From the Race to the Top to the Plunge to the Bottom

The Pandemic and Federal Education Policy

By Stan Karp

Horror movie sequels are notoriously bad. This one may be the worst.

In 2009, federal intervention during the last financial crisis gave rise to the Obama administration’s signature education initiative: the Race to the Top (RTTT). Created with $4.3 billion from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, RTTT weaponized its forerunner, the No Child Left Behind Act, and led to new levels of assault on unions, the teaching profession, and public schools, and to a decade of damaging privatization. Its two primary weapons of mass destruction were tests and charters.

It took years of resistance, pushback, and policy failures to turn the tide. NCLB and RTTT were ultimately unsustainable and failed to deliver on their promises. As the 2018 Red for Ed teacher strike wave and the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign showed, resistance and activism helped shift the focus of national education politics from charters and tests to school funding and teacher salaries. Mobilized, militant teachers became the voices of communities digging out from decades of austerity, and support for public education was again on the rise.

But now the Trump pandemic, and the lethal fiasco of the response by U.S. economic and political institutions, has remade the education landscape again. We are back in shock doctrine, disaster capitalism territory and public schools are again in the crosshairs. Teachers are quarantined at home behind computer screens instead of mobilizing in the streets, and school communities are scattered, atomized, and struggling with uncertainty.

The Implications for Federal Education Policy

The emergency CARES Act, passed without a single dissenting vote and signed in March, was the first of several massive pieces of federal legislation rushed through Congress in response to the pandemic. While the CARES Act didn’t include the same kind of signature federal initiative that RTTT represented for Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, it did give Duncan’s successor, the wildly unpopular, right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos, extraordinary powers in a host of important policy areas. 

There will be additional federal action affecting schools in the months ahead, including attempts to address the financial tsunami that is already engulfing school budgets. But even a cursory comparison between the federal response in 2009 and the initial response to the current crisis provides some clues about the extended emergency ahead for public education. 

Continue reading

Rethinking Schools is Hiring a Membership Associate

Summary

Membership Associate needed for half-time work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  This position is responsible for Rethinking Schools’ (RS) customer/member relations and maintaining the central Salesforce database of all constituents of the organization. These include readers, subscribers, donors, members, and allies and partners in social justice work.   

Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization dedicated to sustaining and strengthening public education through social justice teaching and education activism. Our magazine, books, and other resources promote equity and racial justice in the classroom. We encourage grassroots efforts in our schools and communities to enhance the learning and well- being of our children, and to build broad democratic movements for social and environmental justice.

Hours: Beginning as part-time (50%), with the intention to grow the position to full-time over time.

Location: Milwaukee 

Job Responsibilities

  • Provide quality support to customers and others who come in contact via the website or by phone.  Receive customer calls and emails from 2:00-7:00 pm CST Monday through Friday, or equivalent.  Handle issues and complaints in a timely and professional way.
  • “Own” the Rethinking Schools central database, ensuring it holds complete, accurate and updated information.  Manually enter information when needed, look up information for customers, staff and editors, and regularly dedupe and clean the database.
  • Create and run various reports on book buyers, subscribers, donors, etc.
  • Manage thank you letter and marketing series for buyers, subscribers and donors. This includes automated receipt, follow up thanks, and follow up ask and other communications constructed with help from the Marketing Director.
  • Manage logistics for conference sales by setting up iPads, preparing paper point of sale, and manually entering paper point of sale post conference.
  • Support the work of the Marketing Director in targeting, scheduling, sending, and responding to email, text and other customer-facing communications.  
  •  Acquire and maintain knowledge of all RS products. 
  • Travel once per year to national meeting; possibly travel to conferences where Rethinking Schools has a sales table.


