Climate Deniers Flooding Schools with Alternative Facts — Educators Are Fighting Back

By Bob Peterson

While hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens march for science and climate justice, a massive corporate-financed disinformation campaign on climate change is flooding our nation’s schools.

The right-wing Heartland Institute, which is financed by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, is sending out 200,000 glossy books, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to the country’s science teachers.

TIFFANY CRAWFORD, VANCOUVER SUN

The purpose of their book is to sow confusion and doubt, not unlike previous campaigns the Heartland Institute has conducted, such as the one in the 1990s, financed by the tobacco company Philip Morris, to raise doubts about the dangers of second-hand smoke.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Heartland Institute has for years, “received funding from fossil fuel interests such as ExxonMobil and the coal magnate Koch brothers.” Heartland even sponsored a billboard campaign in 2012 casting climate change activists as “murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

This campaign has come under recent criticism by Curt Stager in a New York Times op-ed, but his exposé touches only the tip of a massive iceberg. School textbooks rarely do the issue justice, teachers are not well versed on the subject, and conservative politicians in many states frown on even discussing the issue. Moreover, the oil and coal industry continue to pour money into various pseudo-educational materials to obfuscate the truth.

Victories can be won against such corporate-financed curricular materials. Educator Bill Bigelow recounts how in 2012 a coalition of education and environmental groups, spearheaded by Rethinking Schools and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, exposed the cozy relationship between the coal industry and Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of materials for children. After publication of an exposé of Scholastic’s propagandistic “The United States of Energy” in Rethinking Schools magazine, a campaign to pressure Scholastic to break its ties with the coal industry led to a New York Times editorial, “Scholastic’s Big Coal Mistake,” and then quickly to Scholastic pulling the curriculum off its website and promising not to shill for the coal industry any longer.

Last year the inadequacy of school textbooks on climate change led students, teachers, and climate activists to convince the Portland, Oregon, school board to adopt a climate justice resolution and to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”

Despite attacks by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers, the Portland schools are moving forward engaging parents, community members, students and parents to create a climate justice curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.

People interested in learning how to organize similar resolutions in their school district can visit the Rethinking Schools site and download a free Climate Justice Kit.

People can also make sure their school library and child’s teacher has a copy A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. The 410-page book contains resources, lessons, and engaging role-plays. Naomi Klein called it “an educators toolkit of our times.”

It is a good antidote to the poisons that are being spread by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers.

As we march and organize for climate justice, the schools are an important battle ground. Our children and grandchildren should have the right to learn the science behind climate change, the stories of those most affected, the impact on all living fauna and flora and what they might do to work for climate justice.


Originally published at bob-peterson.blogspot.com on April 29, 2017.

Arkansas’ Howard Zinn Witch-Hunt Fizzles

Why the great historian would have loved what transpired over the past few weeks
By Bill Bigelow

DSC_0083Last week nearly 700 Arkansas teachers and school librarians received copies of books by Howard Zinn—thanks to a right-wing state representative.

Well, not exactly. But here’s the story.

Recently, Republican Kim Hendren, introduced legislation that would prohibit teachers in all public schools or state-supported charter schools from including any books in their curriculum by—or even “concerning”—the historian Howard Zinn, author of the classic A People’s History of the United States, who died in 2010.

In response, the Zinn Education Project—a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, which I co-direct—offered to send free copies of a Howard Zinn book and A People’s History for the Classroom lessons to any Arkansas middle or high school teacher or school librarian requesting them.

In just a few days, we were flooded with requests. Many of them came accompanied by poignant notes about why people were eager to get the materials. One middle school librarian in Western Grove, Arkansas, near the Missouri border (population 373), wrote, “The proposed bill to ban Mr. Zinn’s book has fired up the Arkansas librarian world. To combat ignorance, I must have knowledge. I respectfully request a copy so I can educate my tiny corner of the world.”

A high school teacher in El Dorado, Arkansas, in the far south, near Louisiana, wrote defiantly, “Books and ideas are increasingly under attack in Arkansas. We need to defend our rights and freedoms and be willing to look at history from multiple viewpoints. As Orwell wrote, freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4. Sometimes, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act. The truth will be taught in my classroom.”

Donations to support the Zinn Education Project book giveaway poured in from across the country.

I called Rep. Hendren’s office seeking comment about his proposed Zinn ban, and he quickly called me back. “I’ll talk with you because in your message you seemed respectful, but I’ve been called the F-word, people have wished me dead. Apparently, there is some organization out there of Zinn supporters stirring things up.” I assured him that my aim in calling was simply to hear why he sought to single out Howard Zinn’s work for banning.

