Table of Contents

    Cover Story
  • Free Of Mice and Marginalization

    Authored By Michelle Kenney

    Under pressure from parents, a high school English teacher assigns a classic: Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Her students' reactions lead her to a deeper understanding of what's wrong with "the canon."

  • Features
  • Disabled Education

    Authored By Ruth Colker

    A legal advocate for people with disabilities realizes, through her own son's experiences, the inequities in access, diagnosis, and services for children with special needs.

  • Free Standing Up for Tocarra

    Authored By Tina Owen

    When a homophobic minister preaches about the "sin" of a transgender student at her funeral, a teacher leads her students to focus instead on the beautiful spirit of the young woman they loved.

  • Free The Mystery of the 3 Scary Numbers

    Authored By Bill Bigelow

    A classroom mixer prepares students to study "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math."

  • Teaching Palestine

    An interview with Palestinian educator Ziad Abbas

    Authored By Jody Sokolower

    Drawing on his experience growing up in a refugee camp in the West Bank and his work with youth, Abbas explores connections that bring Palestine to life for students in the United States.

  • Free Charter Schools and the Future of Public Education

    Authored By Stan Karp

    Charter schools began as educator-initiated, local efforts to provide alternative approaches to education. What role are they playing now? And what is the impact on public education?

  • Schools That Change Communities

    Reviewed By David Sobel

    Bob Gliner's film focuses on five schools in very different communities. Together, they provide a view of what is possible when education is grounded in civic engagement.

  • Rethinking Shit

    Excrement and equity

    Authored By Noah Zeichner

    A high school social studies teacher uses videos and frank discussion to lead students in a study of the sanitation crisis in poverty-stricken areas of the world, and the connection to global patterns of wealth and power.

  • Departments Free
  • Clear-Cutting Our Schools

    Authored By The Editors of Rethinking Schools
  • Action Education
  • Justice for Trayvon Martin

    Authored By Jody Sokolower
  • Good Stuff
  • The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos

    Reviewed By Grace Cornell Gonzales
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

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Rethinking Shit

Excrement and equity
Rethinking Shit

Erik Ruin

Rethinking Shit: Excrement and equity

My students say shit multiple times a day. Rarely are they talking about feces. The word shit has been around for centuries. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the word's reference to excrement back to the 1580s, but its use for an obnoxious person goes back to at least 1508.

A couple of years ago, I started to change my approach to shit. While researching a unit on global water scarcity that I was teaching in my global leadership class, I came across a collection of essays, Written in Water: Messages of Hope for Earth's Most Precious Resource, that features an article about sanitation by Rose George. George's essay, The Unmentionables, is reprinted from her book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. George does a masterful job of illustrating why no one wants to talk about shit. It's a gross and uncomfortable topic.

I have an excerpt from the introduction to The Big Necessity waiting for students on their desks when they walk into the classroom (pages 13). I ask them to read silently and to underline key facts and statistics. They discover that 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to sanitation. That means no toilet, latrine, outhouse, or even a cardboard box. In other words, 40 percent of all humans on earth have nowhere to defecate. Women risk humiliation and rape when relieving themselves. And children grow up accustomed to the stench of human waste.

When my students have finished reading, before we discuss the content, I show a short video clip from the film Slumdog Millionaire. The scene begins just before minute 11, and shows the film's protagonist, then a young boy, going to the bathroom in a hanging latrine in Mumbai, India. The boy's friend locks the door from the outside just as a helicopter, carrying a famous movie star, is landing nearby. Not wanting to miss the chance for an autograph, the boy decides to take the plunge into a deep pool of shit. He emerges, covered in brown sludge, and successfully pushes himself through a crowd of shocked fans to meet his hero.


  • Biosolids Recycling, King County, Washington.
  • George, Rose. The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. Metropolitan Books, 2008.
  • George, Rose, ed. Shit: A Survival Guide, Issue 82, Colors Magazine, fall 2011.
  • Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by Danny Boyle. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2009.
  • Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History. Oxford, 2002.
  • World's Toilet Crisis. Vanguard. June 10, 2010. Available on YouTube. We will update links on the online and digital versions of this article.
  • Toilet Stall Newsletter written and distributed by Zeichner's class.

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