Qualifications

As a prerequisite, the successful candidate must believe in the core values of Rethinking Schools, and be driven by its mission. You should have/ be:

  • At least 3 years of database experience, Salesforce strongly preferred.
  • A minimum of 1 to 3 years of customer relations experience, preferably in retail.
  • WordPress, Microsoft Office, Mailchimp or similar ESP proficiency required.
  • A proven track record of successfully managing multiple priorities and job responsibilities. 
  • Internally motivated, self-starter; an energetic customer service representative who can positively impact both systems and sales.
  • Thorough attention to detail, resourcefulness and a talent for problem-solving, tenacity and determination in challenging situations, a high sense of urgency, and an ability to carry out a plan.
  • Interest in public education and equity issues and willingness to become familiar with RS products.
  • Ability to work remotely when necessary

Rethinking Schools is an equal opportunity employer. Women, People of Color, and LGBTQ people are encouraged to apply.  Rethinking Schools offers competitive salaries, prorated insurance benefits for part-time staff, and generous vacation and other leave time.

Details:

Send cover letter, resume, and three references to Gina Palazzari, Director of Operations,  at gina@rethinkingschools.org.   

www.rethinkingschools.org 

Application Deadline: ASAP but open until the position is filled

Wash Your Hands: Navigating Grief and Uncertainty in the Time of the Pandemic

By Linda Christensen

I hadn’t ever planned to teach online, but the Saturday before our college campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to cancel our face-to-face class because one of the students is pregnant, another lives in the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak in the United States, and I’m over 60. It made sense. Besides the snow that evaded us during winter arrived at the edge of spring, and instead of the forecast “dusting,” we had enough to build snow people and to hunker inside with hot chocolate. And many Oregonians are timid about driving in snow.   

My class, Practicum in Teaching Writing, is a year-long follow-up to the Oregon Writing Project’s four-week summer institute. After being steeped in writing over the summer, classroom teachers head back to school and turn what they learned into curriculum for their students. For our class, this means creating a year-long portfolio of their writing lessons, reflections about the lessons, and samples of work generated by students.  Our class has a routine: We start with check-ins, move to writing, then sharing, then working on portfolios and collaborating with grade-level colleagues.  

But this class was held the day after all Oregon and Washington schools closed for a few weeks, soon to be months, and frankly, we were frightened and uncertain about our collective future. Although the topic for our opening check-in was about where we found hope and solidarity emerging in the world during this tough time, the teachers spoke about their final day with students: the fear, sadness, and uncertainty of students and staff. Would they return to the building? Should teachers send homework? What about the kids who received food at school? Whose parents didn’t have childcare options? How long would they be out? What should they take with them? Would they see their students again? 

One 2nd-grade teacher, Kira, stayed at school and recorded herself reading books and talking to the class as if they were still in the room. She sent the video recordings to her students’ families. Ellie, a high school language arts teacher, shared how she had to have students step back from their bravado about how they wouldn’t die from coronavirus to discuss the role of passive carriers. Zach talked about playing ping pong with the members of his department after their students left and how that joyful release was what he needed at that moment. 

I had previously bagged the writing assignment I had created for that day and instead used the poem “Wash Your Hands” by Dori Midnight, which I discovered on Facebook. The poem takes the “wash your hands” mantra and turns it into a meditation on this moment — a song, a political stance, a prayer, advice, a rant. A perfect piece for our first meeting during the tidal wave of pandemic news, panic, and closures. 

I chose the Zoom platform for the class because with Zoom we can see each other, chat in a side bar, and break out into separate rooms for grade-level discussions and sharing our writing and portfolios. Also, Zoom is familiar. I already use it for both Rethinking Schools and National Writing Project meetings. Zoom met our needs for this first class, and I’ve been practicing new functions, like screen sharing and annotating and the whiteboard, as I teach my grandson morning writing lessons using Zoom. And, I thought, some teachers may want to use it in the upcoming months. 

The Lesson

I placed the poem in a google folder. They opened the document from our shared folder (before I discovered the screen sharing function on Zoom), and we read the poem out loud to each other, stanza by stanza. Although I’ve read the poem daily since my first reading, hearing it read out loud allowed me to savor it in a way my solitary reading hadn’t, to highlight new pieces. The second stanza of the poem, my favorite, stands out as a call to love: 

Wash your hands 
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture. 
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource 
made from time and miracle

After reading the poem together, I said, “Please take a few minutes to reread the poem. Mark it up. Look for style and content. Also, highlight places that you think could be jumping off places for our writing — lines, phrases, ideas.”

