Children’s Literature for the 99%

by Elizabeth Marshall

Children’s literature is inherently political, whether it upholds social and economic inequality or resists it. For educators, the Occupy Wall Street movement offers an opportunity to think about children’s and young adult books that deal with issues of equality and economic justice. What kinds of stories do adults tell children about social class?

Below are some titles that deal explicitly with economics and inequality, its causes and its potential remedies. To be sure, these are not the only children’s and young adult texts available that explore and explicitly critique the relationship between boss and worker, work and money, but they offer a place to begin. The three books described below serve as examples within a larger set of texts that aim to challenge the status quo, some more radically than others.

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature

Tales for Little RebelsJulia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s anthology, Tales for Little Rebels, offers a history of radical literature for children. Their collection focuses on works published in the United States in the 20th century. The anthology includes fiction and nonfiction, poems, biographies, and illustrations from what Mickenberg and Nel define as “left of center” authors and artists, including Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Munro Leaf, Eve Merriam, Julius Lester, and Dr. Seuss.

Herb Kohl reviewed Tales for Little Rebels for Rethinking Schools in the winter 2008/2009 issue. He wrote that, “Taken as a whole, the book reveals a unique, vibrant, imaginative, and energetic left-wing tradition of writing for young people.” The book includes reproductions of the original (and often out of print) texts. Two sections, “Work, Workers, and Money” and “Organize” would be most relevant for discussions about labor, economics, power, and the unequal distribution of wealth.

One excellent example is “Mr. His: A Children’s Story for Anybody” written and illustrated by Syd Hoff (author of Danny and the Dinosaur and other successful children’s books) under the pseudonym A. Redfield and published in 1939 by New Masses press. In this book, a rich capitalist named Mr. His lives in a small town called Histown because “everything in it was his.” Mr. His skips through the street each day with a paper and pencil, calculating profits and singing. Mr. His has no friends in the town as the townspeople hide from him.

The poor people would peep through their windows and shiver. They didn’t know it made Mr. His very happy to see they were afraid of him       and that they were doing nothing to improve their lot. For there were no strikes in Histown—and no picket lines and no unions. The newspapers, which Mr. His owned, too, said that these things were wicked. (Mickenberg & Nel, p. 125)

One day as Mr. His “was dreaming of a way to get all the air in Histown into cans so the people would have to buy it from him,” he looks out the window and sees the townspeople holding signs of protest. Mr. His tries to divert them by running a newspaper story that encourages the people in town to see each other as the enemy, but they don’t fall for it. Mr. His is run out of town by a large group, who march through the streets chanting, “We’re tired of being stepped on! Now we are stepping forward!” In the end, wealth is redistributed and the town renamed Ourtown, where “The fields of wheat and corn, the fruit trees, the great mines—everything belongs to the people.”

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That TypeClick, Clack, Moo

In this contemporary picture book written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, the cows on a farm organize for better working conditions.

After finding an old typewriter, the cows post a note on the barn door that reads, “Dear Farmer Brown, The farm is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” When Farmer Brown says “No,” the cows go on strike. They post another note: “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” When the cows and the hens (who also want electric blankets) become allies, the animals find strength in numbers and revise their tactics: “Closed. No milk. No eggs.”

Farmer Brown is incredulous that cows and hens would demand such things. Finally, furious, he types a response to tell the cows and the hens that he will not provide electric blankets.  Farmer Brown concludes: “You are cows and hens, I demand milk and eggs.” The cows hold a meeting to discuss the farmer’s ultimatum. They propose an exchange—typewriters for electric blankets—and the farmer agrees. While perhaps not as radical as the stories in Tales for Little Rebels—Farmer Brown remains in power at the end and the cows continue to provide labor—the book could be used to spark conversations about organizing for change and using technologies for resistance.

Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games

The bestselling dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games features 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in Panem, a district in what used to be the United States. The Capitol forces 24 children to fight to the death in a reality television show as a way to keep the 12 districts from rebelling against it.

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen. [pp. 18-19]

The novels deal directly with economic repression, the use of media to uphold the interests of the one percent, and the necessity, as well as the often-violent consequences, of resistance. The books are brutally violent as Collins’s intent is to capture the realities of war. As Collins said in an interview in the New York Times, “I write about war. For adolescents.” Given that The Hunger Games is now a major film and a media spectacle of its own, with features in magazines like People, it will be interesting to see if and how the subversive elements of the books are co-opted into the mainstream.

