Rethinking Our Classrooms Volume 1 book cover

Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 1 – Second Edition

Teaching for Equity and Justice

Edited by Wayne Au, Bill Bigelow, and Stan Karp

Available in:

Paperback: $18.95

PDF E-Book: $13.95

Publication Date: February 12, 2007

ISBN: 9780942961355

Since the first edition was published in 1994, Rethinking Our Classrooms has sold over 180,000 copies.

This revised and expanded edition includes new essays on:

  • science and environmental education
  • immigration and language
  • military recruitment
  • teaching about the world through mathematics
  • gay and lesbian issues.

Creative teaching ideas, compelling classroom narratives, and hands-on examples show how teachers can promote the values of community, justice, and equality while building academic skills.

A great resource for new and veteran K-12 teachers, as well as teacher education and staff development programs.


  • Building Community From Chaos
  • Race and Respect Among Young Children
  • Why Students Should Study History: An Interview with Howard Zinn
  • Taking Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education Seriously
  • Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us: Critiquing Cartoons and Society
  • Teaching Standard English: Whose Standard?
  • Teaching About Global Warming in Truck Country
  • Math, SATs, and Racial Profiling
  • Students Mobilize for Immigrant Rights
  • Equity Claims for NCLB Don’t Pass the Test
  • Why We Need to Go Beyond the Classroom

Buy the combined set of the first and second volumes of this groundbreaking series for only $24.95

“Terrific! A dynamite collection packed with moral energy, but also very, very useful. Even more powerful, with even richer material, than the original edition. Buy hundreds of copies for your students, fellow teachers, and principals. Give some to your school board members. This is political pedagogy of the gutsy kind we almost never see these days.”

Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation

“Once again Rethinking Schools brings us an example of the best social justice curriculum and pedagogy available today. In this new edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms we experience the best of theory and practice, science and art, academic excellence and equity. It is a feast for both teachers and learners.”

Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“A treasure trove of insights, creative activities, and valuable resources for the critical classroom, Rethinking Our Classrooms will help teachers wrestle with many of the issues we face in this new millennium from racism and gender identity to immigration phobia, global warming and the testing craze. Inspired stories of real-life classrooms make this new edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms better than ever!”

Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Creating Classrooms for Equity and
Social Justice                                                    x

Part One: Points of Departure

“Lions”                                                               2

By Langston Hughes

Unlearning the Myths That Bind Us: Critiquing
Cartoons and Society                                         3

By Linda Christensen

Rethinking ‘The Three Little Pigs’                    8

By Ellen Wolpert

10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for
Racism and Sexism                                         10

By the Council on Interracial Books for Children

Celebrating the Joy in Daily Events                    12

By Linda Christensen

“Ode to My Socks Oda a los calcetines”          13

By Pablo Neruda

Taking Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education
Seriously                                                         15

An interview with Enid Lee

“My Hair Is Long”                                              18

By Loyen Redhawk Gali

Part Two: Rethinking My Classroom

Race and Respect Among Young Children          20

By Rita Tenorio

Holding Nyla: Lessons from an Inclusion
Classroom                                                       25

By Katie Kissinger

Teaching for Social Justice: One Teacher’s Journey          28

By Bob Peterson

Songs That Promote Justice                          33

By Bob Peterson

“Forgiving My Father”                                        35

By Justin Morris

Playing with Gender: Lessons from an Early
Childhood Center                                              36

