Educators, Activists Celebrate Zinn Education Project

On September 21—International Peace Day—Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow attended and participated in the dedication of the Zinn Room at the brand new Busboys and Poets bookstore in Hyattsville, Md.

Rethinking Schools editor and Zinn Education Project co-director Bill Bigelow and CCPCS history teacher Julian Hipkins, III. Photo by Barrie Moorman.

The event raised funds for the popular Zinn Education Project, a collaboration between Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools.

Here are excerpts from a synopsis published at the Zinn Education Project website.

…The date ended up being more significant than could have been imagined. An extraordinary group of people spoke, sang, and read to honor the memory of historian and activist Howard Zinn and to support the Zinn Education Project‘s efforts to promote teaching people’s history in middle and high school classrooms.

The 300-plus attendees were inspired by the words of Jeff ZinnBernice Johnson ReagonCornel WestDave ZirinBeverly Daniel Tatum, Marian Wright EdelmanBarbara EhrenreichMedea Benjamin, Craig and Cindy Corrie, and more.

The pall of the impending execution of death row inmate Troy Davis hung in the air. Emcee-for-the-evening Dave Zirin, wearing an “I Am Troy Davis” T-shirt, said it most bluntly. While acknowledging how far the struggle for justice has come, he decried “the legal lynching going on in Georgia.” He then led a heartfelt call of “They say death row” and the room resounded with the response of “We say hell no!”

Dave Zirin, from Edge of Sports, was the emcee.

Dave Zirin said: “Howard taught us that it was the masses of people who are actually the engine of history, and that’s what the Zinn Education Project is now fighting to preserve for our classrooms. Nowadays the textbooks are being written by corporations, with Texas dominating the market and narrative. It’s as if Rick Perry is your child’s history teacher.

Who would you rather have teaching the children of America, Rick Perry or Howard Zinn?” The audience responded, “Howard Zinn.” “This is why,” Dave explained, “we are here tonight to support the Zinn Education Project so teachers have access to resources for ‘teaching outside the textbook.’”

This sentiment was echoed by two high school students (Jonah Best and Jared Perez) and their teacher Mr. Julian Hipkins III.

Jonah Best, Jared Perez, and Julian Hipkins, III. Photo (c) Jack Gordon,

Perez shared how Zinn sparked his interest in learning history so much that when his Mom sends him to bed, he waits until he hears that she has gone to sleep and then “I turn on my lamp and start reading A People’s History.”

Hipkins related how when he first read A People’s History of the United States: “I felt betrayed by our education system. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of [these stories] before, especially as a man in his mid-20s. From that point forward I decided that I would use this book as the classroom textbook.” He credited the Zinn Education Project for making this possible.

Cornel West gave an impassioned talk about Zinn as a public intellectual: “He fundamentally believed that the life of the mind matters, that ideas make a difference, and it’s important that you commit yourself not just to reading, but to thinking critically about what you’re reading.”

Dr. Cornel West. © Rick Reinhard 2011

Beverly Daniel Tatum explained that soon after she became president of Spelman she learned that Howard Zinn had been fired from the college in 1963 because of his activism. “That was a piece of history that needed cleaning up,” she said, “so I invited Howard Zinn to be the 2005 commencement speaker.” 

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College. © Rick Reinhard 2011.

Tatum quoted from Zinn’s  words of encouragement to the graduates in his speech: ”You don’t have to do something heroic, just something, to join with millions of others who will just do something, because all of those somethings, at certain points in history, come together, and make the world better.”

She closed by acknowledging two former Spelman students among the evening’s speakers—Marian Wright Edelman and Bernice Johnson Reagon.

There are many more photos, film clips, and quotes from the presentations online.

The ticket sales and raffles generated almost $8,000 to continue the work of the Zinn Education Project. This amount will be matched by an anonymous donor. 

Read the complete event report here.

A Preview: “For or Against Children?”

by Adam Sanchez

Although I had heard about Stand for Children from education activists in Portland for a few years now, I began researching them only after Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman’s shocking speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival (PDF transcript). I remember last year when Stand demanded to be included in the Portland Association of Teachers contract negotiations and was rebuked by the PAT and the district. At that time I thought that their sense of self-importance was much stronger that their actual membership base or influence.

When I saw Jonah Edelman’s leaked speech from the Aspen Ideas Festival, however, I began to rethink this notion. While Stand may be small in numbers, it became increasingly apparent that they had a much larger influence than I previously had given them credit for. Like the film Waiting For “Superman,” Stand for Children has become a vehicle to push corporate education reform.

