Occupy in the classroom

Occupy Oakland wants teachers to teach about the movement, plus “the role of strikes in movement history,” “the systems and issues this movement is protesting against,” “the possibilities for change this movement is part of envisioning” and “what students need to know about how to stay safe during protests.”

For (very sketchy) lesson plans, teachers can turn to Occupy’s site or the New York Times Learning Blog.

Kristen Burzynski, who teaches eighth-grade science at Community Day School, spent a day on Occupy’s message, reports KQED’s Mind/Shift.

. . . she began her lesson by asking students to think about three slogans of the movement: “We are the 99 percent,” “Human need not corporate greed,” and “Save the American dream.”

Her students had heard these phrases before and recognized the images of the Occupy Oakland camp. Burzynski asked her students, “What do the protesters want?” Responses included money, fairness, and jobs. She answered, “You know, Occupy Wall Street has been criticized for NOT having a distinct goal – a lot of people are saying, What are they asking for? I think it’s cool that you guys are able to hit a lot of things they’re asking for without being told about it.”

To explain the 99 percent wealth disparity, Burzynski asked all her students to try a math problem. She told students to imagine that there were one hundred people and one hundred dollars. One person has 40 dollars. The other 99 people have to split the other 60 dollars. How much would each of the 99 people get? Students mulled over this long division problem, before throwing out guesses, “A penny!” “A quarter!”

Perhaps they need more time on math. Or, since it’s a science class, they could study science: What are the health risks of living without running water or toilets?

Teachers who joined Occupy’s strike cost Oakland Unified about $60,000 to cover the cost of substitute teachers, according to the Bay Citizen. That’s tough on the district, which is laying off staff and closing schools.

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    This is easy!

    “We are the 99 percent” – Merely false

    “Human need not corporate greed” – Not exclusive; False

    “Save the American dream.” – Underdescribed; ambiguous; incomplete

    Now that we’ve seen what their messages mean, class, let’s ask a more important question. Why would reasonably intelligent people say obviously false things like this? What are they hoping to accomplish, and how exactly is what they are saying supposed to help them accomplish it?

    Please turn to chapter 6, “Political Rhetoric and Manipulation”.

  2. English teachers could make use of OWS (see above, rhetoric). History teachers, of course, but not in the sense of trying to parse today’s immediate claims — those change every week — but in the sense of using OWS as an exmaple of demonstrations, which are a centuries-old technique for voicing opinions that are being marginalized in the corridors of power. But science teachers? not a good idea.

  3. Christina Lordeman says:

    Ugh. We have enough leftist brainwashing in our schools already. Let’s teach kids economics first and then see what they think of the “99 percent.”

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Well said…would just say we have enough brainwashing of all types in government education today…but agree we need to let the kids learn the facts and then decide where they stand…thanks!

    • Are we talking “home economics” here? I’m not sure how much value there is in teaching “the dismal science” to high school students, as I’m not sure how much you can get out of an economics course without strong math skills and, ideally, some calculus. Christina, may I ask, what’s your background in calculus and economics?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        As a former economics grad student who now teaches high school physics, I think there could be significant value in teaching high school students some economics. It couldn’t be terribly technical and would have to avoid calculus but that leaves a lot. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a good conceptual understanding (like, say, Paul Heyne’s “Economic Way of Thinking”) is a lot more useful to most people than a mathematical course that they soon forget.

        I would say the same thing about physics. Anyone who understands Paul Hewitt’s “Conceptual Physics” knows more physics than 95% of the people who take first and second year college physics courses.

        • When we start talking about “I think there could be significant value in teaching high school students some [subject]”, we could be talking about pretty much any subject. You cite economics and physics. But we could be much more basic than that. For example, I think it would be a good start if we were graduating seniors who understand the basics of American government; no calculus required and, these days, colleges don’t even seem to be doing that.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Hey–they’d be great for science teachers– you could use the Atlanta camp as a jumping off point for teaching about drug-resistant TB and its spread!

  5. It’s nice to see that one of the two main reasons for the existence of the public education system is still being vigorously utilized even if the other, education, isn’t.

    “Nice” because a great enough appreciation for the fact that the public education system also exists to indoctrinate kids might help to bring an end to the institution. The more so because it’s the results of poorly-attended elections which decides, largely, who gets to do the indoctrinating.

  6. That science teacher is an example of how NOT to teach. Sorry, indoctrinating children in the guise of “teaching” them is not acceptable. I doubt the state standards include anything related to the protests. She is obviously not competent to teach the math. So, what educational purpose could she possibly have?

  7. Joanne, you claim, “Teachers who joined Occupy’s strike cost Oakland Unified about $60,000 to cover the cost of substitute teachers, according to the Bay Citizen.” That seems misleading.

