Students “Warrior Up” for Climate Justice

[This is the third installment of our new environmental justice column — Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms — and celebrates the annual two-day “Climate Justice Fair” at Madison High School in Portland. The column regularly appears in the magazine and you can subscribe at ]

By Bill Bigelow

We’re sitting in the cozy, inviting library of Portland, Oregon’s Madison High School. For her research and presentation on a “climate warrior,” Ana chose the late Stephen Schneider, a leading scientist on the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I ask what impact it had on her to study Schneider. She simply says, “He makes me want to be a better person.”

In an audacious embrace of Portland schools’ 2016 climate justice resolution, teachers in Madison’s Citizen Chemistry for All course — a class enrolling more than 300 sophomores in the school — adopted an essential question for the past two years: “Why are human changes to Earth’s carbon cycles at the heart of climate destabilization?” In a paper on Madison’s approach to studying climate change, “Warrioring Up for Climate Justice,” chemistry teacher Treothe Bullock and Restorative Justice coordinator Nyanga Uuka explained that teachers “wanted to support students in building a bridge between the personal and the planetary.” Students would demonstrate their learning in an annual two-day “Climate Justice Fair,” and would represent “communities which are engaging as ‘climate warriors,’ providing critical analysis of their work and/or proposing additional needed activism.”

An honest, rigorous look at the science of climate change can be terrifying and disheartening. Falling into cynicism is a hazard one confronts simply by living in our society, with its inequality, violence, and lack of democracy. But add to that, knowledge of the inexorable rise of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere — and what this heat-trapping pollution means for the Earth — and despair feels like more than a threat, it feels like common sense. Knowing this, Madison chemistry teachers focus not purely on the science of climate destabilization, but also on individuals and organizations taking action to reverse it, inviting students to research “climate warriors,” those who have not given up, those who “know the truth,” and yet are not defeated by it.

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The Midterms, Trumpism, and the Increased Racialization of American Childhood

By Julio Angel Alicea

When Donald Trump was making waves for his bigoted statements about Mexicans, Muslims, and women during the Republican primaries, my high school students, most of them low-income students of color and many also of immigrant families, sought reassurance from me, as their history teacher, that he would not win the presidency. I naively granted them that assurance, thinking to myself “How could the country elect a candidate reminiscent of the segregationist George Wallace?”

After sleeping for what seemed like a few minutes after watching the results pour in, I woke up to an email from my principal. In it, she called for an emergency staff meeting before school to discuss how we would accommodate students’ (and staffs’) varied emotions, concerns, and needs. Not long after, the students whom I had assured came to me with questions of how, why, and what now. My eventual response was to share an affirming poem another teacher had written in the aftermath of the election, but provided only a temporary remedy.

Like others around the country, my school worked hard to affirm my students in the face of the emerging Trumpist wave. We even had an immigration attorney who met with some of our undocumented students who were the most afraid. But despite local efforts like these, Trumpism crept into the minds, hallways, and classrooms across America, resulting in (until now) immeasurable harm.

9781479803682_FullI am not speaking about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s desires to put more guns in schools or Attorney General Sessions’ support of anti-affirmative action causes. Rather, I am speaking about the president’s own pivotal role in reconstructing what sociologist Margaret Hagerman calls the “racial context of childhood” in the United States, in her book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. This context, according to Hagerman, includes, “…certain aspects of a child’s local environment, especially one’s neighborhood but also one’s school, peers.”

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LeBron’s School Should Be Every School — Public, Fully Funded, and with Arms Around the Community

By Ari Bloomekatz

There are few public schools receiving as much attention these days as LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio — and it’s because it’s just that: a public school.

The school opened this summer to 240 3rd and 4th graders who were randomly selected out of a pool of those in the district significantly behind in reading. They will add a grade each academic year and plan to be a 1–8 school by 2022.

“I cannot say how impressed I am that the school @kingjames is opening today to serve low-performing students is a traditional public school. Instead of taking resources from the Akron Public Schools, he is adding to them. This is doing the work. Bravo,” tweeted investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Because it’s a public school, it also means teachers will be unionized. But one defining aspect is its commitment to wraparound support that the school’s principal notes includes a family resource center on school grounds.

“We’re not only into nurturing and loving our students, but we are wrapping around — our arms around the entire family,” Brandi Davis, the school’s principal, told NPR.

Celebrities and millionaires and billionaires and tech giants and titans of industry and sports stars have a long and sordid history of thinking they know what’s best when it comes to education — and trying to profit off it.

>>> This article is from the new fall issue of Rethinking Schools. While it looks great online, it’s best in print. Subscribe now at <<<

They either try to remake the wheel or overwhelmingly invest in private enterprises and charters that often end up draining already scarce resources from the same public school districts they claim to be helping.

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“This Is Our Time, This is Our Moment”: Los Angeles Teachers Are Ready to Strike

An interview with Arlene Inouye, chair of UTLA’s bargaining committee
By Ari Bloomekatz

Mediation between the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles failed in mid-October, and now we’re closer than ever to seeing 33,000 educators walk off the job and strike for better pay, smaller class sizes, and substantive investments in student health among other services.