Please check out the article that Ken Libby and I wrote, and let us know about your experiences with Stand for Children.

For or Against Children?

The problematic history of Stand for Children

Last October, a friend called with a question: “What do you know about Stand for Children?” The advocacy organization, based in our hometown of Portland, Ore., was expanding into his state of Illinois, and he hoped to glean some insight into the kinds of reforms the group would support. Just two months later, Stand’s Illinois branch had amassed more than $3 million in a political action committee and unveiled an aggressive teacher evaluation bill.

“Have they always been like this?” he asked.

The short answer: no.

Read more of “For or Against Children?”

Remembering Milton Meltzer: “The Role of Whites in Combatting Racism”

Milton Meltzer died two years ago today, and his work is worth revisiting.  Rethinking Schools has reprinted his writings and recommended his books over the years.

Here’s a piece he gave us permission to reprint in summer of 1996, when Rethinking Schools was still distributed as a newspaper.

Mr. Meltzer’s words ring as true today as they did when he wrote them nearly 15 years ago.

The Role of Whites In Combatting Racism

by Milton Meltzer

As a white, I am part of the problem. What is my responsibility as a writer of history for young readers?


photo credit: J. Kirk Condyles/Impact Visuals

When you look at the facts, the problem may strike you as overwhelming. So deep-rooted, so universal is institutional racism, that you may feel helpless before it. What can you, a lone individual, do about it? The feeling is understandable. But none of us is really alone, and each of us has the power to speak up, to protest, to organize for change. We are all part of the lives of others. We can think about our own role in our family, our neighborhood, our church, our school, our clubs, in all the institutions we are connected with, especially in our work, and begin to examine what we ourselves can do to eliminate racism.

For a white writer concerned about racism, the main job today is to combat racism within the white community. That, of course, is equally true for the white teacher and the white librarian. It should be obvious that we cannot deal with the Black experience without talking about the white experience. And vice versa. Each has shaped the course of the other.

The quickest glance at our history illustrates the point. Our constitution and our political parties were molded by issues concerning Blacks. The new nation’s commerce and industrial growth rested on the South’s slave economy. Our territorial expansion South and West were a direct product of slavery. The Civil War and the politics and economics out of which it exploded were linked to slavery. Racism has contributed to our imperialist expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries—down to our war in Vietnam. In a speech in the 1930s, President Roosevelt called the South the nation’s number one economic problem. And that problem’s roots went back to slavery and the subjugation of the Black man afterward. From the 1950s to now the nation has been shaken to its foundations by the failure to make any basic change in the lives of Black Americans.

What more proof does one need that the Black experience and white racism are central to American life and that no writer, no teacher, no librarian can afford to think of it as some old curiosity to be taken down off a dusty shelf now and then and examined with a yawn?

Although we see how the Black experience and the white experience are inseparable, we know that there have been hundreds of histories of America that have left out the Black almost entirely, resulting in a history that is all white and all fake. That, thanks to great upheavals, is now being rectified to some degree.

The Task Of Teachers

What about the task of the white teacher and librarian within the institutions they are professionally part of? The fact that one may be working in a classroom or a library that has no Black students or Black book borrowers does not mean there need be no books or other materials about the Black experience and no attempt made to interest whites in them.

Books that give Black children strength and pride should be read by white children too. Any such book will — directly or by implication — reveal to the reader a lot about white life in America. And it is the history and role of white racism that our white children need to know. They—all of us—must become far more conscious of the widespread existence of racism in all its forms. We have got to understand what an immense cost the entire nation pays for it. Racism will not vanish just because it is evil. It has to be studied honestly and openly if we are to make any progress in eliminating it. It is hard for whites to deal with it because a layer of myths and lies has been built up over the generations to justify racist practices.

This is where history and biography can help. For the white child, such books can extend his or her perception of how things are for the victims of racism. And this is no act of philanthropy. For if our children are to live in a society less explosive and more just than what we know now, they must share in rooting out racism. The child whose awareness of Blacks is limited to the picture of a slave picking cotton but who then reads the autobiography of Frederick Douglass will find himself lifted out of an abstraction and plunged deep into the experience of slavery. If he knows Black militancy only from the television screen but then reads Malcolm X’s autobiography, he will feel to some degree the furnace in which those fires of rebellion were built up. And through such life stories he will learn what American institutions have had to do with shaping Black life this way. If he thinks the Black demonstrators he reads about in the papers are in too much of a hurry, he will see in the century and a half that lie between Frederick Douglass’s birth and Malcolm X’s assassination how agonizingly long Blacks have waited for justice from white America.

