Rethinking the 4th of July

Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this post for the Zinn Education Project, encouraging teachers — and everyone — to use this July 4th as a time to consider a more multicultural (and less militaristic) approach to examining the birth of the United States of America. He highlights Ray Raphael’s article, “Re-examining the Revolution,” which was first published in Rethinking Schools, and is now posted at the Zinn Education Project.

Rethinking the 4th of July

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, the 4th of July holiday offers an excuse for a wonderful annual blues festival in Waterfront Park downtown. Unfortunately, in my neighborhood, it also provides cover for people to blow off fireworks that terrify young children and animals, and that turn the air thick with smoke and errant projectiles. Last year, the fire department here reported 172 fires sparked by toy missiles, defective firecrackers, and other items of explosive revelry.

But apart from the noise pollution, air pollution, and flying debris pollution, there is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world. To cite just one example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London found recently that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed more than 200 people, including at least 60 children. And, of course, the U.S. war in Afghanistan drags on and on. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to the real wars half a world away.

But the yahoo of fireworks also turns an immensely complicated time in U.S. history into a cartoon of miseducation. For example, check out Ray Raphael’s “Re-examining the Revolution” at the Zinn Education Project, an article that every history teacher should read before wading into the events leading up to 1776. Raphael analyzed 22 elementary, middle school, and high school texts and found them filled with inaccuracies—some merely silly, but others that leave students with important misunderstandings about U.S. history, and how social change does and does not happen.

Raphael offers some context for the Declaration of Independence:

In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval.

Similarly, Raphael reports that

[I]n 1774 common farmers and artisans from throughout Massachusetts rose up by the thousands and overthrew all British authority.  In the small town of Worcester (only 300 voters), 4,622 militiamen from 37 surrounding communities lined both sides of Main Street and forced British-appointed officials to walk the gauntlet, hats in hand, reciting their recantations 30 times each so everyone could hear. There were no famous “leaders” for this event. The people elected representatives who served for one day only, the ultimate in term limits. “The body of the people” made decisions and the people decided that the old regime must fall.

As Raphael concludes, “Textbook authors and popular history writers fail to portray the great mass of humanity as active players, agents on their own behalf.” Instead, textbooks credit Great Men—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—and render all others as “mere followers.”

Of course, there is lots more that complicates the events surrounding the 4th of July and the Revolutionary War. As Raphael notes, “not one of the elementary or middle school texts [I reviewed] even mentions the genocidal Sullivan campaign, one of the largest military offensives of the war, which burned Iroquois villages and destroyed every orchard and farm in its path to deny food to Indians.” (For use with students, see “George Washington: An American Hero?” in Rethinking Columbus, published by Rethinking Schools.) Nor do texts mention the indigenous resistance movements of the 1780s in response to American “settler” expansion, which Raphael calls “the largest coalitions of Native Americans in our history.”

Also included at the Zinn Education Project site is a link to Danny Glover delivering one of history’s most passionate denunciations of U.S. racism and hypocrisy: Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.” Howard Zinn introduces Glover at one of the remarkable “The People Speak” events. Douglass delivered the speech on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York, at a Declaration of Independence commemoration:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are 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 on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Douglass delivered his speech four years after the United States finished its war against Mexico to steal land and spread slavery, five years before the vicious Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, and nine years before the country would explode into civil war. His words call out through the generations to abandon the empty “shout of liberty and equality” on July 4, and to put away the fireworks and flags. In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, the Zinn Education Project urges teachers to use July 4 as a time to rethink how we equip students to reflect on the complicated birth of the United States of America.

Bill Bigelow ( is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project.

Life after recall

Three weeks have passed since Election Day in Wisconsin, Rethinking Schools’ home base. The Monday-morning quarterbacking started moments after Democratic challenger Tom Barrett made his concession speech. Some of the postelection analysis was smart and insightful, but those pieces were mostly drowned out by pundits and opinion writers who never set foot in Wisconsin, never knocked on a single door, or made a single phone call to a potential voter. Their analyses were crass, insensitive, and some were even misinformed about how the movement here developed. 

We thought it would be a good idea to share the voices of educators and activists who were on the ground during the months leading up to the recall. To remind others and ourselves that real people are behind uprisings like the one in Wisconsin, and are fighting battles that are history in the making—albeit always imperfect.

