A History of Criminalized Blackness in the United States (Free Lessons for Middle or High School Classrooms)

Sign seen at a protest in Washington, DC, 2020.

An injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us.

Black lives matter.

But here’s a sobering thought – at various early points in the history of our nation, certain people decided very consciously that they absolutely should not. And many of our modern institutions – from the police to the courts to the schools – were built on this cracked foundation.

The historical decisions that have shaped our moment are often invisible to us – like water to fish, we swim in the choices our ancestors have made.

But we when we realize that this is the case – that our reality is not set, but a sum total of historical choices – we become responsible for our own actions.

And then, we are truly free.

Here are a selection of free history lessons from our archives – suitable for middle or high school classrooms – that shed a light on our current moment. If you aren’t teaching lessons like these in your social studies classes, ask yourself – why not?

  • The Evolution of the Virginia Laws of Servitude and Slavery (1643-1691) – Read along as Virginia colonial officials criminalize blackness in real time. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Comparing Slavery and Factory Life – Apologists for slavery often argued that, in their day at least, their system of slavery was better than free market capitalism.  Let’s put that to the test…  (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Were the Freedmen Really Free? – After the Civil War, Southerners sought to reconstruct slavery in everything but name. We are the direct inheritors of this system, which was only partly deconstructed in the 1950s and 60s. (primary source analysis with guided questions)
  • Social Reform Movements – Who Should Be the New Face of the $20 Bill? – Progress has always been earned, never granted. Give students the change to reimagine our national pantheon to include the social reformers and progressives who are often more responsible than any president or general for the way of life we cherish today. (research activity)

Two relevant chapters from our totally free, open source textbook The United States: An Open-Ended History:

  1. The Origins of Servitude and Slavery in Colonial America
  2. Gettysburg to Appomattox and Beyond: A New Birth of Freedom

Do you have other relevant lessons?  Share them – I would be honored to host them for free so that they can reach a wider audience!  Reach out to me here.

Climate Change in the Classrooms

From NPR, four out of five parents wish that teacher taught students about climate change:

“And that support crosses political divides, according to the results of an exclusive new NPR/Ipsos poll: Whether they have children or not, two-thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats agree that the subject needs to be taught in school.

A separate poll of teachers found that they are even more supportive, in theory — 86% agree that climate change should be taught.”

Environmental Social Studies

  • Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project: Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them? Learn about the Californios Verdes, a group of young people inspired to take action on behalf of the environment in their hometown of La Paz, Mexico. Based on this model, students will devise their own public purpose project – a year-long project devised and carried out by students to improve quality of life, raise environmental awareness, or in some other way positively impact their community.
  • Where do you fit into Earth’s Ecosystems? (Even the Ones You’ve Never Seen with Your Own Two Eyes): Read about John Steinbeck, the American author who took part in a voyage to collect scientific samples of species in the Sea of Cortez.  His vivid writing is an entry point for students into a discussion of ecosystems, ecosystem goods and services, and human impacts on ecosystems.  Afterwards, students will apply these concepts to surveying, quantifying, and mapping their own ecological footprint.
  • Unrecognized Potential: Terra Preta, Ancient Orchards, and Life in the Amazon: Until relatively recently, it was widely believed that the Amazon Rainforest was incapable of sustaining large scale human development.  New findings have challenged this view, and evidence of ancient agriculture suggests that humans once developed this fragile region in ways so subtle that – in the form of carefully managed soils and prehistoric orchards – they have been hiding in plain sight all this time, challenging the basic tenants of “agriculture” as western eyes tend to recognize it.
  • The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World (Free online text suited for middle or high school classroom use, guided reading questions, and suggested activities) For millennia before the arrival of Columbus, Native Americans shaped the environment around them to suit their needs, often in ways that were invisible from a European perspective.
  • The Three Sisters: Background information on the agricultural combination of maize (corn), beans, and squash that formed the backbone of the Mesoamerican and North American civilization, plus suggested activities.

Californios Verdes and Your Public Purpose Project

Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?

“Adults, in their dealing with children, are insane, and children know it too. Adults lay down rules they would not think of following, speak truths they do not believe. And yet they expect children to obey the rules, believe the truths, and admire and respect their parents for this nonsense. Children must be very wise and secret to tolerate adults at all. And the greatest nonsense of all that adults expect children to believe is that people learn by experience. No greater lie was ever revered. And its falseness is immediately discerned by children since their parents obviously have not learned anything by experience. Far from learning, adults simply become set in a maze of prejudices and dreams and sets of rules whose origins they do not know and would not dare inspect for fear the whole structure might topple over on them. I think children instinctively know this. Intelligent children learn to conceal their knowledge and keep free of this howling mania.”
― John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
This lesson was reported from:

The Californios Verdes – in English, the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally conscious young people based in La Paz, Mexico, on the shores of the Sea of Cortez. They explain, “We are a new generation of young leaders united by love of nature and interested in working for the conservation of the environment and a better quality of life.”

