Rethinking Elementary Education

Edited by Linda Christensen, Mark Hansen, Bob Peterson, Elizabeth Barbian, and Dyan Watson

Available in:

Paperback: $24.95

Publication Date: April 6, 2012

ISBN: 9780942961522

Rethinking Elementary Education collects the finest writing about elementary school life and learning from 25 years of Rethinking Schools magazine. The articles in this volume offer practical insights about how to integrate the teaching of content with a social justice lens, how to seek wisdom from students and their families, and how to navigate stifling tests and mandates. Teachers and parents will find both inspiration and hope in these pages.

The indispensable resource for social justice elementary educators in six parts:

Part 1: Building Classroom Community

Part 2: Reading and Writing Toward a More Just World

Part 3: Minding Media

Part 4: Math is More than Numbers

Part 5: Laboratory for Justice: Science Across the Curriculum

Part 6: The Classroom, The School, The World

Winner of IBPA 2013 Franklin Gold Award

IBPA Franklin Award Seal

Winner of the 2013 Independent Book Publishers Association Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in Education

Praise from Educators and Authors:

“Another glorious package of encouragement and challenge from the most enlightened and most fervent group of teachers and their allies in our nation. Indispensable for elementary teachers—and a feisty provocation to all educators to stand up and fight for our beliefs.”

Jonathan Kozol, author, Savage Inequalities and Letters to a Young Teacher

“The authors of Rethinking Elementary Education see curriculum as a metaphor for the lives they want to live, a metaphor for the world they want their students to inhabit with them. They believe schools in a democracy — even elementary schools — ought to be focused on equity and justice. Chapter after chapter, teachers take your breath away with the power of their teaching, demonstrating practices that help the children in their care ‘live the curriculum.’ This is a much needed look at how, despite mandates to the contrary, teachers might make curriculum relevant to children, connecting it to their lives by addressing the big issues that surround them — from the commercialization of childhood to the xenophobia our society holds toward immigrants.”

Jerome C. Harste, Martha Lea and Bill Armstrong Chair Emeritus of Teacher Education, Indiana University

“This is an essential book that will transform how we see Elementary Education. Both clear and profound, this honest book provides inspiration, invites reflection, and through engaging real life examples of classrooms across the nation, shows that in spite of all the external restriction placed upon our schools, we can be the teachers we want to be and give all children the true education they deserve.”

Alma Flor Ada, professor emerita. University of San Francisco, and author of numerous books for children and educators, including A Magical Encounter: Latino Children’s Literature in the Classroom.

Rethinking Elementary Education is both powerful and practical. The stories are direct from the classroom and offer testimony to the opportunities for creating real-world curriculum, based on the lives of our children and their families, and in the service of encouraging children to use their agency in support of the values of justice and empathy. I truly loved the collection and will use it with both pre-service and inservice teachers I work with. Highly recommended!”

Ruth Shagoury, Mary Stuart Rogers Professor of Education, Lewis & Clark College, and author of Raising Writers: Understanding and Nurturing Young Children’s Writing Development


Part 1:  Building Classroom Community

The Challenge of Classroom Discipline3
Bob Peterson

Inner and Outer Worlds5
Ann Truax

Heather’s Moms Got Married10
Mary Cowhey

Creating a Gay- and Lesbian-Friendly Classroom13
Mary Cowhey

It’s OK to Be Neither15
Melissa Bollow Tempel

Peers, Power, and Privilege19
The Social World of a 2nd-grade Classroom
Lauren G. Mednick

Helping Students Deal With Anger24
Kelley Dawson Salas

Staying Past Wednesday29
Kate Lyman

10 Ways to Move Beyond Bully Prevention32
Lyn Mikel Brown

Bad Signs35
Alfie Kohn

Tracking and the Project Method40
Bob Peterson

Part 2:  Reading and Writing Toward a More Just World

Teaching for Social Justice49
One Teacher’s Journey

Bob Peterson

Writing for Change57
Mark Hansen

Patterns and Punctuation66
Elizabeth Schlessman

Confronting Child Labor73
Katharine Johnson

Learning About the Unfair Grounds86
Katie Baydo-Reed

Crossing Borders, Building Empathy91
Bob Peterson

First Crossing96
Pam Muñoz

The Trial: How One Teacher Explores Issues of Homelessness104
Kate Lyman

Fairness First109
Stephanie Walters

Aquí y Allá: Exploring Our Lives Through PoetryHere and There113
Elizabeth Schlessman