When reading a piece in the Oregon Writing Project, our mantra is “raise the bones.” What we mean is to reread a piece of writing, looking for the writer’s style: What techniques did the author employ that made the hair on the back of our necks stand up or that brought tears to our eyes or made us stop and ponder or made us want to take up a pen and try that repeating line or idea ourselves? But “raising the bones” also means paying attention to content. What was the topic, evidence, story? Why is it important? Do we have something to add to the conversation that the writer started? 

After reading the poem to raise the bones, I placed teachers into breakout rooms of three or four to discuss the poem. Although this class is not large — 12 teachers most days — I wanted everyone to be heard, to give them time, as I do with high school students, to practice their responses. I used the breakout room function on Zoom and gave them 10 minutes to meet and discuss the poem. During this time, I moved from room to room listening in. After 10 minutes, I gave a Zoom warning, then reconvened the large group. 

When we gathered again, I asked the class to talk about the lines they loved. Our favorite stanza included a list of the ways to wash your hands with love. But the stanza about fear also resonated with our current state: 

When fear arises, 
and it will,
let it wash over your whole body instead of staying curled up tight in
your shoulders.
If your heart tightens,
contract
and expand.
science says: compassion strengthens the immune system

But we also loved other lines — “it’s already time” and “stardust and geologic time.” Besides loving the language of the poem, we discussed the intention of the poem — the need to be more compassionate, especially to those struggling with chronic illnesses, to look out for others, to stop consuming, to understand the systemic failures of our economic system.

As I looked at the gallery of faces on my screen, most sitting on couches, a few at desks, where we see bookshelves, windows, artwork — a small intimate window into each other’s lives — I asked, “So what lines, words or ideas could you use as a jump off for a poem?” I started the conversation by suggesting playing with the line “wash your hands like,” but maybe changing the verb “wash” to another verb that might also elicit a list. “I absolutely love the poet’s list of people. Specific. Eclectic. The people she names tells me so much about who Midnight is.” I think it was Lindsey who pointed to the possibility of using the phrase, “It is already been time” or “it is always true.” Tamarah loved the phrase, “stardust and geologic time” and wanted to weave that into a poem. Someone, maybe Harriet, suggested using the phrase, “when fear arises.”  Aaron liked the end of the poem, the returning to traditions as a way of healing and coping with the anxiety that has risen and shrouded us. 

Before we turned off our videos and muted our audios, I said, “This may not be a time for a poem for you. This could be a narrative. A rant. An editorial. An interior monologue. Let this be a time and place for you to write what you need to say right now. This poem is a lift-off. Find your own path.” We wrote for 20 minutes. After we gathered again, I returned them to breakout rooms, so everyone could read their poems out loud to each other. In a longer class, I would have had a full class read-around. 

Perhaps it’s not necessary to note, but I will: There were no handouts for teachers to fill out. The material for the writing came from the lives of the people in the room. The writing helped them frame the grief, despair, as well as moments of solidarity at this moment in time. They didn’t need a rubric. They didn’t need a list of rules for poetry or narrative or essay. What they needed was time to write and share about what was happening in their world at this moment.

Harriet volunteered Kira to read her piece to the entire group. Kira, who always wears a smile, serious glasses, and lights up a room with her optimism, wrote about the need for connection: We are learning to show and share love differently./ The time of high fives and handshakes are on hold./ Elbow bumps, waves, and smiles will step in/ Because we still crave human connection/ And will take it however we can get it… We will lean on the internet now more than ever/ For music/ For hope/ For joy/ Because staying apart is now the biggest act of love we can show.” After she read, someone suggested that we all put our poems in the group folder and said that the lesson and their poems should be sent out in solidarity to our wider OWP writing community.  

And with their permission, I’m sharing a few stanzas of their pieces. Kym teaches 2nd grade, and like me, tears up easily, especially when she talks about her students. When she applied for the Oregon Writing Project, her administrator, who is also an OWP coach, said, “Seriously, Linda, Kym is one of the best teachers I have ever witnessed.” Kym’s piece evoked the classroom on the last day: closing the doors and the memory of students and what is left behind: 

Tell them you’ll see them in two weeks although you have no idea
how long it will really be. Watch them traipse onto the bus with their oversized backpacks and dinosaur shoes and glitter hair beads and unicorn jackets, faces glancing back with wide eyes. Close the classroom door behind them.

