Rethinking Schools and the Power of Silver

By Christine Sleeter

This 25th anniversary of Rethinking Schools can be thought of as its silver anniversary. Silver itself must be considered through contrasting lenses. On the one hand, as lessons in Rethinking Globalization teach us, silver and gold were the basis of Europe’s horrendous exploitation of Latin America. On the other hand, silver is often associated with powerful symbolism. A precious metal that has had significance in many cultural contexts around the world, silver symbolizes strength with flexibility (indeed, silver is stronger than gold), clarity, focus, vision, wisdom, and persistence. What better symbolism for Rethinking Schools over these last 25 years?

I first became aware of Rethinking Schools during its early years when it was published on newsprint and looked like a newspaper. When one of my colleagues who lived in Milwaukee handed me a copy, I was thrilled by its vision and clarity.

Throughout the years, rather than dancing around issues of diversity and justice in schools, its largely practitioner-written articles have directly named and analyzed issues, offering active ways to address them. Articles from Rethinking Schools quickly became important readings for my courses in multicultural education because they so brilliantly show what politically relevant multicultural teaching looks like without reducing it to “how to” steps that oversimplify. My students were so inspired by articles we were reading that, on a couple of occasions, groups of students crafted articles to send to Rethinking Schools for possible publication. The students told me that their experience learning to analyze their own work with depth and clarity, based on the clarity of analysis in articles they had read, was very empowering.

Later, when Rethinking Schools developed its website, I was able to integrate it into my courses even more easily. For teachers, having access not only to specific articles but also to back issues online has been immensely helpful. For example, a teacher in one of my courses was struggling with what democracy and social action might mean in an elementary school. She was critical of her school’s food drive approach to addressing hunger. She thought there was an underlying assumption of charity inherent in solving social problems by giving goods once a year while not addressing the policies that give rise to hunger in the first place. Browsing articles in Rethinking Schools offered her an alternative perspective she especially appreciated because it was grounded in the work and voices of other elementary teachers.

Rethinking Schools’ books have also served as wonderful sources of wisdom for teachers in my courses. For example, when a teacher I was working with was struggling to incorporate indigenous people into her social studies curriculum, the first resource I gave her was Rethinking Columbus . At first, reading it only perplexed her more because, as she pointed out to me, she came to realize that there were two quite opposite narratives about the colonization of indigenous peoples: the “progress” narrative of her history textbook, and the “holocaust” and resistance narrative of Rethinking Columbus as well as other writings by indigenous authors. Eventually she figured out a way to rework her own curriculum around multiple perspectives.

As I consider the next 25 years, it is clear to me that the strength, persistence, focus, and vision of Rethinking Schools—all symbolic qualities of silver—will become even more important than in the past. We are living in a time when public services and public organizing are under attack much more profoundly than I have seen in my lifetime. Rethinking Schools not only speaks back, but also offers teachers an incisive political education and tools to use. As students of color become majorities in schools around the county, elite “reformers” push to cut public revenue and public services, compromising the quality of the education students depend on. Mainstream news media, increasingly shaped by corporate interests, cheer these “reforms” on, while they entertain more than they educate. The public needs the kind of clear political education and vision that Rethinking Schools has consistently embodied.

I am profoundly grateful to those who built Rethinking Schools over these last 25 years. You have created a firm foundation and vision for the work of the next 25 years.

Christine Sleeter is professor emerita at California State University Monterey Bay. She is also currently president of the National Association for Multicultural Education.