“Why We Banned Legos” and other resources for teaching about markets and capitalism

This holiday season, teach a lesson that helps your students question our society’s focus on material goods, and pushes back against the relentless messages to find happiness through consumption.

Here are some Rethinking Schools articles and lessons that nurture a critical lens when examining the market forces that underpin so much of what needs changing in the world. 

21-2Enjoy these articles, free to all friends of Rethinking Schools:

The Human Lives Behind the Labels:  The Global Sweatshop, Nike, and the race to the bottom, by Bill Bigelow
Originally published in 1997, this article offers ways to help students think about the human and environmental consequences of our stuff—the high cost of low prices.

Lost in the Market, by Barbara Miner
A review of the book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantalize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin R. Barber.

Why We Banned Legos, by Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin
These early childhood educators didn’t really “ban” Legos, but they did take drastic action to help children explore power, ownership, and equity.

Blog bonus article: “‘Lego Fascists’ (that’s us) vs. Fox News

Standards, Markets, and Creating School Failure, by Michael Apple
“Democracy is increasingly being defined as consumer choice. The citizen is seen as a possessive individual, someone who is defined by her or his position in market relations.”

These articles are free to our friends who subscribe to our magazine. Subscribe today to gain access.* Use code 7BHL13 for a 25% holiday discount!

Six, Going on Sixteen, by Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin
Teachers can work against the commercialization of childhood.

Masks of Global Exploitation: Teaching About Advertising and the Real World, by Bill Bigelow
How we can help our students “read” advertising critically.

Living Algebra, Living Wage, by Jana Dean
Eighth-grade math comes alive when it deals with the economic issues that affect students’ lives.

Can’t Buy Me Love, by Linda Christensen
Students learn to write critically about clothes, class, and consumption.

*All subscribers enjoy access to our online archives. If you have a subscription, but are not sure how to activate your online account, please call customer service at 1-800-669-4192. 

Recommended Resources:

Rethinking Globalization

Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson
This comprehensive 400-page book from Rethinking Schools helps teachers raise critical issues with students in grades 4–12 about the increasing globalization of the world’s economies and infrastructures, and the many different impacts this trend has on our planet and those who live here.

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Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, edited by Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy
This anthology includes outstanding articles by elementary and secondary public school teachers, scholars, and activists who examine how and what popular toys, books, films, music, and other media “teach.” These thoughtful essays offer strong conceptual critiques and practical pedagogical strategies for educators at every level to engage with the popular.

Getting to Know Grace

GraceGonzalezGrace Cornell Gonzales joined the Rethinking Schools editorial board last spring, and has been an active, enthusiastic, and thoughtful participant ever since. Grace teaches at Daniel Webster Elementary School in San Francisco. We thought you might be interested in getting to know her a little better, so managing editor Jody Sokolower caught up with her after school one recent afternoon.

How did you first get involved with Rethinking Schools?

I was walking by the Rethinking Schools table at the Teachers 4 Social Justice conference in San Francisco a few years ago. This was my third year of teaching in Oakland, and I was in graduate school. I was talking to a friend about a project I was working on, analyzing the political content of picture books about immigration. Suddenly, [curriculum editor] Bill Bigelow was part of our conversation.

“You should write an article about that,” he said. I was so surprised, because he was someone whose writing and teaching I had admired for years. He connected me to you, and you invited me to your house to talk about the article. I don’t think I would have had the gumption to submit an article cold, so it was wonderful to feel welcomed in.

Most of your articles in Rethinking Schools have been about teaching Spanish-speaking students. How did that become a focus for you?

I studied Spanish throughout school but really started to feel bilingual after I lived abroad–spending a trimester in Chile during high school and a year in South America during college. During high school and college, I taught English as a second language to children and adults, in the United States and in Latin America. Along the way, I learned Portuguese, too.

Because of those experiences, I was interested in language education. I was looking for an approach that valued first languages, one that wasn’t based on a deficit model. In college I took a group independent study class that focused on Spanish dual immersion programs–programs in which Spanish speakers learn English and English speakers learn Spanish in the same classroom. I was excited because that model didn’t isolate Spanish-speaking students the way that bilingual programs do.

Now you teach in a dual immersion program. How has reality matched up to theory?

There are definitely more equity issues than I anticipated–how well does this program work for English language learners, or does it turn out to be more for the benefit of the English-speaking students? I see the problems, but I can also see ways to work around them. It’s a fantastic model. We just need to think critically about what we’re doing at every point if we want to serve all children.