Wash the handle, lovingly, with Clorox. Do the whole door. Wash the desks and tables. Let your eyes rest on what’s left behind: drawings of Katherine Johnson, broken crayons, bunny stickers, the books a parent surprised you with on Wednesday, the Patrisse Cullors quote you scribbled under the Black Lives Matter photo for them to read to each other: Nothing can break a community united, a community guided by love.

Harriet, who teaches middle school, who came to the Writing Project in the last third of her teaching career, is a lover of words, a life-long learner, a petite woman turned overalls into fashion, who I can turn to in an hour of need. She wrote about the loss of hugs:

In the time of the loss of the human hug, I am recommitted
To the hug and the metaphor for the hug:

the photograph 
the poem the fiddled tune 
the falling snow

the zoomed conversation 
the imagined cup of tea, 
served on a saucer 
to the one in need, 
with the simple words, 
I know…

Sam, who grew up at the entrance to Portland’s vast Forest Park, teaches
high school language arts, loves to wander in wilderness, get lost in
mountains, wrote:

I remember high school and Nokia cell phones,
My self-righteous resistance to being connected
To everyone else all the time.

And it is true that the more connected we are
Through the invisible ether, the harder it is
To feel the ground beneath our feet.

But it is also true that we have been connected
By ties we cannot see since the beginning of time.

It is already time to recognize this interweaving.
It is already time to acknowledge the common
Fate we share, and the common call to face it
With care, and compassion.

All creeks braid their way to the sea.
All of growing up is finding our way to that
Vast horizon.

Each of our poems signified the ways that this crisis pushed us to reflect on what lay behind and what lay ahead, fueled by our fears, our understanding of who we are and who we have been and how the unknown that loomed ahead might change us. On this first day out of school, we struggled together, through poetry, to find footing on unstable ground and community through an internet connection. 

Now that three weeks have passed from that first online class, I realize how naive my assumptions were about teaching during coronavirus. That first wave of grief has risen, a steady incline, like the graphs on the nightly news showing COVID-19 cases. As schools pass out laptops and lunches to kids whose folks have lost jobs and send mixed messages and mandates to teachers trying to hold their own homes and families together while they deal with the enormous weight of their students’ fears, I think about what our students need now. Not packets. Not third quarter grades. Certainly not learning targets. What I didn’t get wrong about teaching in the time of a pandemic is that in whatever way education moves forward, we must begin with our students’ lives at the center.

Linda Christensen (lmc@lclark.edu) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice

Artist: Sawsan Chalabi

wash your hands
By Dori Midnight

We are humans relearning to wash our hands. 
Washing our hands is an act of love
Washing our hands is an act of care
Washing our hands is an act that puts the hypervigilant body at ease 
Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve.


Wash your hands 
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture. 
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource 
made from time and miracle

Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say.
Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.
To which I would add: burn some plants your ancestors burned when there was fear in the air,
Boil some aromatic leaves in a pot on your stove until your windows steam up.
Open your windows 
Eat a piece of garlic every day. Tie a clove around your neck. 
Breathe.

My friends, it is always true, these things.
It has already been time.
It is always true that we should move with care and intention, asking
Do you want to bump elbows instead? with everyone we meet.
It is always true that people are living with one lung, with immune systems that don’t work so well, or perhaps work too hard, fighting against themselves. It is already true that people are hoarding the things that the most vulnerable need. 
It is already time that we might want to fly on airplanes less and not go to work when we are sick.
It is already time that we might want to know who in our neighborhood has cancer, who has a new baby, who is old, with children in another state, who has extra water, who has a root cellar, who is a nurse, who has a garden full of elecampane and nettles. 
It is already time that temporarily non-disabled people think about people living with chronic illness and disabled folks, that young people think about old people.
It is already time to stop using synthetic fragrances to not smell like bodies, to pretend like we’re all not dying. It is already time to remember that those scents make so many of us sick. 
It is already time to not take it personally when someone doesn’t want to hug you.
It is already time to slow down and feel how scared we are. 

