Linda Christensen on the Second Edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, What Role the Classroom Played in Revision, and What Needs to Change in How We Teach

Rethinking Schools published Linda Christensen’s Reading, Writing, and Rising Up in 2000. The original book, Linda says, was based on her first 20 years in the classroom at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. Since then, Linda’s work has been recognized as an essential resource for integrating social justice into language arts classrooms. She followed the first edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up with Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, which built on her work of engaging students with writing by integrating their lives into the classroom.

The second edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up captures her imperative of bringing students’ lives into the classroom not just to build literacy skills, but to help students uncover the roots of inequality and meet real and imagined people and movements who have worked for change.

It’s been almost 20 years since the original Reading, Writing, and Rising Up arrived. Linda has spent several years — in between her work as director of the Oregon Writing Project and working with teachers locally and throughout the country — rewriting, revising, and reteaching the lessons in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up.

The new volume is fully revised and features new sections, updated lesson plans, and exemplary student work. The book is a gift to a new generation of students and teachers. We sat down with Linda to talk about what readers can expect.

Rethinking Schools: What was the process of revising and putting together the second edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up?

Linda Christensen: I had a whole new body of material that I had been working on since the original Reading, Writing, and Rising Up came out, and a few people thought that some of the articles in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up (particularly the cartoon unit “Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us”) were dated.

That led me to think about whether I wanted to write a new book or if I wanted to update Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. I thought about it a lot, and there were so many teaching pieces in Reading, Writing, and Rising Up that I still used and that still resonated with other educators, so I decided to do a full revision of the book rather than creating a new book.

I talked to a number of teachers and professors who use the book and asked them what pieces they thought remained current and what pieces they thought needed to be revised. Then I went back through and looked at each of the articles. My production editor, Kjerstin Johnson, also examined the book for places that were dated. Then I retaught almost every lesson to see how they worked today, whether they were still relevant, and what needed to be changed.

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Educator Rosie Frascella from Brooklyn, New York, couldn’t wait to pick up the new edition of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up.

You said you retaught many of the pieces. What role did the classroom play in the second edition?

The classroom is my source of inspiration. Out of the classroom I can create curriculum, but I need to observe students, listen to their class talk, and read their pieces to determine whether the lessons land or fall with students. I needed to see how lessons resonated with students today versus students 20 years ago. I keep returning to the classroom because it’s where I find my joy. I can’t think about teaching in isolation, away from classrooms.

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Rethinking Schools vs. Heartland Institute

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

Did you see that the Koch brothers-supported Heartland Institute is sending a climate denial textbook to every science teacher in the country? As the Moms Clean Air Force writes, “Every science teacher across America will receive a ‘free’ copy of a book of climate lies.”

The climate crisis is threatening life on Earth, and the fossil fuel industry is so drunk with greed that they continue to poison the curriculum around climate change.

Teachers desperately need resources to teach the truth about climate change and to counter the Heartland Institute’s materials that are flooding into schools.

Donate now so that we can send a copy of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth to every teacher who requests one in the states most threatened by lies spread by the fossil fuel industry.

As Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, says, “A People’s Curriculum for the Earth is an educator’s toolkit for our times.” Help us send it where it’s needed most.

~Bob Peterson, Rethinking Schools Board President

Help Rethinking Schools Abolish Columbus Day

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

Christopher Columbus was the first European to send enslaved people from the Americas to Europe, as well as the first to promote the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. And yet we still honor him with a national holiday? Please donate now to help Rethinking Schools teach a new generation of students the truth about Columbus and the people who were here first.

Almost 25 years ago, Rethinking Schools published our first booklet, Rethinking Columbus. We believed there were teachers besides us who would be eager for an alternative to the rah-rah Columbus-discovered-America textbook fare. We had no idea just how eager teachers were: Rethinking Columbus sold a thousand copies a day, seven days a week, for the first three months the booklet was in print. And, thanks to Native American organizations, teacher unions, social justice education groups, and progressive teacher education programs, Rethinking Columbus has gone on to become a resource in classrooms throughout the country.

Recently, we’ve been gratified to see the explosion of activism with cities and school districts voting to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day: Albuquerque, N. M.; Seattle and Olympia, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; Anadarko, Okla.; Portland, Ore.;  . . . and the list continues to grow.

