Mix It Up How-To’s

Mix It Up at Lunch is now in its 13th year. And just when we think we’ve seen every possible way to organize this event, schools surprise us with new levels of creativity. We’re sure this Oct. 28 will be no exception! 

Do you have a creative idea for Mix It Up at Lunch Day? If so, share it! If you still have no idea what you’re going to do yet, don’t panic. You’re part of a community of educators who spark creativity. Join the conversation! A great place to start is Facebook or Twitter

Here are some more suggestions: 

  • Have students draw cards pre-marked with letters (or colors or numbers) as they enter the cafeteria, then sit at corresponding tables.
  • Hand out treats (Jolly Ranchers, lollipops, playing cards, etc.) as students arrive; then have them sit at tables designated by treat.
  • Assign tables based on birthday month or season.
  • Assign tables based on the first letter of the student’s first name.
  • Use random hand stamps or raffle tickets (or colored bracelets, buttons, etc.) to assign seats.
  • Use table toppers (favorite college names, sports teams, animals, colors, foods, etc.) and have students choose tables accordingly.

Conversation starters get the ball rolling and help students realize they have more in common than they thought. There are so many topics to choose from (sports, music, movies), or it can be as simple as asking students about their preferences: Coke or Pepsi? Snow or beach? Dogs or cats? Almost any topic can lead students to common ground. 

Many schools have used cards from board games as conversation starters. One school had success with the game “Would You Rather … ?

Want to really Mix It Up? Who says you have to keep it confined to the walls of your own school? Invite nearby schools with higher or lower grade levels. Students will make new friends and be introduced to positive role models—or become role models themselves.    

You can always play traditional games like musical chairs or charades. There are no limits to the possibilities. As long as students are interacting with someone new, your event will have a positive impact on your school year.   

Check out more ideas here, and catch up on more Mix 2014 info here!

The Danger of Censoring Our History

It’s Banned Books Week, an annual event that brings renewed attention to challenged and banned titles. For many educators and students across the country, this week represents a moment to celebrate the freedom to read and engage in conversations about censorship. For schools in Jefferson County, Colorado—the state’s second largest school district—Banned Books Week holds particular relevance. Hundreds of teachers and students are engaged in protests against the new school board’s proposal to form a review committee, tasked with ensuring curricula focus on topics that promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise. More specifically, the committee will identify and weed out materials that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” The proposal identifies Advanced Placement U.S. history as one of first curricula to be reviewed.  

The parameters put forth in the proposal are widely seen as a form of censorship. Jefferson County schools have been forced to close as teachers organized and partook in “sick-outs,” using sick days and their absence to mark their objection. Students have organized and participated in walk-outs. Taking to the streets, these educators and students are engaged in acts of civil disobedience—a type of protest listed among the very action that the school board proposes to omit from curricula.

The New York Times reports one student saying, “You can’t erase our history. It’s not patriotic.” Some see banning topics that “encourage or condone civil disorder” as akin to relegating iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez—as well as less well-known crusaders for justice—to the margins of our national memory. Others are asking how any U.S. history class cannot involve nuanced engagement with the civil rights movement, labor movements and other pivotal events in the long march for justice. The message for the school board is clear: Whitewashing U.S. history and masking important realities will simply not do and cannot be tolerated. 

Why? The answer is twofold. First, rewriting curriculum such as AP U.S. history with the “standards” in the school board’s proposal will be a grave disservice to students. It jeopardizes their ability to obtain college credit and advanced standing, let alone their college-readiness at large. It also obliterates the genuine purpose of any history curriculum: to expose students to diverse and often conflicting perspectives, situate complex viewpoints in time and place and identify silences in the historical record—the very silences created by the abuses of power and authority.

Second, the parameters put forth will give students a false impression of our country’s history. A curriculum that blindly promotes patriotism and universal respect for authority figures will hide important truths: Our 250-year history is driven by the desire of people to effect change, often taking to the streets and using extralegal means to do so. Every significant change in our history—the abolition of slavery, the extension of the right to vote, passage of worker protection and safety laws, the end of Jim Crow—came about because people took action, rallying together against unjust laws and practices.