AIDS “You Can Die From It”121
Kate Lyman

Rethinking the U.S. Constitutional Convention127
Bob Peterson

Writing Wrongs139
Katharine Johnson

My Mom’s Job is Important155
Matt Witt

Part 3:  Minding Media

Six, Going on Sixteen161
Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin

Beyond Pink and Blue167
Robin Cooley

TV Selfishness and Violence Explode During War on Terror171
2nd graders discover new trends since 9/11
Margot Pepper

Girls, Worms, and Body Image176
Kate Lyman

Who Can Stay Here?182
Confronting issues of documentation and citizenship in children’s literature
Grace Cornell

“Save the Muslim Girl!”188
Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall

Beyond the Medal194
Chloe Myers-Hughes, Hank Bersani, Jr.

Izzit Capitalist Propaganda?199
Julie Knutson

Part 4:  Math is More than Numbers

Teaching Math Across the Curriculum205
A 5th grade teacher battles ‘number numbness’
Bob Peterson

Percent as a Tool for Social Justice211
Bob Peterson

“I Thought This U.S. Place Was Supposed to Be About Freedom”214
Maura Varley Gutierrez

Who Do We Hear?218
Jesse Auger

A Social Justice Data Fair223
Questioning the World Through Math
Beth Alexander, Michelle Munk

Part 5:  Laboratory for Justice: Science Across the Curriculum

Exploring Our Urban Wilderness231
Mark Hansen

Polar Bears on Mission Street236
Rachel Cloues

Measuring Water with Justice241
Bob Peterson

Learning from Worms248
Rachel Cloues

Students take action to defend their classroom pets
Kate Lyman

Part 6:  The Classroom, the School, the World

A Letter from a Black Mom to Her Son261
Dyan Watson

The Power of Words264
Top-down mandates masquerade as social justice reforms
Linda Christensen

A Librarian in Every School, Books in Every Home274
A modest proposal
Bob Peterson

Reading First, Libraries Last277
Rachel Cloues

Think Less Benchmarks282
Amy Gutowski

Deporting Elena’s Father285
Melissa Bollow Tempel

Teaching the Whole Story288
Kate Lyman

Testing Kindergarten297
Young children produce datalots of data
Kelly McMahon

My Talk with the Principal300
Anthony E. Iannone

They Call this Data?303
Amy Gutowski

Rethinking Elementary Education: Introduction

In the best of times elementary teachers are thoughtful surrogate parents, nurses, counselors, social workers, listeners, disciplinarians, teachers and preachers. In the worst of times we are all those things too, but perhaps not so thoughtful, more quick tempered, and overwhelmed with the demands of our jobs and the problems of those who we teach and care for.

We believe that teaching elementary school children is one of the most challenging occupations in the world – among the most rewarding under good conditions, and one of the most frustrating under poor ones. What amazes us is even with massive budgets cuts, rising class sizes, the gutting of the arts, physical education and libraries and all the mandated testing and scripted curriculum, staff at elementary schools still welcome each new school year with fresh anticipation. There’s an almost na•ve hopefulness that despite the many problems, the upcoming school year will somehow bring new opportunities to teach creatively and help our students to grow and mature.

Why do most elementary teachers have such hopeful notions at the beginning of each school year? What gives elementary school teaching such powerful potential?

The stories, lessons and testimonies in this book, Rethinking Elementary Education, answer those questions and many others with such vitality that readers should be left with no doubt that teaching elementary school children is a venerable occupation.

All teaching matters. And all levels of teaching offer unique challenges and opportunities. But the stories in this book reveal that there is something especially powerful and essential about elementary teaching.

First, it’s the children. Their curiosity. Their energy. Their sense of fairness. And the fact they’ve not yet been conditioned to all of the habits and prejudices of adulthood.

Their inquisitiveness is amazing. Questions are endless.

And elementary teaching offers especially rich opportunities to integrate the curriculum. Teaching all subjects with a single class of students lends itself to weaving together math and writing, science and reading, social studies and drama. By doing so, disciplines are not imprisoned in segregated silos, but blended as they are in the real world. Of course, there stills needs to be explicit and sequential instruction in core subjects, but those same subjects are most engaging, most motivating, to students when they are integrated together-as so many of the articles in this volume explore.