The ex-slave Frederick Douglass was one of the most prominent citizens of Rochester, New York. Here he edited his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and was stationmaster for the Underground Railroad. In 1852 the city honored him with an invitation to deliver the Fourth of July oration. Annually, from the birth of the new republic, Fourth of July orators thundered tributes to the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. But Douglass was no mouthpiece for dead history. “We have to do with the past,” he said, “only as we can make it useful to the present and the future. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children also are to be blest by your labors.” He then went on to fling this challenge from Black Americans to white Americans.

“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, was to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

I used this passage in my documentary book, The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words (1984), to help break down people’s obsession with themselves. If we don’t have the capacity to think ourselves into another’s skin, then we are in deep trouble in this polyglot nation. Frederick Douglass tears off the facade to show white Americans what the reality of America is for African Americans.

To ask that a youngster read such books is not to milk tears of sympathy. As many a Black has told us, who needs white pity? Reading such books will show the white child a picture of American society as seen by its victims. There are plenty of textbooks written from the standpoint of the executioner. The youngster needs to see our history from below. That is what I tried to do with my documentary history. I had come to realize how unavailable to young readers at that time was the testimony of Black people on their own lives. Using material in their own words, I tried to help the reader understand what Black Americans have felt, thought, done, and suffered, and how they protested and rebelled and tried to change this world.

In the same vein, history can recover for the young reader those times in our past that have shown the possibility of a better way of life, a more humane, a more decent existence. I’ve tried to do this with two books about the Reconstruction era. Freedom Comes to Mississippi: The Story of Reconstruction tells the story of Reconstruction by focusing on that state. Talk about the South today, and Mississippi is on everyone’s mind. It is one of the poorest states in the Union. By almost any standard of life’s decencies, it ranks near the bottom. Yet freedom did come to Mississippi. It was 100 years ago and it didn’t stay, but out of the blood and wreckage of the Civil War, a new life was born to the South. Slavery was ended and the freedmen in that state tasted democracy for the first time. They voted at last, they built the South’s first public school system, they fought to farm their own land, they were elected to local, county, and state offices, and to Congress. Mississippi, today at the bottom of the heap, saw the finest flowering of Reconstruction. True, it lasted less than 10 years, but it did happen once. Knowing that it did, young people can learn from it that something else, something better, is possible in this world, that we can change things.

The other book, called To Change the World: A Picture History of Reconstruction, is a simple and brief picture history of Reconstruction throughout the South. By using a great many prints and photos of the era, it tries to dramatize for very young readers the same hope embodied in the other books (e.g., Freedom Comes to Mississippi and The Black Americans).

Is it enough to provide books that make us aware of what is wrong? Certainly that is a beginning. But more is needed. For nearly 400 years the white majority in America has systematically subordinated Indians, Blacks, and other racial minorities. Consciously or not, white America has acted as though it believes there is a superiority in its whiteness that justifies actions that harm people of color. Why has racism lasted this long? Largely because we whites profit by it. Millions of us gain economic, political, and psychological benefits from racism. Some of us profit by conscious, individual acts of racism. Others—and far more of us—profit from institutional racism. By that I mean the actions of institutions we are part of—school boards, businesses, churches, trade unions, newspapers, city councils, hospitals, welfare agencies, courts—the institutions of our society that always have and still do place whites first.

Well-meaning though we may be, unknowingly and unthinkingly we whites operate in and through institutions that oppress the life of the racial minorities. The question of intention isn’t as important as the effects these institutions have. Their policies, procedures, and decisions do in fact subordinate Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics, and permit whites to maintain control over them. It took a very long time for any attention to be paid to those institutional practices that give advantage to the white and penalize all the others. Few of these institutions are openly racist any longer. Civil rights measures have deprived much institutional racism of any status in law. But institutional practices remain covertly racist nevertheless. Built into them are attitudes, traditions, habits, assumptions that have great power to reward and penalize. History can also illuminate the role of governments and institutions in keeping things as they are. Sometimes this is done by force, sometimes by deception, sometimes by both. To take the race question again: after the

Civil War there were three Constitutional amendments—the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth—giving slaves their freedom, and guaranteeing Blacks their citizenship and the right to vote. Armed forces were assigned to the South to protect the new Reconstruction regimes in which Blacks played a role. And Congress passed several civil rights laws. But court decisions gutted the fourteenth amendment, and the freedmen never got the promised land to have and hold. It was taken away from them and given back to the white planters, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was cleverly used by President Johnson to put the Black labor force again in the hands of the white planters and businessmen. With the aid of government Blacks again became victims of discrimination, of social ostracism, and of economic subordination.