Rethinking Schools—in conjunction with the Zinn Education Project, which we coordinate with Teaching for Change—plans a major push this year to undermine Columbus Day and to build support for Indigenous Peoples Day. As Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote in “Time to Abolish Columbus Day,” his most recent Zinn Education Project column: “If Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday.”

Who we celebrate helps determine the lives and experiences that are most valued in our society. By working to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, we hope to eliminate the silence around the history and current reality of Indigenous People as a testament to the importance of Indigenous lives. Rethinking Schools relies on supporters like you to help us continue this important work. Please donate today to  help us continue to teach the truth and to help make our world more equal and more just.

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Columbus Protest at UW-Madison

Time to Abolish Columbus Day

By Bill Bigelow

Once again this year many schools will pause to commemorate Christopher Columbus. Given everything we know about who Columbus was and what he launched in the Americas, this needs to stop.

Columbus initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in early February 1494, first sending several dozen enslaved Taínos to Spain. Columbus described those he enslaved as “well made and of very good intelligence,” and recommended to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that taxing slave shipments could help pay for supplies needed in the Indies. A year later, Columbus intensified his efforts to enslave Indigenous people in the Caribbean. He ordered 1,600 Taínos rounded up—people whom Columbus had earlier described as “so full of love and without greed”—and had 550 of the “best males and females,” according to one witness, Michele de Cuneo, chained and sent as slaves to Spain. “Of the rest who were left,” de Cuneo writes, “the announcement went around that whoever wanted them could take as many as he pleased; and this was done.”

Taíno slavery in Spain turned out to be unprofitable, but Columbus later wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

Book: The African Slave TradeThe eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, also assigns responsibility to Columbus for initiating the African slave trade to the Americas. According to Davidson, the first license granted to send enslaved Africans to the Caribbean was issued by the king and queen in 1501, during Columbus’s rule in the Indies, leading Davidson to dub Columbus the “father of the slave trade.”

From the very beginning, Columbus was not on a mission of discovery but of conquest and exploitation—he called his expedition la empresa, the enterprise. When slavery did not pay off, Columbus turned to a tribute system, forcing every Taíno, 14 or older, to fill a hawk’s bell with gold every three months. If successful, they were safe for another three months. If not, Columbus ordered that Taínos be “punished,” by having their hands chopped off, or they were chased down by attack dogs. As the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, this tribute system was “impossible and intolerable.”

And Columbus deserves to be remembered as the first terrorist in the Americas. When resistance mounted to the Spaniards’ violence, Columbus sent an armed force to “spread terror among the Indians to show them how strong and powerful the Christians were,” according to the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas. In his book Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale describes what happened when Columbus’s men encountered a force of Taínos in March of 1495 in a valley on the island of Hispañiola:

The soldiers mowed down dozens with point-blank volleys, loosed the dogs to rip open limbs and bellies, chased fleeing Indians into the bush to skewer them on sword and pike, and [according to Columbus’s biographer, his son Fernando] “with God’s aid soon gained a complete victory, killing many Indians and capturing others who were also killed.”

WoodcutIf Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday. The fact that we have this holiday legitimates a curriculum that is contemptuous of the lives of peoples of color. Elementary school libraries still feature books like Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, by Peter Sis, which praise Columbus and say nothing of the lives destroyed by Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

No doubt, the movement launched 25 years ago in the buildup to the Columbus Quincentenary has made huge strides in introducing a more truthful and critical history about the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Teachers throughout the country put Columbus and the system of empire on trial, and write stories of the so-called discovery of America from the standpoint of the people who were here first.

But most textbooks still tip-toe around the truth. Houghton Mifflin’s United States History: Early Years attributes Taíno deaths to “epidemics,” and concludes its section on Columbus: “The Columbian Exchange benefited people all over the world.” The section’s only review question erases Taíno and African humanity: “How did the Columbian Exchange change the diet of Europeans?”

Too often, even in 2015, the Columbus story is still young children’s first curricular introduction to the meeting of different ethnicities, different cultures, different nationalities. In school-based literature on Columbus, they see him plant the flag, and name and claim “San Salvador” for an empire thousands of miles away; they’re taught that white people have the right to rule over peoples of color, that stronger nations can bully weaker nations, and that the only voices they need to listen to throughout history are those of powerful white guys like Columbus. Is this said explicitly? No, it doesn’t have to be. It’s the silences that speak.

sis_page_wcaptionFor example, here’s how Peter Sis describes the encounter in his widely used book: “On October 12, 1492, just after midday, Christopher Columbus landed on a beach of white coral, claimed the land for the King and Queen of Spain, knelt and gave thanks to God…” The Taínos on the beach who greet Columbus are nameless and voiceless. What else can children conclude but that their lives don’t matter?

