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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EDITORIAL: The Important Role Teachers Play in Resisting Trump’s War on Immigrant Families

“Aren’t Grown-Ups Supposed to Keep Kids Safe?”
By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Kina, the 6-year-old daughter of one of our editors, walked into her living room one day over the summer and saw children huddled under Mylar blankets on the TV. “What are those kids doing in there?” she asked. “Are they in jail?”

Our editor, her mom, explained that the kids had been separated from their parents, and that their parents were probably in a different jail.

“Aren’t grown-ups supposed to keep kids safe?” Kina asked.

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Credit Jess X. Snow

As children return to our classrooms this fall, after another summer of horrific events, they too have questions like Kina’s. As educators, we are responsible for thinking about how to respond.

Children — more than 2,500 — were torn away and separated from their parents since the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” (that all adults who crossed the southern border would be criminally prosecuted) went into effect in May. Though Trump halted the policy after immense public outcry a few weeks later, hundreds of children still remain separated and in government custody (497 as of Aug. 27).

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

These children are living in child prisons, and their families have little way of finding them or learning of the conditions under which they are being held. Kids have been taken to at least 100 shelters in 17 states, some operated by private contractors who benefit financially from this manufactured crisis.

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Bill Ayers on Arne Duncan’s How Schools Work

By Bill Ayers

If you pick up Arne Duncan’s How Schools Work hoping to learn something about, well, unsurprisingly I suppose, about “how schools work,” you’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s no policy prescription here, no substantive analysis whatsoever, and no actual accounts or examples of how schools work. Instead we’re treated to random stories that circulate around several stuttering themes: Duncan’s dismay and then anger when poor kids are told they’re doing OK by school people when in reality they don’t have the skills to go to college; his encounters with enraged parents that happily end when they chill out after he shows them that his heart is true and his intentions pure; and his insistent defense of “big data” and high stakes standardized tests when promoting his preferred school “reform” goals.


Bill Ayers

The subtitle isn’t especially helpful either: “An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation’s Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.” That might have proved useful, but the reader searches in vain for fresh perspectives or insights, for some discovery or surprise, contradiction or conflict, for an inquiring mind thinking out loud as it engages a conversation with itself — anything at all that might be generative. What’s on offer instead is untroubled categories and settled conclusions. Arne Duncan learns nothing at all — neither in his many years at the helm of Chicago’s and then the nation’s schools, nor in the process of writing this personal account. 

Failure and success? An inside account? A good memoir might fruitfully explore all of that, but it would have to be free from the brutality of dogma and self-righteousness, which Duncan can’t quite manage. He’s a dedicated corporate reformer, avidly endorsing the underlying thesis that education is a product to be sold at the market place rather than a fundamental human right and community responsibility, and embracing the entire triple threat: reducing the definition of school success (for other people’s children) to a single metric on a standardized test; marginalizing or crushing the collective voice of teachers; and auctioning off the public space to private managers and entrepreneurs. None of this is up for discussion or review, and that makes the entire account tedious and entirely predictable.
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Wow! Exciting News About Teaching for Black Lives

Teaching for Black Lives has been earning rave reviews since it was released just a few months ago, and today we’re honored to announce that Grammy award-winning artist Macklemore and 3-time NFL Pro Bowler Michael Bennett have teamed up to purchase and distribute copies to every middle and high school social studies and language arts teacher in Seattle Public Schools.

“This is the book I wish I had coming up in school but it never existed. Now we have the opportunity to educate thousands of youth about the Black history that was too often missing from my schooling — from the building of the White House, to the role of Black youth in social movements, to organizing for restorative justice today,” Bennett said.

Macklemore added, “With everything from history, to poetry, to visual art, these lessons will help educators affirm the lives of their Black students and create deeper dialogue in our schools about the struggles and contributions of Black people that all students need to learn.”

You can get your own copy of the book at

Teaching for Black Lives is a collection of teaching activities, role plays, mixers, essays, poems, and art designed to help educators humanize Black people in the curriculum. The book demonstrates how teachers can connect curriculum to young people’s lives and explore how classrooms and schools can be set up either to reproduce racism or challenge it.

Teaching for Black Lives — edited by Dyan Watson, Jesse Hagopian, and Wayne Au — has received critical acclaim from educators, activists, and publications around the country.

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said of the book’s authors: “Their eloquence and passion force us to challenge our assumptions about other people and ourselves. To me, that’s the very best kind of reading.”

Teaching for Black Lives was named to Teaching for Change’s “Social Justice Book List” for 2018. The Seattle Times wrote that “Teaching For Black Lives presents ideas for empowering marginalized students” and The Washington Post said it is, “A handbook for all educators to fight racism.”

The book has also earned praise from Opal Tometi, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Sarsour, Shaun King, Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, David Stovall, Darnell M. Hunt, and many others.

“I am grateful for the generosity of Michael Bennett and Macklemore in helping to bring our book to the educators of Seattle,” said co-editor Hagopian. “This is a truly exciting moment in the struggle to empower students and break barriers of injustice to create equitable classrooms.”

Learn more at

A Hurricane in the Classroom: Inside the Schools Ensnared in Puerto Rico’s Privatization Fever — and How Its Teachers Are Fighting Back

[SPECIAL REPORT: Education “reformers” are using the disaster in Puerto Rico to close hundreds of public schools and convert much of the school system to charters. But teachers, parents, and students are fighting back. Update July 23, 2018: Since this story was written, Puerto Rico Superior Court Judge Iris González declared part of the sweeping education reform law enabling charter schools unconstitutional, stating that only the University of Puerto Rico and municipalities around the island can operate schools. A government spokesperson has said they will appeal the ruling, and it remains unclear what this means for schools set to open in mid-August.]