At the same time, white children—and the children of minority peoples, too—need to know that there have been white people who have challenged racism, such as John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Prudence Crandall, Theodore Weld, Lucretia Mott, to name only a few. I thought it useful to study the lives of three such whites—Lydia Maria Child, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thaddeus Stevens—and to write their biographies for young readers. Telling the stories of such brave women and men who fought for equality is important. We are not just showing young people what is wrong with American life when we do this. We are introducing men and women who found that out for themselves, who struggled to overcome white racism in themselves, and who joined in the social and political fight against it. The young reader sees that history isn’t made up only of the great and the powerful who oppressed others, or of those who didn’t care. We have had heroes and heroines who were frontline fighters against racial injustice. And we will always need them.

Hope for the Future

No reading of history will guarantee that something better is bound to come. Nothing like that is inevitable. But it can show us that something better is at least conceivable. Black and white did unite to operate the underground railroad and to achieve the goal of abolition. Labor did at last win the right to organize in the 1930s. The Algerians did drive out the French. Ralph Nader has shown that one man can take on giant corporations and institutions and force concessions from them. And the people of Southeast Asia stood up to American aggression with a courage and durability almost beyond belief. Seymour Hersch, a young newspaperman no one had ever heard of, somehow found the way to expose the horror of My Lai to the whole world and make us Americans face up to what we had done.

What we learn from such experience is that citizens—then and now—must act for themselves. They cannot rely on government alone to satisfy their needs or give them justice and equality.

But knowing what is wrong does not necessarily move us to action. We have to believe that something else is possible, that what we do can make a difference. Otherwise, we may decide to live only for ourselves, to retreat into drugs and despair, or cynically to ride with things as they are and to get a little piece of the action for ourselves.

Milton Meltzer is the prize-winning author of  scores of children’s and young adult books.

The above is reprinted with permission from his book Non-Fiction for the Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995).

Remembering—and Rethinking—9/11

by Bill Bigelow

Bill headshotAll of us who are old enough remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. I was in my office at home in Portland, Ore., upstairs, working on Rethinking Globalization. The contractor who was rebuilding our porch burst into the house and yelled for me to come downstairs and turn on the TV.

The next year, I was back in the classroom at Portland’s Franklin High School. The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks fell on a Wednesday—a school day. I’d been out of the classroom for two years, working for Rethinking Schools. Returning to teaching at a time of “reform” made me feel uneasy—in my absence, the bell schedule had changed dramatically and a new “mentorship” period had been added, but without a clear vision of its purpose. Several days of school-wide “community building” activities had highlighted divisions among the staff and seemed to leave students confused. Trying to figure out how to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks at this disorienting start to the school year—and it was only my third day with students—made everything that much more unsettling.

My classroom efforts that day were weak. I still have my lesson plans. I asked students to write on the question:

“What have you learned as a result of the events of Sept. 11, or how has it changed you?”

I remember the discussion being shaky, at best—students seemed either puzzled by or uninterested in the Howard Zinn quote I distributed, one we had published in Rethinking Schools’ special “War, Terrorism, and Our Classrooms” issue the year before. It concludes:

“The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

I love this hopeful quote, with its rich sense of “history” as something in-process, something that we can shape—and its implicit renunciation of both terrorism and war. But students seemed guarded—and who could blame them for not wanting to open up on this third day of class with a new teacher, a strange schedule, and mostly unfamiliar classmates?

Ten years after

I share my own awkward 9/11 anniversary experience as a way of saying: It’s not easy to figure out how to acknowledge such painful and momentous events, and anniversaries always come in the context of everything else going on—and this year, for students here in Portland, one new development is dramatically larger class sizes.