The above are brief overviews of children’s and young adult literature that seek to represent the 99 percent. Readers of this blog may have other titles to suggest. What is clear is that children’s and young adult literature teaches profound lessons about economic equality—some that challenge and others that reinforce injustice.

What children’s or young adult books do you use to spark conversations about economic (in)justice? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Elizabeth Marshall, Ph.D. teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada, where she researches children’s and young adult literature and popular culture. She is co-editor with Özlem Sensoy on Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Reading Research Quarterly, Gender & Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and The Lion and The Unicorn.

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

From the Archives: “Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths & Misgivings”

Teacher educator Vera Stenhouse wrote “Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings” for us for our Fall 2009 issue of the magazine. It’s reprinted below with a new introduction from Vera.

For a parent’s perspective on the coming holiday, download “Why I’m Not Thankful for Thanksgiving” (PDF) by Michael Dorris, published in our newest book Rethinking Popular Culture and Media.

“Rethinking Thanksgiving” Revisited

by Vera Stenhouse

For several years I have worked with teachers concerned about providing a quality education for their students. As such, I have felt my responsibility as a teacher educator is to support their efforts by offering opportunities to engage them in critically conscious and responsive ways.

One opportunity is examining the story of Thanksgiving. It’s a place for teachers to begin investigating the non-neutral construction of curricula, and their agency in teaching students—not as passive learners, but as active participants in constructing knowledge and applying skills to prepare them to be informed decision-makers.

Since initially complicating the Thanksgiving story with aspiring teachers, as I discuss in my article, I have noticed fewer of the overt iconic racist stereotypical images/artifacts associated with “Indians” during Halloween and at Thanksgiving. I have also observed the tendency to teach about Thanksgiving as simply a time to be thankful and a time with family and friends. Although these trends can be seen as improvements to the explicit teaching of the historically inaccurate portrayal of “Indians and Pilgrims,” a couple of issues remain.

First, avoiding teaching about the historical roots that inform the day further negates the established cultural legacy of thanks-for-giving practices that pre-date colonization in the Americas.

Second, Thanksgiving Day is also observed as a Day of Mourning. We should not ignore this aspect during Thanksgiving because in doing so, we ignore the significance of historical events that have profound implications for contemporary concerns of Native Peoples/tribes, for example:
  • eradication of offending mascots/media portrayals,
  • minimizing inappropriate uses of culture, and 
  • advocacy for sovereignty. 

We need to be vigilant in asking ourselves, and others, why the Thanksgiving story, as inaccurately retold, is so indelible, for whose benefit, and at what cost?

From the Archives: Fall 2009
Rethinking Thanksgiving: Myths and Misgivings

In 2006, an Atlanta newspaper ran several photos with captions describing the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. The first picture featured a 5-year-old girl wearing a precision-cut fringe vest made out of a brown paper bag from a local grocery store (as identified by the store name and tagline detailed prominently in big blue letters on the vest). On top of her head sat a multicolored feather headdress made of construction paper. The caption under the picture read: “Feathers in her cap. Ava adjusts the headdress of her American Indian costume for a Clairemont Elementary School Thanksgiving feast. More photos from the feast are on page J9.”

Page J9 includes three additional pictures—one showing a group of Pilgrims (with white paper collars and hats) and Indians (as identified by their feather headdresses, of course). A second picture shows students in “costume” working on a coloring project and a third captures a student showing off his “homemade American Indian costume.” Between the pictures it reads: “Clairemont Elementary School studied American Indians and Pilgrims in preparation for today’s big holiday. Last week, they re enacted the first Thanksgiving and dressed in costumes for a feast with family members.” In the center is the phrase “Thanks for the lessons.”

What lessons did they learn? Between Columbus Day in October and Thanksgiving in November, Native Americans [the “official” curricular name in Georgia] play a key role in the mythology of U.S. history as taught in schools. As someone who works with pre- and inservice elementary teachers, I see firsthand how these happy stories maintain children’s ignorance and reinforce stereotypes.