By Kate Aronoff

San Juan, Puerto Rico — It’s cool and bright in Lourdes Torres Santos’ second-floor classroom, thanks in part to the afternoon rain that helped both clear away the day’s humidity and fill the lobby downstairs with shallow puddles. There are window unit air conditioners, but they haven’t worked since Maria, the Category 4 hurricane that pummeled the island last September, leveling its electrical infrastructure and leaving an estimated 4,645 people dead. Out behind the school is a covered basketball court still in disrepair eight months on from the storm.

For the most part, though, Torres’ República del Perú is a normal school in San Juan. And like many others across Puerto Rico, students, parents, and teachers came together just after Maria to get its facilities up and running. But reopening the school turned out to be more complicated than just physical cleanup. When it appeared the Department of Education wouldn’t open the school — even after it was ready — those same students, parents, and teachers came together again.

“We realized that they were slowing down the process . . . every day they changed the information and all the criteria changed,” said Torres, 31, who teaches middle school at República. In response, she helped organized two demonstrations, each time shutting down traffic on Calle Loíza, a busy road nearby, with around 100 people. “Then things started to move on and the school opened” about two months after the storm, she said. Like many of the teachers resisting the closures, Torres is a member of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), which has been at the leading edge of the fightback against privatization on the island, coordinating direct actions, boycotts and more.

But just a few weeks before we spoke in early May, with students back and classes in full swing, República was named by the island’s Department of Education as one of 283 schools that would be closed at the end of the school year.

The closures are part of a broad sweep of austerity policies being unveiled by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration — including Education Secretary Julia Keleher — at the behest of the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), the agency tasked with reining in the island’s $74 million municipal debt.

Asked if she thinks the Puerto Rican government has taken advantage of the devastation wrought by Maria to push through an ideological agenda, Torres doesn’t skip a beat.

“Let’s talk about the shock doctrine,” she said, referencing Naomi Klein’s 2008 book detailing how states and corporate interests take advantage of crises from Haiti to Iraq, natural and otherwise. In the book, Klein also details how — just after Hurricane Katrina — the right-wing Heritage Foundation conspired with conservative politicians to gut the city’s public school system.

“But before we talk about the shock doctrine, we have to acknowledge that Puerto Rico is living under the reality of colonialism,” Torres said. Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth of the United States since 1952, after being acquired by the United States from Spain — the previous colonizer — during the Spanish-American War.

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Guns Out of Our Schools, Propaganda Out of Our Classrooms

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Just a week after 14 students and three staff members were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February, President Donald Trump predictably — and enthusiastically — endorsed the National Rifle Association’s prescription for school shootings and our nation’s gun violence epidemic: more guns and give them to teachers.

“You give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free, you have now made the school into a hardened target,” Trump said, according to The New York Times, giving a nod to the NRA’s mantra that the “Only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Survivors of the Parkland shooting couldn’t help but find some dark irony in Trump’s stance and that mantra when a couple months later the NRA announced that guns would be banned from both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s speeches at their annual convention.

Parkland student Matt Deitsch wrote on Twitter: “Wait wait wait wait wait wait you’re telling me to make the VP safe there aren’t any weapons around but when it comes to children they want guns everywhere? Can someone explain this to me? Because it sounds like the NRA wants to protect people who help them sell guns, not kids.”

Deitsch is right, of course, and his comment exposes an underlying issue in any conversation about gun violence in schools in the United States: This is fundamentally an issue of profits versus the health and security of our young people.

[This editorial is from Rethinking Schools’ summer issue, which was released earlier this month. To read articles from the rest of the issue and to subscribe to the magazine, visit]

The arms industry, with political protection from the NRA, is given the “right” to sell weapons without meaningful restrictions at the expense of young people, our schools, and our communities. Gun-related deaths are now the third-leading cause of death for Americans younger than 18, according to a study published last June in Pediatrics.

Trump and the NRA might propose that teachers be armed, but educators have largely rejected the premise as both unsafe and unwise. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after Trump made his comments about teachers and guns found that three out of four opposed the idea nationally and the vast majority felt arming staff members would make schools less safe.

And indeed, stories of students injured by teachers who have accidentally discharged weapons are becoming all too common. Many of them sound like a March incident in Seaside, California, when a high school student was hurt when his teacher accidentally fired a shot into the ceiling and it ricocheted.

Trump and others who initially called for teachers to be armed after Parkland have also been noticeably silent on the matter since teachers in several states went on strike and started storming state capitols in protest.

But there’s much more that we as educators can do — besides dismissing yet one more unsurprisingly bad idea from Trump — to combat gun violence and get guns out of our schools.

One of our roles as teachers is to guide students to examine the roots of an issue. When we talk about the Bill of Rights and the roots of the Second Amendment, we can expose the popular mythology that surrounds it — that this is somehow about individuals resisting government oppression — and lay out its true intent: to defend and deepen white supremacy.

In her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz shows that the Second Amendment began in slave patrols and in collective measures by white farmers to steal Indigenous people’s land and then to “defend” themselves from those same people who were unwilling to be victims of that theft.

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