¡Sí se puede!

I am a second-grade teacher. Many people ask me, “You teach second-graders about slavery, Jim Crow, sweatshops…?” Yes, I do! My students—young children—can understand complex systems of oppression and resistance by seeing justice as fairness, solidarity and collective power as teamwork, nonviolence as not hurting others and Jim Crow as unfair rules.

“¡Sí se puede!” and “Jim Crow must go!” are just two examples of the statements that my students have written, spoken, sung and chanted in my classroom. Students expressed these phrases within the context of a yearlong multidisciplinary social studies curriculum that traces the process of creating cotton clothing. Now you may ask, why focus on cotton clothing? It is a familiar garment to students and a lens through which we can examine systems of oppression—enslavement, sharecropping and sweatshops—and the mass movements that grew in response.

The curriculum engages and inspires my students to produce sophisticated, high-quality work—and to develop a social justice spirit. They learn that Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley struggled to read and write, yet used these skills to confront slavery. They learn that the Nashville sit-ins were part of strategic campaigns to defy Jim Crow and that women and immigrants led the struggle for justice in the mills and garment shops. The curriculum shows students that people of color and women used the power of literacy, language, numeracy and other academic skills to defeat oppression—and that people can join together with allies to form mass movements that overcome bias. Students engage with these ideas through hands-on activities, including composing and presenting abolitionist speeches and organizing against unfair labor conditions in a workplace role-play. 

Anti-bias topics are often taught in ways that burden—and even harm—young children. Tailoring the curriculum to the developmental level of 7- and 8-year-olds involves reminding myself not to focus on horror and despair. Instead, I focus on showing that resistance and collective action can—and has—overcome injustice. As I was told many years ago by diversity educator Dr. Clem Marshall, “Focus on the flames, not the ashes!” In my experience, this focus on the “flames” allows children to gain pride in their identities and fully engage in their studies.

What about the kids in my classroom whose identities reflect the dominant culture? How do I ensure that my teaching does not lead to feelings of guilt? My strategy involves teaching about white allies—William Lloyd Garrison, John Woolman, Pete Seeger and Freedom Riders. These people show us that anyone can be an ally in the struggle for human justice.

It is not fate that slavery was abolished, that women gained the right to vote, that polluted rivers have been cleaned or that our school is equipped with smoke detectors and fire sprinklers. All children need to learn that social movements do not just happen, but require the work and sacrifices of real people striving to improve the world. This awareness allows them to see the legacies of courage and collective resistance that we inherit and to understand that it will take continued struggles to face the power of polluters, corrupt bankers, homophobic legislators, xenophobic mobs and anti-labor groups.

I feel passionately that curricula infused with anti-bias and social justice principles are essential components of “high academic standards.” Just as we must teach children to read critically and to write clearly, we must also provide them with curricula that support the development of strong identities dedicated to justice for all.

!Sí se puede!

Hoeh is a second-grade teacher at Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.


#dontshoot is one of several haunting hashtags that appeared after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old student fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. The hashtag often appears linked to posted and tweeted photographs of African Americans with their arms held up to signal that they are unarmed. The number of these photos circulating has increased steadily in the days since Brown’s death, as the details of the shooting slowly emerge and a community rife with grief and frustration protests the tragic loss of a young person.

Michael Brown could have been my student. Some years ago, I taught at Normandy Middle School in the school district from which “Big Mike” graduated. Students in the Normandy School District confront a host of issues and concerns that directly impact student achievement, including woefully inadequate resources and high rates of poverty and crime in their neighborhoods and municipalities. Recently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education dismantled the school district due to inadequate yearly progress, creating in its wake the Normandy Schools Collective.

Despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances, many of my colleagues continue to provide a quality education to their students. I am proud to have taught in Normandy School District and proud of the district’s students and of my colleagues.

This should have been a time of celebration for Brown, a young man who overcame the obstacles inherent in this flawed educational system. Despite being a credit short when he walked in May, he received his high school diploma on August 1 and was scheduled to enroll at Vatterott College on August 11. Instead, he lay dead in the middle of a city street, shot down between an auspicious end and a bright beginning.

Reflecting upon the significance of another African-American man dead after an altercation with law enforcement (let us not forget Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen and Eric Garner, killed only weeks before), I am left wondering what we are teaching our students—not only our students in predominantly African-American schools, but all students across the United States. Racism does double duty. It harms us all in very real ways.

Jennings School District was forced to push back the first day of school as a precautionary measure due to community protests and riots after Brown’s death. Ferguson-Florissant School District, where protesting continues, has postponed the first day of school. The students in these districts are hearing the message that we handle race, racism and racial tensions in the United States by avoiding them. Brown’s death and the outpouring of protest it ignited is symbolic of racial tensions that have festered for too long. Instead of internalizing the events in Ferguson as racial protocol in our nation, students should be taught to be the voices of change and the enactors of justice.