The traditional first Thanksgiving story recounts Pilgrims from Europe settling in the wilds of the New World and celebrating their survival by sharing their bountiful feast with the Indians. As my students learn, this version of Thanksgiving is inaccurate. The Pilgrims did leave Europe and comprised 35 out of 102 colonists traveling on the Mayflower, eventually settling in 1621 at Patuxet—aka Plimoth. The “new” and “wild” world to which they arrived was neither new, wild, or unnamed, thanks to the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who lived there. Given the Pilgrims’ ignorance of the “new” land, their survival was made possible through indigenous knowledge, labor, harvest traditions, and trade. Most significant to the first Thanksgiving story: According to the Wampanoag and the ancestors of the Plimoth settlers, no oral or written account confirms that the first Thanksgiving actually occurred between them in 1621. The Wampanoag, however, did participate in daily and seasonal thanksgivings for thousands of years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.

Beyond the inaccuracy of the first Thanksgiving story itself are its omissions: Colonists initially stole bushels of corn buried and stored by Wampanoag families for their own use, robbed graves and homes, and left diseases that devastated (albeit unintentionally) Native American communities, subsequently enabling European settlers to overtake Indian land.

The traditional Thanksgiving story is continuously retold through plays, activities, worksheets, and children’s books, perpetuating misinformation and stereotypes that maintain a deep misunderstanding of American Indian history and current issues. Thanksgiving Day, for example, is considered a Day of Mourning by many American Indians—a time to acknowledge the ongoing painful legacy of removal from their homelands, enslavement, and deaths from diseases. Thanksgiving images further negate significant cultural and sacred distinctions among indigenous peoples. Long feather headdresses and tipis are not part of an accurate portrayal of Northeast Coast Native Americans. Thanksgiving pictures tend to depict garments and housing of Plains Indians, whom the Pilgrims would have not met.

As a teacher of teachers, I attempt to engage students in a more accurate, inclusive, and culturally respectful approach to a time in history that began to set the pattern for U.S. race relations. I choose to critique the first Thanksgiving story because of its familiarity, inclusion in so many schools’ curricula, and persistent misrepresentation of Indians and Pilgrims.

Flipping the Script on the First Thanksgiving

Before launching into the myths and omissions surrounding the “first Thanksgiving,” I ask my teacher education students what they already know about the event: Who celebrated the original Thanksgiving and when? What was celebrated and for how long? Who initiated the celebration? Why? Where did the event take place?

My students find the details difficult to recall. Generally, their contributions reflect a disjointed recollection: Pilgrims and Indians; something about religious persecution; the Mayflower; Jamestown, Va.; an abundant harvest after tough times; the Pilgrims’ generosity toward the Indians; and three days of fun, games, and eating popcorn, turkey, and pie. Sometimes students suggest names of actual “Indians” like the Sioux or Cherokee nations or people such as Sacagawea, Squanto, or Pocahontas.

I challenge my students’ knowledge about Pilgrims, Indians, and Thanksgiving through a series of exploratory activities using elementary-appropriate materials. I designed activities meant to model how they might introduce a critique of Thanksgiving to their own elementary students that also identifies stereotypes about Native Americans and explores the events surrounding 1621. The activities require my students to work first within and then across small groups to compare and contrast the histories of the “Indians” and “Pilgrims,” separate fact from fiction about the Thanksgiving story, and uncover new information concerning Native Americans past and present.

For one activity, I divide a set of students into “Indians” and “Pilgrims.” Both groups visit a website elementary teachers and students could use that offers an interactive timeline with key dates in the history of the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. I send the students to the “path to 1621” for their respective group’s story. The “Indians” follow the Wampanoag ancestor Ahsaupwis’ story and the “Pilgrims” follow English ancestor Remember Allerton. In the penultimate phase of the activity, I combine the “Indians” and “Pilgrims” and tell them to create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting what they learned.

Other student groups work to determine the facts, fictions, and omissions of the first Thanksgiving story using a selection of traditional first Thanksgiving picture books. To add to their critique, students receive additional texts that provide perspectives and information often distorted or omitted in traditional texts. I send the students to partner-read their selected books with questions: From whose perspective is the story told? Whose voices are active and passive? What words are used to describe the groups? Whose story has the most detail? What details were offered or implied in the text or illustrations about Thanksgiving and each group’s lifestyle (e.g., food, clothing, beliefs, and traditions)? Are the illustrations accurate? How do you know?

After partner-reading, students read the short version of Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin’s article “Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving.” I tell them to mark new and surprising information. Typically during this activity, as students read and discuss, I’ll overhear one say, “So there was no Thanksgiving at all? I’m confused.” I clarify that although the Thanksgiving story as told is not historically accurate, Native Americans and Pilgrims had thanksgiving traditions exclusive of each other.