We are already afraid, we are already living in the time of fires.

When fear arises, 
and it will,
let it wash over your whole body instead of staying curled up tight in your shoulders.
If your heart tightens,
contract
and expand.
science says: compassion strengthens the immune system
We already know that, but capitalism gives us amnesia
and tricks us into thinking it’s the thing that protect us
but it’s the way we hold the thing.
The way we do the thing.

Those of us who have forgotten amuletic traditions, 
we turn to hoarding hand sanitizer and masks. 
we find someone to blame. 
we think that will help. 
want to blame something? 
Blame capitalism. Blame patriarchy. Blame white supremacy. 

It is already time to remember to hang garlic on our doors
to dip our handkerchiefs in thyme tea
to rub salt on our feet
to pray the rosary, kiss the mezuzah, cleanse with an egg.
In the middle of the night,
when you wake up with terror in your belly, 
it is time to think about stardust and geological time
redwoods and dance parties and mushrooms remediating toxic soil.
it is time
to care for one another
to pray over water
to wash away fear
every time we wash our hands

Dori Midnight practices community-based intuitive healing that weaves plant and stone medicine, ancestral and queer magic, and justice work. She lives on occupied Pocumtuc/Nipmuc territory, also known as Western Massachusetts, where she teaches, creates ritual, makes potions, and maintains a local and distance healing practice.

Education in the Time of the Coronavirus


By The Editors of Rethinking Schools

This editorial appears in the spring 2020 issue of Rethinking Schools.

First, we hope that you are safe and healthy. This is a stressful and frightening time for everyone, and the uncertainty of where the coronavirus pandemic is headed adds to our anxiety. Our schools are closing. Our conferences have been cancelled. Our communities are under emergency alert. We are told to practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus. And that is right — from a public health standpoint.

But we cannot allow “social distancing” to be a metaphor for how we respond to this crisis and the profound social failure it reflects. This crisis threatens to amplify inequality in countless ways, and more than ever, we need to respond from a place of community, compassion, and solidarity.

We go to press with this issue in late March and we have no idea what’s in store, or how things will have changed by the time you read this. But we know certain things about the history of crises. As Naomi Klein documented in her seminal work, The Shock Doctrine, elite groups always use crises to push “solutions” that enhance their power and profit — to pursue the “policy trinity,” as Klein puts it: “the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending . . .” The same is already happening during this crisis, with Trump pushing tax cuts and bailouts that disproportionately benefit those who need no help, and angling to bail out his friends in the oil and gas industry as prices plummet. 

On March 12, the Federal Reserve system poured an emergency infusion of $1.5 trillion into credit and financial markets. No one asked, “How will you pay for it?” The amount was nearly equal to the total student loan burden that has saddled generations with staggering debt while successive administrations pursued austerity for the many and “socialism” for the rich.

Amidst the all-too-familiar press for a corporate agenda, we can also see the outlines of a more progressive response. Activists and social movements are demanding immediate steps toward free universal health care, paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, direct subsidies to those facing loss of jobs and income, an end to evictions, a moratorium on foreclosures and utility cut-offs, and emergency housing for all who need it. We need a systemwide social justice “shock.” 

As K–12 schooling moves out of buildings and onto the internet, we know that profiteers and hucksters will promote a commodified vision of teaching and learning. Who needs real teachers when students can simply be planted in front of computers? And we have already seen outfits like the  Koch brothers-funded Bill of Rights Institute, stepping up advocacy of its laissez-faire capitalist ideology, embedded in online U.S. History and Government lessons about “freedom and opportunity that exist in a free society.” The right-wing loves a crisis. As the free-market guru Milton Friedman wrote in the Wall Street Journal following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”

Now is not the time to pull away from social justice education activism, but to find new ways to express it. As schools go onto the internet (at least for older students) — or into hibernation — we need to make sure this happens in a way that does not promote greater inequality. For many of our students, schools are not only sites of learning, but sources of nutrition and health care. We need to organize to protect and expand these services. As with other forms of wealth in our society, computer technology and internet access are not distributed equally. We need to ensure that whatever alternative means of teaching and learning school districts institute have equity at the center — that includes freezing standardized testing, which only magnifies inequality. And as Trump denounces the “foreign virus” that has invaded our country, we have to organize against this naked xenophobia, and to defend especially the rights of children in immigrant detention centers, who are some of its most vulnerable victims.