It is incumbent upon all of us—in all communities, in all schools, and regardless of racial demographics—to teach students compassion for their peers. This includes the peers they sit beside and their peers in Normandy, Ferguson, Jennings and beyond. This isn’t just a learning lesson for African-American students; it is a learning lesson for all students.

Every student matters.

Students across the country are beginning a new school year. Some will mature into law enforcement officers, healthcare professionals, service industry workers and civil employees. Educators have a unique opportunity to begin bridging the social chasms that divide us by fostering honest dialogue with these future adults. Schools can become the places where students learn to interrogate racial biases—and any biases—to restore our collective humanity.

One resource that supports an open and honest dialogue is Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Framework (ABF). The ABF offers K-12 standards that empower students to stand up against prejudice and injustice, to express empathy and compassion and to take action for a better world.

Healing can begin in our schools. Perhaps next year, retuning students will be using the hashtag:


Christian is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance.

This is Community

My 11th-grade U.S. history student Tashia talks about how statistics were used historically to make African Americans appear criminal and how many students of color today feel as if there’s no way around the statistics. My head of school talks about how, during the backlash to Reconstruction, the dominant culture created a criminal justice system that disproportionately targeted African Americans—and how we see its effects today. Jeff, the father of one of my 10th-grade students, shares his own experience with union organizing and talks about the economic implications of mass incarceration.

It’s a Tuesday night, and I’m sitting in a room at my school, listening to a diverse audience discussing race and justice in the United States following a screening of Slavery by Another Name. And I’m thinking, This is community.

This discussion occurred during a civil rights history film series co-sponsored by my school and Teaching for Change, a local non-profit organization that received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Teaching for Change helped advertise our film series, but we mainly used social media and email to invite the public. I offered extra credit to my students for attending and invited all of their parents to come as well.

The series created a space in which individuals from throughout our community—students, teachers, neighbors, administrators, parents and other partners—could come together and explore complex ideas about race, equity and justice through films.

The other organizers and I invited local scholars and activists to provide historical context for each film. (Never underestimate the power of film credits and the Internet to learn that well-known scholars may live in your neighborhood!) They answered audience members’ questions and contributed to the sense of community and shared learning throughout the series.

After the expert or activist introduced each screening, we showed about an hour’s worth of clips. Following the screening, everyone separated into discussion groups mixed across, age, race and school role. (I always knew that the discussion had been a success when I watched the attendees walk out with different people than they had walked in with!). We established these discussion guidelines:

  • Speak your truth and honor others’ perspectives.
  • Speak from the “I” and reference the film when possible.
  • Share air time with all participants.
  • Listen to other participants and seek to understand.
  • Be active, present and prepared to share with the large group!

We provided some discussion questions such as, “What connections do you see between the ideas, laws and systems in [Slavery by Another Name] to ideas, laws and systems that uphold racism today?” and “What did you learn from [The Loving Story] that you can apply to current debates over same-sex marriage?” We then spent some time as a large group sharing big insights from the small groups and extending conversations. 

During the series, I was moved by the power of bringing people together to engage in challenging conversations. We had special moments, like meeting with Joan Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider, while screening clips from Freedom Riders and hearing parents and students alike ask her questions. They wanted to know what had motivated her to take action, whether she felt it was worth it and whether she would do it again. In their questions, the participants shared pieces of themselves, whether it was a student talking about the challenge of being nonviolent or a parent talking about his own experience at Tuskegee University.  

I remember watching one of my students talking about the impact of gentrification on her community with a law school student who had formerly taught and served as one of my experts, and I knew that something had happened. Young people—who are often made to feel as if their voices don’t matter—were being heard by adults. Parents whose primary interaction with our high school had been around their students’ grades and behavior were talking to other young people about important issues in society and building their own understanding of important historical topics. The feedback forms collected after every screening asked for more discussion time.

This series helped bring us together, breaking down barriers that exist within and beyond the high school community. We had parents and their children, teachers and their supervisors, students and their teachers participating equitably, pushing each other’s thinking and reaffirming a commitment to fight for a better future together.

This is community.

Moorman is a high school history teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. She is also a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. 

On This Day

We at TT keep a calendar of significant dates in U.S. civil rights history. These reminders help our readers and us remember the unsteady march toward equality—and recognize that the march continues today.

Today’s history reminder gave us more than a moment’s pause.

On this day in 1965, a riot began in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The riot was sparked by outrage over the arrest of an African-American motorist and fueled by despair over generations of economic devastation and ongoing mistreatment by law enforcement. The riots lasted for six days.

Images of the Watts anniversary stopped many of us in our tracks because—only this morning—we had seen similar news footage coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. On this day in 2014, Ferguson is reeling from the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed on Saturday by a police officer in the economically depressed, racially segregated suburb of St. Louis.