Enough already. Especially now, when the Black Lives Matter movement prompts us to look deeply into each nook and cranny of social life to ask whether our practices affirm the worth of every human being, it’s time to rethink Columbus, and to abandon the holiday that celebrates his crimes.

More cities—and school districts—ought to follow the example of Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Seattle, which have scrapped Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day—a day to commemorate the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, and not just in a long-ago past, but today. Or what about studying and honoring the people Columbus enslaved and terrorized: the Taínos. Columbus said that they were gentle, generous, and intelligent, but how many students today even know the name Taíno, let alone know anything of who they were and how they lived?

Last year, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant put it well when she explained Seattle’s decision to abandon Columbus Day: “Learning about the history of Columbus and transforming this day into a celebration of Indigenous people and a celebration of social justice … allows us to make a connection between this painful history and the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and poverty that Indigenous communities face to this day.”

We don’t have to wait for the federal government to transform Columbus Day into something more decent. Just as the climate justice movement is doing with fossil fuels, we can organize our communities and our schools to divest from Columbus. And that would be something to celebrate.

Columbus Day Protests

edited by Bill Bigelow , Bob Peterson

billbigelow-100x100Bill Bigelow was the co-editor of Rethinking Columbus. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited  A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

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This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s
If We Knew Our History
series.

Published on: Huffington Post.

6 Back-to-School Tips and Gifts for Social Justice Educators

1.

Start your school year off by inviting students’ lives into the classroom through poetry. Download this free lesson from our newest book, Rhythm and Resistance.

 

Where I'm From Lesson

2.

Get inspired to incorporate environmental justice lessons into your curriculum regardless of your subject area! Here is the “The Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers” lesson (with handouts) from A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.  

 

3.

Order your Planning To Change the World plan book*!

Planning to Change the World

*Only one coupon code can be used at a time. The “30% Off” and the code for $15 price can not be used at the same time.

4.

Download and print Larry Miller’s “12 Tips for New Teachers.” From our New Teacher Book, use reminders for yourself and to give to new teachers in your building.

12 Tips for New Teachers

5.

Sign up on the Zinn Education Project website to get free “people’s history” lesson plans to teach outside of the textbook.

Zinn Ed Project
RS Magazine Quotes

Back-to-School Coupon

30% off Books and Subscriptions

Use code: SCHOOLH15

Offer expires 8/31/2015.

*Only one coupon code can be used at a time.
30% Off and the code for the $15 Planning to Change the World
can not be used at the same time.

Ordering Information:

PO Box 2222
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Williston, VT 05495

Phone (US & Canada): (800) 669-4192
Phone (International): (802) 862-0095 ext. 565

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Email: rts.orders@aidcvt.com

 

Leave the World Better than We Found It

12

Introduction to A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

Edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart

It’s hard to say where the idea for this book originated. It may have been in 2007 when we looked at Modern World History, the new global studies textbook our school district, in Portland, Oregon, purchased. The book began one of its three miserable paragraphs on the climate crisis with the statement: “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect.” And it was buried on page 679. This was the best that Portland could offer its high school students? (This widely adopted book, published by Holt McDougal, still anchors the official curriculum for Portland high school students’ sole class on today’s world.)

Or this book’s origins may have been at an excellent teach-in sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization in Washington, D.C., that same year, called “Confronting the Triple Crisis,” about climate change, the end of cheap energy, and resource depletion and extinction. A number of the contributors to this book presented at this extraordinary gathering: Vandana Shiva, Frances Moore Lappé, Bill McKibben, Michael Klare, and Jeff Goodell. We came away from that weekend convinced of the enormity of the crisis, but we also understood how each supposedly distinct crisis linked to all the others, and then tied back to the fundamental problem of a global economy driven by the quest for profit. The teach-in was our introduction to Annie Leonard’s short film The Story of Stuff, which captures many of these connections with humor and common sense.

The decision to launch this book—and how we imagined it—was no doubt heavily influenced by the powerful and interconnected analyses offered by the speakers at this teach-in. But we were dismayed that there was no discussion about what this all meant for K-12 education. How should environmental justice movements partner with the educators who work daily with the millions of young people learning their ecological A, B, Cs—or, perhaps too often, not learning them? Implicitly, the conference suggested that this was knowledge to be shared among adults. We left inspired and informed, but weighed down by the immense burden of figuring out how to “story” the environmental crisis through curriculum.