“I think my constituents had seen some stuff on the internet or media. And Rick Santorum had mentioned it. I’d never heard of Howard Zinn. I’d never heard of the man.” He also mentioned former Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ work to cut Zinn from the curriculum. “I don’t want indoctrination. Let’s just present the bill and see where it goes.” At the end of the call, my impression was that Rep. Hendren was running away from his own piece of legislation.

Mitch Daniels’ effort to ban Zinn from Indiana schools and colleges had been a more serious effort. Unlike Rep. Hendren, Gov. Daniels had clear opinions about Howard Zinn. Shortly after Zinn died, on January 27, 2010, Daniels wrote his education advisor: “The obits and commentaries mentioned [Zinn’s] book A People’s History of the United States is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” This email and others were uncovered thanks to sleuthing from the Associated Press.

The Trump right wing is all for “local control” until that “control” means a woman’s right to control her own body, or until a community decides not to cooperate with immigration bullies. Similarly, conservatives tout educational balance and fairness, until it means engaging students in asking critical questions about the behavior of U.S. elites or introducing them to voices of dissent and social movements throughout history. Which, no doubt, is why Republicans like Mitch Daniels or Kim Hendren get so exercised about the influence of Howard Zinn in schools today.

There is not one single piece of Zinn’s history-telling that the book-banners cite. No, I think it’s Zinn’s unapologetic partisanship that gets under their skin. Zinn sums up his approach in a famous passage from the first chapter of A People’s History in which he explores how all historians take sides in what they select and emphasize about the past:

I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by Black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by Southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by Blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.

Zinn acknowledges that this effort to “see” history as others experienced it will always be limited—no matter how much we “strain.” At the heart of Zinn’s scholarship is not this or that conclusion about particular moments in history, it’s his invitation to empathy. And that’s what makes Zinn’s presence in schools so threatening to some: classrooms full of students straining to ask critical questions from the standpoint of all those not well-served by today’s arrangements of power and privilege.

I think Howard Zinn would have loved what transpired in the past few weeks in Arkansas: Amidst a flurry of White House executive orders to ban Muslims and build pipelines, a conservative legislator tries to jump on the bandwagon, with an attempt to ensure that his state’s children learn only a Fox News version of America’s past. But in response, teachers and librarians throughout the state reject his attempt to stifle critique and questioning; supporters around the country rally in solidarity, and people’s history materials pour into the state’s classrooms and libraries.

Howard Zinn’s writing is full of instances—big and small—of ordinary people gathering to oppose exploitation and schemes of the elites. Hendren’s bill just died in the education committee—offering the world one more instance that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, does not make it so.

Continue reading

School Privatizer to Head US Department of Education

By Bob Peterson

In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Trump has chosen charter school advocate DeVos as Education Secretary in his administration. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) (Carolyn Kaster)

While it is doubtful that US President-elect Donald Trump ever read George Orwell’s 1984, Trump’s cabinet choices appear to come right out of the doublethink that ruled Orwell’s dystopian society. In Orwell’s book, the Ministry of Plenty rationed essentials while the Ministry of Truth manufactured falsehoods.

Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Energy said last year he wanted to abolish the department. His choice for the Environmental Protection Agency is best known for suing the agency. His proposed Labor Secretary has criticized overtime, minimum wage and sick leave initiatives. His attorney general nominee has a long history of opposing voting rights, women’s rights and once said he decided he didn’t like the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan only after he learned they smoked marijuana.

However, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is perhaps the most extreme of Trump’s cabinet nominees. She has spent her entire adult life — and her family’s considerable wealth — mounting campaigns to transfer public dollars away from public schools and into private and religious schools.

The 59-year-old DeVos will be in charge of the U.S. Department of Education, which has 5,000 employees and a budget of $73 billion last year. Unlike many countries, the U.S. educational system is decentralized, with much power resting at the state and local level. However, federal policy initiatives have played a growing role in recent decades, particularly in shaping educational policy across the country.

Historically, the department has been focused on protecting civil rights in areas of class, race, and gender, and has focused its budget on public schools. Before he won the election, Trump announced his main education focus was to invest $20 billion in federal money to increase school choice.