“The district thinks they can buy us off with a modest pay raise, but our fight has never been just about salary,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “What’s driving educators is the absolute need to fix what we see every day: too many overcrowded classrooms where kids have to share desks, schools with a nurse only one day a week, and overloaded psychologists and counselors doing their best to triage the socio-emotional needs of our students.”

UTLA members say they also want to reduce the number of mandated standardized tests, hold charter schools accountable, improve school safety, and ensure that public education in L.A. is sustained for the next generation.

Both the LAUSD and UTLA are of course claiming the other negotiated in bad faith. And the next step in the process after mediation is fact-finding — the Public Employment Relations Board will assemble a three-member panel (the board appoints the chair and both the union and the district get a seat) that will issue a report and recommendations. After this report is made public, the choice is to either accept the recommendations, or LAUSD can offer their last and best final offer, or the union will strike.

According to the Los Angeles Times, that process could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

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The two sides have been negotiating for around a year and a half and if there was ever any question if the 33,000-member UTLA was ready to strike, that notion was shattered right as the school year began when an unprecedented 83 percent of United Teachers Los Angeles — roughly 27,000 of 33,000 total members — voted almost unanimously (98 percent to be specific) to authorize a strike if negotiations ultimately proved futile.

“After 17 months of bargaining with LAUSD, educators are frustrated and angry,” Arlene Inouye, chair of the UTLA bargaining committee, said at the time. “We want a district that partners with us — not fights us — on critical issues like lower class sizes, fair pay, and bringing more staff to work with our students.”

I sat down with Inouye in September to talk about the prospects of a strike and how UTLA was preparing and able to get so many members on board.

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Despite National Outrage, Scholastic Defends Children’s Books Celebrating Trump

By Deborah Menkart

His buildings reached into the sky.
His businesses just grew and grew.
Then Trump became our president — people wanted something new.

Believe it or not, this poem is included in a picture book about President Trump, published by Scholastic Inc. for 5- to 7-year-olds — and sums up its message.

A companion version for 8- to 12-year-olds is no better. It dedicates 10 glowing pages to Trump’s business career, high-rises, and casinos, but does not include any reference to his outspoken racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

There is a page dedicated to New York City’s Central Park where Trump is credited with rebuilding the Wollman ice skating rink in 1986. No mention is made of another Central Park story, Trump’s crusade against the Central Park Five (all teenagers at the time), including spending $85,000 in 1989 for full-page ads in all four New York daily newspapers calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty. This is a crucial story for understanding Trump’s long history of using racism and law-and-order rhetoric to garner support.

>>> This Ed Alert is from the new fall issue of Rethinking Schools. While it looks great online, it’s best in print. Subscribe at <<<

By dedicating most of the book to Trump’s fancy buildings and TV shows, the implication is that his business experience and stardom led to his election. Although there are a couple of references to prejudice and discrimination, racism is not mentioned once.

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Nurturing Student Activists in the Time of Trump

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

The 2018–19 school year has begun at a time of terrifying climate disruption, seemingly endless war, spectacular inequality, xenophobic and fascist revival, police brutality — and a president fanning the flames of all of the above.

But the year also begins during a renaissance of student activism: around racism and police violence, climate justice, solidarity with immigrants, gun violence, sexual abuse and harassment, and fighting school closures.

So how do social justice educators deepen and support this activism, and seed future activism? How do we equip students to act thoughtfully and effectively? And where are the lines between education and manipulation?

The first way we support student activism is through our curricular choices. Throughout the K–12 curriculum, we want to highlight individuals and movements that challenged injustice, that were grounded in solidarity. We need to make activism common sense. Our curriculum should emphasize that the world becomes more just only when people organize and fight — in the abolition movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, civil rights and anti-racist movements, antiwar movements.

>>> This editorial is from the new fall issue of Rethinking Schools. While it looks great online, it’s best in print. Subscribe at <<<

We should make special efforts to introduce students to young people who worked for justice through collective action — in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, the Chicano student blowouts, the anti-Vietnam War movement, etc. Students should learn that these movements were not built by charismatic leaders but by young people like themselves.

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ED ALERT: Fighting Manufactured Chaos in Puerto Rico’s Public Schools

By Mercedes Martínez and Jia Lee

August 13 marked the first day of school for more than 319,000 students and 22,000 teachers in Puerto Rico. But instead of feeling prepared to start strong a year after Hurricane Maria, school communities across the island braced themselves for the manufactured mess to come.

Governor Ricardo Rosselló, in collaboration with the Puerto Rican legislature and Education Secretary Julia Keleher, signed Law 85 in March. It decreed a voucher system, charter schools, and that 252 schools would be closed (on top of the 190 that were closed in 2017 as part of a neoliberal agenda that aims to undermine public education).

The result is that an island fraught with uncertainty developed another level of chaos with school choice reforms all too familiar to those in post-Katrina New Orleans.

While schools in perfectly good condition in Puerto Rico were closed, others still in disrepair became receiver schools. Before the year even started, teachers in buildings with part of the roof missing reported that they were forced to teach outside in the heat or in ill-prepared rooms with no air conditioners and insufficient furniture and supplies. Overcrowding led to the Department of Education ordering FEMA trailers to accommodate the overflow of students.

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