Power of Green Curriculum

Back home in Portland we initiated what we called an “Earth in Crisis” curriculum group, and invited colleagues to discuss and test out teaching ideas with one another. This collective nurtured many of the activities included in this book, and also identified key themes that weave through the book. One of these is that our curriculum must confront the false dichotomy between the environment and people. It’s a theme that Van Jones addresses directly in his TED Talk on “Plastics and Poverty,” included in Chapter One (p. 4). Jones points out that people were rightly concerned about the damage to living systems in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP Oil Spill. But he notes that we often do not seem as concerned when that oil gets to where it is “supposed” to go: for example, to petrochemical plants that dot Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where it then poisons the largely poor and African American people who live there. Yes, the “environment” is about polar bears, dolphins, redwood forests, and bees; but it is also about human beings—workers, consumers, families, and community members. We call this book a people’s curriculum for the Earth because we try to keep the focus on the inextricable link between nature and people.

And this suggests another theme that emerged in our Earth in Crisis curriculum work in Portland: Everyone on Earth is affected by the environmental crisis, but we are affected unequally—based on race, class, nationality, or location. This is maddeningly evident with the impact of climate change. Throughout the book we feature stories about individuals and communities—Matthew Gilbert and the Gwich’in (p. 74), Koleo Talaki in Tuvalu (p. 96), Anisur Rahman of Antapara, Bangladesh (p. 98), the Aymara people of Bolivia (p. 137), the Yup’ik teenagers of Kwigillingok, Alaska (p. 143), and too many others to list, whose carbon footprint is virtually non-existent and yet who are among the first to suffer from its ravages. Similar issues of race and class are at play when it comes to exposure to workplace pollutants (“Combating Nail Salon Toxics,” p. 280), lead poisoning of children in urban areas (“Teaching About Toxins,” p. 283), or the pollution from mostly foreign-owned manufacturing plants that blankets poor communities around the world with deadly consequences (“Reading Chilpancingo,” p. 288).

This is not to say that people are not organizing in response to this toxic trespass, in the expression of ecologist Sandra Steingraber. They are. And some of them are featured in these pages: the Milwaukee students who blew the whistle on oil contamination in their neighborhood (p. 67), Maria Gunnoe’s passionate anti- mountaintop removal activism with communities in West Virginia (p. 210), the indigenous people described in Winona LaDuke’s “Uranium Mining, Native Resistance, and the Greener Path” (p. 321)—“resilient in the face of a deep history of genocide and destruction.” But there is a fundamental inequality at the heart of the environmental crisis—one that is central to the articles and teaching activities included in this book.

16Shorter Showers?

In our “Earth in Crisis” group, teachers kept returning to our students’ responses: They wanted to know what they could do personally. Early in our work, we concluded that we need to help students recognize the inadequacy of responding to the environmental crisis solely as individuals. As we mention in the teaching ideas for Chapter 3, “Facing Climate Chaos” (p. 174), there are entire books that urge students to consider their individual carbon footprints, suggesting that our personal patterns of consumption are a root cause of global warming. Students are urged to think about the frequency of their baths, their electricity use, the stuff they buy. Yes, of course, we want young people— and everyone—to be mindful of the Earth as we go through our daily lives. And we want students to recognize the power they have—collectively or individually—to make the world a better place. But it’s wrong to direct students primarily toward individual solutions to create change.

In his Chapter Five essay, “Forget Shorter Showers,” Derrick Jensen confronts this problematic celebration of individual action:

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? As students’ awareness of the environmental crisis grows, this consciousness can be misdirected by social forces that have an interest in how young people respond. The energy industry would much prefer that our students change their light bulbs, recycle their soda cans, or even install solar panels than organize a demonstration at the state capitol to shut a coal-fired power plant, testify at a public hearing against fracking, or otherwise gum up their fossil fuel machinery.

And there is another way that this celebration of the individual needs to be questioned in a people’s curriculum for the Earth. Individual property “rights” have long been seen as synonymous with “liberty.” “Liberty! Property!” was a cry of the American Revolution. But there were other more democratic cries as well, like Benjamin Franklin’s famous assertion that “Private Property…is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing.”

