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Best of 2012: 11 Resources For Teaching a People’s History

The most popular books, articles, films, and lesson plans for teaching a people's history.

Do you remember anything about your history textbook other than how heavy it was? If so, it might be a few names of famous people who singlehandedly made history, and dates of glorified wars. As historian Ray Raphael explains, "In textbooks students learn that a handful of celebrated personalities make things happen, the rest only tag along; a few write the scripts, the rest just deliver their lines."

The Zinn Education Project was launched in 2008 to provide resources for teachers to "teach outside the textbook"—focusing on the role of "ordinary people" and how they have worked together to challenge injustices, to work for “good.”

Two years ago, we launched a website where teachers could download free lessons and find recommended books and films. In this short time, 26,000 teachers from all 50 states and beyond have registered for the website and thousands more access the resources. These teachers reach more than four million students.

Here are a few of the titles in 2012 that were most popular with teachers visiting the Zinn Education Project website:


1. Lawrence, 1912: The Singing Strike by Bill Bigelow and Norm Diamond. This year was the 100th anniversary of one of the most important strikes in U.S. history, the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass. The strike receives little to no attention in textbooks, yet has many lessons to teach students today about how to overcome differences of language and background to organize for greater justice. The lesson places students in the role of Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) organizers deciding how—and for what—to conduct a strike. The lesson helps students understand the issues in current labor struggles in Wisconsin, Michigan, and around the world.

2. Got Coal? Teaching About the Most Dangerous Rock in America by Bill Bigelow. Despite more than 100 years of coal mining struggles and environmental impact, this issue is still mostly invisible in the curriculum. Burning coal is the single greatest contributor to greenhouse gases, and to get that coal in the first place, the tops of mountains are scraped away and dumped in valleys. To expand students’ knowledge of coal mining, and the resistance to it, this activity includes a critical look at classroom resources produced by the American Coal Foundation.

3. The People vs. Columbus, et al. by Bill Bigelow. The trial of the century—the last five centuries, actually—takes place in The People vs. Columbus. Students take part in a trial role play to determine who is responsible for the death of millions of Tainos on the island of Hispaniola in the late 15th and early 16th century. While debating, students make connections with colonialism throughout history and U.S. foreign policy today.

ARTICLES: "If We Knew Our History"

4. Teaching Untold Stories During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by Moé Yonamine. Most textbooks now include stories about the Japanese American internment during WWII. But high school teacher Moé Yonamine learned that the U.S. government also insisted that people of Japanese descent throughout Latin America be interned in the U.S., as well. Once the war ended, internees were forced to leave the United States, and some of their home countries would not take them, causing them to become refugees with no country to call home. In addition to her article, Yonamine wrote lessons to introduce this history to students.

5. Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools by Dave Zirin. We all recognize this famous photo from the 1968 Olympics, but as author Dave Zirin points out, “while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside. When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context.” Do you know about the organizing by the Olympic Project for Human Rights or what happened to Tommy Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman after the iconic salute?

6. The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools by Bill Bigelow. Did you know that during the height of the potato famine in Ireland, all other crops were unaffected and British-ruled Ireland continued to export vast amounts of food? This article, posted on St. Patrick’s Day, and related lessons tell this hidden story of the potato famine. Once students explore the impact of a mono-crop and profit driven agriculture in Ireland, they can begin to ask questions about similar practices that are starving and uprooting people today.


7. Harvest of Empire: The Untold Stories of Latinos, directed by Eduardo López and Peter Getzels. "They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America over many decades—actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north," says journalist and author Juan González at the beginning of the film, Harvest of Empire. Based on González's book of the same name, this film explores the U.S. role in triggering an unprecedented wave of migration. With immigration a central issue in the news, this is an essential film for everyone.

8. Precious Knowledge, directed by Ari Luis Palos and produced by Eren Isabel McGinnis. When was the last time you heard about students fighting to keep their classes? This film, which aired this year on PBS, features the civil rights education struggle to keep a highly successful—and meaningful—ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. What may appear as an isolated case matters to us all—as the Tucson program is a model of the kind of curriculum that can excite students everywhere.


9. Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches 1963 to 2009 by Howard Zinn, edited by Anthony Arnove. Ask someone if they heard Howard Zinn speak, and, as their eyes brighten and a smile sweeps over their face, most people can tell you where and when they first heard him. Zinn had that effect—he inspired and captivated audiences with his charm, intellect, and wit. This new first-ever collection of speeches is a vital resource for those of us familiar and wanting to revisit his words, and for those who have yet to experience his work.

10. A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff. Ronald Takaki was one of the foremost scholars of U.S. ethnic history and diversity. A classic of multicultural studies, A Different Mirror, reflected history of oppression and exploitation, but also struggle, solidarity, and community. This version for young people was adapted by Rebecca Stefoff who helped produce A Young People’s History of the United States. This is a great introduction to Takaki’s path-breaking scholarship.

11. Rethinking Elementary Education, edited by Linda Christensen, Mark Hansen, Bob Peterson, Elizabeth Schlessman, Dyan Watson. Practical and powerful, this new book, from Zinn Education Project partner Rethinking Schools, gives real-world examples and encouragement of how to integrate teaching with a social justice lens in the elementary classroom. As author and educator Alma Flor Ada explains, "Both clear and profound, this honest book provides inspiration, invites reflection, and through engaging real life examples of classrooms across the nation, shows that in spite of all the external restriction placed upon our schools, we can be the teachers we want to be and give all children the true education they deserve."

You can find these and many more resources for teaching outside the textbook at, coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. To help the Zinn Education Project continue to produce and share these kinds of resources with educators in 2013, click here.

Illustration by Corinna Loo

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