I’m not in the classroom everyday any longer, so won’t be with students for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, a high school sophomore would have been about five years old when planes flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon; so this is history more than personal memory for most of our students. But if I were in the classroom this year, I might approach the day in some of the following ways:

First, of course, I might not do anything. Looking back to that first anniversary, Sept. 11, 2002, I probably should have simply told students that our entire class was dedicated to attempting explanations for the world’s conflict and that the best way to commemorate the events of September 11 was to understand the world well enough so that we might help prevent these kinds of horrors in the future. It’s almost impossible for a one-day commemorative lesson to go much beyond surface knowledge.

That said, as this anniversary comes at the very beginning of the school year, it might be worth finding a way to “feed two birds with one hand”—to explore the meaning of 9/11 as we build classroom community. One thought would be to have a “mixer activity” in which students meet one another and encounter their thoughts on a number of quotes and concepts. This kind of activity is a variation of the “tea party” that we’ve featured in Rethinking Schools articles (e.g., “Unsung Heroes” and teaching about the U.S. War with Mexico).

Too often, at the opening of the year, teachers create getting-to-know-you activities that are disconnected from the curriculum. But the best community building occurs within the curriculum, not outside it. For example, students could be given a list of quotes that directly and indirectly address 9/11 themes. One of these might be Mahatma Gandhi’s famous observation that “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Or a 2005 quote from Pres. George W. Bush, defending the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “Our troops know that they’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy.”

In a “mix and mingle” format, students could be asked to “Find someone who strongly agrees with one of these quotes. Who is the person? What is the quote? Why does this person agree?” or “Find someone who has a personal story that connects with one of these quotes. Who is the person? What is the quote? What is this person’s story that connects with the quote?” The class session then would be built around substantial quotes as well as students’ lives and students’ responses to these quotes. Thus, students would pause to consider the meaning of September 11 as they learn more about their classmates.

I’ve been following conversations about the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. An excellent conversation between Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez, Jesse Jackson, and Vincent Harding aired on Democracy Now!, this last August 26th. It made me wonder how Dr. King might have urged us to respond to the events of Sept. 11.

Another “feed two birds with one hand lesson” might be to describe to students the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and then to provide students an excerpt of Dr. King’s important April 4, 1967, speech, in which he denounces the U.S. war in Vietnam, and the “giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism…” Ask students to read this excerpt from Dr. King’s speech and to discuss what steps Dr. King would have urged following the 9/11 attacks, had he been alive.

cover of War, Terrorism, and Our ClassroomsIt’s worth returning to the editorial that we wrote almost ten years ago in “War, Terrorism, and Our Classrooms,” which identifies and explicates some “core principles” to guide our curriculum. Educators need to: nurture student empathy; be multicultural and anti-racist; ask the deep “Why?” questions; enlist students in questioning the language and symbols that help frame how we understand global events; and honor dissent and those who challenge power and privilege as they work for justice. It’s a helpful editorial, and it’s worth considering how these principles could shape lessons on Sept. 11 and beyond.

The Rethinking Schools Winter 2001-02 issue, “War, Terrorism, and Our Classrooms” is 10 years old, but there are lots of articles in here that could be used with students, and/or form the basis of lessons.

  • Linda Christensen’s “Poetry in a Time of Crisis,” is as timely as when it was written, and includes the stunning poem by the Palestinian/African American poet Suheir Hammad, “First Writing Since
  • My article, “Whose ‘Terrorism’?” asks students to define “terrorism” and then to apply those definitions to the behavior of governments—including their own—and corporations. The lesson undermines the notion that only “they” are terrorists and that “we” are always the good guys.

And speaking of terrorists, the first European to consciously introduce terrorism into our own hemisphere was Christopher Columbus. In the spring of 1494, according to the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, Columbus ordered one of his officers on the island of Hispaniola, Alonso de Hojeda, to “lead a squadron by land to the fort of Santo Tomas and spread terror among the Indians in order to show them how strong and powerful the Christians were.” [See the Rethinking Schools book Rethinking Columbus for more details.] Those teachers beginning U.S. history classes with what gets called “The Age of Exploration,” might begin with the “Whose Terrorism?” activity and then ask students to apply their definitions to Christopher Columbus and other “explorers.”

*   *   *

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if ten years from now our students could think back and remember, “That’s when I began to ask questions. That’s when I began to think critically. That’s when I began to wonder why we have wars. That’s when I began to see myself as someone who wants to change the world.”

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

Teaching is an art.

by Linda Christensen

Linda Christensen

Having fun in the classroom.

I love the first days of school.

I love putting the books back on the shelves, polishing the tables, stacking my bins of colored highlighters, sticky notes, and blue tape in the cupboard.