What happens to the Earth if we respect the “right” of the fossil fuel industry to manage their assets however they please? More and more, the headlines are filled with the answer to that question: superstorms, drought, heat waves, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, species extinction, floods, drowning islands. A curriculum on the climate, and the environmental crisis more broadly, needs to address patterns of ownership and decision making. Our curriculum needs to confront the myth that private property is, in fact, private. The fate of the Earth “belongs” to us all.

7

Capitalism

Helping students acquire a critical consciousness about the environmental crisis means we need to consistently encourage them to ask “Why?” Why is it that the future of life on Earth has been put at risk? It seems an impossible question to answer unless weengage students in thinking about the nature of global capitalism. Throughout the book, we draw students’ attention to this broader systemic context within which the environmental crisis is unfolding. Activities like “The Thingamabob Game” (p. 147) and the trial role play, “Who’s to Blame for the Climate Crisis?” (p. 163), explicitly confront students with the fundamental clash between an economic system that prizes wealth accumulation above all else and people’s need for a healthy environment. Capitalism insists that key productive decisions be made on the basis of what will yield the greatest profit. It grants God-like powers to unelected elites whose livelihoods depend not on creating a world of equality and environmental sustainability, but on making the most money. If we’re going to help our students not just describe, but explain, the environmental crisis, it is essential that educators name this elephant in our classrooms.

Joy amid Crisis

As this book heads to the printer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to release what news outlets indicate is its most dire report to date—another in a string of reports, each with more urgent language and frightening scenarios than the one before. The new IPCC report warns that at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to avoid a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit (2 degree Celsius) rise in global temperatures over pre-industrial times (see “The Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers, p. 180 and “A Matter of Degrees,” p. 192). The consequence of exceeding these limits would “almost certainly have catastrophic effects, including a mass extinction of plants and animals, huge shortfalls in food production, extreme coastal flooding, and many other problems,” according to the New York Times, which received a draft of the report.

The news is bad. But despite the dimensions of the environmental crisis, students can approach this frightening content in ways that are lively and playful. Not long ago, we participated in a weeklong teach-in for 6th through 8th graders about energy issues at Sunnyside Environmental School, a public school here in Portland. Throughout the week, students heard speakers and participated in activities about everything from mountaintop removal coal mining to catastrophic oil spills to the civilization-threatening consequences of climate change. They also encountered people working on solar and wind power, local food initiatives, and other innovative responses to environmental challenges; but the week definitely offered an adult dose of planetary crisis. Nonetheless, in classrooms we visited during the concluding activist projects that students worked on, these middle schoolers were anything but grim; and their small- group work was electric with idea sharing and laughter. As with adults, we’ve found that students are able to live with contradiction; students grasp the sadness and injustice at the heart of the environmental crisis while finding joy and humor. For the book, we’ve selected activities that address key environmental concerns, but these activities do not invite despair. They are engaging, and feature collective work that triggers student playfulness and imagination.

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Interconnections

Throughout the final stages of working on this book, we collaborated with Portland teaching colleagues Chris Buehler, Julie Treick O’Neill, and Matt Plies on a role play about La Vía Campesina. Despite the fact that La Vía Campesina may be the largest social movement in the world—with more than 200 million small farmers in its affiliated organizations—it’s pretty much impossible to find its work described in today’s mainstream textbooks. We conclude A People’s Curriculum for the Earth with La Vía Campesina’s efforts because we think that it highlights the way a deep response to any one crisis—for example, how to feed a world populated by perhaps a billion hungry people—addresses other social and environmental crises.

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La Vía Campesina’s presents a grassroots, “agroecological” challenge to agribusiness’s globalized, free market, chemical-drenched, genetically modified prescription for the world’s food production. The peasant movement shows that addressing hunger can simultaneously address climate change, inequality, public health, unemployment, forced migration, and much more. These are the kind of interconnections that infuse our curricula with hope— offering students the sense that fundamental change is not only desperately needed but also possible.

Challenging Curricular Apartheid

The teaching we observed at Sunnyside Environmental School showed us what happens when teachers collaborate across disciplines. Unfortunately, in too many schools, the environmental crisis seems to have become a kind of curricular hot potato. No discipline wants to claim the crisis as its own. We get it. We are both high school social studies teachers and we often bump up against our own shaky grasp on scientific concepts, trying to recall details from past biology and chemistry classes. While teaching one climate lesson at Lincoln High School, a student made an assertion about the impact of methane versus carbon dioxide that stumped us both and sent us combing through IPCC reports that evening. We try not to let these moments force us to retreat into the silo that traditionally has been considered social studies. And we’ve spoken with science teachers who feel that analyzing the social causes and effects of climate change reaches beyond their curricula or of their own knowledge. Similarly, teachers in language arts, mathematics, world languages, business, physical education, or art may wonder, “What does this have to do with my class?”