When the groups reconvene as a whole class, I ask each to report what they learned and to share what they believe to be the main points of their activities. It is clear from their reactions that in most instances, the activities presented different depictions from what they had previously believed or known. As Lorrie said, “I remember learning about a huge friendly feast between ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Indians.’ It was taught almost as though it was a culmination of a friendship that had been building from day one.”

Charlie commented, “I remember making the feather headdress for Thanksgiving. I had no idea it could be inaccurate, let alone inappropriate.” Students often remark on the cultural disrespect implicit in illustrating Thanksgiving stories with clothing that the Wampanoag didn’t wear.

By the end of our re-examination of Thanksgiving, students grow anxious and begin to consider if and how they might integrate a more critical perspective of Thanksgiving with their own students. As Iris later wrote:

So, how do we go about talking about Thanksgiving now that we have all of this new information? How should we treat it with our students? Truly, it is not a day of Thanksgiving for all people in this country. I am at a loss now. I think that we could approach it with the new information that Ms. Stenhouse gave us and debunk some of these myths for our students, but I’m beginning to question what the bigger message should be. Is the holiday real? Is there really something to celebrate? I mean, sure, I’m glad to be here, and I’m thankful for the blessings in my life, but am I celebrating at the expense of others? If I do teach my children that the coming of the settlers was at the indigenous people’s expense, will they want to continue celebrating this day? Will their parents thank me if I do? I am not sure how to proceed.

My response to Iris’ conundrum and to students who ask “now what?” starts with prompting my students to generate alternative ideas for teaching Thanksgiving. I want them to start thinking about how they might use or adapt our activities or their underlying concepts with their students. I notice that, as they share their ideas with each other, they introduce a variety of ways to reframe Thanksgiving based on what they experienced in class (for example, book critiques or use of the two-voice poem, as described in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1) and begin to consider tactical approaches to parents’ and administrators’ potential concerns. Given my students’ focus on the repercussions from school authorities, I also ask them to imagine for a moment what the first Thanksgiving story means for Native American children in their classes. And based on their own experiences, I ask them to keep in mind the lasting impressions about Indians and Pilgrims from their own schooling. I further encourage them to first find out what their students already know, which is how I started with them.

More recently, I have also begun showing a video clip of Monty, a former student of mine, who discusses how he addressed Thanksgiving with his 1st graders. After witnessing parents, students, and teachers delight in a Thanksgiving re-enactment held at his school, he determined he needed to provide his students with a more complex perspective of Native American-Pilgrim relations. Monty shares candidly the steps he took (including a trip to his principal’s office) and the process he went through to teach his students about fairness through a lesson on the consequences of colonial encroachment on indigenous lands. Watching Monty adds a perspective to our discussion other than my own about the possibilities, relevance, and power of teaching critically at any grade level.

I know that what I am asking my students to consider is unsettling to many of them; however, I’m convinced that it is necessary in order for them to be the teachers they wish to be. In addition to our in-class discussion, I ask my students to continue thinking, problem-posing, and talking with me and each other through the class blogs and journals.

Waiting for Later to Disrupt the Status Quo

As preservice teachers, my students are overwhelmed by learning to teach the prescribed curriculum and consumed by their university schoolwork. They work in schools they assume are not populated by indigenous students or other students for whom it is relevant to know the unpleasant details of historical events. Why trouble a good story?

Silent in most discussions about indigenous peoples are the current realities of Native American life, including widespread poverty; relegation to reservations; the persistent political, social, and economic disregard for things cultural or sacred by the dominant U.S. society; and the advocacy necessary for linguistic, cultural, economic, and territorial sovereignty. I use the Thanksgiving story to provide an opportunity for my students to ask themselves, “If not me, who?” and “If not now, when?” as it relates to challenging the status quo.

In terms of measuring progress, we have come a long way from learning how to count to 10, one “Indian” at a time. Yet national multimillion-dollar franchise sports teams retain derogatory “Indian” names, logos, and chants; commercial products still utilize “Native” names and imagery as brands; and we still have the enduring uncritical portrayal of the first Thanksgiving. I believe a connection exists between the unwillingness to “give up” the beneficent 1621 Thanksgiving story and the ongoing appropriation of the imagery, spirituality, ceremonies, sovereign rights, and identity of this country’s indigenous peoples. Students from all racial and cultural backgrounds learn early that it is OK to play Indian. They learn that Indians wear “costumes,” feathers define cultural features for all Indians, and sacred cultural artifacts are crafts to be made from brown paper bags, paper towel rolls, paper plates, and construction paper. And after Thanksgiving, crafts and all, the “Natives” disappear back onto the shelf.