In the United States, the term “school choice” has become code for supporting “independent” charter schools that are nominally public but privately controlled, More threatening, it is code for transferring public tax dollars to private schools, including religious schools, that operate with little to no public oversight. For instance, under U.S. law private schools are able to circumvent basic safeguards such as freedom of expression and gender rights. In general, neither their finances nor their curriculum are made public.

Betsy DeVos is the ideal candidate for such an unprecedented policy shift. She has had virtually nothing to do with public schools her entire life. She’s not an educator, nor has she worked for any public school institution. The main organizations she has headed, The Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children, were specifically set up to promote school privatization, and have spent millions of dollars electing local, state and national politicians.

DeVos hails from a wealthy family and married into an even wealthier one. Her father, Edgar Prince, was a politically active auto parts businessman. When not making money, he supported the creation of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian religious group that has been called a “hate” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT views. DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, is founder of the security firm Blackwater, which ushered in the era of private contractors performing duties for the U.S. military in order to evade public outcry over U.S. operations in the Middle East. Its employees were found guilty of killing dozens of Iraqi civilians in a massacre in 2007.

When DeVos married Richard DeVos, Jr., her oligarchic empire expanded. Her father-in-law co-founded Amway, a pyramid marketing company that made millions for its founders. Richard DeVos, Sr., has also been a long-time supporter of right-wing religious and economic groups.

Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of the DeVos family as $5.1 billion. This puts DeVos in the top tier of Trump’s oligarchic cabinet — even richer than Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, who was the CEO of Exxon.

Betsy and her husband have continued their families’ right-wing political traditions. They have been powerbrokers in the Republican Party and have donated millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks, foundations, legal teams and political action committees.

Known as a smart and determined political organizer, Betsy DeVos understands the important role of labor unions, particularly public sector unions, in opposing privatization. Thus her strategy has long included attacks on unions and worker rights.

DeVos ability to bring religious groups into the privatization struggle is strengthened by her personal beliefs. In 2001, she told a group of Christian philanthropists that her work on school issues was a campaign to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

In fact, her positions are so extreme — against any form of government regulation of voucher or charter schools — that some supporters of school privatization have expressed concern about her appointment. The main association of charter schools in the state of Massachusetts, for instance, said that DeVos’s positions would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”

The Republicans control both the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress and it is expected that DeVos and Trump’s other nominees with be approved. But as the last year has made clear, political developments in the United States are highly unpredictable. The fight over the federal role in public education is far from settled.


Bob Peterson

Bob Peterson (bob.e.peterson@gmail.com) taught 5th grade for 30 years in the public schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA). He is a writer, organizer and presenter and a founding editor of the Rethinking Schools magazine, and former President of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (NEA). He is co-editor of several books including: Rethinking Columbus, Rethinking Elementary Education, Rethinking Mathematics, Rethinking Globalization and Transforming Teacher Unions.

Originally published at educationincrisis.net.

#GivingTuesday: 6 Ways to Help Us

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Trump and Our Students

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

And so it begins. At a high school in rural Oregon, south of Portland, 30 to 40 white students celebrated Trump this week in front of a Confederate flag and taunted Latina/o students: “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow,” and “Tell your family goodbye.” Graffiti found in a Minnesota high school bathroom read,”#Gobacktoafrica Make America GReat again.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reports over 200 incidents of racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment and intimidation.

These are harbingers of the dangerous new era launched by the election of Donald Trump. And they underscore the importance of the work we have ahead.

But racist and xenophobic celebrations were not the only response to Trump’s election. In San Francisco, more than a thousand students walked out of class to join protest marches. As one student said, “We’re trying to inform people about white supremacy, racism, homophobia, everything.” And in the New York City high school where Rethinking Schools editor Adam Sanchez teaches, the art club hosted a “No Allegiance to White Supremacy” t-shirt-making gathering, while the Feminism and Black Lives Matter clubs held a joint emergency meeting to discuss the election. These responses are also harbingers: anticipating our schools and classrooms as sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. As in San Francisco, students in New York later took to the streets—marching more than 40 blocks from Union Square to Trump Tower. As did students at that Minnesota high school and throughout the country, from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Boulder to Des Moines.

Trump’s election is the single worst political event in our lives. And it’s right to mourn. But a Trump administration is also a call to action. For now, we need to listen to our students and create a space where they can talk, ask questions, and analyze what has happened. We can tell students that we will do whatever we can to make our schools—and our world—safe for them and their families. Part of that involves what we say and do in our classrooms and our schools, including how we work with students doing the taunting and writing the racist graffiti. And part involves the work we do within our unions and community groups, and the alliances we build with other justice-oriented organizations.