But in this moment of crisis, it’s imperative that we reject artificial barriers between disciplines. Throughout this book we’ve featured stories from educators who consciously cross conventional curricular boundaries—see for example, “Carbon Matters” (p. 110), “Science for the People” (p. 273), “Measuring Water with Justice” (p. 297), and “Facing Cancer” (p. 309). Throughout the curriculum, educators can collaborate to help students become the scientist-activists they need to be. Confronting the toxic injustice that has become one of the defining features of our time requires us immediately to begin constructing a fossil fuel-free world built on principles of ecology and justice, rather than profit and endless growth. No matter which classes we teach, educators need to find ways to help young people develop the analytical tools to understand the causes of the environmental crisis and to exercise their utopian imaginations to consider alternatives.

Political and Educational Context

In an article in the Guardian, Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, laments the “bad timing” of the climate crisis:

Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude—that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.

That same war has been waged in the education arena. At the precise moment we need our schools to educate and engage the next generation about the historic global challenges we face, public education is under attack from the same private and corporate interests that have polluted our natural and social environments. Curriculum is being standardized and narrowed to what can be poorly measured by bubble tests. Decisions about what schools should teach and children should learn are being moved away from classrooms and communities to the same politicized bureaucracies and monied interests that are undermining democracy. This too is “bad timing.” At a time when we need an urgent national conversation about how schools and curriculum should address the environmental crisis, we’re being told that the problems we need to focus on are teacher incompetence, government monopoly, and market competition. The reform agenda reflects the same private interests that are moving to shrink public space—interests that have no desire to raise questions that might encourage students to think critically about the roots of the environmental crisis, or to examine society’s unsustainable distribution of wealth and power.

* * *

9

This book is not so much “a people’s curriculum for the Earth” as it is an invitation to begin to build that curriculum. And it’s encouragement to educators to demand the right to effect a curriculum that honestly and deeply addresses the environmental crisis. Some of this work will go on in our classrooms; in meetings with other teachers; in teacher social justice conferences in San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Chicago, and Seattle; in our professional organizations; in the pages of Rethinking Schools magazine; and at the Zinn Education Project and This Changes Everything websites. And some will go on in our unions, community organizations, and other activist organizations where we fight to teach about crucial issues in the world.

The intertwined social, economic, and environmental crises that confront humanity require us to be audacious. As Naomi Klein writes, this is “the fight of our lives.” For educators, this is the curriculum work of our lives. And, yes, it is a fight, too. We need to demand and organize for the right to teach about what really matters, and not be forced to toe the textbook line or obey “rigorous” standards, developed afar, that may or may not help students appreciate and act on this moment in history.

We educators need to imagine, cooperate, create, hope—and at times, defy and resist. And we need to see ourselves as part of a broader movement to build the kind of society that is clean and just and equal and democratic. One that seeks to leave the world better than we found it.

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Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice

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Our new book, Rhythm and Resistance edited by Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson, offers practical lessons about how to teach poetry to build community, understand literature and history, talk back to injustice, and construct stronger literacy skills across content areas and grade levels—from elementary school to graduate school. Rhythm and Resistance reclaims poetry as a necessary part of a larger vision of what it means to teach for justice.

Here is the introduction. Please purchase your copy today on our website.

INTRODUCTION

Most people understand creating a poetry book with the word rhythm in its title, but resistance?
Some folks might think we mean students resisting poetry, but we don’t. Students resist when poetry rustles in dusty tomes, when they are asked to bow before sacred texts, and memorize terms and spit them back on multiple-choice exams. But when students dive headlong into writing poetry, when they share the living, beating heart of their own words, when they hear the pulse of joy and rage from their classmates, they are hooked.

The opening chapters of Rhythm and Resistance demonstrate how poetry can build classroom community and develop students’ confidence in their writing. In order for students to feel like they belong, they have to feel both visible and valued. As Alejandro, one of Linda’s former students wrote, “It wasn’t until we began to write poetry that I started to feel comfortable with writing. Poetry provided me the freedom to start in the middle of my thoughts and finish wherever I wanted. It was circular and allowed me to express myself. After I nervously read a poem in front of the whole school, I finally understood the power and influence of words. The compliments that I received from other students also challenged my definition of what I believed was the only way to get respect.”