Confronting racism, injustice, prejudice, and stereotypes through a consciousness-raising education is a far cry from the fun-filled, feel-good activities characteristic of how schools approach holidays. With respect to indigenous peoples, I want my students to acknowledge the diverse and unique traditions among Native American cultures and to explore the historic and contemporary legacy of colonial intrusion, brutality, and cultural ignorance. As a teacher educator, I seek to invite my students on a journey of interrogating the fallacy of the “standard” curriculum as neutral and push them to develop an understanding of official knowledge as politically constructed and contestable. Critiquing received fact, such as the first Thanksgiving, is an integral piece of an overall critical approach to teaching and learning. I want my students to recognize that the histories of indigenous peoples have been subverted, silenced, and misrepresented in the curriculum. Equally important: I want my students to recognize that we can do something about it.

Vera L. Stenhouse is an educator, researcher, and writer with a multidisciplinary focus in teacher education, diversity, multicultural education, Indigenous education, and curriculum development. Stenhouse is currently a member of the leadership team of the Georgia Chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education (GA NAME).

Evaluating resources about Native Americans:

Boston Children’s Museum. Evaluating Resources: The Wampanoag in Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture.

Seale, D., and Slapin, B., eds. (2005)
A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press.
Cultural appropriation in books for children. Evaluates hundreds of books for children and teenagers published from the early 1900s through 2004.

Evaluating Children’s Books for Bias.” Integrating New Technologies into the Methods of Education.

Wampanoag information past and present:

Mashpee Wampanoag Timeline.” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Website.  Timeline of events from precolonial times to current federal recognition.

Boston Children’s Museum. People of the First Light.” Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture. Information and suggested activities about Wampanoag origins and life before, during, and after 1620; survival; and current day.

Teacher and student resources on Thanksgiving, Native Americans, and colonists:

Dow (Abenaki), J., and Slapin, B. “Deconstructing the Myths of The First Thanksgiving.” Oyate. Facts and fiction about the first Thanksgiving story, including critiqued excerpts from popular books.

Oyate. Primary Sources from a Colonialist Perspective.

Oyate. Recommended Books About Thanksgiving.

Recommended books, links, and videos:

Goldstein, K. “As American as Pumpkin Pie.” Plimoth Plantation. How, when, and why the “first Thanksgiving” came to be known as such.

Boston Children’s Museum. Teacher Resources on Native American History and Culture. Wampanoag voices, information, and suggested activities.

Seale, D., Slapin, B., and Silverman, C., eds. (2001) Thanksgiving: A Native Perspective. Berkeley, Calif.: Oyate. Historical and contemporary information about Thanksgiving. Context and counterstories for a critical cultural approach to Thanksgiving.

Jones, G., and Moomaw, S. (2002) Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms. St. Paul, Minn.: Red Leaf Press. Problems and appropriate alternatives to addressing Native peoples’ experiences.

Loewen, J. (2007) Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York City: Touchstone Press. Detailed information on the first Thanks-giving based on primary resources.

Bigelow, B., and Peterson, R., eds. (1998) Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools. Essays, poems, historical vignettes, and lesson plans.

Slapin, B., and Seale, S., eds. (2006) Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. University of California Press (available at Stereotypes and myths in children’s literature.

Rethinking Schools. (2008) Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes (DVD). Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools (available at Introduction to Native American history through the eyes of children. Includes teaching ideas and resources.

Rosenstein, J. (1997) In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports. New Day Films. Examination of the use of racist logos, nicknames, and caricatures as “mascots” in college and professional sports—and the impact of this practice on Indian families and communities.

A Letter in Support of CTU President Karen Lewis

A few right wing bloggers have been highly critical of the talk that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis gave at the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice conference, and they are pressuring her to resign.

