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.
What is the Common Core doing to bilingual education?
We’re joining hands with The Progressive and In These Times to shine a light on that question. Jeff Bale’s “English-Only to the Core” will appear in the fall issue of Rethinking Schools, but we want you to have it now!
Please use hashtag #ComCoreEnglishOnly to help us amplify the discussion.
. . .
Among bilingual educators, there has been much debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some of the most respected scholars of bilingual education have endorsed the Common Core and are working hard to make it relevant for English learners. Others have been more suspicious. Not only do the standards focus on English-only, critics note, but they were bankrolled by the Gates Foundation, pushed on states in a way that amounts to bribery by the Obama administration, and promise to worsen the impact of high-stakes standardized testing.
In fact, the genesis of the Common Core stands in direct contrast to how bilingual education programs were won, namely through grassroots, explicitly anti-racist organizing by students, parents, teachers, and community allies. The standards thus raise a key question: Given the history of bilingual education programs in the United States, is it possible to expand social justice for emergent bilingual youth through the Common Core?
Addressing that question has been challenging, given the inconsistent responses of professional and civil rights organizations to the standards. The National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) issued a position statement in January 2013 with mixed messages. Although NABE’s membership passed a resolution opposing the Common Core, the statement explains that the group is “working collaboratively with policymakers, school administrators, and teachers” to ensure that implementing the Common Core does not negatively impact English learners. The TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) International Association issued a policy brief endorsing the standards.
Civil rights organizations — including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — have endorsed the standards while calling for equitable implementation. The NCLR, for example, has used Gates Foundation money to apply the standards to English-language education and to develop tool kits supporting parent advocacy on behalf of the Common Core. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) posted resources on its website to help parents make sense of the Common Core.
However, the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards. Instead, new standardized tests accompanying the standards promise to deepen the impact of high-stakes accountability measures in place since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) took effect in 2002. On this count, civil rights organizations have wavered. In October 2014, MALDEF and LULAC joined nine other civil rights organizations in issuing a letter to President Obama protesting the negative impact of high-stakes testing, and calling for more equitable resources and multiple measures (i.e., not just test scores) to define accountability. This letter clearly fit the mood of growing resistance by students, parents, and teachers to high-stakes testing. And yet, not three months later, many of these same organizations issued a letter to Arne Duncan endorsing the practice of annual, high-stakes standardized testing.
Their stance is significant, if unfortunate: When NCLB was first proposed, support from leading civil rights organizations gave enormous political cover to its high-stakes testing policies. The main argument was that accountability measures would “shine a light” on how poorly many schools were educating youth of color, including emergent bilinguals, and thus lead to positive change. Fifteen years later, we know how misguided that hope was. As Wayne Au has argued in Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, and as the many contributors to More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing have documented, high-stakes testing has had a devastating effect on many schools, but especially on schools that primarily serve Black and Brown youth. And yet, mainstream civil rights organizations continue to pursue this strategy for education reform.
If the response to the Common Core by scholars, professional organizations, and civil rights groups has been inconsistent, then it is no wonder that bilingual educators and teachers of English learners have struggled to make sense of the standards. If the standards can’t just beadopted, is there a way to adapt them and make them relevant for English learners? Is it enough to create a bilingual Common Core, that is, to translate the standards to guide bilingual instruction of language arts and math? If not, then what is the alternative?
To help address these questions, this article looks at CCSS in three ways: against the backdrop of the history of bilingual education and anti-racist struggle, on their own terms, and in light of the current status of bilingual education. Each perspective suggests that the Common Core will further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.
A History of Successful Community Organizing
Usually, when the story of bilingual education in recent U.S. history is told, that story tends to focus on the actions of Important People like President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The narrative tracks formal policy, including the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case in 1974 as key plot points.
However, this approach to history distorts as much as it reveals. Actually, it was the actions of Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Asian American activists in the 1960s and ’70s that brought about bilingual education in the first place. As these activists focused on schools, they combated segregation and a lack of resources, and demanded bilingual and bicultural programming. They built strong social movements from the ground up, which compelled policymakers to heed their demands and either create or expand bilingual education. But the dominant historical perspective takes our attention away from grassroots activism and focuses instead on the actions of “key players” and/or policies.
