Table of Contents

    Cover Story
  • Free Facing Cancer

    Social justice in biology class

    Authored By Amy Lindahl

    A high school science teacher expands her curriculum to include the impact of cancer on her students lives, and the environmental, social, and political realities of who gets sick and who gets treated.

  • Features
  • Free The Danger of a Single Story

    Writing essays about our lives

    Authored By Linda Christensen

    A master teacher responds to the endangerment of our youth with powerful essays and powerful essay writing.

  • Free From Johannesburg to Tucson

    Authored By Bill Bigelow

    The courage, determination, and political insight of Tucson students bring to mind students who battled for liberatory education in South Africa.

  • Immigration, Sports, and Resistance

    An interview with Carlos Borja

    Authored By Gilda L. Ochoa

    After Carlos Borja built an award-winning track team, he was fired for refusing to oust his assistant coach, who was undocumented.

  • Free Fracking

    In the end, we're all downstream

    Authored By Julie Treick O'neill

    A 9th-grade social studies teacher uses Gasland to help her students explore the environmental and social impact of hydraulic extraction of natural gas.

  • King Corn

    Teaching the food crisis

    Authored By Tim Swinehart

    King Corn follows an acre of corn to market and a future as ethanol, food sweeteners, and animal feed. The journey anchors a curriculum on the international food crisis and how much choice we have over what we eat.

  • Taking Teacher Quality Seriously

    A collaborative approach to teacher evaluation

    Authored By Stan Karp

    If test-based evaluation of teachers is unfair and unreliable, whats a better approach? A negotiated union/district plan in Montgomery County, Maryland, offers an alternative.

  • Professional Development

    New terrain for big business?

    Authored By Rachel Gabriel, Jessica N. Lester

    Race to the Top timelines create pressure on winning states to farm out professional development. Is online "canned" PD the wave of the future?

  • Departments Free
  • The New Misogyny

    What it means for teachers and the classrooms

  • Short Stuff
  • Sean Arce Honored—and Fired
    Fight to Defend Public Education in Philly
    Biological Weapons Training in Middle School?
  • Reviews
  • Another Alaska

    Authored By Beverly Slapin
  • Good Stuff
  • Stand for Justice

    Authored By Melissa Bollow Tempel
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

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King Corn

Teaching the food crisis
King Corn


All right, folks, were going to start today by breaking the rule about eating in class. Id like you to take all of your snacks, drinks, gum, mints, and any other food in your backpacks and pile it up on your desk. If you dont have any food with you today, borrow something from a neighbor. Start reading through the ingredients and looking for corn. How much corn do you think we have in the room today? Any guesses?

I have the good fortune of planning my 9th-grade global studies curriculum with my colleague Julie ONeill. We decided to start class with this food from your backpack activity as an introduction to the documentary film King Corn. Recent advertising campaigns against high-fructose corn syrup have helped to make some students more aware of how pervasively that ingredient is used in processed foods, but we were hoping to show just how creative industrial food producers have been at incorporating Americas largest crop into the snack food that students eat every day.

We projected a list of commonly included ingredients that are likely to be made from corn (including such unlikely suspects as caramel, dextrose, sorbitol, food starch, and xanthan gum), and then asked students to guess what percentage of their foods were made of corn. Although the accuracy of their estimates was questionable (ranging from zero to 90 percent), the exercise gave students a way to immediately connect to the film, which opens with the two filmmakers undergoing isotopic hair analysis to see how much corn they are made of. When Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney are told by Stephen Macko, University of Virginia professor of environmental science, that more than 50 percent of the carbon atoms in their bodies are composed of corn, our students seemed to share the shock that Ellis and Cheney display in the film.

Our goals in showing the film extended beyond raising awareness about the foods that our students eat. Our food curriculum focuses on choice: the extent to which we do or dont have true choices about the food we eat, and what that means for people and the environment. In part, we want to confront the narrative of the all-powerful consumer that looms so large in American culture: the idea that we are all in control of our diets, health, and happiness through the decisions we make in the marketplace. Without stripping power and agency from students, we want to show that most of us dont have as much choice as we perceive about the food that we eat. This is especially important when we talk with students about solutions to the social and environmental problems we discuss over the course of our food unittheir natural first reaction is often to focus on making better individual food choices.

In fact, for the last six years, Ive created units on the politics of food for almost every social studies class Ive taughtfrom world history to economicsand Ive started each unit by asking students to think and write about this question of choice. In the discussions that follow, weve bounced from the inevitable critiques of school food to differing perspectives on how families shop, cook, and eat at home.

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