power and influence of words. The compliments that I received from other students also challenged my definition of what I believed was the only way to get respect.”

For us, the resistance in the title means defiance. We encourage teachers to resist making essays the pinnacle of all writing. Yes, essay writing is important and necessary and can be exciting, but the essay is only one genre of writing. Focusing almost exclusively on essay, as many districts encourage teachers to do, limits student ability to write with passion—and skill—across the genres. Even if the goal is to improve essay writing, we need to teach narrative and poetry. They provide the tools—story, sentence cadence, active verbs—that move students to write passionate persuasive/argumentative essays about issues in the world that trouble them.

We also encourage resistance to the narrowing of curriculum to serve the job market or college; we resist the focus of “drilling down” on facts and on what’s testable. Certainly, students should leave school prepared to enter the real world—the real world where hunger and poverty exist alongside immense profits snuffing out opportunities for family-wage jobs, the real world where wars continue year after year, where governments promise glory to soldiers, but return broken humans. Part of an education for the “real world” must teach empathy, must call attention to policies and actions that harm society’s most vulnerable.

Rhythm and Resistance encourages students to reflect on their own lives as well as the lives of others who people newspapers, literature, and history. We want them to cheer the triumph of Celie at the dinner scene in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple  or to care about Central American children as they brave “The Beast,” or “The Death Train” as it is called by these migrants searching for parents and hope. Through poetry, young people can breathe life into the voices of those who usually don’t find ways into classrooms or textbooks, including their own. This kind of education prepares them to meet the real world with a sense of humanity.

And by resistance, we also mean teaching students to talk back to injustice. When we open our classrooms for students to discuss contemporary issues, we encourage commitment to active engagement as citizens of the world by introducing them to poets like Martín Espada and Patricia Smith, Paul Flores and William Stafford, Katharine Johnson and Renée Watson, Lucille Clifton and Lawson Fusao Inada. We build a culture of conscience by offering students both a context and a vehicle for standing up and talking back when they witness injustice, encouraging them to add their voices to the choir of people who link arms and march in solidarity for a better world. Whether they recite their poetry on a stage framed by dusty blue curtains, as Alejandro did, or a makeshift bandstand at a protest in the park against budget cuts or police brutality, students need opportunities to voice their outrage, to spill their odes and hymns, sonnets and sonatas about the ways society needs to change.

As June Jordan wrote in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint:

Poetry is a political action undertaken for the sake of information, the faith, the exorcism, and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair, and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter. I would hope that folks throughout the U.S.A. would consider the creation of poems as a foundation for true community: a fearless democratic society.

RR LC DW intro-title is invitationOur title is an invitation—asking teachers to join in and resist along with us, to help build this “fearless democratic society” that our students deserve.

Why Poetry? Why Now?
by Linda Christensen

You ask, “Why a book on poetry? Why now?”
Because we stand at the brink of public
education’s demise;
because funds from billionaires
control the mouths of bureaucrats,
who have sold students, teachers,
and their families for a pittance;
because curriculum slanted to serve the “job market”
carves away history and humanity,
poetry and narrative,
student lives and teacher art;
because teaching students to write an essay
without teaching them to write
narratives and poetry is like
teaching someone to swim
using only one arm;
because poets are truth tellers and lie breakers
wordsmiths and visionaries
who sling metaphors in classrooms,
in the narrow slices of school hallways,
on the bricks of public courtyards,
and cafés with blinking neon signs
without laying out a dime to corporations;
because new poets are rising up,
pressing poems against windows on Wall Street,
spilling odes down the spines of textbooks,
posting protest hymns on telephone poles,
bubbling lyrics on the pages of tests
designed to confine their imaginations;
because poems hover under the breath
of the boy in a baseball cap,
the girl with a ring in her nose,
the boy with his mom’s name inked on his neck,
and the silent ones in the back:
she’s the next Lucille Clifton
and he sounds like Roque Dalton, saying:
“poetry, like bread,
is for everyone.”

Here are additional quotes from the book. Please share this great resource with your network! You can find more in our twitter feed.

RR PS second throat

RR RW young people need space

RR AT construct a classroom

RR LC pain power

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Resistance to High Stakes Tests Serves the Cause of Equity in Education: A Reply to “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts”

Rethinking Schools:

Jesse Hagopian is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and editor of “More Than a Score” published by Haymarket Books.

Originally posted on I AM AN EDUCATOR:

Twelve national civil rights organizations released a statement today in opposition to parents and students who opt out of high-stakes standardized testing–what has now become a truly mass direct action campaign against the multi-billion dollar testing industry.  I believe that their statement titled, “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts,” misses the key role that standardized testing has played throughout American history in reproducing institutional racism and inequality.  I wrote the below statement, with the aid of the board of the Network for Public Education, to outline the racist history of standardized testing and to highlight leadership from people of color in the movement against high-stakes testing. I sincerely hope for a response from the civil rights organizations who authored the statement and I hope that this dialogue leads to deeper discussion about how to make Black Lives Matter in our school system and how to remake American public education on foundation…

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