For almost 35 years, Rethinking Schools has argued for the defense, and for the transformation, of public schools. Because quality education — education that is participatory, joyful, hopeful, critical, antiracist, alert to cultural and linguistic diversity, academically rigorous, and that equips students to build a better world — is a human right. But so is health care. So is housing. So is clean water and affordable energy. So is meaningful work. So is transportation. And so is a stable climate. These are all components of the more democratic and egalitarian society that we want for our students and for ourselves.

Organize for a better future bee

Ricardo Levins Morales

The coronavirus crisis is horrific, and even in its early days has led to great suffering, and widespread terror. But this crisis is not a time of retreat; it is a time to insist on, to organize for, an agenda of human rights and wealth redistribution. Has there ever been a time when the need for universal free health care was more essential — and more obvious? Or paid family and medical leave? Or for everyone to have guaranteed access to clean water and a safe place to live?

So yes, please wash your hands, and then raise them, to continue to fight for equality and justice.

 

The Coronavirus and Our Work

Organize for a better future bee(Ricardo Levins Morales)

 

First, we hope that you are safe and healthy. This is a stressful and frightening time for everyone, and the uncertainty of where the coronavirus pandemic is headed adds to our anxiety. Our schools are closing. Our conferences have been cancelled. Our communities are under emergency alert.

This crisis threatens to amplify inequality in countless ways, and more than ever, we need to respond from a place of community, compassion, and solidarity. Through it all, Rethinking Schools remains committed to providing social justice teaching, storytelling, and resources during these uncertain times.

 

Now is not the time to pull away from social justice education activism, but to find new ways to express it. As schools go onto the internet — or into hibernation — we need to make sure this happens in a way that does not promote greater inequality. For many of our students, schools are not only sites of learning, but sources of nutrition and health care. We need to organize to protect and expand these services. As with other forms of wealth in our society, computer technology and internet access are not distributed equally. We need to ensure that whatever alternative means of teaching and learning school districts institute have equity at the center — that includes suspending standardized testing and expanding resources to serve the immediate needs of school communities. And as Trump denounces the “foreign virus” that has invaded our country, we have to organize against this naked xenophobia, and to defend especially the rights of children in immigrant detention centers, who are some of its most vulnerable victims.
 

The coronavirus crisis is horrific, and even in its early days has led to great suffering. But this crisis is not a time of retreat; it is a time to insist on, to organize for, an agenda of human rights and wealth redistribution. Has there ever been a time when the need for universal free health care was more essential — and more obvious? Or paid sick leave? Or for everyone to have guaranteed access to clean water and a safe place to live?

If you have a story to share about hope, inspiration, and organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider submitting it to Rethinking Schools.

So let’s wash our hands, and then raise them in the fight for equality and justice.

Solidarity,
Rethinking Schools Board, Editors, and Staff

barbara_lee_climate_education

Rep. Barbara Lee Calls for Climate Education in All Schools

“We need to teach every young person the human impacts of climate change and how to combat the climate crisis before it is too late.”  
By Bill Bigelow

barbara_lee_climate_education

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) met with press on Thursday Sept. 19, 2019 to announce that she would be introducing a House Resolution in support of teaching climate change in schools. (Photo: @RepBarbaraLee)

covering-climate-now-logo

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

In May of 2016, the school board in Portland, Oregon, passed what is believed to be the first comprehensive climate education resolution in the country. It called for climate justice curriculum, increased professional development, support for student activism, and for the school district to abandon the use of text materials that deny the human roots of the climate crisis or minimize its effects.

“Imagine if young people throughout the United States had a climate justice education that asked them to consider the roots of the climate crisis, to examine the profoundly unequal ways the crisis is manifesting itself throughout the world, and to think of themselves as activists who can make the world cleaner, safer, and more equal.”