Rethinking Schools was a sponsor of the conference, and our curriculum editor Bill Bigelow served on the conference planning committee. He drafted a letter in support of Karen Lewis on behalf of conference organizers and Rethinking Schools, reprinted below:

November 15, 2011

To Whom It May Concern:

Speaking on behalf of the planning committee for the 2011 Northwest Teaching for Social Justice conference and Rethinking Schools magazine, I am dismayed that certain individuals and groups are seeking to undermine the important work of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and to misrepresent what transpired at our conference. Our committee invited Lewis to be the keynote speaker at our 4th annual conference because of her defense of children, public schools, and public school teachers—and because of her work to build a teachers union that promotes the interests of communities and children, not only of teachers. In fact, one of the major sessions at our conference cited Karen Lewis’s election and outspoken work on behalf of teachers and public schools as one of the most hopeful recent developments and “part of the steady growth of a deep, broad, and thoughtful pushback against a corporate school reform movement.”

Let me offer a bit of context about Karen Lewis’s keynote. Lewis was the lead-off speaker for a day-long conference that brought together several hundred educators from around the Pacific Northwest. The conference — planned and staffed entirely by volunteers —was held on a Saturday—October 1, 2011 at a public school in Seattle, Chief Sealth International High School. In addition to Lewis’s keynote, there were over 60 workshops offered, and dozens of community organizations displayed materials. None of the educators in attendance was paid, and everyone gave up part of a weekend to attend — some driving for several hours. Teachers attended because they wanted to learn from one another and to hear about how one of the country’s major teacher unions is transforming itself to put children first.

I was the liaison between the NWTSJ planning committee and Ms. Lewis. I encouraged her to be informal in her presentation, that her talk would be the first thing on a Saturday morning and no one was coming expecting a formal recitation about the CTU’s work in Chicago. I encouraged her to be conversational and that I hoped that she could inspire teachers to see themselves as participants in a broader national struggle to defend public education from those who want to bust unions and use schools to further their own narrow economic ends. And that’s exactly what Ms. Lewis did. Here is what one longtime Portland, Oregon high school teacher, Hyung Nam, took away from Lewis’s talk: “The message I heard was about teachers standing up for disadvantaged kids whose school was about to shut down for the interests of developers. I took away the importance of rank and file teachers challenging city leaders, the school district, and even one’s union leadership in order to advocate for students and families. This is a courageous and inspiring story of teachers’ commitment to justice, students, and communities.”

Compare this substantial message with the petty and silly soundbites about “potty talk” that a few bloggers have focused on. “Potty talk”? Evidently, some commentators think that they can use some off-hand remarks to distract people from Lewis’s important work of building a union focused on education and justice. And let me just add that educators in attendance at the NWTSJ conference were all grown-ups and are unlikely to be corrupted by a few humorous remarks about college marijuana use.

Finally, I’ll offer a bit of additional context. It’s common for a keynote speaker to come to a conference, deliver one’s remarks, take a few questions, and leave. Karen Lewis, on the other hand, stayed for the entire conference, made herself available to teachers throughout the day, and attended and participated in sessions. She was gracious, warm, and thoughtful in all her communication with Northwest educators. In other words, Lewis walked her talk: She demonstrated what a new generation of union leadership looks like.

The message that Karen Lewis brought to the Northwest from Chicago was one of renewed commitment to the best ideals of public education—that schools should serve all children and all communities, and that teachers should be treated with dignity. I hope that people in Chicago hear her message as clearly as we did when she visited us in October.


Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor
Rethinking Schools magazine
Planning Committee
Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference

No One Said Transforming Unions Was Easy

by Stephanie Walters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I think that’s how many people would describe life as a teacher union staffer these days. Minus the best part, of course.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that folks like me, who understand the importance of unions, recognize that we have a tough road to hoe. The road is even rockier here in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker has attempted to destroy our unions by eliminating our right to collectively bargain with employers. And while the way we operate as a teachers union at the local and state level here in Wisconsin most likely will never look the same as it did just few short months ago, I think we will be stronger for it.

Book: Transforming Teacher UnionsFor many years now, teachers unions (specifically NEA affiliates) talked about the need to change the way we did business, that the reliance on union staff to fix problems severely hindered the leadership development and participation from the rank and file, and that the seeming fixation on bread and butter issues (wages, hours, and benefits) alienated us from parents and community members. At Rethinking Schools, we often wrote about the need to reshape union operations. We are all union members and supporters; some of us are union leaders, too. Our book, Transforming Teacher Unions, explored ways that unions could be more involved in community struggles as well as engaging leaders on professional issues like evaluation and teacher preparation.

Many leaders called for the change from a service culture to an organizing one; this would be a culture where members were far more involved in problem solving and conflict management at the school and district level, and there would be more work with administrations to create meaningful professional development and curriculum.