We will redouble our efforts to provide the teaching resources that help our students make sense of what is happening in our society, and how we got here. We have resources at Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project that look at other times when racial progress was rolled back by white supremacy. But social movements have made important progress during times that seemed hopeless, and we also have teaching materials that explore these. 

There will be lots more to say—and lots more to do. For now, we simply want to thank you for the work you do that is more essential than ever and to assure you that we are in this together.

With love and hope,
Rethinking Schools editors and staff

Racisim, Xenophobia, and the Election

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools
Ricard Morales Levins
As teachers and students return to classrooms this fall, together we have to try to make sense of a tumultuous presidential campaign and a summer of racial violence that have forcefully surfaced the racism that plagues our nation.

Elementary and middle school students have grown up with an African American as president of the United States. This is a historic milestone. But these same students have also grown up in a nation that’s increasingly unequal, a country where police killed more Black people in 2015 than were lynched during the worst year of Jim Crow.

In the past several months, students have watched Donald Trump use racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and anti-immigrant vitriol to whip up a terrifying level of support, with ominous repercussions no matter who wins the election.

Even as Black Lives Matter has spearheaded a growing movement against police violence, our children have been subjected to an unending stream of police murders of Black and Brown people, including the recent videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote after watching those videos: “We all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option.”

We hope that teachers will view these disturbing developments not as issues too controversial to talk about, but rather as teachable moments to address white supremacy and our nation’s rich history of movements for justice and equality.

In these scary times, the courageous undocumented youth of the Dreamers, the Movement for Black Lives (a collective of more than 50 organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Network), and thousands of other activists are providing light and hope. Powerful teaching confronts the dangers squarely and also builds on their examples and those of other young people standing up for justice. When a student put up a “Build a Wall” banner in Forest Grove High School in Oregon, many students were outraged. The next day hundreds of them walked out in protest; as word spread through social media, students from seven other area high schools joined in. High school and college students in nearby Portland staged their own protest march later that week.

White fans at a high school girls’ soccer game in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, started chanting “Trump, build that wall” at the predominantly Black and Latina Beloit Memorial team. A few days later, the neighboring Evansville girls soccer team posted a video condemning the racist incident and expressing support for the Beloit team. At Beloit’s Big Eight Conference game against Janesville Craig, players from both teams stood side by side during pregame introductions as a show of solidarity against racism.

Trump and Our Classrooms

The “curriculum” of the presidential campaign inevitably finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As we reported in our summer issue, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions . . . [and] an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation of students whose races, religions, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

Trump’s ascendancy parallels the growth of extreme right-wing parties throughout much of Europe, where a toxic stew of austerity, economic anxiety, and the refugee crisis has fueled xenophobic and neo-fascist rallies, electoral victories, and violence.

His popularity also reflects the growth of racism and inequality in the United States, which has been exacerbated by policies pursued by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Internationally, pro-war policies have led to unspeakable suffering, wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, fostered terrorism, and destabilized whole swaths of the planet. Bipartisan “free trade” policies have thrown people out of work in the United States at the same time they have increased inequality abroad. Domestically the “war on drugs,” “three strikes,” zero-tolerance discipline policies, and other criminal justice “reforms” have led to unprecedented rates of mass incarceration of African Americans.

At the same time, we have witnessed an inspiring resurgence of demands for an end to police violence, for racial justice, for climate justice, for gender justice, for economic justice, for immigration justice. There’s a lot to talk about.

The polarization and racism of this election season make it especially important to create safe classrooms where students engage deeply in critical analysis. Of course, a student who is a member of a targeted group should never be singled out as a “spokesperson.” And perhaps it’s time to rethink traditional approaches to teaching about elections.

For example, many teachers routinely hold debates with students representing candidates from different parties (more than just the Democratic and Republican parties, we hope). However, this year such debates might be counterproductive. We don’t want to create classroom forums where students-as-candidates could repeat racist rants, nor should students be subjected to them. Slogans like “build that wall” are essentially racist slurs; “jail the bitch” is a sexist slur.

A better curricular route might be to look at the premises underlying key campaign issues — immigration from Mexico, for example — by asking questions: What is the history of the border between the United States and Mexico? How have initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) affected Mexican farmers and workers, and influenced immigration from Mexico? Who benefits and who is hurt — on both sides of the border — by “free trade?” (See “Who’s Stealing Our Jobs?”, and the Rethinking Schools book The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.) After this kind of study, students can more easily recognize a slogan like “build that wall” for the ignorant and hateful demagoguery that it is.