How has participating on the editorial board affected your teaching?

It’s a pleasure to read and discuss all the amazing articles as part of the ed board. It’s the interesting political education piece of my life. I’m learning all the time.

Activism–participating on the RS ed board and being part of Teachers 4 Social Justice–allows me to not despair. Before I was working with both organizations, I felt alone, so frustrated by the horrible politics affecting us as educators. I felt personally beaten down. Now, if something awful happens at the school or in the district, I say, “This is part of a larger narrative. We should organize about this.” It gives me hope.

Recent articles by Grace in Rethinking Schools magazine:

“What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?” and other resources for multicultural teaching

Earlier this month, we set up shop at the annual meeting of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME). It’s always a joy to see old friends and meet folks who are new but no less passionate about multicultural education.

If you follow our blog, you likely share this passion, and know that Rethinking Schools has offered insights and resources on critical, multicultural teaching since our inception in 1986.

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Here are a few examples, free to all friends of Rethinking Schools:

Decolonizing the Classroom: Lessons in Multicultural Education,
by Wayne Au
Multicultural education has to be based on dialogue, both among students and between students and teachers.

“If There Is No Struggle…” Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement, by Bill Bigelow
Students “become” members of an abolitionist organization and grapple with the strategic dilemmas faced by one of the most significant U.S. social movements.

Multiculturalism: A Fight for Justice, by the editors of Rethinking Schools
The introduction to a special report on multicultural education.

Precious Knowledge: Teaching Solidarity with Tucsonby Devin Carberry
A high school history teacher centers a study of social movements on the fight over the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. His students spread the knowledge.

These articles are free to read for our subscribers. Subscribe today to gain access! (All subscribers enjoy access to our online archives. If you have a subscription, but are not sure how to activate your online account, please call customer service at 1-800-660-4192.)

What Do You Mean When You Say Urban?: Speaking honestly about race and students, by Dyan Watson
“Urban” has become one of a series of euphemisms for African American and Latina/o students. What preconceptions hide behind the language?

The Other Internment: Teaching the Hidden Story of Japanese Latin Americans during WWII, by Moé Yonamine
A role play engages students in exploration of a little-known piece of history-the deportation of people of Japanese origin from Latin American countries to U.S. internment camps.

Diversity vs. White Privilege: An Interview with Christine Sleeterby Bob Peterson and Barbara Miner
Christine Sleeter explains why multiculturalism, at its core, is a struggle against racism, and must go beyond an appreciation of diversity.

Putting Out the Linguistic Welcome Mat, by Linda Christensen
Honoring students’ home languages builds an inclusive classroom.

7 resources you can use to educate and engage students

In every issue of our magazine, our editors and contributors hand-pick a variety of books, films, websites, and other media for all ages.

Here are seven resources we recommended in our fall issue.

The Speech_frontThe Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream,
by Gary Younge
171 pp., $19.95

You may know Gary Younge from his fine columns on race and politics in The Nation magazine. Here Younge offers the riveting story behind one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The book includes a chapter on “the moment”—an especially valuable look at both the national and international context of 1963; background on the march; an analysis of the speech itself; and commentary on the legacy of the march and speech. As Younge wrote recently: “Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call [the March on Washington] off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one.” This is important background for teachers, but also readable by many high school students.

resources-staysolidStay Solid! A Radical Handbook for Youth,
edited by Matt Hern and the Purple Thistle Centre
319 pp., $20

There may be school libraries that would deem this book too risqué or soft on drugs. But Stay Solid! A Radical Handbook for Youth is a remarkable assembly of testimonies, stories, advice, poetry, cartoons, lessons, short essays, and “other stuff to check out” from more than 100 radical activists divided into diverse subjects, including family, race, gender, school, friends, sex, disability, indigenous struggles, ecocide, and “your physical body.” Sprinkled throughout are rich, evocative quotes. This is not a G-rated book. The text does not adhere to a “Say no to drugs” admonition, and it is joyfully sex-friendly. As one young Teaching for Change intern wrote in recommending this book, “These views are incredibly important in supporting youth to be agents of their own decisions and, at the same time, are radically different from mainstream views.”