    The article claims that 280 teachers scheduled the day off and arranged substitutes. It probably is fair to infer that a lot of them did so to attend the rally, but I see no evidence that all attended the rally. There’s no special cost to the school district when a teacher takes a personal day – it’s in the budget and it’s part of the teacher’s compensation package. I expect that if you were to dig deeper you would find that some of the teachers took days off for reasons you would find acceptable, such as attending a funeral or memorial service.

    In terms of the 80 additional teachers who either called in sick or didn’t show up for work, I again see nothing to establish that all of those teachers were at the rally. If the article is actually asserting that 80 teachers who either called in sick or didn’t show up are documented to have attended the rally, it should be pretty easy for school administrators to discipline them. For that matter, it should be pretty easy to discipline any teacher who doesn’t show up for work without notice, unless they have an excuse to the magnitude of “I was unconscious in the E.R.”

    • Aaron, Joanne is merely citing the article; your beef is with the Bay Citizen. Evidence? I’m not sure if you’re just naive or if you’re being purposefully obtuse, but the distinction you make between 280 teachers attending the rally and 80 teachers dodging work to show solidarity for the protest is not that great. While those teachers probably were technically within their contractual rights, the district and the students suffered for it: “At two elementary schools — Bridges Academy and Esperanza, most teachers were absent.”

      • Norm, that is not correct. The article presents context that Joanne omitted, and the questions raised by the omitted information seem pretty obvious.

        I’m not sure if you believe that ad hominem abusive constitutes an effective or logical response to valid comments, so let me set you straight: It is neither.

        • You’re right, I apologize. Please let me rephrase that: The distinction you make between 280 teachers attending the rally and 80 teachers dodging work to show solidarity for the protest is not that great. While those teachers probably were technically within their contractual rights, the district and the students suffered for it: “At two elementary schools — Bridges Academy and Esperanza, most teachers were absent.”

          • From what you appear to be trying to argue, it appears that you would benefit from reviewing both the article and what I wrote, as at a minimum you did not understand my comment.

          • Aaron,
            Having read and reread the article and your previous post, I’m not sure I see what context you are talking about. Very little of the article addressed the teacher issue, and what did discuss the teacher absences Joanne posted.
            Moreover, the statements by the district seem pretty straightforward, and for you to assume that some individuals were absent for medical or other non-protest reasons is as presumptuous as assuming that the absences were due to the protest – except that the district plainly stated that the absences were due to the protest.
            It is not unbelievable that those requesting personal days openly declared their intent to protest, or that those who were absent without notice were seen or documented as having been at the protest.

          • “It is not unbelievable” is not the same thing as “It is true.” It is not unreasonable to expect substantiation. When information is missing, I don’t rationalize or wish it away – or at least I try not to. Doing so gets in the way of accuracy.

            If you want to take the article as gospel, or don’t think people have any right to question inferences drawn from inferences, I don’t have the energy to argue with you.

          • It must be depressing to always doubt everyone’s word…do you call up the weathermen all the time for substantiation about their predictions. At some point, you just have to trust people absent evidence to the contrary.

            You’re stretching it on the “inferences drawn from inferences” … at best, the district inferred the teachers were at the protest, but the article seems to have repeated the information directly from the district.

          • Actually, Aaron, it is both unreasonable and irrelevant to expect substantiation. 280 teachers attended the rally; the other 80 teachers were not at the rally–but they apparently walked out in support of it, and it doesn’t matter one bit where they actually spent their day. You say “prove it,” and I say you’re either naive or purposefully obfuscating (I use that word so you won’t accuse me of ad hominem attacks:-) As you say, it takes a lot of energy to hold an untenable position.

  8. To me the occupiers embody the very soul of democracy and I am grateful that they are sacrificing their time and energies to try to reverse America’s slide into neo-feudalism. The encampments are gritty, but isn’t all camping gritty? I find the snarky attitude toward their fellow citizens –dedicated democrats and unfortunate homeless folks –much more repellent than unshowered protesters. Stinky souls are worse than stinky bodies.

    That said, I agree that the lesson about OWS is lame. No kid can really “read” OWS without a strong background in economics, politics and history. Unfortunately most American adults lack this background too. This is why America needs a robust knowledge-focused K-12 curriculum a la Core Knowledge or what the French have.

    • The “very soul of democracy” was exemplified by our founding fathers – intelligent and dedicated citizens discussing matters within a framework that directed them towards a distinct goal.
      The unshowered protesters have no distinct goal to achieve and are doing nothing except to disrupt the livelihood of many non-1% citizens. If they cared about changing the system to reduce corruption, they would exercise that desire during elections by voting out every incumbent, whether Democrat or Republican, because they have all contributed to the slide into neo-feudalism.
      I forget which founding father it was, but someone stated that our election system was designed to provide an opportunity for peaceful revolution.