Historical truth is at stake in Jefferson County. That’s why we continue to see protesters gathering outside the school board’s offices. Jefferson County has turned into a political battleground, but it’s important to remember that the issues of censorship are not isolated to this one school district. Censorship can seep into any classroom or school district unless concerted efforts are taken to challenge this process. 

Are you a teacher in Jefferson County? Teaching Tolerance supports you and would like to hear from you and your students. For educators across the country, what are your thoughts on this issue? How would you react if your school board put forth a similar proposal? 

Lindberg is a writer/associate editor at Teaching Tolerance

What the Heck are “Vines?”

Here at Teaching Tolerance we use social media daily to stay in touch with educators—and to keep you in touch with each other. Recently, we decided to join a new network to spread our message in a new way: Vine! We’re looking forward to using our Vine account to share content with both educators and students.

So what is Vine?

Vine is a video-sharing social network that allows users to create and upload six-second videos. Once the Vine video has been viewed, it loops—or replays—over and over again. Since its debut in 2012, the platform has become a sensation, attracting users from all walks of life, including comedians, musicians, animators and journalists, among others. Chances are your students have contributed to its popularity and most likely have accounts themselves.

We created the Teaching Tolerance Vine account so we can make and upload fun, informative videos you can use in your network and in the classroom. Wondering how it can work with students? Here are a few suggestions for incorporating Vines at school:

  • Create a Vine account for your classroom and invite your students to follow it.
  • Encourage students to create and share their own Vines using classroom content or Teaching Tolerance materials.
  • Get students excited about an upcoming event, such as Mix it Up at Lunch Day, by sharing or showing related Vines—or having them create their own. 
  • Create Vines designed to help students remember important facts, details or vocabulary words.

Ready to join us in exploring Vine? We’ve got two brand new Mix It Up videos uploaded and ready to share. Just visit to establish your account, and then look for Teaching Tolerance!

Williams is an intern at Teaching Tolerance.

Mark Your Calendars! Webinars with Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has received international acclaim for revealing the racial inequities underlying the mass incarceration system in the United States. Teaching Tolerance is honored to partner with author Michelle Alexander to host two webinars exploring this groundbreaking book and how its lessons can be used in the classroom.  

Alexander uses “the new Jim Crow” as a metaphor for the system of racial control known as mass incarceration. She argues that mass incarceration parallels, in many ways, the Jim Crow laws that ruled the South from 1876 through the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but labels it new because its mechanisms contrast the overt acts of racism and violence characteristic of the previous Jim Crow era. This current system of racial control, Alexander explains, disguises itself in the rhetoric of colorblindness, exercising control not through lynchings but through the widespread roundup and imprisonment of people of color.

The New Jim Crow intends to, as Alexander writes, “stimulate a much needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.”* While discussions of race can sometimes be delicate and difficult to initiate, the racial disparities evident in criminal sentencing patterns, sentence length, and probation and parole practices tell their own tale. The book provides evidence of a prison industrial complex teeming with African Americans and Latinos who, as statistics bear, are no more likely than their white counterparts to commit crime but three to five times more likely to spend time in jail. The Sentencing Project estimates that over 60 percent of incarcerated people in the United States are people of color, victims of the War on Drugs.**

Teaching Tolerance will publish a teacher’s guide to The New Jim Crow this fall. The guide will support educators in preparing to teach about systems of racial control and provide material designed to help high school students understand the complex and critical messages of the book. Key features of the guide include:

  • A collection of 10 lessons closely aligned to topics and themes of The New Jim Crow.
  • Abridged excerpts of the book’s introduction and six chapters.
  • Tools that equip educators to teach about race and racial justice.
  • Alignment to Common Core State Standards.
  • A compendium of strategies aimed at understanding the book’s vocabulary, close and critical reading, and speaking and listening.
  • Text-dependent questions to guide reading and assess comprehension.
  • Activities that prompt students to engage in collective action toward change.

In anticipation of the guide, mark your calendars for September 23 and October 29! The first of the two planned webinars will be an informal conversation with Alexander about The New Jim Crow, its thesis and why it is relevant in high school classrooms. The second webinar will provide a more in-depth discussion with the author about the teacher’s guide. (Don’t worry, if you can’t make the webinars, you can still watch and listen to the recordings!)

