Table of Contents

    Free Editorial
  • Free Guns Out of Our Schools, Propaganda Out of Our Classrooms

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    There’s much that we as educators can do to combat gun violence and get guns out of our schools. One of our roles as teachers is to guide students to examine the roots of an issue. When we talk about the Bill of Rights and the roots of the Second Amendment, we can expose the popular mythology that surrounds it — that this is somehow about individuals resisting government oppression — and lay out its true intent: to defend and deepen white supremacy.  We must also lead the charge against programs like the NRA's Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program that normalize guns and gun violence.

  • Cover Story
  • Free The 2018 Wave of Teacher Strikes

    A Turning Point for Our Schools?

    By Stan Karp, Adam Sanchez

    The wave of struggles sweeping through the United States are more than “red state” revolts. They are rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. However, almost all of the states where statewide actions have occurred are right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits. These states are less likely to have collective bargaining rights and local district contracts. This puts more focus on state budgets and state decisions about healthcare and pensions, and encourages statewide action focused on the legislature. Consequently, many of the walkouts have been more akin to mass political protests seeking broad changes in public policy. But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests are likely to keep rebellion spreading to “purple” states like Colorado (where there was a walkout in April) and North Carolina (May) and beyond. Almost everywhere in “red states” and “blue states” alike, budget and tax policy has been used to erode social services, shrink public space, undermine union power, and transfer wealth upward, all the while making the lives of working people harder.

  • Issue Theme: Teachers Rise Up
  • Free Transforming Teacher Unions in a Post-Janus World

    By Bob Peterson

    Bob Peterson analyzes the Janus decision's impact on teacher unions, talks with union leaders from across the country about how they are responding to it, and argues that the damage of the decision can be countered through the upsurge of progressive activism engendered by the victory of Donald Trump.

  • Free A Hurricane in the Classroom

    Inside the Schools Ensnared in Puerto Rico’s Privatization Fever — and How Its Teachers Are Fighting Back

    By Kate Aronoff

    SPECIAL REPORT: Education “reformers” are using the disaster in Puerto Rico to close hundreds of public schools and convert much of the school system to charters. But teachers, parents, and students are fighting back.

  • Features
  • Free Howling at the Ocean

    Surviving My First Year Teaching

    By Jaydra Johnson

    A first-year teacher struggles with what it means to be a social justice educator.

  • Free Seeing Ourselves with Our Own Eyes

    By Katy Alexander

    A special education teacher uses poetry to help her middle school students write their own narratives and celebrate themselves.

  • Free How My 4th-Grade Class Passed a Law on Teaching Mexican “Repatriation”

    By Leslie Hiatt

    How 4th-grade students in Southern California were helped by their teachers to develop curriculum surrounding the mass deportation of U.S. citizens of Mexican heritage in the 1930s and pass a law to investigate what happened.

  • Free Sorry Not Sorry

    Reckoning with the Power and Limitations of an Apology to Native Hawaiians

    By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

    A high school teacher uses the #MeToo movement and students’ own experiences with apologies to interrogate the government’s 1993 apology to Native Hawaiians for the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i.

  • Free Pushing Past Hate, Pushing Past Paladino

    How One Community Organized for Racial Justice and to Remove a School Board Member

    By Kate Haq, Alexa Schindel

    Trump supporter Carl Paladino’s racism, misogyny, and transphobia galvanized community members to oust him from the Buffalo School Board. Their struggle also laid the groundwork for new coalitions and progressive change.

  • Departments Free
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.
  • Commentary
  • Teaching the Truth About Climate Change Is Up to Us, Because Textbooks Lie

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow

Teaching the Truth About Climate Change Is Up to Us, Because Textbooks Lie

Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms
Teaching the Truth About Climate Change Is Up to Us, Because Textbooks Lie

Michael Duffy

In 2016, the school board in Portland, Oregon, approved a comprehensive climate justice resolution, one part of which mandated that Portland Public Schools “will abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”

I was a member of the committee of parents, teachers, students, and activists that pushed for the resolution. In drafting it, we knew that there were a couple of especially egregious texts in Portland classrooms, but until we sat down to formally evaluate 13 middle and high school science and social studies textbooks, we had no idea that every single one of the texts adopted in famously green and liberal Portland misleads young people about the climate crisis.

Few teachers put their faith in multinational behemoths like Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But our Climate Justice Committee needed more than hunches about how these corporations’ profit-first orientation would distort their coverage of climate change — we needed evidence.