It also reduces struggle to “advocacy.” That is, it narrows the definition of political activism to lobbying this or that politician, or testifying before this or that committee. This sort of advocacy can matter, to be sure. But it takes place on terms set by those with power. The politicians in their offices and the committees in their hearing rooms are able to set the boundaries of the discussion and debate, while advocates are left to adapt to it or be shut out of the conversation altogether. What gives this sort of advocacy any real weight is whether students, teachers, parents, and community allies have built movements that are strong enough to change the terms of the conversation.
In fact, it was local struggles — often school-by-school and district-by-district, led by students in concert with parents, sometimes teachers and teacher organizations, and radicals — that provided the necessary momentum to make advocacy effective. Without the blowouts in East Los Angeles in 1968; without the student boycotts in Crystal City, Texas, in 1969; without the Third World student strike in San Francisco in 1968 (where the lawyers for the Lau family cut their political teeth); it is difficult to imagine bilingual education becoming formal policy at the district, state, or federal level.
Finally, the dominant approach to bilingual education history completely misidentifies the source of hostility to bilingualism and bilingual education from the 1980s on. It focuses, accurately, on the election of Ronald Reagan as a turning point, a moment when all the gains of the civil rights movements came under attack. The Reagan administration backtracked on the Lau remedies, a series of measures flowing from the 1974 Supreme Court case that strengthened bilingual education. There was also a concerted campaign to declare English the official language, federally and in several individual states. But when it comes to explaining why this conservative shift happened, the story runs into trouble — it lays the blame at the feet of the very civil rights activists who pushed for bilingual education in the first place. Their activism is described as too confrontational, the demands for meaningful bilingual education as too radical.
According to the terms of the dominant view of the history, which ignores or denigrates community demands and organizing, I guess it’s logical to rely on official channels and Important People to reform schools. But the actual history of bilingual education in the United States suggests something quite different. It was the conscious, ambitious, and collective actions of anti-racist activists that brought real change to schools for emergent bilingual youth. The CCSS are neither the product of, nor will they contribute to, the creation of such movements.
Emergent Bilingual Education and the Common Core
Bilingual education scholars who support the Common Core, and even some who don’t, have acknowledged the significant shift it represents in understanding the relationship between language and content. How language and content are connected has been an enduring dilemma for language educators.
One traditional, but prevalent, model claims that English learners must first “master” the language (i.e., use grammar and vocabulary accurately) before they can engage in meaningful, age- and grade-appropriate content. The most extreme version of this model is Structured English Immersion (SEI) in Arizona. In 2000, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 203. This measure not only severely restricted bilingual education, but also required the state to develop a new model of English-only education. The state responded with SEI. English learners are grouped by proficiency level — and segregated from their English-proficient peers — for up to four hours per day in English-language development classes. This model includes no content instruction or cultural components. Contrary to what some 40 years of applied linguistic research have taught us about language learning, SEI assumes that students can develop enough language “skills” to be successful in mainstream classes within one year.
This approach to language education is consistent with the twin logics of standardization and accountability that have deformed our schools. Skills and facts are broken down into discrete parts; it is assumed that these parts can be measured and that those measurements reflect real learning. Students are then “prepped” on those parts ad nauseum. Under the SEI model, student progress is tracked on what is called the Discrete Skills Inventory. This stranger-than-fiction document contains a series of tables that literally break down the English language into grammatical units. Teachers are then expected to use the inventory as a checklist to track student “mastery” of English: Student uses past tense of to be accurately — check! Student uses past negative of to be accurately — check! Student uses past simple negative accurately — check!
Other models have tried to unify language development and content knowledge in so-called sheltered environments. Here, academic language is scaffolded to facilitate student engagement with content. Prominent examples of this model include the Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol, widely adopted by school districts across the country; the Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English model, first developed in California; and the Cognitive Academic Language Learning model. Although there is much value in these models, it is an ongoing challenge to prevent scaffolded or sheltered instruction from becoming watered-down instruction.
