How One Teacher Brought Lessons from Occupy Wall Street to Class

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Brandon McFarland/Turnstyle News

By Robyn Gee, Turnstyle

As thousands of people, including many teachers, took to the streets of Oakland, California last week to participate in the general strike, Kristen Burzynski used her eighth-grade science class time to talk to her students about the Occupy protests.

She’s one of many educators seizing on the protests as a teachable moment. The Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired impromptu lectures, classes and workshops to take place on street corners all over the country. Occupy Colleges, a Facebook Community, is even promoting a National Solidarity Teach In, to which 87 colleges have committed.

Teach-ins as a form of peaceful protest are not new, of course. During the Vietnam War, large numbers of people would gather for lectures, debates, movies, musical performances, and discussions about the issues. The idea was that there would be no time limit on the discussion and sharing of information.

And now, for what many are hoping is a new national movement, there is no lack of Occupy-related material for teachers to use in their classrooms. The New York Times Learning Blog has a whole series of lesson plans focused on Occupy Wall Street and teachers like Burzynski are crafting their own lessons.

In Burzynski’s class at Community Day School 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!”

To spark further discussion about the protesters, Burzynski read provocative questions about the issues, and had students travel to one side of the room if they would answer "yes," and the other side if they would answer "no." One statement she read was, “Are peaceful protests effective?”

Students were divided. One student said, “No. You have to be chaotic or no one will listen to you. No one will pay attention.” In rebuttal, another student said, “If you are angry, violent, and disruptive, they’re going to look at you like, ‘Oh you’re ignorant.’ If you do it peacefully, they have no choice but to listen to you.”

Burzynski ended the lesson by asking students if they had the choice, would they have come to school or joined the general strike that happened yesterday?

Again, students were divided. Some said they would have come to school, because getting an education is more important. Others thought they should protest, especially when Oakland schools are being closed.

Several teachers did strike, either calling in for substitutes ahead of time, or just not showing up. Ultimately, this cost Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) about $60,000 to cover the cost of substitute teachers, according to the Bay Citizen. OUSD issued a statement of support for the strike events: “The Alameda County Labor Coalition, which includes our school district unions, has endorsed this action and OUSD teachers and non-instructional staff may demonstrate solidarity with the movement.”

But this statement of solidarity did not exempt the district from being a target of protesters, especially those in the communities affected by the handful of Oakland schools that are slated for closure. Aaron Stark is a teacher at Maxwell Park International Academy, one of the schools slated for closure. “We’ve lost all the support staff. There’s no noon supervisor to watch the children, so for the first six weeks of school we were splitting the time, but it’s a real safety issue. There’s no librarian, we have a volunteer now. We have no P.E. teacher,” said Stark.

A large group of parents, teachers, and students who had decided to strike gathered yesterday at Laney College in Oakland to have a teach-in, then march on the school district, and finally join the rest of the general strike protesters.

Tim Marshall, an Oakland teacher, had brought his daughter Rosemary with him to Laney. He said, “We teach citizenship, and responsibility, and all the things that make a good citizen are being demonstrated here. People taking an interest in their fellow man, and showing people that we have a voice and we should be able to participate in our own democracy. [Rosemary’s] going to learn this lesson over the course of her life, and I’m just showing her, the people of Oakland, her schoolmates are here, we’re all in this together. I hope we let people know we’re tired of cuts, tired of austerity, tired of poverty, and we’re going to make some changes,” said Marshall.

Marshall is one among many teachers who viewed yesterday as an educational experience even outside of the classroom. Some professors from Laney College and Merritt College even held their classes at 14th and Broadway, the epicenter of Occupy Oakland.

This post originally appeared on Turnstyle, an online information service produced by young reporters, writers, and producers, age 18-34.