This climate education work gets a big boost today from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) who is remembered for her courageous stand as the only member of Congress to vote against the authorization of the use of force in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Today, commemorating what promises to be the largest climate strike ever, Lee’s office says she will officially introduce a House Resolution to support the teaching of climate change in schools throughout the United States.

Like Portland’s school board resolution, this is not only a call for more “climate literacy.” Lee’s resolution also emphasizes that the climate crisis is a social crisis. In introducing the resolution, she said, “We need to teach every young person the human impacts of climate change and how to combat the climate crisis before it is too late.”  

The resolution emphasizes that “climate change is a generational social justice, racial justice, and human rights issue.” It has been endorsed by diverse education and environmental justice organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the Sierra Club, the National Center for Science Education, the Mom’s Clean Air Force, Students for Climate Action, and Rethinking Schools.

The resolution begins from the premise that student climate activism is essential, but “in order to meaningfully act upon our changing climate and changed world, young people need education about its causes, consequences, anticipated future impacts, and possible solutions.” And, “when students engage in a climate change curriculum, they can develop a greater sense of efficacy about their capacity to address critical social and environmental issues.”

The congresswoman’s House Resolution emphasizes, a changing climate “disproportionately affects students of color and students in poverty, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities and limiting equality of opportunity.”

Lee is also a co-sponsor of HR 109, The Green New Deal—the most ambitious Congressional statement outlining how to tackle the climate crisis, and simultaneously address broader social inequality. But as Rethinking Schools magazine editors pointed out in a recent editorial, as ambitious as the Green New Deal is, it never mentions the word schools. 

Thus, Lee’s resolution is a welcome gesture, reminding her colleagues—and everyone else—that the climate crisis especially affects young people, that young people are and will be at the center of those demanding action, and that the Green New Deal has profound implications for our schools. 

Here in Portland, Oregon, where I work with the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee, emboldened by the promises of the school board’s 2016 climate justice resolution, last spring, students and climate activists raised a series of demands for more robust implementation of the resolution. One of these demands was that the school district hire someone whose only job would be to promote climate justice education throughout the school district—working with students, frontline communities, environmental and social justice organizations, teachers, administrators, and with the school district’s Climate Justice Committee. In May, Portland’s school board authorized funds for this position, and the country’s first “Climate Change and Climate Justice Programs Manager” begins work next week. 

In a statement Thursday, Rep. Lee said, “By failing to address climate change in a meaningful way, we are failing our children—and they know it.” 

Imagine if young people throughout the United States had a climate justice education that asked them to consider the roots of the climate crisis, to examine the profoundly unequal ways the crisis is manifesting itself throughout the world, and to think of themselves as activists who can make the world cleaner, safer, and more equal. The House Resolution now introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee may be an important step in that direction.

bill-bigelow Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Oregon for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration, and most recently, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

On September 20th, if Our Students Are Not in the Streets, Let’s Bring the Streets to Our Students

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

At the end of August a group of student activists presented a letter to the Portland, Oregon, School Board regarding their plans to walk out of school on September 20th, part of a wave of activities in the week-long Global Climate Strike. The letter included an ambitious set of demands — no penalties, academic or extracurricular, for student strikers; the right to organize and promote the strike at school; dissemination of climate justice curriculum for educators to teach in the days leading up to and on September 20th; and more. The letter left me energized and inspired to do my part as a teacher to act in solidarity with my students.

There was only one problem: Those activists who have been showing up to school board meetings, sitting on climate justice committees, and organizing the September 20th walk-out, are not my students.

Although I live in Portland, I do not teach there. I teach in a wealthy suburb south of the city and, in the first two weeks of school, I have heard not a word about September 20th from my 11th-grade U.S. history students. In fact, when we read an article about Greta Thunberg’s activism, only a handful of students celebrated her actions and expressed support for the strike; most of my students were dismissive, even hostile, to the strikers and the climate emergency for which they’re sounding the alarm. Some students questioned the efficacy of the tactic: “It’s not like skipping school actually fixes the problem they’re supposedly so concerned about.” Others questioned the motivation of the strikers: “I think a lot of kids are just looking for an excuse to skip school.” Still other students expressed alarming views on our climate future: “There is really nothing anyone can do to stop climate change at this point. We need to focus on developing new technologies. Technology is the only thing that is going to save us.”