EdActivistAlliesEducating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite,
by Katy M. Swalwell
161 pp., $41.95

Katy Swalwell opens this unique book with a quote from the late Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire: “In the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, [the oppressors] suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.” For Swalwell, a Rethinking Schools contributor, critical teaching for social justice benefits everyone—even the very privileged. As such, this work contributes to building a more just society for us all. In this accessible, story-rich volume, Swalwell offers example after example of how educators in different elite contexts attempt to teach for social justice—described in many instances through her own careful observations of their teaching. Interviews with students offer a window into how this teaching was received. This is a valuable book for any educator trying to clarify what it means to teach for social justice, but especially for those who find themselves teaching the children of the wealthy.

resources-gaslandGasland II, directed by Josh Fox
125 min.

High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas—more commonly known as “fracking”—is one of the scariest technologies on the planet. A recent open letter from Pennsylvania residents described the effects of fracking: “In short, water contamination has been widespread; our air has been polluted; countless individuals and families have been sickened; farms have been devastated, cattle have died, and our pristine streams and rivers have turned up dead fish . . . and our communities have been transformed into toxic industrial zones with 24/7 noise, flares, thousands of trucks, and increased crime.” Josh Fox’s new film Gasland II illuminates this grim reality. With a blend of storytelling, outrage, science, and, yes, humor, Fox offers a student-friendly look at this technology from hell. The first Gasland film—which featured the now infamous images of residents lighting their kitchen tap water on fire—was nominated for an Academy Award. As Julie Treick O’Neill writes in her Summer 2012 Rethinking Schools article on teaching this earlier film, “Fox was a hit with my students: He was real enough, cool enough, and smart enough to take on fracking.” Gasland II is an important resource to help our students navigate the world’s disturbing new fossil fuel terrain. For middle school and high schools classrooms.

resources-asfastAs Fast As Words Could Fly, by Pamela M. Tuck,
Illustrated by Eric Velasquez
32 pp., $18.95

Based on her father’s experience in 1960s North Carolina, Pamela Tuck tells how a family and community challenge racism where they work, shop, and go to school. The protagonist, 14-year-old Mason, is the letter writer for the local African American civil rights committee. In appreciation, they give him a typewriter. His typing skills help him open doors when he attends the formerly all-white high school. There is no sugarcoating of the racism Mason faces. In fact, when he wins a county typing competition, not one audience member applauds. Instead, Mason finds love, admiration, and strength from his family and community. This picture book could be used to introduce the history beyond the big demonstrations about the fight for civil rights. It would lend itself well to a group read and discussion, and could also be a wonderful source of prompts for writing from the perspective of different characters. For grade 3 and above.

resources-democracynow

Democracy Now! Hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez
(free podcasts)

We previously included Democracy Now! in the Rethinking Schools resources section. But, as we begin a new school year, we thought that it was worth reminding people that, in our judgment, this is the best Monday-through-Friday news broadcast in the United States. The news headlines that open each hour are a rundown of vital stories often ignored or distorted in the mainstream media. Headlines are followed by several in-depth reports, many of which make ideal classroom viewing: striking fast-food workers, conflict in Egypt, NSA revelations, stop-and-frisk policing, the true history of the 1963 March on Washington, drone strikes, the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the climate crisis, and more. One recent episode that could and should be used in class is Cornel West’s critical commentary on President Obama’s talk on race relations following the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Each broadcast is available as simple audio or as audio/video. All are archived and available for free at the website.

resources-ifieverIf I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth
373 pp., $17.99

Eric Gansworth’s first young adult coming-of-age novel hits a home run. The main character, Lewis “Shoe” Blake, navigates relationships with family and friends on and off the upstate New York Tuscarora Reservation in the mid-1970s. Debbie Reese, editor of the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, alerted us to the novel. She explains that it offers “a rare but honest look at culture and how people with vastly different upbringings and identities can clash. And dance. And laugh. Gansworth informs readers about cultural difference, but he doesn’t beat anyone up as he does it.” Young adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith calls it “a heart-healing, mocs-on-the-ground story of music, family, and friendship.”

v28.1This collection of resources from our fall 2013 magazine was reviewed by Rethinking Schools curriculum editor Bill Bigelow and Teaching for Change Executive Director Deborah Menkart. Bill and Deborah are also co-directors of the Zinn Education Project, a collaboration between the two organizations..

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What’s in a name

Perhaps you’ve followed the controversy around the name of the NFL team Washington “Redskins.”  They have faced a lot of pressure, and rightly so, to ditch the offensive name. Sadly, the team owner Dan Snyder has vowed never to change the name, and NFL officials have only recently agreed to talks with Native communities. (Here’s background from Huffington Post if you haven’t been following the controversy.)