Barbara Miner, who has her own blog View from the Heartland, wrote: “There is always something you can do. Always.” Hers was the piece that brought me past the despair and toward a fleeting sense of hope for our future. It reminded me that movements take time, and we can’t give up the fight. There’s always something we can do.

Amy Mizialko is a Milwaukee teacher who spent hours upon hours on the ground activating her neighbors and colleagues, and she shared with us the following reflection about her experiences.  

Kris Collett
Outreach/Marketing, Rethinking Schools

Life after RECALL

by Amy Mizialko 

I have been a teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools for the past 20 years and for the past 16 months, I have been fighting to win the June 5 recall election in Wisconsin. I marched 10 times at our state capitol in the winter of 2011 to protest the unprecedented attacks on my profession, devastating cuts to our schools, and an extreme, anti-worker agenda that has divided our state. There was talk of recall from within the grassroots of the movement.

First there were the summer recall elections that reduced the Republican majority in the Senate to 17-16. Following debate within the Democratic Party and among grassroots organizations about the best timing for Walker’s recall, it was decided that we would collect signatures to recall our governor. In mid-November, Milwaukee was buzzing, collecting signatures. I signed my petition and obtained 60 additional signatures that I proudly submitted on Jan. 17. My hope and the momentum of the grassroots surged when we learned we had turned in 1 million signatures, far exceeding the required 540,000 needed to trigger a recall election.

After the May primary election that determined who would run against Walker, I immediately pivoted to a full-on campaign for Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. I signed postcards, called voters, canvassed my neighborhood, assisted teachers in helping their students to register and vote, and organized teachers to canvass in their school neighborhoods. In the two weeks prior to the election, I watched Milwaukee rise up and believed we would win.

On June 5, Election Day, I spent 12 hours driving the city to help get folks to the polls. The mood in Milwaukee was electric that day as I drove past people who proudly pointed to their “I voted” sticker and yelled, “I voted!” I encountered canvassers all day with clipboards, signs, and resolve written all over their faces. I drove past abandoned buildings with posters that said “Walker’s Over.”

Although I was prepared to win or lose the election by the slightest of margins, I never prepared myself to lose big, for the race to be called minutes after the polls closed while voters were still standing in line, some for the first time. I looked at the crestfallen faces of my closest colleagues and friends who had worked more and harder than ever before. When the race was conceded, I bolted to my car raging and weeping. Despite our success at turning out Milwaukee to the polls at a rate of 76 percent, it was not enough.

On June 6, I awoke distraught, hopeless, and defeated. June 6 was a quiet day that ended with my monthly union meeting. I fought back tears as I gathered with my union sisters and brothers and listened, disbelieving, as people said we would fight on. My colleagues thanked me for my work and all I could think was that it was all for nothing. For the first time in the past 16 months, I felt weak, beaten, and at a loss for how to recover. On June 6, I learned of the workers’ fight to form a union at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee. Soon after union organizing efforts began, the frozen pizza company began its antiunion campaign, threatening workers with termination and immigration audits. On June 8, I marched with the Palermo workers in solidarity and a little hope returned.

From February 2011 until June 5, 2012, I woke up every day with unwavering certainty that my work was important and that I must do it. Every day of the last 16 months has been an opportunity to live out my beliefs and every minute was worth it. Any sacrifice I made pales in comparison to the $1.6 billion cut to our public schools. Any sleep I lost is nothing compared to the 65,000 Wisconsinites, seniors, the poor and disabled, and 29,000 children who lost government-sponsored health care coverage. Any pain I endured fades away when stacked up against the $500 million cut in Medicaid that seniors and the poor must endure.

Losing the election almost broke me, but on June 8 I stood up again because there are still good people in every part of our state, nation, and around the world fighting for economic justice, fairly funded public education, and for basic rights of safety and humane treatment in the workplace—the Palermo Pizza workers in Milwaukee, my fellow teachers in Chicago, bus drivers in London, and the Nuns on the Bus.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.” We are one and I will fight on in solidarity. And no, Walker’s not finished yet, but neither am I.

Who’s talking about the summer issue?

by Kris Collett

Our summer issue is out, and many articles are already garnering positive attention.

We’re stoked that our editorial “The New Misogyny” spread on Twitter like wildfire. Thanks to Diane Ravitch for retweeting it to her 30,000+ followers! Read it now to see what the buzz is about.