Just as in Watts—almost 50 years earlier—police violence toward a young, black male resident pushed the people of Ferguson to their breaking point. Protests erupted as images of Brown’s prone body began circulating, and the community demanded to know the details of the shooting. In certain areas, vigils and protests crossed over into looting and fire-setting. The police donned riot gear and employed tear gas to control the crowds. The similarities to the half-century-old photographs from Los Angeles are hard to miss.

Ferguson and Watts are not the same place. Michael Brown and Marquette Frye—the young man arrested in 1965—are not the same person, nor did they suffer the same fate. To draw too many parallels between these incidents is to trivialize the history of these communities and disrespect those whose lives were and are affected.

But as an organization committed to justice and equity—and to supporting others as they stand up to injustice and inequity—the similarities compel us to keep pushing, keep working, keep pointing out that we do not live in a post-racial world. That poverty and segregation and racial profiling are still very real problems. That these problems still affect the way people who have power perceive and behave toward people who don’t. And that these perceptions and behaviors still result in very real, very young people dying, sometimes before their lives have even begun.

Oh, and one more thing.

On this day in 2014, Michael Brown was scheduled to attend his first day of college.

van der Valk is the managing editor for Teaching Tolerance.

'American Sabor': A Bilingual, Multicultural Literacy Unit

Finding high-quality, Spanish/English, multicultural teaching materials is a challenging task. But American Sabor, an exhibit developed by the Smithsonian Museum, the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the University of Washington, fits these criteria. Through popular music, American Sabor chronicles the history and diversity of the post-World War II experiences of Latinos. A physical exhibit of American Sabor travels the United States while an online exhibit provides a wealth of videos, interviews, newspaper articles, maps and even a jukebox for anyone to enjoy the styles and sounds of Latino artists. 

My teaching team and I used the online exhibit in our Spanish Language Arts class’s first-quarter unit on the diversity of Latinos and their contributions to the American cultural landscape. The exhibit’s resources added sabor (flavor) to our selected readings from Nacer bailando (Dancing Home), a bilingual novel by Latina author Alma Flor Ada.

Each week, our students studied a different U.S. city, rotating through thematic stations. Students listened to Latino-influenced music and interviews with musicians as a way to understand the historical context surrounding the themes from their readings. They analyzed vignettes from Nacer bailando (Dancing Home), making connections to the experiences of the characters and the musicians they researched.

In one rotation of this unit, students spent a week studying San Antonio as a cultural center. They listened to music that reflected the tejano identity—an identity espoused by many people of Mexican descent living in Texas. Ranchero music, corridos and conjuntos filled our classroom, and we read about influential tejano musicians, such as Eva Ybarra and Chucho Perales. Students discussed what made this music—and the musicians who created it—unique and compared and contrasted it with their personal lives and identities as Latinos.

To further enhance the theme of the tejano identity, we intersected the San Antonio study with the chapter “El mapa” (“The Map”) from Nacer bailando (Dancing Home). In this chapter, Ada presents the identities of the two main characters—Margie, a tejana, and her cousin, Lupe, a recent immigrant from México. By blending these two resources—the nonfiction, informational text from American Sabor and the fictional account of Lupe and Margie—students were able to develop meaningful connections and appreciate the tejano identity through their contributions to our cultural landscape.

As the final product of the unit, students developed a personal narrative about an element of their cultural identity in our city. Students shared their personal narratives with the rest of the class through cartoneras. Several students chose to develop narratives about an experience they had involving their names.

As Latinos, their stories revealed frustration with having their names constantly mispronounced or, worse yet, Americanized without their consent. One student wrote, “I get upset and anxious when someone calls me the wrong name.” He was very clear that even though his name looks “American,” it’s pronounced with a Spanish accent. Another student told the story of a guest teacher who inadvertently Americanized his name. Despite several corrections on behalf of the student, the teacher kept using the Americanized name. The student’s story ended with the statement, “I was so happy to see my regular teacher the next day.” 

Other students wrote about their favorite cultural activity involving music. Two boys’ stories describe the hustle and bustle of their older sisters’ quinceañeras (elaborate coming-of-age parties for young ladies). From waking their sisters up on their big day, to getting themselves and other siblings ready, to going through the formalities of this wedding-like event, and finally being able to spend a little time with friends before returning home, these stories were so vivid that I felt I had been present at the quinceañeras.

Beginning the year with a personal narrative unit allowed me to get to know my students—personally and culturally. It also empowered them with a foundational knowledge of the diversity of Latinos in the United States, including their own valuable cultural contributions. Engaging with American Sabor set the stage for a yearlong process of building a more complex understanding of Latinos’ historic experience of struggle and achievement in the United States.

How might you use American Sabor for a multicultural exploration of history, language, literature and the performing arts in your classroom?

Berg is a middle school bilingual resource teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. 

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