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?
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)
“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.”
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.
Can young people change the world, or are they stuck with the messy one that adults are planning to hand to them?
This lesson was reported from:
The Californios Verdes – which means in English the Green Californians – are a group of environmentally-conscious young people based on the shores of the Sea of Cortez in La Paz, Mexico. In their own words, they 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.”
The members of Californios Verdes are alumni of environmental education programs run by Ecology Project International (EPI), a nonprofit organization which works in communities around the Americas to connect students to their local ecosystems through meaningful scientific field experiences. These young citizens of La Paz, aged 17 to 25, were inspired by what they learned on the beaches and in the water around their hometown, but they found few opportunities within their community to exercise their newfound passion for environmental justice.
Undaunted, about a dozen of these young folks formed the Californios Verdes in 2011. Their mission? “To be agents of change, collaborators, and generators of local conservation projects.” Together, the Californios Verdes seek to realize the vision of “a sustainable and participatory community where young people have an active role in conservation.”
What exactly does that look like?
For the Californios Verdes, it means a weekly meeting, rain or shine, to organize and plan their public activities. One of their most successful campaigns saw the group advocating for a statewide ban on single-use plastics. These are the cups, straws, bags, and utensils given to you when your order takeout or buy something at the store. They are often used exactly once, maybe for just minutes, before ultimately ending up as refuse in world’s oceans. There, these plastics are frequently ingested by wildlife, sometimes killing the animal unfortunate enough to have mistaken them for food.
Some animals that consume these plastics are subsequently eaten by humans. What this means is that if you have ever eaten seafood, you likely carry a small amount of microplastic residue inside of your body!
This a shocking fact. The long term effects of these microplastics on the health of the world’s oceans – not to mention the health of the world’s humans – are not fully understood.
When the Californios Verdes learned all of this, they were motivated to take action. They canvassed the scenic waterfront in La Paz, educating the public not just about the need to dispose of plastic waste properly, but also how important it is to reduce demand for these plastics in the first place. They also helped to educate local restaurant and shop owners whose businesses rely heavily on the tourists drawn to La Paz by its natural beauty – a beauty that they themselves were jeopardizing through their reliance on single-use plastics.
It is no small understatement to say that the public education and lobbying efforts of the Californios Verdes were instrumental to enacting anti-single-use-plastic laws in their state. Representatives of the group were even invited to be present when the governor signed the bill into law.
One of the Californios Verdes’ favorite projects involves educating the community about vulnerable ecosystems in the area surrounding La Paz. One such effort focuses on nearby Playa Balandra. This popular beach is prime real estate, and American-owned hotel chains have submitted various proposals to build resorts on its otherwise pristine shores. The Californios Verdes sponsor beach cleanups, cookouts, and nature hikes at Balandra – anything to help residents better understand why the promise of a few dozen hotel jobs today is worth little if it irrevocably disrupts the natural character that brings tourists to the region in the first place. They hope instead to spark the same sort of passion for the environment that EPI originally helped to awaken in them, thereby paving the way for even more robust community investment in green tourism and sustainable business in at Playa Balandra, in La Paz, and in their whole state.
Conservation of your local wild spaces has to start with a local love and understanding of those spaces. As Carlos, a seventeen year-old who rarely misses a meeting of the Californios Verdes puts it, “If you and your neighbors aren’t going to stand up for your community and its ecosystems, why would anyone else?”
It’s inspirational to realize that the Californios Verdes, many of them too young to vote, have already done so much to help shape their community for the better. 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.
Public Purpose Project
Look, I hear you – your life is hard. With homework, parents, maybe a job – you’re busy. And you’re a kid.
But so are the members of the Californios Verdes… So the only question left is —
What have you done this week to make the world a better place?
Taking a cue from the Californios Verdes, every Friday for the rest of the year, you will be working on your very own Public Purpose Project. This is very much going to be a student-directed project. Your PPP does not have to be related to the environment, though it certainly could be. It should be built around a cause about which you care deeply. 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.
You might, for example:
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 focused on 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) raising awareness 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. It should also layout a clear set of goals you aim to achieve relevant to addressing that need. Lay out the specific steps you plan to take take toward meeting your goal. Set out a realistic timeline for achieving your goals by the end of the school year. Your proposal should also describe resources necessary to carry out your plan, estimated costs of those resources, and any other relevant issues or challenges that you might anticipate. You should research other similar projects that have been carried out elsewhere, in other schools or communities, with an eye toward 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 class at large. Your teacher and peers will offer constructive 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, answering questions like: How far along are you? What new, unanticipated 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 goals should be met, your project realized. If it is not, explain what happened, striking a constructive tone. It isn’t a time for excuses, and there shouldn’t be any last minute surprises. You should have been working on this steadily through the year. Deliver a final presentation taking your teacher and peers through these last 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?