The March for Our Lives and National Day of Action Against Gun Violence: Two Opportunities to Involve Young Children

By Bob Peterson

During my three decades of teaching elementary school I was regularly impressed with how much my students knew about what was happening in the world, and even more impressed by their desire to learn more.

Yes, eyebrows were raised, and at times, parents called principals questioning why my students were discussing certain topics. Sometimes other teachers wondered why my students would volunteer to miss recess to organize a Stop Child Labor action or why the Kids Against the War club would pass out black arm bands to classmates every Friday.

The concern was that “these children are too young to discuss these issues.”

My response, “Really? Do you know what our students’ lives are like?”


One year when one my student’s cousins was murdered, we spent time talking about gun violence and studying gun ownership and homicide statistics during math time. At one point, I asked my 10-year-old students how many had ever held a handgun. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the boys. Being a skeptic who had early in my teaching career learned that 10-year-olds had a propensity to exaggerate, I pressed my students to describe the gun and who owned it. I was stunned. Many of the students not only reeled off the name of the person, but also knew the name of the particular handgun.

“Too young” to discuss things that directly effect their lives? I disagree. Despite parents’ best attempts to shield their children from the frightful and worsening problems that surround us, we are rarely successful.

The massacre of 17 teenagers and teachers at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is only the most recent tragedy that challenges parents and educators alike.

Should we try to shield young children? If not, how do we talk with them about such horrific events?

An editorial in last summer’s edition of Rethinking Schools addressed this issue:

Young children live in the world, just like we do. They listen to snippets of news reports on the radio; they catch clips of news broadcasts on the television; they hear things from their siblings, parents, and classmates. They watch movies and play video games that encode social tensions and global conflicts. And most importantly, in this time of intense political upheaval, they feel the stress and anger that adults around them are feeling. For many children, poverty, racism, and anti-immigrant hysteria have a daily impact on their lives. When we choose not to deal with these issues explicitly and sensitively, we effectively leave children alone with their misunderstandings and fears.

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Teachers Can Respond to Trump’s Racial Hatred with Empathy and Inquiry

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

By now, most of us have read of Trump’s vile and racist comments of last Thursday.

We all have a moral obligation to speak out against the sentiments uttered by the president, to reject the cruel policies he champions through such sentiments, and demand forthright opposition to his words and deeds by our elected representatives.

And in this struggle, teachers have a special obligation and opportunity to take sustained actions that inoculate young people against Trump’s racist poison and defend immigrant and refugee students who are vulnerable to his cruel words and policies.

In all of our classes, and especially in courses that engage issues of history, citizenship, current events, and cultural identity, we can forge a curriculum of empathy and intellectual engagement that pierces the politics of cruelty with inquiry into the realities of immigration and the social/political context within which it unfolds.

Such a curriculum might explore how the United States propped up dictators in El Salvador during a devastating civil war in the 1980s, forcing many to flee to the United States, and how NAFTA in the 1990s greatly increased rural poverty in Mexico, also driving many to seek jobs in our country. Or how the United States enforced a violent occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, and recently how earthquake relief was skewed to benefit U.S. corporations. Or how boasts of American commitment to freedom and democracy were often belied in Africa by U.S. complicity with South African apartheid and support for bloody dictators.

In response to Trump’s demonization of immigrants and refugees as the source of drugs, crime, welfare abuse, and terrorism, a curriculum of empathy and intellectual engagement can help students discern important realities: the lower crime rate of immigrants compared to native-born citizens, the diligence of newcomers in finding jobs and contributing to our communities, and the lack of evidence that either immigrants or refugees pose a terrorist threat.

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Overcoming Hate in our Backyards

By Mica Pollock

Hate speech and harassment have spiked nationwide since the 2016 election. They’ve spiked in our own backyards, too — requiring each community to counteract hate proactively.

unnamedWe can counter hate at our dinner tables; we can do it via our religious organizations. I suggest we counter hate particularly where we most come together daily: in our schools.