So what does educator solidarity with the student strikers on September 20th look like at a school like mine, with students like these? Or what about for other teachers, who work in schools that will not countenance a walk-out from kids, much less educators?

First, we can recognize a more meaningful solidarity with climate justice activists will not be limited to a single day but extend throughout the year. Indeed, in the second week of school, by sharing their assumptions about climate change and youth activism, my students offered me a roadmap of some teaching I need to do in the year ahead, on climate change, yes, but also on the history of activism and social change, and, in particular, the role of young people. To imagine and enact the kind of change that is necessary to avert further catastrophe, and to build a more fair, equal, and just world moving forward, our students need the tools offered by a rich, multidisciplinary climate syllabus. Our curriculum will need to emphasize the causes and consequences of, and current responses to, climate change while unearthing lessons from times in our past when collective resistance and social movements changed the world in unimaginably significant ways.

Second, at a minimum, on September 20th, we can surface the climate emergency (to which the strike is planned to draw attention) in our classrooms. I will be in the early days of a unit on the Gilded Age; it will be easy to tie in climate change by examining the exponential growth in the burning of fossil fuels that occurred during that era or the unregulated extraction of the earth’s resources by powerful men, celebrated as the quintessential U.S. capitalists. I am confident many teachers can find ways to make a lesson on climate justice “fit” in their existing scope and sequence.

But since few (perhaps none) of my students will walk out on September 20th, I want to make sure class is not business as usual on that day. I have the freedom in my school to abandon the calendar — at least for a day. Almost every year there comes a time when important events overtake my syllabus. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered two people on a MAX train in Portland, my students and I spent time processing and writing poetry of sorrow and solidarity to offer to the school communities that had been impacted. At the start of my first year teaching full time, 9/11 occurred, and I suspended my curriculum only days after I had launched it. Just as in these examples, I will share with my students the “why” behind our breach with the status quo. I will explain that since the climate crisis requires, in the words of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” and since activists have spent a lot of time and energy organizing this week of action, we are going to take the day to learn a bit about their work. I will invite students to Meet Today’s Climate Justice Activists, by participating in a mixer role play profiling activists from all over the world, many of them young people. Since my students will not be taking to the streets, this lesson will allow me to bring the streets to my students.

Third, we can build in and protect time and space in our curriculum after the strike for understanding and analyzing what happened on September 20th, with a keen eye toward the stories not making front pages and social media feeds. My students deserve a clearer, fuller view of the (mostly unheralded) student strikers — not just Greta Thunberg — to counter some of the misinformation fueling their dismissive judgments. They deserve an opportunity to change their minds.

Fourth, we can reach out to find allies among colleagues, parents, and community members to push forward the climate curriculum and policy of our schools. Four of my colleagues met after school last week to chat; we brainstormed lesson plans for 9/20, talked about where we might build in climate analysis to existing units, and shared what we’d been hearing from students in the first weeks of school. Our informal meeting in my classroom is a far cry from the achievements of the Portland team of parents, students, educators, and activists who succeeded in pressuring the school board to pass a sweeping, first-of-its-kind climate resolution in 2016. But it’s a start.

The September 20th walkout was called by students; but there is a clear ask of adults. The organizers wrote,

“We’re asking adults to step up alongside us. There are many different plans under way in different parts of the world for adults to join together and step up and out of your comfort zone for our climate. Let’s all join together, with your neighbours, co-workers, friends, family and go out on to the streets to make your voices heard and make this a turning point in our history.”

For some of us, this stepping up may take the form of walking out with our students. But for many of us, that may not be practical, either because, as in my case, there seems to be no student movement to join, or because the professional risks are simply too great. But the alternative to walking out need not be silence. Let’s join the students, whether in the streets, or in our classrooms, by using our teacher voices for climate justice.

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (ursulawolfe@gmail.com) teaches at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. She is an editor for Rethinking Schools and a teacher organizer for the Zinn Education Project.

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.