Part of the support for the Common Core among bilingual educators and teachers of English language learners (ELLs) is rooted in the potential they see in CCSS for moving away from these models toward an academically robust environment for emergent bilinguals. Scholars and practitioners working with the Understanding Language project at Stanford University have made this case most clearly. For them, the Common Core assumes that English learners can learn the language through rigorous content. The standards focus literacy instruction simultaneously on text (processing individual letters, words, etc.) and discourse (overall meaning). That is, it shifts literacy instruction away from mere decoding skills and instead gives English learners access to instruction using academic language for a variety of complex, critical tasks. Emergent bilinguals don’t just learn about language through explicit instruction on grammar items or isolated vocabulary. Rather, they use language to engage academic content and to collaborate with others (with native-speaker, English-only, and multilingual peers, and with teachers who do and don’t share their home language) on academic tasks. The math standards also support language development by focusing on the language of math, namely, the language of explanation, reasoning, and argumentation associated with mathematical functions. Finally, the standards reinforce the idea that every teacher is a language teacher, not just the ELL or bilingual ed specialist.
This shift in orientation to the language-content connection reflects perspectives that many bilingual and English-language educators have long held. It is certainly refreshing to see these ideas taken up so broadly in policy briefs and curriculum guides. My sense is that for this reason alone many bilingual educators (practitioners and academics alike) have gotten on board with the Common Core.
However, the Common Core only makes this connection between language and content in English. The CCSS make no reference to linguistic diversity, to culture and its relationship to language, or to the linguistic and cultural resources that emergent bilinguals bring with them to the classroom. Worse still, the standards make no room for applying the language-content model to any language other than English. The standards invoke all the opportunity represented in sociocultural approaches to language learning, only to foreclose on it by focusing on English only.
The authors of the Common Core do explicitly address English learners in a brief addendum to the standards, but the addendum is inconsistent in its perspective. On the one hand, it acknowledges the linguistic, cultural, economic, and academic diversity of emergent bilinguals and states clearly that these students are capable of engaging rigorous content. However, it uses a medical model for defining effective instruction as that which “diagnos[es] each student instructionally.” It also labels students as English learners (i.e., defining them by what they do not yet know) rather than as theemergent bilingual youth they are. Moreover, the cultural knowledge that emergent bilingual students possess, and how teachers might leverage that knowledge, is left entirely unaddressed.
Most revealing, though, is how the addendum talks about students’ home languages. In the very few instances where they are mentioned at all, home languages serve merely as tools for learning English and English language content. In the section on English language arts, for example, “first languages” are mentioned only as a resource to learn a second language more efficiently. In the section on mathematics, “all languages and language varieties” are identified as resources for learning about mathematical reasoning. But home languages are never described as worthy of further academic development themselves. This stance continues the long tradition in the United States, even within some bilingual education models, of using home languages just long enough to learn English, and then leaving them behind.
On their own terms, then, the CCSS amount to another English-only policy. This severely undermines whatever curricular or pedagogical advances they might contain.
Bilingual Education Under Attack
Of course, the Common Core does not exist in isolation from other education reforms. In fact, the standards are part of a doubling down on the test-and-punish approach to reform that has had disastrous consequences for all students, but especially for schools serving students of color and multilingual communities. In addition, the standards appear at a moment in which bilingual education has long been in decline as a legitimate model for emergent bilingual youth.
There are several factors that account for this decline. One is an open political assault on bilingual education that reached its highpoint at the turn of this century. Four state-level ballot initiatives attempted to restrict bilingual education; three of them (in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts) were successful. These initiatives were part of a larger wave of anti-immigrant racism that had grown significantly by the 1990s. At first, anti-immigrant activists focused on denying undocumented immigrants access to public services, as with Proposition 187 in California in 1994. Although voters approved that measure, it was overturned by a federal court. In some ways, measures like Prop. 187 were seen at the time as too radical. Anti-immigrant forces quickly regrouped and focused instead on attacking bilingual education. Here, they found greater success — and greater legitimacy for their ideas. Bilingual education has long been low-hanging political fruit for anti-immigrant racists (Bale).