Before our committee collected district-adopted textbooks to evaluate, we developed a rubric to evaluate their adequacy, inspired by the work of K. C. Busch at Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity. Here’s what we came up with:

• The text provides stories and examples that help students grasp the immediacy, systemic nature, and gravity of the climate crisis.
• The text includes actions that people are taking to address the climate crisis, locally and worldwide.
• The text emphasizes that all people are being affected by the climate crisis, but also highlights the inequitable effects of the crisis on certain groups (e.g., Indigenous peoples, people in poverty, Pacific Islanders, people in sub-Saharan Africa, people dependent on glaciers for drinking water and irrigation, etc.)
• The text does not use conditional language that expresses doubt about the climate crisis (e.g., “Some scientists believe . . .” or “Human activities may change climate . . .”)
• There are discussion and/or writing questions that provoke critical thinking.

Given our climate emergency, meeting these criteria seemed to us to be a reasonable cut score.

Thirteen retired teachers and members of our Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee gathered to evaluate the school district’s texts. The first thing we noticed is how difficult it was to find anything about climate change in many of the books. A typical social studies text, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, includes no mention of climate change, but offers breathless paeans to fossil fuels: “Oklahoma’s oil reserves are among the largest in the nation. Fossil fuels helped the United States become an industrial giant.” As one committee reviewer wrote, in this and other texts, “there is an opportunity to look at early U.S. history as prologue to the climate crisis, but this book is utterly silent.”

Contemporary Economics: not a word. The iconic Magruder’s American Government: 844 pages with no reference to global warming, climate change, greenhouse gases. One committee reviewer wrote: “How can a book about the U.S. government say nothing about the climate crisis — or environmental policy more broadly? This is egregious, unacceptable.” Despite a focus on industrialization, neither volume of the Advanced Placement text Sources of the Western Tradition includes anything about climate change — as if we can cleave fossil fuel-powered industrialization from its contemporary climate consequences.

Other texts acknowledge the existence, or at least the possibility, of climate change, but the texts’ language is drenched in doubt. Issues and Life Sciences describes global climate change in just one sentence, as a “potential threat to Earth’s biomes.” However, other “threats” to the Earth’s biomes — eight of them — are listed as actual, and climate change a mere potential threat.

The books are littered with conditional language. The high school text Biology: As greenhouse gas concentrations increase, global temperatures “may be affected,” and there might be “potential” for serious environmental problems. And: “Explain how burning of fossil fuels might lead to climate change.” AP World History informs students that the global rise in temperatures “might have serious consequences.”

A key component of Portland’s climate justice resolution is its insistence on student agency: “All Portland Public Schools students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice — especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change.” But not a single text our committee reviewed suggests that students or ordinary people can play a role in addressing this growing crisis — or that “frontline communities” are themselves responding to climate destabilization. In its one sentence on climate change, Pursuing American Ideals says that “environmentalists fear” problems like global warming. Similarly, Modern World History acknowledges that “environmentalists are especially concerned . . .” and that “Scientists also are worried about global warming . . .” These are both true, of course, but the resolution’s intent is to emphasize our students’ own role in making the world a better place, rather than assigning concern and action only to scientists and environmentalists.

All 13 of the books earned an F. Our committee is in the midst of sending letters to each publisher informing them that their book is out of compliance with Portland school district policy on climate education. We are also sending letters to teachers who may be using these books, alerting them to our findings and urging them to use alternatives, and to engage students in critical reading activities to dissect the problems with these texts’ ho-hum approach to climate change. 

Do we expect to influence these corporations’ treatment of the climate crisis in their textbooks? No. The corporate giants that publish school textbooks have no interest in raising critical questions about the frenzied system of extraction and consumption at the root of climate change — a system from which they benefit. Our aim is to build an argument that we cannot look to conventional sources of curriculum to educate our students about the causes of climate change and the kind of fundamental social transformation needed to address the crisis. 

For this, we need a grassroots approach to curriculum development — a partnership among educators, parents, environmental organizations, frontline communities, and our students. We need to demand time for teachers to collaborate, to write new curriculum, to share stories — to learn from one another and from the communities being hit by climate change first and the hardest. The climate crisis threatens life on Earth. Our students have a right to learn about this and to know that they can make a difference.

Bill Bigelow ( is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and co-director of the Zinn Education Project. He co-edited A People's Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

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