Thursday, October 28, 2010

Northwest Teachers Gather for Social Justice Conference

Above: Monique LeTourneau, left, a Tacoma community organizer with STAND ( role plays with Sunshine Campbell, a faculty member with the Masters in Teaching Program at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. The two participated in the workshop, “Transforming Teacher Education through Grassroots Political Organizing.”

By Janine Gates

As public school teachers face with more pressures than ever, nearly 800 regional educators found friendship, education, and support at the third annual Northwest Teachers for Social Justice conference in Portland earlier this month.

Many South Sound teachers and student teachers made the trip to experience the camaraderie of other teachers who care about social justice issues.

The conference was sponsored by Portland Area Rethinking Schools, Olympia Educators for Social Justice, Puget Sound Rethinking Schools, Tacoma Coalition X, and Rethinking Schools Magazine.

What is Social Justice?

According to the University of California, Berkeley Social Justice Symposium,
social justice is a process, not an outcome, which (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities; (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice; (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential; and (4) builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.

Josh Parker, a third year teacher with the Shelton School District, said, “It’s a delicate balance how social justice issues are introduced and discussed. It’s fine as long as we don’t step on too many toes - but we’re probably stepping on three-fourths of them. To me, reading and basic skills is a social justice issue. We’re allowing our kids to fail towards graduation…that’s unjust.”

Another teacher said she feels that social justice issues are more acceptably discussed in social studies classes, but she faces them all day long, no matter what she’s teaching, and came to learn more.

In front of the children, teachers walk a fine line between parents and administrators on how to address a wide range of delicate racial, social, cultural, political, environmental, economic and sexual orientation issues. Conference workshops included plenty of role playing using real life examples of the questions faced by teachers on a daily basis.

Behind the scenes, teachers face daily administrative pressures including standardized testing debates, merit-pay controversies, required implementation of education reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top challenges, budget cuts and layoffs, a lack of resources, paperwork, meetings and more. Some feel that current movies like “Waiting for Superman,” slam public school teachers.

The pressure is felt by teachers and students alike. Recent teacher and student suicides weighed heavily on educators during the conference.

Los Angeles area teacher Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., killed himself after his test score ranking was published by the Los Angeles Times as a “least effective” teacher based upon his student's test scores, and the recent suicides of several gay students, including that of the Rutgers violinist, Tyler Clementi, were mentioned in several workshops.

South Sound Teachers Present Workshops

Two South Sound teachers were presenters of the nearly 70 workshops to choose from, scheduled in three blocks at different times throughout the day.

Katie Baydo-Reed, a 6th grade teacher at Olympic View Elementary School in Lacey, taught a workshop on learning about the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

“When I was in school I had no idea that there were civil rights struggles and violations that occurred in my own back yard, says Baydo-Reed. “Teachers mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. a little and the civil rights movement of the south briefly, but I never learned about people in my region who were treated unjustly as part of a system of oppression.”

“At Evergreen, I was exposed to more information regarding the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and as a new teacher I brought that information to my classroom. I discovered that most of my students were completely unaware of how the Puyallup Fairgrounds were used as an incarceration center. In fact, in all the years I have been teaching this, only one student has known about it prior to my unit.”

Baydo graduated from The Evergreen State College’s Masters in Teaching Program in 2006. “It's been a busy six years!” says Baydo.

“It is important to me that students connect with their region and the place they live and this is one way to bring history literally closer to home. Through this kind of instruction they begin to realize that there are some similarities between events of the past and current events, and they are much more willing to learn about civil rights when they know it connects to their lives in place, if not exactly in time.”

New Washington State Tribal Sovereignty Curriculum Introduced

Above: Michi Thacker leads a workshop at the NW Teachers for Social Justice Conference in Portland in early October. Her students were a little bigger than her usual ones at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Washington.

Michi Thacker, a 4th/5th grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, presented a workshop on new place-based education and tribal history and culture curriculum created by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) for Washington State.

The curriculum, called, “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State," was developed with state tribal leaders and is now available online at

The curriculum’s goal is to provide schools, students, tribes, and local communities with the information and resources that will enable them to have a better understanding of the numerous tribes that are the foundation of Washington State.

There are three tiers for each level of the program: elementary, middle and high school, with expectations for what the students should have learned by the end of each curriculum. It encourages teachers and students to address several essential questions in the context of tribes in their own communities. Teachers choose how much time to spend on tribal sovereignty content to complete their units throughout the year.