Instead of limiting classroom conversations to the issues as the campaigns define them, teachers can draw on the perspectives of activists who call into question the narrow two-party discourse and offer rich critiques of the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia heard on the campaign trail — and sometimes at school. (See “As a Teacher and a Daughter: The Impact of Islamophobia,” by Nassim Elbardouh, summer 2016.) This is the perfect time to invite local community and campus activists into our classrooms.

The issue of voter suppression is particularly relevant this election. President Obama’s election eight years ago and the changing demographics of the United States motivated Republican legislators and a conservative Supreme Court to roll back historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Teaching about the campaigns for the right to vote — for women, people of color, residents of Washington, DC, or Puerto Rico — exposes the racism and sexism endemic in our nation’s history, as well as the ongoing struggle to turn the United States into a democracy. It also opens up discussions about who can and can’t vote today, why it’s important to vote if you can, and ways to make your voice heard if you can’t.

What is particularly powerful are stories — from the past and from today — about youth working together against racism and other forms of oppression. Resources abound: children’s picture books, young adult novels, short stories, poetry, videos. Check out the archives for Rethinking Schoolsmagazine, our books, and the Zinn Education Project for ideas. Anti-racist teaching is important in all subject areas, not just social studies. Math classes can tackle the racial inequality of the criminal justice system, language arts classes can address gentrification, science classes can focus on environmental justice (see “Lead Poisoning: Bringing Social Justice to Chemistry,” by Karen Zaccor).

And then there’s action beyond the classroom walls. In addition to powerful examples like those of the students in Wisconsin and Oregon, teachers in North Carolina demonstrated at a Clinton rally where Obama was scheduled to speak. They demanded an end to deportations and that Clinton and Obama do everything in their power to release detained refugee youth.

Progressive school board members in various cities are promoting systematic approaches to fighting racism. In Milwaukee, despite objections by right-wing talk show hosts, the school board passed a Black Lives Matter resolution and put nearly half a million dollars in this year’s budget to fund implementation. In San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, and other communities, educators, students, parents, and community activists have come together to fight racism through similar initiatives, such as ethnic studies programs. Many of these draw inspiration from Tucson, Arizona’s hugely successful Mexican American Studies program, outlawed in 2010 by conservative lawmakers. These are the kind of long-term, institutional responses that educators, students, and community members are fighting for.

We need to seize on teachable moments to address racism and white supremacy during this election cycle and, after that, continue and increase our efforts. From the dinner table to the classroom, from staff meetings to school boards, educators need to find ways to put the issue of race and racism front and center and keep it there.

We know time is short before the elections, but the damage wrought by racist comments and slurs fueled by the campaign will be long-lasting. And the anti-racist teaching that emerges because of thoughtful parents and educators — and from students who demand more relevant curricula — will flower and bear fruit long after November’s election. ◼


Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.

Making Climate Change Part of the School Curriculum

By Katy Farber

Originally published at momscleanairforce.org.

It can be a confusing time to be a kid. People on the TV, internet, and radio say conflicting things — about climate change — with seriousness and determination. How hard to tell truth from fiction!

We know that scientists agree that human caused climate change is real, and it is hurting people and ecosystems across the globe.

How can we help students understand this complex issue, and inspire them to work toward creative solutions?

Here at Moms Clean Air Force we are asked how teachers and parents can make sure climate education is part of the curriculum. We were excited to hear about Portland, Oregon’s school board climate justice resolution which “abandoned the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities,” and called for all schools to teach a “climate justice” curriculum.

Shortly after that, the National Education Association voted to support the Portland resolution and to encourage state and local affiliates to create and promote climate literacy resolutions in their own communities, using the Portland resolution as a model. The NEA has over 3 million members.

We wanted to know more, so we reached out to Bill Bigelow curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. Rethinking Schools has been distributing “seed packets” to parents, teachers, and activists around the country, which include a copy of Portland’s school climate resolution, lesson resources, and excerpts from the Rethinking Schools book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

Moms Clean Air Force: Amazing progress in Portland and with the National Education Association, Bill. Why do you think climate education is being supported now? What was the tipping point for Portland?