NoMascotsIn Wisconsin, there’s a similar fight underway. Mukwonago is a small town about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee. The Mukwonago school district’s Indian mascot is offensive and damaging to the Native communities in Wisconsin, so they joined with progressive activists and concerned parents and students to urge the school board to part with the mascot and enter into a community-based process to find a new one. They nearly succeeded in forcing the school board’s hand until the state legislature intervened with a bill that makes it nearly impossible to protest racist team names and mascots.  Just yesterday, the bill passed in the Assembly, and the Senate will take it up next month.

One of the activists who has dedicated an enormous amount of time and effort in pressuring Mukwonago school officials is retired teacher Sandy Shedivy, a long-time friend, supporter and volunteer with Rethinking Schools.  Sandy is a scholar in her own right on this issue.  Her PhD dissertation was on stereotypes.

In her comments to the Mukwonago school board, Sandy expressed

“Our school has appropriated a cultural symbol without knowing the background and history of Indian regalia… these conceptual understandings of  ‘Indians’ rarely come from authentic interaction with members of the Native communities, based in a spirit of honoring and respecting diverse cultures. These logos and mascots must be challenged in order to dismantle the prejudices that emerge from our country’s colonial past.”

Would that NFL team owners and officials heed Sandy’s message.

Fortunately, calls to change the Washington D.C.’s team name have been growing, and sports newscasters and personalities like Peter King, Bill Simmons and most recently Bob Costas have expressed in very public ways that it’s time for a name change.  (Read Dave Zirin’s excellent column on Costas’ remarks.)

As educators committed to social justice, these names and mascots are a violation of our progressive principles, and we need to speak out.  But events like these are also an opportunity for learning and dialogue.

unlearningindianstereotypesSo as we discussed the Mukwonago mascot controversy with Sandy, we came up with the idea to send copies of our DVD Unlearning “Indian” Stereotypes to members of the Mukwonago School Board, the Wisconsin legislators who sponsored the bill to hamstring activists as they fight to remove offensive and racist mascots and logos from our public institutions, to the owners of the Washington D.C. football team, and to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose response has been disappointing.

Originally produced as a filmstrip by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1977 as part of a series of filmstrips combating racial stereotypes, Unlearning Indian Stereotypes was enhanced and transferred to DVD by Rethinking Schools in 2008. In spite of the fact that it was produced more than 35 years ago, it remains a useful resource for understanding and confronting racial stereotypes.

Narrated by Native American children, the DVD asks viewers to examine racial stereotypes through the eyes of children, while also providing a brief introduction to Native American history.

We hope that the officials who receive the DVD view it with an open mind and consider how their actions and statements contribute to the negative stereotyping of Native Americans.

Showing the DVD in your classroom would be a great way to connect current events in sports to our history.

Schools That Change Communities

v28.1The fall issue of Rethinking Schools magazine, which will appear online and in your mailbox (if you’re a subscriber!) before you know it, includes a review of Bob Gliner’s 2012 film Schools that Change Communities.

We recently learned that the film will be airing on PBS World stations in many cities over the next several days.  You can check your local listings here.

Here’s an excerpt from David Sobel’s review:

Schools That Change Communities provides a view of what we should be aspiring to in schools. Let’s call it aspiring to high standards within the context of respecting the whole child and grounding education in place and community. Filmmaker Bob Gliner focuses on five schools in five very dif­ferent communities across the United States. The diversity of grade levels and ethnic profiles shows that this kind of in­novative, place-based approach can work anywhere. All are public schools, three out of five in high-poverty areas.

At these five schools, the emphasis is on connecting the curriculum to real is­sues and

problems in the school and the community. The teachers create curricu­lum that changes students and changes communities. Greg Smith of Lewis & Clark College explains that this ground­ing of curriculum in the natural and so­cial context is what makes education rel­evant and meaningful: “These kids don’t need to ask ‘Why am I learning this?’ They know why they’re learning it.”

Gliner point1We see the students at Young Achievers Math and Science Pilot School in Boston working with José Massó, a grandparent and WBUR (Boston’s National Public Radio) radio show host, to produce public service announcements about asthma. The realness of the work is compelling.  Students know that they’re not just doing this for the teacher, they’re doing this for the community. Massó summarizes:

“From an early age, they understand the idea of civic engagement—not to be bystanders but to be active in changing things they believe need to be changed. That has to be part of the pedagogy in schooling if we’re going to be successful in the 21st century. It empowers them to believe and know when they share their learning with a wider audience.”