I love arranging and rearranging my tables, chairs, and file cabinets until the room feels right — ready for work.

I love the chalkboards—green and smooth, ready for the first scratch of chalk. Yes, I’m old school: I still have chalkboards.

I love putting up photographs and poems, quotes from scholars and former students.

I love planning: drawing out the four quarters of the year, marking up the board with sticky notes about the units I will teach, noting the writing assignments and extra readings I will use with each unit.

I love to pause and look out at Mt. St. Helens on a clear day, as I listen to the football players on the field beneath my window.

I retired a few years ago from my day job as a classroom teacher, and am now the Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College, but I still have a classroom at Jefferson. This year I will co-teach Junior English with an amazing teacher, Dianne Leahy, who is generously sharing her class with me. We’re still in the planning stages. We know how we will open the year to set the stage, welcome the students, and lay out the ground rules for class. We have captured the broad brush strokes of our curriculum, but the details will be written when we meet our students.

Why do I return to the classroom now that I’ve retired to a college setting? Because it is easy to forget how hard teaching is. It is easy to romanticize the classroom and make edicts for others to follow if we aren’t swimming the waters of school.

Portland teachers are returning to huge class sizes, reduced time for planning, and more high stakes testing. More children in Oregon do not have access to food and shelter, so understanding the conditions of teachers helps me draft professional development opportunities that actually meet the needs of students and teachers I’m working with.

About this time last year, I worked with my fellow Rethinking Schools editors on the The New Teacher Book.  In our introduction, we discussed the importance of new teachers staying in the classroom for a number of years.

As I meet more and more administrators, central office staff, state and national “education” officials, who have spent little time in the classroom, I think again about why it is important for teachers to construct their own lessons, but who also become vocal advocates for an education beyond testing.

As I return to the classroom, again, thirty-odd years into my career, the points we make still resonate for me:

The New Teacher Book

The New Teacher Book: Finding Purpose, Balance, and Hope During Your First Years in the Classroom

We wrote this book because it’s important for the profession that new teachers with social justice ideals stay in the classroom. Our communities need teachers who see the beauty and intelligence of every student who walks through their doors and who are willing to keep trying to reach those who have already been told they aren’t worthy. Our students need teachers who value their home cultures and languages and who know how to build academic strength from those roots. We need teachers who learn how to develop curriculum that ties students’ lives, history, and academic disciplines together to demonstrate their expertise when top-down curriculum mandates explode across a district. Our school districts need teachers who can advocate against the dumbing-down of curriculum, against testing mania, and against turning our classrooms over to corporate-created curriculum. Our country needs teachers who understand the connections between race, class, and tracking. How else do we make a lasting change?

We wrote this book because we want you to hold on to those impulses that brought you to teaching: a deep caring for students, the opportunity to be the one who sparks student growth and change, as well as the desire to be involved in work that matters. We need teachers who want to work in a place where human connections matter more than profit.

We wrote this book because we have had days—many days—where our teaching aspirations did not meet the reality of the chaos we encountered. We have experienced those late afternoons crying-alone-in-the-classroom kind of days when a lesson bombed or we felt like our students hosted a party in the room and we were like uninvited guests. We wrote this book hoping it might offer solace and comfort on those long days when you wonder if you are cut out to be a teacher after all.

We also wrote this book because we understand the connection between what happens behind the classroom door and what happens outside of it. A key skill for new teachers is to see oneself as a defender of public schools — looking for allies among parents, community groups, other unions, everyone who has a stake in fighting privatization and corporate rule. Given the full court press against public schools, we need to remind all teachers to not be so classroom-focused that we don’t pay attention to the larger political context that is shaping our lives in the classroom. The other reason to open the classroom door and peer outside is that new teachers’ survival often depends on connecting with other teachers for support and assistance for social, political and pedagogical reasons. Isolated new teachers are bound to burn out.

There is a huge difference between having lots of book knowledge about a given area—literature, history, math, science—and knowing how to translate that knowledge into lessons that help struggling students learn. All teachers—new and veteran—need skills to develop curriculum that celebrates the delightful aspects of our students’ lives. And we need strategies that tie the tragedy of some students’ lives and the tragedy that the world delivers—hurricanes, poverty, famine, war. We need to discover ways to weave these into our curriculum. That takes time.