  9. I’ve been a student teacher in 5th grade before. Some time is spent on periods of protests in social studies. So, the occupations do seem relevant to cover. However, I see an obvious advantage and disadvantage to using the occupations to form a lesson around.

    The obvious advantage is that the occupations are occurring in real time. That alone makes them easier for students to relate to. For those students that stay caught up with the news on the occupations via their parents, those students will think about the occupations both in and outside of class.

    I think the obvious disadvantage is that the occupation protests are not over yet. My intuition is that its difficult to teach a lesson about something that you necessarily don’t understand. That is, for the time being, it’s my understanding that the occupations are difficult to characterize. So, that makes me wonder how anyone can even talk about them intelligibly. For now, I don’t think anyone can. We can talk about what is happening at individual occupations. I think it will be easier to reflect on the meaning of the occupations once they are over.

    Either the occupations will fully grow and progress to some end or they will fail. In either case, the causes for each outcome can be investigated AFTER the duration of the occupations have ended. After which, it seems more appropriate to design a lesson around it.

  10. As a science teacher, I can see no way the OWS fits into curriculum unless there’s some sort of anti-capitalistic environmentalism component… oh wait, was this California? Ok.

    I’m also not a big fan of the efficacy of protests like OWS. Sure, the protests in the Middle East recently and others through history have caused change (not necessarily good), but they were all very specific in their goals and in many cases the protests were paired with necessary violence to achieve that goal. So, unless the 99% plan on sacrificing their lives to achieve change, this is nothing more than an exercise in futility that distracts from the real change that must happen at the ballot boxes.

  11. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    I think it’s a colossal waste of classroom time. There are too many other things to teach.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d be interested in knowing how many of the teachers were there to see a phenomenon, vs. how many agreed with and supported the occupiers. They could have gone on the weekend. Why pick a school day?
    Maybe they figured it was a great, sympathetic, heroic excuse for a mental health day and stayed home.

  13. greeneyeshade says:

    And don’t forget it’s the Bay Area. As the man said about secession-happy S. Carolina, Too small for a Republic and too large for an Insane Asylum.

  14. What’s insane about protesting Wall Street’s hijacking of Washington?

    • The belief that it will achieve anything substantial.

      • I don’t believe that voting is the only legitimate or effective form of democratic participation. Do you think the Bonus Marchers should have just stayed home? The Hooverville campers? The civil rights marchers? The anti-Vietnam war protesters? OWS has already had an impact: it’s shifted the debate away from deficit reduction toward the invidious influence of Wall Street profits on Washington policy. OWS is free speech in all its powerful Constitutional glory. And it’s been a rare chance for the non-rich to command a megaphone comparable to what Big Money buys to advance its agenda. Poor people do not have a Fox News.

        • On the contrary, many previous protests have been effective because they had distinct goals…pay for military service, equal rights for minorities, etc. I’m not sure why you included Hoovervilles… to my knowledge they were simply a bunch of displaced squatters who had nowhere to go because of extreme poverty… they were not a protest of any sort. Also note that in the case of the Bonus Army, the eventual decision to pay the veterans was preceded by a significant shift in Congressional balance.

          The recent OWS movement completely lacks direction. Every single interview I’ve seen on CNN and local news affiliates of the leadership shows them complaining about their own woes but not actually suggesting anything concrete. They say they want to end corruption and greed, which is not likely to happen as long as there are humans on the planet.

          I’m also skeptical of your impact statement, I have yet to see any concrete policy changes regarding Wall Street influence (politicians have pandered to the protesters, but that’s about it), and the debt reduction supercommittee is still at work.

          You know what’s free speech in all its constitutional glory? What we’re doing now. The OWS movement is largely a bunch of malcontents that do not have the foresight or intelligence to realize that their actions will achieve little but the disruption of the legitimate business of the 99% who work and live near the protest sites.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            The OWS folks should be renamed Anarchists for Socialism; that fully describes their ideological incoherence.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          The OWS people aren’t “poor people”. They don’t represent the interests of poor people.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Don’t you mean Washington’s hijacking of Wall Street? Or, Washington’s hijacking (co-opting or strangulation) of large business in search of campaign contribution so politicians can stay in power via special interest patronage – otherwise known as crony capitalism?

      What politican received the largest campaing contribution from the financial service industry and Goldman Sachs?

      Barack Obama

  15. I’m sorry but if a classroom of 8th graders could not solve that simple a math problem, the teacher is wasting time talking about OWS good or bad.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d like to ask somebody in biz law if a CEO is deficient in his fiduciary responsibilities if he fails to bribe congressworms and other government officials. Consider the competitive advantages his less scrupulous competitors achieve by doing so. He’d have to be nuts not to suck up to DC.
    Occupy the crooks at DC, without whom Wall Street would have to stick to their own business of taking in each others’ laundry and trying to make money on hope.