By Ann Pelo

The Challenge of Classroom Discipline               41

By Bob Peterson

Helping Students Deal with Anger                      43

By Kelley Dawson Salas

Building Community from Chaos                        47

By Linda Christensen

Discipline: No Quick Fix                                    53

By Linda Christensen

“Honeybees”                                                    55

By Paul Fleischman

Teaching About Global Warming in Truck Country 57

By Jana Dean

Students Use Math to Confront Overcrowding      63

By Erin E. Turner and Beatriz T. Font Strawhun

Getting Off the Track: Stories from an Untracked Classroom          68

By Bill Bigelow

“what the mirror said”                                        76

By Lucille Clifton

Part Three: Teaching Ideas

Using Pictures to Combat Bias                          78

By Ellen Wolpert

My Mom’s Job Is Important                               80

By Matt Witt

Father Was a Musician                                     83

By Dyan Watson

There’s More to Heroes Than He-Man                 84

By Marcie Osinsky

The Military Recruitment Minefield                      85

By Bill Bigelow

Coping with TV: Some Lesson Ideas                  93

By Bob Peterson

What Do We Say When We Hear ‘Faggot’?        95

By Leonore Gordon

Learning from Worms                                        97

By Rachel Cloues

The Organic Goodie Simulation                        100

By Bill Bigelow and Norm Diamond

World Poverty and World Resources                103

By Susan Hersh and Bob Peterson

Math, SATs, and Racial Profiling                      106

By Eric Gutstein

The Day Sondra Took Over: Helping Students
Become Self-Directed                                    109

By Cynthia M. Ellwood

Little Things Are Big                                        113

By Jesœs Col—n

Haiku and Hiroshima: Teaching About the Atomic
Bomb                                                            114

By Wayne Au

Students as Textbook Detectives: An Exercise in
Uncovering Bias                                              116

By Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

What Can Teachers Do About Sexual Harassment?          118

By Ellen Bravo and Larry Miller

Flirting vs. Sexual Harassment: Teaching the
Difference                                                       121

By Nan Stein and Lisa Sjostrom

Celebrating the Student’s Voice                       124

By Linda Christensen

“Rayford’s Song”                                             125

By Lawson Inada

Promoting Social Imagination Through Interior Monologues 126

By Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen

“Two Women”                                                 128


Role Plays: Show, Don’t Tell                            130

By Bill Bigelow

Testing, Tracking, and Toeing the Line: A Role Play
on the Origins of the Modern High School         133

By Bill Bigelow

‘Salt of the Earth’ Grounds Students in Hope     141

By S. J. Childs

“The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.”             144

By Nikki Giovanni

Part Four: Rethinking Our Assumptions

My Dirty Little Secret: Why I Don’t Grade Papers 146

By Linda Christensen

Expectations and ‘At-Risk’ Children: One Teacher’s Perspective    151

By L. C. Clark

Teachers and Cultural Styles                           152

By Asa G. Hilliard III

Teaching Standard English: Whose Standard?  154

by Linda Christensen

Seeing Color                                                  158

By Lisa Delpit

When Small Is Beautiful                                  161

An interview with HŽctor Calder—n

I Won’t Learn from You! Confronting Student
Resistance                                                     165

By Herbert Kohl

Food Is Not for Play                                        167

By Jean Hannon

The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong
with the Rosa Parks Myth                               168

By Herbert Kohl

“In Memory of Crossing the Columbia”              172

By Elizabeth Woody

Heather’s Moms Got Married: Creating a Gay- and Lesbian-Friendly Classroom      173

By Mary Cowhey

Thoughts on Teaching Native American Literature 175

By Joseph Bruchac

Why Students Should Study History                179

An interview with Howard Zinn

History Book Resources                              182

By Howard Zinn

“To the Young Who Want to Die”                      186

By Gwendolyn Brooks

Part Five: Beyond the Classroom

Why We Need to Go Beyond the Classroom     188

By Stan Karp

“Rebellion Against the North Side”                    194

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Teachers Teaching Teachers                           195