They are alumni of environmental education programs run by the nonprofit Ecology Project International, which works to educate students about their connections to local and global ecosystems. Inspired by what they have seen and learned, these young people, aged 17 to 25, wanted to apply that passion and those lessons to their own community.

They formed the Californios Verdes in 2011 with the mission “to be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects” and the vision to “create a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”

What does that look like?

The Californios Verdes meet weekly to organize and plan. They have advocated successfully on behalf of a statewide ban on single-use plastics – the cups, straws, bags, and utensils you get in stores and takeout places that then end up in oceans, killing animals, or as microplastics inside of you! These single-use plastics are bad news! Getting lawmakers and business onboard to eliminate them in Baja California Sur is a big deal – the Californios Verdes helped to change the law.

This albatross died from the large quantities of plastic waste it ate and then could not pass. It effectively starved to death, even though its stomach was full. This is the exact kind of waste that the Californios Verdes are working to eliminate in their community. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

One of their favorite projects involves community outreach – they regularly stage events to educate citizens of La Paz about the ecology of the surrounding area, including at the nearby beach Balandra. They help residents – and young people in particular – to understand: Why should we save that mangrove forest, instead of letting developers turn it into a beach resort? Why is the whale shark worth protecting?

Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?

The Californios Verdes are online and in the streets, helping their neighbors see the value in protecting the natural world around them. They are ground zero for a grassroots movement that aims to change the world, starting with their own city block in La Paz and radiating outward.

The Californios Verdes at Playa Balandra, widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches. The Californios Verdes routinely work to educate the surrounding community about the importance of protecting this valuable ecosystem.

Look, I hear you – life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – it’s busy. And you’re a kid.

But so are the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —

What have you done this week to make the world a better place?

Public Purpose Project

Most Fridays for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. Your PPP should be something you care deeply about, and it’s something you’re going to be spending a lot of time with – so be thoughtful in your selection. Your main goal is to produce something that leaves your community nicer than you found it.

Projects could include (but are not limited to):

  • Identify a need in your school or community. Develop and carry out a service project to address that need
  • Design and create a mural in your school or community
  • Research, develop, and share a historical or ecological walking/driving tour of your community
  • Produce a documentary video about your community – an aspect of its history, its ecology, or some exemplary charity/activist group working to make it a better place
  • Produce a work of environmental storytelling (a video, a published article, a photo exhibition, a social media feed with original content) about a species, park, ecosystem, or ecological issue in your region
  • Research, design, and produce a sustainably-sourced line of products that raise awareness of an environmental issue related to your region – think of T-shirts or reusable shopping bags that feature local flora and fauna, reusable water bottles, etc.
  • Implement a composting or recycling program at your school
  • Develop and implement a plan to make your school more green
  • Volunteer for a minimum of 20 hours with a local organization and tell the story of your experience

Consult with your teacher for questions on topics like group sizes, as well as on specific due dates.


End of First Quarter: In communication with your teacher, develop a detailed proposal for your project. This proposal should identify a specific need in your community and state a goal. Your proposal should answer basic questions about how you plan to fill that need and achieve that goal. It should set out a detailed timeline for achieving your goal by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your goal, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you will need to surmount. You should point to other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, answering the question: What lessons from that project can I apply to my own? Your report should be delivered in the form of a Google Slide presentation, shared with your teacher and presented to the larger class. Your teacher and peers will offer feedback on your plan.

End of Second and Third Quarters: Add new slides to your original presentation. These new slides should update your instructor and peers on the status of your project – How far along are you? What new challenges have presented themselves? How have you addressed those issues? What have you learned? What new questions do you have? How can the group support you? Has your timeline or goal changed in any way? Be sure to include photos, videos, or other documentary evidence of your project in progress.

End of Fourth Quarter/School Year: Your goal should be achieved, your project finished. Update your presentation with new slides taking your teacher and peers through the final months of your project. Reflect by addressing the following questions: Were you successful? What did you learn? What would you have done differently? If you were to continue developing this project, how would you extend it?


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A female sea lion sleeps on a small, rocky island near La Paz, Mexico. Her fate is connected to yours – she competes for food in the same ecosystem where humans fish extensively. She swims in water where currents carry our plastic waste. Populations of animals that she loves to eat are threatened by oceans changed dramatically by human-driven climate change. (Isla Espíritu Santo, Mexico, 2019.)

Nicaragua, Imperialism, and National Identity

Continue reading “Nicaragua, Imperialism, and National Identity”