The curriculum, a result of 2005’s House Bill 1495, which officially recommended inclusion of tribal history in all public schools, was pilot tested for two years in 14 schools around the state. The bill is now known as RCW 28A.345.070, which encourages districts to work with tribes on a government to government basis.

Thacker participated in the development of OSPI’s curriculum, which included the participation and endorsement of Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes. She test piloted it at Lincoln two years ago.

Thacker, who emphasized at the outset of her workshop presentation that she is not representing OSPI or any specific tribe, is part Cherokee and Choctow. She says she didn't grow up with those traditions or culture, and is still learning.

She came to the subject because she was teaching about coastal tribes in her classroom. She wanted to learn more about how to make it meaningful and not just about “the other.” There is a small Native American population at Lincoln. “There were ways I taught it that I wasn’t sure about and I wanted it to be culturally accurate,“ said Thacker.

One student teacher said, “Reading Little House on the Prairie, you may not think about how Indians are described, but as an adult, you become more aware…As a teacher, you can use it as a starting point for conversations. You need to have those conversations, those deeper questions….”

Another student teacher agreed, saying, “What’s scary is if you don’t discuss them….”

Thacker asked participants to discuss, in small groups, their understanding of basic questions such as, “What is sovereignty?” What is an Indian? What is a tribe? What do you know about the tribes in your area? How many are there?”

Workshops participants expressed hesitation in word usage between Indian and Native American, a lack of basic knowledge and were concerned about using materials that portrayed Native Americans in stereotypical roles. They were grateful for the information and resources.

Mary Ann Bassett of the Yakama Nation and a 7th grade teacher in the Mount Adams School District on the Yakama Reservation, participated in the conference and Thacker‘s workshop, saying she “saw it (the conference) on a website and came on over.”

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, one teacher asked how to address the subject in her classroom. Bassett shared that Thanksgiving is not a traditional holiday for Native Americans. Instead, in April, each longhouse will have their own root feast and a salmon feast to celebrate the salmon migration. “By fall, we’re ready to hunker down!”

Thacker suggested practicing “place-based” education when connecting to the tribes in one's own region, picking up resources at tribal organizations, museums and reservation stores, and using authentic resources.

For this article, OSPI's Indian Education Director Denny Hurtado was asked for more information about the curriculum.

"It’s all about establishing long standing relationships between the tribes and non- tribal communities. Our first experience with schools was the Indian boarding school - their philosophy was to save the man, kill the Indian, so we still to this day are leary of the education system. We want our history, culture and government to be taught in the school system as well. One main reason for this is to break down all the stereotypes, myths and misinformation that non-Indians have of us! With that said, once you develop these long term relationships with the tribes, then comes trust, followed by positive actions for our students," said Hurtado.

This year, four schools will be selected to test the curriculum: the Muckleshoot elementary tribal school, Kingston Middle School in North Kitsap, Fife High School, and Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, said Hurtado.

Next Steps

As the conference wrapped up, first year Olympia teacher Kevin Marshall said, “I’m thoroughly inspired and exhausted…I feel ridiculously blessed to already be so connected to so many inspiring teachers so early in my career.” Marshall, who spent the last year as part of the conference’s organizing committee, lives in Olympia and teaches in the Parkland School District in Tacoma.

The conference has grown in size each year and rotates the host city. Last year, it was held in Olympia. Next year’s conference will be held in October, in Seattle. For more information, contact

Olympia Educators for Social Justice

Olympia Educators for Social Justice meets on the third Friday of each month during the school year at Traditions Café on Water Street in downtown Olympia. Several members of the group were coordinators of the conference. The meetings include introductions and announcements and focus on one or two subject matters for conversation, problem-solving and resource sharing. Meetings are from 4:30 p.m. - 6 p.m. For more information, email Jana Dean at

“For me, our group has been about finding a balance between being an agent of change and a source of cultural continuity in my role as a teacher, says Dean. “Reading Rethinking Schools has provided inspiration for the social change aspect of that work. Writing for Rethinking Schools has provided an opportunity to clarify through my writing how I'm serving the greater good through my work as a public school teacher.”

Rethinking Schools

Rethinking Schools is a nationally prominent publisher of educational materials and a quarterly magazine of the same name. It is committed to equity and the vision that public education is central to the creation of a humane, caring, multiracial democracy. Throughout its history, Rethinking Schools has tried to balance classroom practice and social policy. It is an activist publication, with articles written by and for teachers, parents, and students. Go to for more information.

Above: Loren Petty of The Evergreen State College, staffs a table for Evergreen's Masters in Teaching Program. For more information about the program, go to