By Linda Christensen

Equity Claims for NCLB Don’t Pass the Test     200

By Stan Karp

Why Standardized Tests Are Bad                    203

By Terry Meier

“Lineage”                                                        205

By Margaret Walker

Students Mobilize for Immigrant Rights             206

By Ryan Knudson and Al Levie

Part Six: Resources

Poetry Teaching Guide                                    212

By Linda Christensen

Videos                                                           215

By Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen

Video Teaching Strategies                           216

By Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen

Books for Young People                                  219

Curricula and Teaching Resources                   224

Periodicals                                                     228

Organizations                                                 229

Poetry Credits




Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 1

Introduction: Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice

Rethinking Our Classrooms begins from the premise that schools and classrooms should be laboratories for a more just society than the one we now live in. Unfortunately, too many schools are training grounds for boredom, alienation, and pessimism. Too many schools fail to confront the racial, class, and gender inequities woven into our social fabric. Teachers are often simultaneously perpetrators and victims, with little control over planning time, class size, or broader school policiesand much less over the unemployment, hopelessness, and other “savage inequalities” that help shape our children’s lives.

But Rethinking Our Classrooms is not about what we cannot do; it’s about what we can do. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire writes that teachers should attempt to “live part of their dreams within their educational space.” Classrooms can be places of hope, where students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality. We intend the articles in Rethinking Our Classrooms to be both visionary and practical; visionary because we need to be inspired by each other’s vision of schooling; practical because for too long teachers have been preached at by theoreticians, well removed from classrooms, who are long on jargon and short on specific examples.

We’ve drawn the articles, stories, poems, and lessons in Rethinking Our Classrooms from different academic disciplines and grade levels. Despite variations in emphasis, a common social and pedagogical vision unites this collection. This vision is characterized by several interlocking components that together comprise what we call a social justice classroom. In Rethinking Our Classrooms we argue that curriculum and classroom practice must be:

  • Grounded in the lives of our students. All good teaching begins with a respect for children, their innate curiosity and their capacity to learn. Curriculum should be rooted in children’s needs and experiences. Whether we’re teaching science, mathematics, English, or social studies, ultimately the class has to be about our students’ lives as well as about a particular subject. Students should probe the ways their lives connect to the broader society, and are often limited by that society.
  • Critical. The curriculum should equip students to “talk back” to the world. Students must learn to pose essential critical questions: Who makes decisions and who is left out? Who benefits and who suffers? Why is a given practice fair or unfair? What are its origins? What alternatives can we imagine? What is required to create change? Through critiques of advertising, cartoons, literature, legislative decisions, military interventions, job structures, newspapers, movies, agricultural practices, or school life, students should have opportunities to question social reality. Finally, student work must move outside the classroom walls, so that scholastic learning is linked to real world problems.
  • Multicultural, anti-racist, projustice. In our earlier publication Rethinking Columbus, we used the Discovery myth to demonstrate how children’s literature and textbooks tend to value the lives of Great White Men over all others. Traditional materials invite children into Columbus’s thoughts and dreams; he gets to speak, claim land, and rename the ancient homelands of Native Americans, who appear to have no rights. Implicit in many traditional accounts of history is the notion that children should disregard the lives of women, working people, and especially people of colorthey’re led to view history and current events from the standpoint of the dominant groups. By contrast, a social justice curriculum must strive to include the lives of all those in our society, especially the marginalized and dominated. As antiracist educator Enid Lee points out (see interview, p. 15), a rigorous multiculturalism should engage children in a critique of the roots of inequality in curriculum, school structure, and the larger societyalways asking: How are we involved? What can we do?
  • Participatory, experiential. Traditional classrooms often leave little room for student involvement and initiative. In a “rethought” classroom, concepts need to be experienced firsthand, not just read about or heard about. Whether through projects, role plays, simulations, mock trials, or experiments, students need to be mentally, and often physically, active. Our classrooms also must provoke students to develop their democratic capacities: to question, to challenge, to make real decisions, to collectively solve problems.
  • Hopeful, joyful, kind, visionary. The ways we organize classroom life should seek to make children feel significant and cared aboutby the teacher and by each other. Unless students feel emotionally and physically safe, they won’t share real thoughts and feelings. Discussions will be tinny and dishonest. We need to design activities where students learn to trust and care for each other. Classroom life should, to the greatest extent possible, prefigure the kind of democratic and just society we envision and thus contribute to building that society. Together students and teachers can create a “community of conscience,” as educators Asa Hilliard and Gerald Pine call it.
  • Activist. We want students to come to see themselves as truth-tellers and change-makers. If we ask children to critique the world but then fail to encourage them to act, our classrooms can degenerate into factories for cynicism. While it’s not a teacher’s role to direct students to particular organizations, it is a teacher’s role to suggest that ideas should be acted upon and to offer students opportunities to do just that. Children can also draw inspiration from historical and contemporary efforts of people who struggled for justice. A critical curriculum should be a rainbow of resistance, reflecting the diversity of people from all cultures who acted to make a difference, many of whom did so at great sacrifice. Students should be allowed to learn about and feel connected to this legacy of defiance.
  • Academically rigorous. A social justice classroom equips children not only to change the world but also to maneuver in the one that exists. Far from devaluing the vital academic skills young people need, a critical and activist curriculum speaks directly to the deeply rooted alienation that currently discourages millions of students from acquiring those skills. A social justice classroom offers more to students than do traditional classrooms and expects more from students. Critical teaching aims to inspire levels of academic performance far greater than those motivated or measured by grades and test scores. When children write for real audiences, read books and articles about issues that really matter, and discuss big ideas with compassion and intensity, “academics” starts to breathe. Yes, we must help students “pass the tests,” (even as we help them analyze and critique the harmful impact of test-driven education). But only by systematically reconstructing classroom life do we have any hope of cracking the cynicism that lies so close to the heart of massive school failure, and of raising academic expectations and performance for all our children.
  • Culturally sensitive. Critical teaching requires that we admit we don’t know it all. Each class presents new challenges to learn from our students and demands that we be good researchers, and good listeners. These days, the demographic reality of schooling makes it likely that white teachers will enter classrooms filled with children of color. As African-American educator Lisa Delpit writes in her review of the book White Teacher (see p. 158), “When teachers are teaching children who are different from themselves, they must call upon parents in a collaborative fashion if they are to learn who their students really are.” They must also call upon culturally diverse colleagues and community resources for insights into the communities they seek to serve. What can be said about racial and cultural differences between teachers and students also holds true for class differences.