I started writing about a spike in hateful talk and harassment on campuses both before and right after the election. The question then was whether that spike would fade. No such luck: a recent, nationally representative UCLA survey found that 27 percent of 1535 teachers surveyed in May 2017 “reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. This included sexist as well as racist and anti-Muslim comments.” Recent hate and harassment examples from schools nationwide included school swastikas and n-words scrawled on bathroom walls, taunts to peers about deportation, and other visible messages like “Kill the [N-word]” and “F–k Jews.” Teachers in eight states used the word “emboldened” to describe students’ increasingly hateful remarks in class — including never-before-encountered explicit statements of white supremacy. Teachers nationwide told researchers they wanted help handling the hate surge – and 91.6 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that “national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”

Children and youth don’t live in a vacuum: they hear and repeat the words adults say. (Just last month, Pennsylvania educators I met recounted n-word taunts by both teens and parents at a fall sports game; fliers just sent during a November New Jersey school board race called for two Asian American candidates to be “deported.”) And after many months of public speech denigrating people of all kinds, our spike in hate is truly national — including in my state and town.

This summer, California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra released a report showing that statewide, the number of hate crime offenses increased 12.6 percent last year — “the second consecutive double-digit increase after years of decline,” as NBC news put it. Hate crimes — based on race/ethnicity/national origin, sexual orientation, religion, and more — occurred on streets, in neighborhoods, around places of worship, and, as nationally, in schools. My town, San Diego, was the source of these incidents too. Of 1190 hate crime offenses statewide in 2016, 105 were in San Diego County. And as San Diego Deputy District Attorney Oscar Garcia put it to me, most experts agree that hate crimes are underreported to police. “Over the past two years, I’ve also definitely seen a spike in informally reported hate incidents and calls from community leaders and civil rights groups in San Diego,” he added. “People seem to think you can say whatever you want now, even if it denigrates and humiliates people.”

Some focus debate on whether Trump himself has caused the hate spike. As an LA County sheriff put it this summer, “The vast majority of what we’re seeing is vandalism, like a swastika here or there, or people making a blanket statement about hating a certain group of people, but we can’t directly link that to the election.” Others explicitly blame Trump’s leader-level modeling of derogatory talk — even as the repeated term “emboldening” demonstrates that derogatory ideas existed long before him. (David Duke, of course, famously cited Trump’s election as key to emboldening white supremacists marching proudly on Charlottesville with torches.) But while we can debate the “cause” of specific swastikas or slurs forever, the bigger point is the effect of a hate spike on our communities — and our children. As George W. Bush put it recently, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children.”

Kids are indeed hearing every hateful word — and for many months, they’ve been repeating them. A social media survey of 50,000 teens by the Human Rights Campaign found in January 2017 that “high school students described bus rides bristling with homophobic and racist epithets and attacks,” with 70 percent of respondents reporting “witnessing bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the 2016 election.” The Southern Poverty Law Center documented a nationwide wave of students repeating slurs and harassing peers on campuses during and after the election; while some taunts flew in all political directions, they called the spike “the Trump effect” because so many students were quoting Trump directly while taunting. Journalists captured various examples in my own region this past school year. In Southern California, for example, a father had to explain to his fifth-grade daughter what a swastika is after someone drew it on a chalkboard in her classroom next to the words “Go Trump.” An Asian American middle schooler described how a group of girls would “target” her by passing her locker and making statements about Trump keeping out immigrants: “Some days they’d scream my name and say phrases they heard Trump say.”

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Cyber Monday: Stock Up on Social Justice Resources for Educators

As online capitalism goes into overdrive today, put some social justice into your Cyber Monday purchases! Get 40% off all book and subscription orders from Rethinking Schools. Go to and USE CODE: CMK17B (Enter at checkout. Valid only through 11/27/2017).


The Black Panther Party Was Founded on This Day in 1966: Here’s What We Don’t Learn About the Black Panther Party in Our Schools — but Should

By Adam Sanchez and Jesse Hagopian

On Monday April 1, 1967 “George Dowell and several neighbors from North Richmond, California . . . heard 10 gunshots. Sometime after 5:00 a.m., George came upon his older brother Denzil Dowell lying in the street, shot in the back and head. Police from the county sheriff’s department were there, but no ambulance had been called. . . . [The] sheriff’s office reported that deputy sheriffs Mel Brunkhorst and Kenneth Gibson had arrived at the scene at 4:50 a.m. on a tip from an unidentified caller about a burglary in progress. They claimed that when they arrived, Denzil Dowell and another man ran from the back of a liquor store and refused to stop when ordered to halt. Brunkhorst fired one blast from a shotgun, striking Dowell and killing him. . . .