Do you have questions for Alexander? She will be live via webcam and prepared to answer them. Teaching Tolerance will host a concurrent Twitter Chat with the webinars, so you can add your questions there or tweet them to @tolerance_org with the hashtag #aquestionforMichelle.

* Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press), 16.

** The Sentencing Project

Using Banned Books to Address Race in Class

September 21-27, 2014, marks Banned Books Week. This year, I’ve decided to take a different approach to talking about banned books with my students than I usually do. Because of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, at the start of the school year, my students have been incredibly eager to talk about race in the United States. They not only want to know how our nation is handling race issues like the clash between the mostly white police force and predominantly black citizens in Ferguson, but they also want to know how our country got to where we are today.

Their desire led me to discuss in class three challenged or banned books that explicitly address racial themes and provide insight into the racial tensions of their depicted time periods; in some cases, the banning of the book was related to its historically accurate depictions of race and racism.  

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I assign Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird every chance I get. The story features Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. The majority of the story centers around the court case her father, Atticus, is involved in. A lawyer, Atticus is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping and beating a poor white woman. While there is not a shred of evidence that Robinson committed the crime (and plenty that points to who did), the town generally accepts that Robinson committed the crime simply because he is black and the victim is white. As the case unfolds, readers see—through young Scout’s eyes—an accurate picture of race-based injustice in the South in the 1930s.

Even though the depictions of racism are historically accurate, the book has been banned and challenged over and over because of them. In the 1980s and again from 2003 to 2009 the book was challenged repeatedly for its use of the n-word and its descriptions of institutionalized racism.*

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain explores contemporary (1884) moral and social justice issues through the boyhood escapades of Huck Finn and his friend, Tom Sawyer. When Huck’s wayward father comes demanding money he and Tom stole, Huck ends up escaping to Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River where he meets Jim, a runaway slave. Despite questioning the morality of helping a runaway, Huck eventually decides to help Jim. What follows is both a hair-raising adventure and a commentary on the realities of slavery.

Considering the book was first published in 1884, not long after the Civil War, it was deemed ahead of its time in its open criticism of slavery in the United States. However, the book continues to be banned in schools and libraries across the country specifically because of its use of the n-word.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Upon its publication in 1952, Invisible Man became an instant classic. The book follows an unnamed narrator through his childhood and college years as a black person in the South and on to Harlem, which is strikingly less racially tolerant than we might expect from the lessons in our history books. The novel was instantly praised for its accurate portrayal of racial injustice in the 1950s. The narrator is purposely unnamed to draw attention to his invisibility—an invisibility forced upon him simply because he is a black man that white people refuse to truly see. Ellison’s novel has been critically admired for decades, in part for its graphic depictions of what it meant to be black during a time of great civil unrest in this country.

Unfortunately, the book has also been banned and challenged for decades. Most recently, in 2013, the book was banned in Randolph County, North Carolina, because, as the school board said, it had no “literary value.” This is a ridiculous claim to make about a novel that is considered one of the best of all time and that expertly addresses complex questions of identity, diversity, justice and action against injustice.

Each of these books addresses complex race-related questions—questions our students still grapple with in today’s increasingly diverse world—and the classroom is the perfect place to start talking about them.** Invisible Man provides many opportunities to explore issues of identity. For instance, “What does it feel like when society denies who we are?” To Kill A Mockingbird is ripe for justice-based questions like “How do bias and prejudice undermine equal rights?” And Huckleberry Finn is an ideal text for discussing the need for action in the face of injustice: “Do we have the same responsibility to act on behalf of those outside of our identity group as we do for members of our own identity groups?”

These books are only three of the great classics that show historically accurate portrayals of racism in this country. If you’re looking for a way to discuss racism with your students, consider adding one of these books to your curriculum—and be sure to discuss why it is has been historically challenged so frequently. You are guaranteed to have a great discussion with your students if you do.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.

*While Teaching Tolerance does not support banning books or teaching editions that remove controversial content altogether, we do support teachers making informed decisions about how and when to teach difficult or potentially upsetting content. See our piece "Straight Talk About the N-Word" for more on how to facilitate conversations when teaching books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn.

**The essential questions in this blog were adapted from Teaching Tolerance’s anti-bias curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America. You can find dozens of texts on the topic of race and ethnicity in Perspectives' Central Text Anthology.

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