We’re skeptical of the “inspirational speakers” administrators bring to faculty meetings, who exhort us to become super-teachers and classroom magicians. Critical teaching requires vision, support, and resources, not magic. We hope the stories, critiques, and lesson ideas here will offer useful examples which can be adapted in classrooms of all levels and disciplines and in diverse social milieus. Our goal is to provide a clear framework to guide classroom transformation.

But as vital as it is to reimagine and reorganize classroom practice, ultimately it’s insufficient. Teachers who want to construct more equitable, more meaningful, and more lively educational experiences for children must also concern themselves with issues beyond the classroom walls. For example, if a school uses so-called ability grouping to sort students, then no matter how successful we are in our efforts to remake classroom life, many students will still absorb negative messages about their capacity to achieve. We need to confront tracking and standardized testing, the funding inequalities within and between school districts, and the frequent reluctance of teacher unions to address issues of quality education. Rethinking our classrooms requires inventing strategies so that teachers can make alliances with parents and community organizations who have an interest in equity. Toward this end we’ve offered a chapter, “Beyond the Classroom.”

As we go to press with Rethinking Our Classrooms, there are many reasons to be discouraged about the future: Districts across the country continue to slash budgets; violence continues to plague schools; attempts to privatize the schools have not slowed; and the country’s productive resources are still used to make more technological goodies, fancier athletic shoes, and more sophisticated weaponry, rather than used in less profitable arenas like education and affordable housing.

There is a Zulu expression: “If the future doesn’t come toward you, you have to go fetch it.” We hope Rethinking Our Classrooms will be a useful tool in the movement to go fetch a better future: in our classrooms, in our schools, and in the larger society. There are lots of us out there. Critical and activist teachers work all across the country. Let’s make our voices heard.
the editors