For the Dowells, the official explanation did not add up, and community members helped the family investigate. . . . There was no sign of entry, forced or otherwise, at Bill’s Liquors, the store that Dowell had allegedly been robbing. Further, the police had reported that Dowell had not only run but also jumped two fences to get away before being shot down. But Dowell had a bad hip, a limp, and the family claimed that he could not run, let alone jump fences. . . . A doctor who worked on the case told the family that judging from the way the bullets had entered Dowell’s body, Dowell had been shot with his hands raised. . . . Mrs. Dowell publicly announced, ‘I believe the police murdered my son.’ . . . A white jury took little time deciding that the killing of unarmed Dowell was ‘justifiable homicide’ because the police officers on the scene had suspected that he was in the act of committing a felony. Outraged, the Black community demanded justice.”
—Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party

Helping North Richmond’s Black community demand justice for the killing of Denzil Dowell was one of the first major organizing campaigns of the Black Panther Party, and the first issue of The Black Panther newspaper, which at its height around 1970 had a circulation of 140,000 copies per week, asked, “WHY WAS DENZIL DOWELL KILLED?” Anyone reading the story of Dowell today can’t help but draw parallels to the unarmed Black men and women regularly murdered by police. The disparity between the police’s story and the victim’s family’s, the police harassment Dowell endured before his murder, the jury letting Dowell’s killer off without punishment, even the reports that Dowell had his hands raised while he was gunned down, eerily echo the police killings today that have led to the explosion of the movement for Black lives.

Yet when we learn about the early years of the Panthers, the organizing they did in Richmond — conducting their own investigation into Dowell’s death, confronting police who harassed Dowell’s family, helping mothers in the community organize against abuse at the local school, organizing armed street rallies in which hundreds filled out applications to join the Party — is almost always absent. Born just over 50 years ago, the history of the Black Panther Party holds vital lessons for today’s movement to confront racism and police violence — yet textbooks either misrepresent or minimize the significance of the Panthers. Armed with a revolutionary socialist ideology, they fought in Black communities across the nation for giving the poor access to decent housing, health care, education, and much more. And as the Panthers grew, so did the issues they organized around.

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Backpack Full of Cash: New Documentary Narrated by Matt Damon Explores School Privatization

By Barbara Miner

Like many supporters of public education, Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow had become increasingly concerned in the last decade about the attacks on public schools and teachers.

They decided to do something about it.

The result, five years in the making, is their recently released documentary, Backpack Full of Cash.

“Everyone who values democratic education needs to see this,” Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and other education books, says of the film.

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Christopher Columbus: No Monuments for Murderers

By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking ColumbusNew York Times article, following the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer, described the growing calls to remove monuments that celebrate the Confederacy. The article went on to cite some who balk, however, when “the symbolism is far murkier, like Christopher Columbus.”

But there is nothing murky about Columbus’ legacy of slavery and terrorism in the Americas. The record is clear and overwhelming. The fact that The New York Times could report this with such confidence — adding that “most Americans learn rather innocently, in 1492 [Columbus] sailed the ocean blue until he discovered the New World” — means that educators and activists still have much work to do.

In fact, Christopher Columbus launched the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1494, when he sent back at least two dozen enslaved Taínos, including children, to Spain. In February of that year, Columbus dispatched 12 of his 17 ships from the Caribbean back to Spain with a letter to be delivered to the king and queen by Antonio de Torres, captain of the returning fleet. Columbus wrote:

There are being sent in these ships some Cannibals, men and women, boys and girls, which Your Highnesses can order placed in charge of persons from whom they may be able better to learn the language while being employed in forms of service, gradually ordering that greater care be given them than to other slaves.

Here, as in so much of world history, violence and exploitation is sprinkled with a perfume of benevolence. Later in the letter, Columbus explains to the king and queen that his plans for colonizing the lands he has “discovered” could be financed by slavery:

These things could be paid for in slaves taken from among these cannibals, who are so wild and well built and with a good understanding of things that we think they will be finer than any other slaves once they are freed from their inhumanity, which they will lose as soon as they leave their own lands.

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