But for all the talk about creating this kind of culture, it was occurring at a painfully slow pace. The reasons why are too numerous to list here, but I think one of the most important ones boils down to three words: change is hard!

But the actions of the Republican Party over the past nine months shone a white hot spotlight on our union’s difficulty in connecting to members. We had to spring into action; the pace of change was not going to work any longer. It would continue to be the worst of times if we continued to conduct business as usual.

So WEAC decided that as a union they could not continue to do business as usual. Extraordinary attacks called for extraordinary responses and that is what they dialed up. The game plan: take the case for preserving and strengthening the union to members where they live. Literally.

In early May, WEAC unveiled a door-to-door summer membership campaign. The goal: talk to as many members as possible about their concerns and questions about union membership and ask them to stick with the union. I was thrilled about the effort. What a great way to connect with members! What a great way to build solidarity and exhibit union values! Not everyone was as excited as I was about the effort, however. Many were predicting resounding failure before we even knocked on one door.

“Members will hate us coming to their homes. They won’t even open their doors.”

“No one will want to knock on doors; people are too busy in the summer.”

“They will just think we are trying to get their money.”

Bad excuses were thrown around to continue living in the worst of times; excuses uttered by established leaders and staff alike.

Luckily, they were widely ignored because they were soon refuted by members who became the new leaders of the new teacher union movement. I actually saw in these people and their efforts the best of times for the future of teacher unionism.


Stephanie (seated on cooler) was accompanied by many teacher leaders in home visits. From the back, l to r: Tom Baribeau, Janet Rich, Ted Chaudoir, Dave Campshure, Julie Hannon, Jim Geoffrey, Danny Smith, Stephanie Walters, Stacie Kaminski

I went door to door with folks like Ted Chaudoir, a bus driver in tiny Southern Door School District who spoke passionately about why he would continue his union membership when he asked fellow members at their doors to do the same.

I visited members with Stacie Kaminski, an English teacher from Pulaski School District who had never really been involved in her union until this year and came to door knock every Tuesday and Thursday without fail from June to August.

And I went with Sue Smits, until she recruited her friend to do visits with her instead.

These are just a few of the people who came day after day to talk to their fellow members about the importance of keeping their union strong. And their work translated into more than 1600 members pledging to remain members. Some of those people would have continued on as members; certainly a significant number wouldn’t have if folks like Ted, Sue, and Stacie hadn’t asked them to. It was so exciting to hear people say, “I agree with you; I appreciate you coming to my house and I will continue to be a member.”

The commitment and passion they showed was infectious and gave me hope that this union will weather this storm and will emerge stronger because of their efforts.

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

Download a free chapter from Transforming Teacher Unions: “Survival and Justice: Rethinking Teacher Union Strategy,” (PDF)  by Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools co-founder who is currently serving as president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

Occupy the Curriculum

by Bill Bigelow

The other day on the Zinn Education Project’s Facebook page, we asked “What period in history—or theme in history—are you teaching this month?

NJTAG teach-in

New Jersey Teacher Activist Group stages Teach-In at Occupy Wall Street last month.

The responses were fascinating.

Chris Conkling is teaching about “Forced removal of Native Americans/Andrew Jackson.”

Ariela Rothstein is teaching about the “Haitian revolution and the effects of colonialism on the Caribbean.”

Samantha Manchac is teaching about “the early women’s movement” from Chapter 6, “The Intimately Oppressed,” in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Melanie Lichtenstein is teaching about Afghanistan, before and after 2001.

Mustafa Miroku Nemeth is using the film The Corporation to teach about the development of corporate “personhood” with the manifold consequences we see today.

Ian Martin is teaching about industrialization and imperialism and how they are inseparable.

Ruth Razo is teaching about the U.S. war with Mexico and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

I found people’s responses enormously encouraging. In this age of standardized, scripted curriculum and corporate-produced textbooks, it looks like not everyone is following the script. Teachers are “teaching outside the textbook,” in the slogan of the Zinn Education Project.

This kind of defiant We’ll decide what our students need to learn, not some distant corporation” needs to happen in schools across the country. We don’t need to take tents and sleeping bags to our town squares to participate in the Occupy Movement—although it would be great if more of us did. We can also “occupy” our classrooms, “occupy” the curriculum. At this time of mass revulsion at how our country—our world—has been bought and bullied by the one percent, let’s join this gathering movement to demand a curriculum that serves humanity and nature, not the rich.

