Interview: Bill Bigelow Rethinks Schools

Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor for Rethinking Schools magazine
Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor for Rethinking Schools magazine

We are thrilled to be joined by special guest, Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director for the Zinn Education Project, which provides “people’s history” materials for educators. Bill taught high school social studies in Portland, Oregon for nearly 30 years and now works with teachers to share their classroom practices, ideas, and inspiration with each other.

ACE: What is Rethinking Schools and how did it come to be?

Bill: Rethinking Schools is a social and environmental justice quarterly magazine that collects stories about teachers who see teaching as part of trying to make the world more equal and more just. It was started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1986, by a group of educators who were tired of not having a voice about things that were going on in school that were not good for kids.

ACE: Rethinking Columbus is one of Rethinking Schools’s most well-known texts. How relevant is it today?

Bill: I began teaching in 1978, when most textbooks celebrated Columbus and his “discovery” and failed to mention the name of the people Columbus supposedly discovered: the Taínos. Implicitly, students at all grade levels were taught that some lives matter more than others — “Kids, pay attention to the white discoverers, colonialists, history’s winners – those are the people who matter - and ignore everyone else.” Most text materials are better today, although still problematic. But what makes Rethinking Columbus - first published in 1991 - still relevant today is that it addresses the key struggle in the broader society: making sure that all people’s lives are significant, that no one is ignored. We continue to publish several books a year, most recently, Teaching for Black Lives.

The premise is that just because we are dealing with huge and frightening issues does not mean that our curriculum needs to be grim.

ACE: Historically, Rethinking Schools has focused on social justice. When and how did you shift to include climate justice in your work?

Bill: The environmental crisis, and specifically the climate crisis, affects people in incredibly unequal ways. My friend, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, the wonderful performance poet, is from the Marshall Islands, a place just six feet above sea level. People there have had virtually no role in pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, yet their homes, their lives, are being sacrificed to rising seas because of industrial countries’ inability to break free from fossil fuels. That is climate injustice. That is climate racism, because the people throughout the world being hit the hardest are people of color.

ACE: You co-edited the textbook, A People's Curriculum for the Earth. What does that book cover and what courses is it most appropriate for?

Bill: A People’s Curriculum for the Earth features teaching stories across grade levels and disciplines, including curriculum on how to teach about the climate crisis, fossil fuels, nuclear power, and food and water justice issues. The premise is that just because we are dealing with huge and frightening issues does not mean that our curriculum needs to be grim.

Textbook cover for A People's Curriculum for the Earth

ACE: In 2016, Portland Schools passed a climate literacy resolution with your support. How did that major achievement happen?

Bill: In late 2015, Tim Swinehart, who co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth with me, and I led a workshop for teachers and climate activists, sponsored by 350PDX, the local affiliate of 350.org. The question that we settled on was how could teachers and activists work together to address climate change. We decided to draft a resolution to take to the Portland school board that would commit the district to an ambitious climate justice agenda, including abandoning the use of textbooks that deny the human causes of climate change or that minimize its effects.

Since then, we have sponsored over 30 workshops for students and community members led by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, co-sponsored forums on social and environmental justice, and led full-day workshops for teachers on ways to incorporate climate justice into the curriculum. One component of the Portland resolution calls for the centering of the experiences of “frontline communities” in the curriculum. We just sponsored a two-day workshop for teachers, “The Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities in the Pacific Northwest,” led by tribal experts from Oregon and Washington.

Young people also need to be exposed to the individuals and movements that are taking action. And they need to “come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice,” as the Portland Public Schools resolution urges

ACE: Have you seen interest from other school districts in adopting similar resolutions?

Bill: Absolutely. We have heard from teachers, students, and climate activists from Alaska to Texas to Pennsylvania wanting to learn more about Portland’s resolution. Of course, even without a formal school district resolution, there are lots of ways that teachers, students, and community members can cooperate to push this work forward.

ACE: Why do you think it's important, at this moment in particular, to teach about climate change and its connection to other social issues?

Bill: Great question. All these issues are intimately tied together. Climate change is fundamentally an issue of social justice. We don’t even have language to describe the human catastrophe that is beginning to unfold. The crisis of climate refugees is just in its infancy. The war in Syria, too, has roots in drought and climate change. These are issues that young people need to be equipped to understand, and understand deeply.

But here’s where we need the “justice” component of climate education: If students only grasp the inexorable trajectory of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, then they can become profoundly discouraged. They also need to be exposed to the individuals and movements that are taking action. And they need to “come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice,” as the Portland Public Schools resolution urges.

ACE: Lastly, how can teachers learn more about Rethinking Schools?

Bill: Our website is www.rethinkingschools.org. People can subscribe to our magazine and look at Rethinking Schools books there. I’d also encourage people to visit the Zinn Education Project at www.zinnedproject.org for free downloadable teaching resources, including activities on climate change. And if people have ideas for Rethinking Schools articles that they might want to write, they can contact me at bill@rethinkingschools.org.

Rebecca Anderson

Rebecca Anderson is ACE’s Director of Education. She came to ACE in its inception in 2008. Rebecca develops ACE's science content, manages the online climate education resource Our Climate Our Future, oversees the ACE Teacher Network, and works with schools in the Reno-Tahoe area. Prior to ACE, she did paleoclimate research in the Arctic and Antarctica.