Beyond these explicit attacks, shifts in education policy have further undermined bilingual education. Most significantly, NCLB abolished the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and all mentions of bilingual education and bilingualism were replaced with English-only terminology. NCLB’s high-stakes accountability measures have had direct and disastrous consequences for emergent bilingual youth. Kate Menken has documented this trend in two important studies in New York City public schools. Her work shows that the pressure exerted on schools to perform on high-stakes literacy exams in English has led to a significant decline in bilingual programs — even though both city and state policies still formally support bilingual education (Menken, Menken and Solorza).
One glimmer of hope in this otherwise dismal situation is the modest growth in dual-language programs. Different from compensatory bilingual education models, in which all students are English learners, dual-language programs have a more balanced mix of students. Some students are proficient speakers of English, and some are proficient speakers of the other language. This balance between speakers of dominant and minoritized languages is designed to build equity into dual-language programs: Each set of students acts as a linguistic and cultural resource for the other. However, language educators have long raised concerns that dual-language programs are often created either at the behest of or to attract (upper-) middle-class, white families and they tend to function more to the linguistic and academic benefit of English-speaking children. Language scholar Nelson Flores recently referred to this dynamic as “columbusing” — the “discovery” by white families of the benefits of bilingual education programs that in fact were fought for and won through the activism of communities of color.
Moreover, dual-language programs are not necessarily more exempt from racism than bilingual programs. Consider the experience of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic-English dual-language program that opened in Brooklyn in 2007. As Brooklyn is home to the largest number of Arabic speakers in the United States, it is a logical site for such a school. The Arabic language curriculum it initially adopted was developed by researchers at Michigan State University and Arabic language teachers in that state. Their work was funded by the Department of Defense, which supports Arabic language learning in the name of national security. Neither logic nor the shroud of national security protected the school from a hateful campaign of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. Although the school managed to weather the storm, its potential was severely undermined. Its founding principal was forced to resign, and the school has changed locations several times.
Given this political context, whether the next generation of education standards sets bilingualism and biliteracy as explicit goals for all students is not a neutral question. And clearly, the Common Core has taken sides. By focusing on English-only, the standards function as the culmination of more than a decade of attacks on bilingual programs and emergent bilingual youth.
Politics, Not Evidence
From every perspective, then, it’s clear that the CCSS promise to further erode bilingual education and linguistic justice in the United States.
This conclusion underscores a point that has long been acknowledged, even by bilingual educators who support Common Core: Bilingual education is above all a question of politics, not of evidence. We have no shortage of evidence about the cognitive, personal, and social benefits of bilingualism. And, as difficult as it has been to come by, given the ups and downs of research funding and changing models of language education, we even have significant evidence of the benefits of bilingual education models themselves (Baker, García, García and Baker).
To be clear, as linguistic diversity in U.S. schools continues to increase, we need much more research on educational models for multilingual as well as bilingual settings. Also, there is much work to do in developing standards and curriculum that support and sustain students’ home languages while they learn academic English. This is the goal, for example, of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative in New York, a welcome response to the English-only assumptions in Common Core. But even here, “translating” the standards misses the point because the Common Core isn’t just a set of standards, but part and parcel of the test-and-punish paradigm. A bilingual version of Common Core may be pragmatic, but it does not move us away from the high-stakes testing that has so disfigured public schools. In short, adapting to the Common Core, rather than challenging it, does not help progressive educators change the conversation about real school reform.
Although challenging the Common Core may seem like a daunting task, the good news is that we already know a lot about what makes for high-quality and equitable bilingual education. In their book Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners, Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen describe the most effective practices for emergent bilinguals organized around four key strands: tailoring educational programs to the specific linguistic and academic needs of English learners; implementing fair assessments, especially assessments that decouple language from content proficiency; providing equitable resources, especially age- and grade-appropriate curricular resources in both home language(s) and English; and involving parents and communities at school. An important advance in the ideas they describe is moving away from a traditional approach to bilingual education that strictly separates the two languages and privileges only academic/standard varieties of language, and instead moving toward classroom practices that help students become conscious and critical users of the full language repertoire they bring with them to school, that is, both standard and non-standard varieties of English and home language(s).