Saviors and Burnouts: Rethinking Teachers in Popular Culture

by Elizabeth Marshall

Rethinking Popular Culture and Media

Receive 20% discount during Media Literacy Week, Nov. 7-11. Use code 5BRPCMJ11.

From movies such as Blackboard Jungle and Freedom Writers to televisions shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and The Wire, teachers and students are regular subjects of film and television.

November 7-11 marks Media Literacy Week in Canada, and it affords educators—Canadian as well as those south of the border—the opportunity to ask the question: What sorts of pop culture stories are told about teachers, and how do these fictional stories matter in the real world?

In our recent book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, authors critically engage with numerous representations of teachers in television and film. It is clear that a number of stereotypes about teachers are consistently reproduced in mainstream North American popular culture. What is at stake in popular representations of us as teachers? Let’s begin with a focus on two familiar characters, the “Savior” and the “Burnout.”

The Savior: This character appears in numerous “urban” movies. S/he is usually White and seeks to save students of Color in under-resourced schools. In Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, Chela Delgado analyzes these representations for readers in her piece, “Freedom Writers: White Teacher to the Rescue.” In Freedom Writers and other scripts like it, one teacher saves the students—not through structural change, but through individual pluck. Delgado suggests a different kind of plot. She writes: “I want a teacher movie where there aren’t cardboard heroes and villains, but a genuine analysis of how race and class play out in schools” (p. 226).

The Burnout: This teacher has worked in the schools for too many years. The following clip of the economics teacher from the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a good example of the teacher who continues to try, if ineptly, to impart information to disengaged students.

Some might argue that representations of teachers in popular culture are just entertainment; however, these images and storylines all have real life implications. For instance, the consistent use of the savior-teacher-who-saves-students-one-classroom-at-a-time continues the myth of the individual teacher and teacher education as the main problem with schools, rather than structural issues such as poverty. Images of the burnout-teacher, who teaches the same lesson year after year in a coma-inducing tone, and has a “job for life,” like the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller, help sustain the fiction that tenure is the problem with schools (Not Waiting for Superman; Wisconsin). These representations then lay the foundation for films like Waiting for Superman, which have an explicit ideological agenda that is bolstered by both the Savior and the Burnout myth.

All of these representations are caricatures meant to distort, and therefore deflect, the real challenges teachers face. However, as the contributors to Rethinking Popular Culture and Media demonstrate, we can promote alternative representations of teachers that frame educational issues in different and more complex ways. In her chapter, “More Than Just Dance Lessons,” Terry Burant analyzes how the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom raises for educators a number of important questions about teaching that challenges the familiar teacher-as-savior storyline, such as “How can we change the face of teaching to reflect a more diverse nation?” Similarly, in Gregory Michie’s piece “City Teaching, Beyond the Stereotypes,” he points out how a film like Half Nelson complicates teacher-hero movies, and how a documentary such as The First Year moves away from “grand or symbolic gestures” in favor of “steady, purposeful efforts to make the curriculum more meaningful, the classroom community more affirming, and the school more attuned to issues of equity and justice” (p. 233).

Too often educators focus on critiquing children’s popular cultural texts as somehow separate from that of adults when in reality, television and film cross over between audiences and share familiar images and storylines. Educators can and should use Media Literacy Week as an invitation to improve our own digital citizenship, to use technologies to resist and rewrite representations of teachers as saviors and burnouts, as well as any other number of stereotypes, in popular culture and in mainstream media.

Analyzing representations of teachers and teaching is important and necessary work. As the writers in Rethinking Popular Culture and Media suggest, thinking critically about how educators are represented is the first step for repositioning ourselves “from cogs in the machine to social actors intent on resisting and/or rewriting the status quo” (p. 11). In this way, critical media literacy is not just for youth.

Classroom Resource for Analyzing Teacher Stereotypes  

Media Awareness Network, a sponsor of Media Literacy Week, has a unit of study for grades 6-8 entitled “Images of Learning” through which educators and students can undertake a critical media literacy analysis of how teachers and youth are represented in television and film. Readers can access it here.


Elizabeth Marshall, Ph.D. teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada, where she researches children’s and young adult literature and popular culture.  She is co-editor with Özlem Sensoy on Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Reading Research Quarterly, Gender & Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and The Lion and The Unicorn.
This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.