Another feature that makes elementary school teaching so compelling is that young children tend to wear their lives on their sleeves, being only too willing to tell their teacher or educational assistant the burdens – perceived or real – that they carry in the classroom. This makes the important task of connecting to students’ lives relatively easier than with older, more self-conscious students. And connecting children’s lives, with those of their families and their families’ heritages in turn motivates students, and deepens educators’ relationship with students and families.

And young children’s minds are like sponges, soaking up the most obscure, profound, (and sometimes erroneous!) things imaginable. The challenge for teachers is to engender the disposition and the skills required to critically look at all that bombards our students daily – from the endless stream of advertising, to their dull textbooks, to one-sided news reports, to the video games and TV shows, to racist and prejudicial jokes and comments they might hear.

Moreover such critical dispositions and questioning can set the stage to encourage children to act on what they’ve learned – to have “civic courage,” to act as if we live in a democracy. We are not talking about telling students how a teacher thinks their parents should vote, but rather to create a learning community in the classroom that models and thinks hard about values of justice and empathy.

The powerful potential of teaching in elementary school, in fact the very craft of teaching, has never been as endangered as it is now. If there ever has been a time when we need to rethink what is going on in elementary education it is now.

Federal and state mandates, often developed by people decades away from the classroom, and enforced by scared administrators who have either forgotten or compromised what they know is right for children, are directly assaulting the profession of teaching. Whether it’s absurdly rigid pacing guides or lifeless, scripted curriculum, or an unnatural obsession with testing, our craft is under attack. These policies discourage curriculum integration, problem-posing curriculum, linking teaching to students’ needs and interests, creative projects and performances, and the acknowledgement that “teachable moments” arrive at the most unexpected times.

Just as public space in our society shrinks as the forces of privatization seek to destroy the public sector, so too does the pedagogical space shrivel as policy makers attach their futures to flawed quick fixes and scapegoating of teachers, our unions, and our students.

We need “child-driven” teaching – not “data-driven” instruction. We need to create the spaces in our classrooms and our schools for engaging projects, role-plays, dramas, and experiments. We need to help children talk back to textbooks, examine what’s going on in their community and talk together about what role they can play to make their classroom, their community, and the world a more just and democratic place. The articles in this book are powerful examples of how to do just that.

But as we create those spaces – and hopefully entire schools – that rethink elementary education, a huge challenge for us teachers is to remain hopeful in these turbulent times. Too often, elementary teachers comply with unsound mandates and do not defend the craft of teaching, fearful of being isolated from colleagues or being called out by an administrator. This is particularly a problem for new teachers who have experienced little else than the yoke of scripted curriculum and data-itis. This yoke not only inhibits more creative and critical approaches to teaching, but it also warps new teachers’ perception of what good teaching is all about. In too many cases, the stress of such unsound practices pushes them out of the teaching profession.

We know that the only way to sustain hope over a long teaching career is to recognize that we cannot do it alone. Part of “rethinking elementary education” entails rethinking how we nurture ourselves as thoughtful, critical, and committed educators. We’ve done this through involvement in book circles, union caucuses, teacher social justice groups, Writing Projects, parent-teacher collaboratives, and broader movements for social justice. Some of us have been involved in starting innovative public schools, like La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee- a two-way bilingual, social justice school – where the learning community of caring staff, parents, and students, has sustained committed teaching for years.

And we also stay positive through reveling and celebrating the amazing things the children do-the role plays, the projects, the poetry readings, the thinking, and ultimately their excitement in learning and trying to change the world. Every time a child’s curiosity and sense of justice blossoms in the classroom we are reassured that the current regime of data-drenched, scripted, narrow curriculum will eventually fall.

Human sensibility will prevail and we will once again strive to educate the whole child, engaging students in meaningful education, treating young children as they deserve to be treated.

As we rethink the ways of teaching that are currently being pushed by educational corporations, policymakers, and many administrators, we must rehearse our craft in all the spaces we can secure. We need to show what is good, what motivates students, and what helps all students, especially those who in the past have been too quickly abandoned. We need to demand that our unions and professional associations fight so that schools can be more than just places to train students to “compete in the global economy,” but rather engaging, caring classrooms where children acquire the love of learning, the habit of carrying a book (paper or digital) at all times, the “skill” of being able to name what is just-to dig deeply to see behind the statements of government officials and corporate apologists. We want children to come to stand with their friends, their neighbors and those around the planet who they may never meet, in our common quest to realign our human societies with the natural world, and seek justice for all.