History also tells us that challenges to the Common Core can’t come from just inside the classroom. Although many teachers and language scholars were working on models of bilingual education in the 1950s and early ’60s, it wasn’t until that work connected with a radical and grassroots civil rights movement that those models were widely implemented. The same holds for us today: If we are to transform schools into more equitable places for emergent bilinguals, then we need to rebuild social movements of students, parents, teachers, and community allies to make that change happen. The coalition building of the Chicago Teachers Union before their successful strike in 2012; the ongoing coalition work by groups such as the Grassroots Education Movement or the biannual Free Minds, Free People conference; the dramatic and rapid growth of opt-out and other anti-standardized testing activism across the country; the potential of deepening the #BlackLivesMatter movement to include education issues — all offer compelling and promising models for what this work looks like moving forward.
Not only did the CCSS not emerge from these educational and activist spaces, their vision of “reform” stands in direct opposition to grassroots, anti-racist democracy. If we are to transform schools into places that foster linguistic equity, the Common Core will not be the vehicle of that change. The burden, then, is on us — as supporters of linguistic and social equity for emergent bilingual youth — to organize against the Common Core politically, and to be part of building social movements that force open social space at school and beyond for bilingual education and practice.
Au, Wayne. 2009. Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. Routledge.
Baker, Colin. 2006. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (4th ed.). Multilingual Matters.
Bale, Jeff. 2012. “Linguistic Justice at School.” In Bale, Jeff and Sarah Knopp, eds. Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation. Haymarket Books.
García, Ofelia. 2009. Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Wiley.
García, Ofelia and Colin Baker. 2007. Bilingual Education: An Introductory Reader. Multilingual Matters.
García, Ofelia and Jo Anne Kleifgen. 2010. Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Teachers College Press.
Hagopian, Jesse, ed. 2014. More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Haymarket Books.
Menken, Kate. 2008. English Learners Left Behind: Standardized Testing as Language Policy. Multilingual Matters.
Menken, Kate and Cristian Solorza. 2014. “No Child Left Bilingual: Accountability and the Elimination of Bilingual Education Programs in New York City Schools.” Educational Policy 28.1: 96–125.
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.”
My partner has been a public school teacher for the better part of the last 16 years. Every year at this time, he gets preoccupied with the emotional, mental, and physical work of getting ready to start the school year.
Over time, this focused preparation has become more and more marked by anxiety. Year by year, since 1999 when he first started teaching, resources have been slowly stripped. Rather than being able to apply his expertise to constantly improve the learning experience of his students, each year he must instead face one more new barrier to giving his kids the education they deserve.
At different points he has had to give up planning periods, lunch breaks, his classroom. He moved from teaching all 600 kids in 5 days to seeing them all in 4 days two years ago. He has never had an adequate budget for basic supplies like pencils, paper, paper towels, markers, or books – we have always paid, from our family budget, to make sure his students have what they need. Many of our closest friends are teachers and they face the same thing.
All over the country, teachers are bracing themselves. Not because they don’t love teaching. Not because they don’t love their students. Actually, it is because they DO love their students and they want to do the best the possibly can by them.
Many teachers I know dreamed and worked towards being a teacher from high school or college – they are consummate professionals, always striving to improve and excel. Always trying – and often succeeding – to do the best they can DESPITE the conditions they face. Every teacher I know has asked themselves – can I really do this, under these conditions? Am I doing the right thing – for my students and my family and myself – to go back to teaching in the form it has taken after years of budget cuts and austerity?
Many have made the extremely difficult decision to leave the profession they loved and put time, money, and years of preparation into.
I just wanted to say that I see you. I see you struggling mentally, physically, and emotionally. It feels like a battle because it actually is a battle. We are fighting for our schools. We are fighting for our children. We are fighting for a future in which our children are educated in a way that builds their self love, their intellect, hones their brilliance, and prepares them for living. We are fighting because public education is under attack.
Sending love and thanks to all of the school workers out there getting ready to go in for our kids.
~Valerie Warren, Director of Development and Operations
Her husband, Todd Warren, is a Spanish teacher in North Carolina and an activist for teachers.
P.S. Enjoy 30% on purchases through 8/31/2015!Use code: SchoolH15b!
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.
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.
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.
Originally published in Rethinking SchoolsVOLUME 29, ISSUE 4 — SUMMER 2015.Recently, 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.