For us, the resistance in the title means defiance. We encourage teachers to resist making essays the pinnacle of all writing. Yes, essay writing is important and necessary and can be exciting, but the essay is only one genre of writing. Focusing almost exclusively on essay, as many districts encourage teachers to do, limits student ability to write with passion—and skill—across the genres. Even if the goal is to improve essay writing, we need to teach narrative and poetry. They provide the tools—story, sentence cadence, active verbs—that move students to write passionate persuasive/argumentative essays about issues in the world that trouble them.

We also encourage resistance to the narrowing of curriculum to serve the job market or college; we resist the focus of “drilling down” on facts and on what’s testable. Certainly, students should leave school prepared to enter the real world—the real world where hunger and poverty exist alongside immense profits snuffing out opportunities for family-wage jobs, the real world where wars continue year after year, where governments promise glory to soldiers, but return broken humans. Part of an education for the “real world” must teach empathy, must call attention to policies and actions that harm society’s most vulnerable.

Rhythm and Resistance encourages students to reflect on their own lives as well as the lives of others who people newspapers, literature, and history. We want them to cheer the triumph of Celie at the dinner scene in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple  or to care about Central American children as they brave “The Beast,” or “The Death Train” as it is called by these migrants searching for parents and hope. Through poetry, young people can breathe life into the voices of those who usually don’t find ways into classrooms or textbooks, including their own. This kind of education prepares them to meet the real world with a sense of humanity.

And by resistance, we also mean teaching students to talk back to injustice. When we open our classrooms for students to discuss contemporary issues, we encourage commitment to active engagement as citizens of the world by introducing them to poets like Martín Espada and Patricia Smith, Paul Flores and William Stafford, Katharine Johnson and Renée Watson, Lucille Clifton and Lawson Fusao Inada. We build a culture of conscience by offering students both a context and a vehicle for standing up and talking back when they witness injustice, encouraging them to add their voices to the choir of people who link arms and march in solidarity for a better world. Whether they recite their poetry on a stage framed by dusty blue curtains, as Alejandro did, or a makeshift bandstand at a protest in the park against budget cuts or police brutality, students need opportunities to voice their outrage, to spill their odes and hymns, sonnets and sonatas about the ways society needs to change.

As June Jordan wrote in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint:

Poetry is a political action undertaken for the sake of information, the faith, the exorcism, and the lyrical invention, that telling the truth makes possible. Poetry means taking control of the language of your life. Good poems can interdict a suicide, rescue a love affair, and build a revolution in which speaking and listening to somebody becomes the first and last purpose to every social encounter. I would hope that folks throughout the U.S.A. would consider the creation of poems as a foundation for true community: a fearless democratic society.

RR LC DW intro-title is invitationOur title is an invitation—asking teachers to join in and resist along with us, to help build this “fearless democratic society” that our students deserve.

Why Poetry? Why Now?
by Linda Christensen

You ask, “Why a book on poetry? Why now?”
Because we stand at the brink of public
education’s demise;
because funds from billionaires
control the mouths of bureaucrats,
who have sold students, teachers,
and their families for a pittance;
because curriculum slanted to serve the “job market”
carves away history and humanity,
poetry and narrative,
student lives and teacher art;
because teaching students to write an essay
without teaching them to write
narratives and poetry is like
teaching someone to swim
using only one arm;
because poets are truth tellers and lie breakers
wordsmiths and visionaries
who sling metaphors in classrooms,
in the narrow slices of school hallways,
on the bricks of public courtyards,
and cafés with blinking neon signs
without laying out a dime to corporations;
because new poets are rising up,
pressing poems against windows on Wall Street,
spilling odes down the spines of textbooks,
posting protest hymns on telephone poles,
bubbling lyrics on the pages of tests
designed to confine their imaginations;
because poems hover under the breath
of the boy in a baseball cap,
the girl with a ring in her nose,
the boy with his mom’s name inked on his neck,
and the silent ones in the back:
she’s the next Lucille Clifton
and he sounds like Roque Dalton, saying:
“poetry, like bread,
is for everyone.”

Here are additional quotes from the book. Please share this great resource with your network! You can find more in our twitter feed.

RR PS second throat

RR RW young people need space

RR AT construct a classroom

RR LC pain power