Crellin Elementary is a K–5 school in western Maryland coal mining coun­try. When acid mine drainage is identi­fied on a site adjacent to the school, the faculty work with the Bureau of Mines to mitigate the polluted water and create an environmental education laboratory for the schools. The project makes for great curriculum and for improved water quality in adjacent Snowy Creek.

Skeptics, of course, wonder wheth­er this approach will sacrifice student achievement and depress test scores. For example, Crellin 4th and 5th graders are engaged in a Trout in the Classroom project. If children are taking field trips to the stream to do water quality test­ing to make sure the water is healthy for trout, are they sacrificing time from lit­eracy or math? Gliner addresses this is­sue in the film. There’s joyful footage of transferring the trout from the classroom to the local stream with smiling students, helpful parents, and the Department of Natural Resources specialist. Then, back in the classroom, the principal leads a related math lesson. This is when math comes alive, when it’s directly related to real-world experiences. In 2010, Crel­lin was rated the highest performing el­ementary school in Maryland.

The complete review of Schools that Change Communities will be available on our website and in the print edition of the magazine by next Monday, September 30.

Lord of the Lies

Bill headshotby  Bill Bigelow

Portland, Oregon language arts teacher, Michelle Kenney, has written a provocative article for Rethinking Schools about some of her curricular choices—and how what seem like great ideas one moment, turn out to embed troubling race and gender biases. I don’t want to give anything away, because there are interesting twists and surprises in her article. But it doesn’t spoil her story to mention that in one encounter included in the article, a parent insists that Kenney teach Lord of the Flies, a book that Kenney detests because of its pessimism about human nature.

It’s a novel I read as a high school sophomore. I found it engrossing, and spent long hours gripped by the conflicts of the boys on the island. But I remember being troubled by the book, and by its conclusion that invited the reader to breathe a sigh of relief as the British Navy arrived to restore order and civilization. Its message: How easy it would be to fall into barbarism, without …. well, without the guns and uniforms and commanding presence of empire.

It seems that Lord of the Flies lingers as a distasteful memory for a lot of us. In her “Outside In” column in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion magazine, on “The Politics of Play,” Jay Griffiths lays into Lord of the Flies, and argues that, not only is it an offensive book, utterly inappropriate for school, but is also flat wrong in its premises.

Lord of the Flies opens with misadventure,” Griffiths writes, “as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

It’s a testament to the pervasiveness of racist stereotypes in today’s society that this novel wasn’t yanked long ago from high school book rooms. It expresses contempt for indigenous cultures, and embraces a cultural hierarchy, with Western empire on top. Lord of the Flies’ portrayal of humanity’s innate savagery justifies the subordination and loss of “lesser” cultures. It’s an especially troubling message these days as global warming-induced rising oceans force indigenous island people—like those on Kiribati, the Carteret Islands, and Tuvalu—to flee their homes.

Griffiths concludes her column with what she calls “a real-life Lord of the Flies incident”—one that offers the exact opposite message from that of the book. Here’s the story Griffiths tells:

One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?

They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises—for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After 15 months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.

These days, the last thing we need is a book like Lord of the Flies that offers a cynical portrait of our inner savage—a savage in need of a system of allegiance pledges and bosses and orders and tests and marching in line; all rooted in the fear of “consequences.”

Yes, we know that people can be violent and greedy. But through and through, we’re better off when the school curriculum is built on the presumption that human beings are capable of cooperation, kindness, intelligence, and solidarity. We ought to choose our literature with that in mind, and we ought to organize school life in a way that nurtures those human qualities.

Related Resources

RethinkingColumbuscvr Rethinking Columbus. Over 80 essays, poems, historical vignettes, and lesson plans re-evaluate the legacy of Columbus. Packed with useful teaching ideas for kindergarten through college.
unlearningindianstereotypes Unlearning Indian Stereotypes (DVD). Narrated by Native American children, the DVD teaches about racial stereotypes and provides an introduction to Native American history through the eyes of children.
ChristensenBooks In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen demonstrates how she draws on students’ lives to teach poetry, essays, narratives and critical literacy skills. Reading Writing, and Rising Up is a practical, inspirational book that offers essays, lesson plans, handouts, and a remarkable collection of student writing, all rooted in an unwavering focus on language arts teaching for justice.