Bill Bigelow: The resolution in Portland grew out of a workshop that Tim Swinehart and I led on our book for climate justice activists in Portland. People were shocked when we shared with them Portland’s “official” curriculum on climate change, which not only is very puny, but even doubts that it is happening. “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect,” one current social studies text says. Climate activists had recently organized to get the city council to pass an excellent resolution opposing any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland, and so we had the idea to get the school board to pass a resolution acknowledging that climate change is real, is human-caused, is serious, and that it’s urgent that we teach about it across the curriculum.

I suppose you could say that the tipping point was the gulf between what we know about the climate crisis and what the school curriculum included. It had become too huge to ignore. I think that’s true across the country.

What has the reaction been to the Portland resolution?

The resolution in Portland was passed with the support of more than 30 community, education, and environmental justice organizations. So for many people the reaction was jubilation that the school board would unanimously pass this measure. On the other hand, the right wing and climate denial crowd around the country recognized immediately that this was something that could catch on in other communities, and they attacked it as censorship, mocked the idea of “climate justice,” and tried to discredit some of us who led the initiative. We were gratified that the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, endorsed the Portland resolution and urged members across the country to organize to get their own climate literacy resolutions passed. We also had wonderful support from parents, and Climate Parents, which organized a MoveOn petition drive to thank the Portland school board for passing such an important resolution.

Are you seeing more schools, parents, and teachers taking an interest in climate education for students?

Yes. I’ve heard from people all over the country about the Portland climate resolution. And the NEA resolution was introduced not just by Portland teachers but also people in Washington, California, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Rethinking Schools received a small grant to send out “seed packets” to teachers, parents, climate activists and others interested in sponsoring a resolution similar to Portland’s. We have sent these out to teachers and parents across the country.

How can parents and teachers best advocate for climate education in their school systems and states?

The first thing is for concerned parents, teachers, and community members to come together and begin talking about the character of climate education being offered in one’s school district. What curriculum material is in use? Look at the relevant textbooks. As I mentioned, our group in Portland began with a workshop around the book A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, to give people a sense about what we mean by “climate justice” — i.e., that the curriculum needs to feature the voices of people from “frontline” communities, the ones hardest hit by the climate crisis; we need to be exploring the deep social roots of the climate crisis, and we need a curriculum of hope — to put kids in touch with activists who are working for a fossil-free future.

And the kids! How can students take on a leadership role in climate education in the classroom and beyond?

From the very first meeting in Portland, we had students involved in our work — middle and high school students. Some came from Sunnyside Environmental School, a public K-8 school in Portland that focuses its curriculum on environmental awareness. Sunnyside has sponsored annual teach-ins on climate change, on energy issues. This is how students come to take on a leadership role in this: They participate in a curriculum that equips them to understand the enormity of the climate crisis, and also highlights people all around the world who are acting to address it. My experience is that young people want meaningful work, they want to make a difference. But they need to be engaged in an environmental justice curriculum that invites them to be part of the solution.

What is your sense about the future of climate education and action in our country?

That’s a big question. There is such an enormous gap between students’ need to understand the science and social forces underlying the climate crisis and what schools are teaching about it. This is where outside pressure becomes so important. What happens — or doesn’t happen — in schools is of concern to all of us. Environmental organizations, parents, community activists, educators, and students need to band together to demand that school districts get rid of biased, climate denying materials, and launch a process of robust professional development and curriculum creation so that students see clearly what’s at stake and the urgency this issue deserves. Our group in Portland is a good example of the good things that can happen when even a small group of parents, teachers, activists, and students starts to organize and demand change.

Are there climate curriculum models for other districts. What other schools are leading the way?

Portland is the furthest along, and we have only just begun. As a result of the passage of the climate justice resolution, we have begun meeting with the Portland Public Schools administration about the implementation of the resolution. This fall we’ll be sponsoring workshops for teachers with Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a remarkable poet from the Marshall Islands, who gives voice to people who are some of the most vulnerable to the devastating impact of climate change. We will also be conducting a full review of text materials to evaluate these for bias and how adequately they address the human causes of the climate crisis, and its severity. Our Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference will also feature a number of climate-related workshops this fall. The book that Tim Swinehart and I edited, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, is the only one I’m aware of that features role plays, simulations, student-friendly readings, and detailed lesson plans on climate change, and the environmental crisis more broadly. Tim and I began work on this book in 2007, so it’s been a long time in the making. I hope people consider using this as a resource.

Thank you to Bill for talking with us about your work to bring climate education into our nation’s schools. Moms Clean Air Force has a picture book for this very purpose, called Every Breath We Take, for younger children, with free lesson plans HERE.

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