Our friends at AlterNet and at Common Dreams posted Bill Bigelow’s article “From Johannesburg to Tucson.” I always learn something new about the people’s history when I read Bill’s articles, but it’s his insightful observations that make me pause and reflect on the kind of society I want to leave behind:

“The common denominator in these instances is the disrespect of those in power for students’ capacity to think critically and to take action based on their beliefs. When educational authorities consistently display such slight regard for students’ academic and moral capacities, is it any wonder that they match this contempt with an intellectually thin, idea-poor curriculum?”

The Institute for Humane Education has a very fine blog, Humane Connection. They dedicated a post to a brief review of the issue focusing on two articles they believe embody the principles of humane education.

The National Writing Project shared Linda Christensen’s article with their 7,300 twitter followers. “The Danger of a Single Story” is about an essay writing unit Linda completed with her high school students shortly following the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin.

In addition to directing the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College, which takes her into schools all around the Portland area, Linda also teaches a class at Jefferson High School (as a volunteer), where she taught for almost 25 years.

We also dedicated space in the magazine to teacher quality issues, including Stan Karp’s article “Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.”  The article was picked up by the Marshall Memo, a widely read “weekly round-up of important ideas and research in K-12 education.”

These are just a few highlights from the issue. Check out the entire issue, and consider a subscription if you like what you see.  (Use code 5PAYWALL12 for a 15% discount.)

Kris Collett is the Outreach/Marketing Director for Rethinking Schools.

Spotlight on Dyan Watson

Dyan Watson joined the Rethinking Schools team as an editorial associate last year. You’ve probably noticed her wonderful articles in the magazine: “What Do You Mean When You Say Urban” (fall 2011) and “A Message from a Black Mom to Her Son” (spring 2012).

What you may not realize is that she co-edited our new publication, Rethinking Elementary Education. We thought you might like to know a little more about Dyan, who is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

Q: How did you get involved with Rethinking Schools?

When I was a junior at Portland’s Jefferson High School, I had Bill and Linda as my teachers in a combined U.S. history/American literature class. They introduced us to Rethinking Schools and a new way of learning and teaching. At some point, they included a poem I wrote in Rethinking Our Classrooms. My first subscription came with acceptance of that poem and I’ve been hooked ever since. Then, this past year, the board invited me to participate. As an RS fan—and
someone who wanted to participate in making the positive difference in others’ lives that Linda, Bill, and Rethinking Schools has made in mine—it was an easy choice.

Q: How have you felt about being on the editorial board?

My writing and ability to give meaningful feedback have improved tremendously. Listening to others critique and praise the submissions makes me a better writer and a more compassionate reviewer. This spills over into the classroom as I provide feedback to my students. I often feel my brain growing.

Q: Which articles in Rethinking Elementary Education would you especially recommend to teacher educators?
I think that a teacher ed program preparing elementary teachers couldn’t go wrong with any of the pieces. Taken as a whole, Rethinking Elementary Education is a powerful work that helps teachers think deeply about the impact they have on kids’ lives.

Q: How did you come to write “A Letter from a Black Mom to Her Son”? Why do you think it has resonated so strongly with parents and teachers nationally?

I didn’t think we had enough pieces in Rethinking Elementary Education that addressed race. After some discussion, the co-editors of the book decided I needed to write a piece since this is my area of research. I tried to put what I’ve learned in laymen’s terms, but it was boring and flat. The piece started with a story from my childhood, and that’s what captured the other editors’ interest.

Linda said, why not write it as a letter? After many drafts and tears—some of the stories were hard to put on paper—I had
a letter to Caleb, my older son. In the letter, I explained that there were many things about my education that I loved and am happy to have experienced, but there were some lessons that were unnecessary and painful. I don’t want Caleb or his baby brother Nehemiah to have to go through those kind of experiences. So this is a letter to their future teachers as much
as it is to either of them or any of our collective children.

I think the letter resonated with folks because of the Trayvon Martin murder. Even though it was written before this tragedy, the message in the letter and the experiences described are not unique to me or a small group of people. Folks from all over the country have written me to express their gratitude and how it summed up what they felt. For many folks of color, my letter is their letter. Many white teachers and folks who work with them want all teachers to be better than the majority of the teachers I describe. As one principal told me, they struggle with how to broach the subject and, fortunately, my letter to Caleb helps.