Rethinking Schools editors have assembled numerous books that focus on creating social justice curriculum: from Rethinking Columbus to Rethinking Mathematics to Rethinking Globalization to Teaching for Joy and Justice.  We hope you will look to them for curricular help. In those books, we celebrate the lessons and units and strategies that worked for our students, that created days when we walked out of the building celebrating the joy of teaching.

And what we know from our years in the classroom is that we only get good at it when we do it year after year. So we wrote this book to tell you that you will get better as the years move on if you continue to study your classroom, hone your craft, read professional literature, and keep up with world news. Teaching is an art. Keep practicing.

Free download from The New Teacher Book: “12 Tips for New Teachers” by Larry Miller.

Note:  In honor of our 25th anniversary, all books and magazine subscriptions are discounted 25% until October 15.  Use code RS25ANN at checkout.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

Change. Is it really good?

by Melissa Bollow Tempel

As I think about the upcoming year, I can’t help but feel slightly pessimistic about change —heck highly pessimistic about change.  Yes, I know that Obama ran a winning presidential campaign based on the idea of change being a positive thing, but lately it doesn’t seem that way. I’m at a new school again, having been reassigned because of drastic shifts caused by the 1,000 positions that were eliminated in our district in June. Many of my friends are jobless and I feel horrible about what they must be feeling, sitting home this fall while I prepare my classroom.

My new classroom

My new classroom.

I never would have dreamed that a change in power in our state of Wisconsin would strip our state educational system of millions of dollars. The election of Governor Scott Walker and GOP control of both houses of the state legislature is what ripped my daughters’ talented art teacher and dedicated librarian from their public school (I still cry when I think about this, even after having the entire summer to digest it). I am disgusted when I think about all the changes that happened at my former school, where 10 teachers (including me) were pulled to balance the budget creating class sizes of 30 or more in almost every grade.

But… it would be unfair of me to grumble, and, this is a social justice blog so I have to be fair.

If I have to look for the positives, as my dad says, in some ways the changes make me feel lucky. I have a job. It might not be the one I wanted, but it’s a job, and many of my friends are without jobs right now. I admit that I’m a bit refreshed by the change in schools. I have the chance to start over in a new school (even if it is the fourth school in four years). I’ll make new friends and meet new allies in my quest to promote social justice curriculum and anti-biased teaching. I know I can change by observing and sharing with new colleagues. Maybe they will change after meeting me, get more involved in the Educators Network for Social Justice (ENSJ), try a new approach to teaching and celebrating Thanksgiving. Like teachers all over the country, I get to meet great new families. As a “people person,” I honestly look forward to building those new relationships.

The crappy changes that took place in Wisconsin politics have energized educators and public workers all over Wisconsin to make a big change in their attitudes. It made us rise up and make noise. Lots of noise. Together we have recalled two state senators and a huge gubernatorial recall effort has mobilized progressive activists from all over the state. We are poised and ready to begin signing and circulating recall petitions.

Wisconsin protest signs

left to right: RS supporter Stephanie Schneider, me, and editorial associate Kathy Xiong. This photo was taken during the Wisconsin Worker Fightback during winter of this year.

On July 30th thousands of teachers from all over the country met in our nation’s capital for the Save Our Schools (SOS) March. We rallied to increase funding, decrease standardized tests, and demand that teachers are treated as professionals. Friends of mine who attended were truly inspired. We finally got some national news and speeches by Jonathan Kozol and Matt Damon, both great supporters of Rethinking Schools, went viral helping us get the attention we deserve.

OK, so maybe change can be good. Here’s to the beginning of a new school year. Who knows what this year will bring!? What crazy things will happen in educational politics?

Maybe a millionaire will donate billions to the U.S. education system and solve all our problems.

Maybe the politicians will decide that enough is enough. Schools before wars!

Think I’m overdoing it?

Hey, I never would have thought a governor could decimate the education system in a couple of months, but ours sure did. I have to have faith that the pendulum will swing the other way at some point, and hopefully sooner.

My friends always tell me that I’m full of energy. It’s true. I can’t stop plowing ahead, whether it’s going door to door to get out the vote, writing for Rethinking Schools, baking a pie, trying a new extreme workout, working on a new Rethinking Schools book, or knitting a pair of mittens, I am always going. So I’ll leave you with a little bit of my energy and a whole lotta Wisconsin enthusiasm. Here’s to the beginning of a great school year. SOLIDARITY!



Melissa Bollow Tempel
First grade bilingual teacher
Milwaukee Public Schools
Rethinking Schools Editor

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.