Teaching A People's History


Howard Zinn, revered teacher and historian, died of a heart attack on January 27, 2010 at the age of 87. Zinn became a lifelong peace activist after serving in the Air Force during World War II. He was active in the Civil Rights movement as a professor at Spelman College, and he went on to teach for 24 years at Boston University. His groundbreaking work A People's History of the United States, first published in 1980, sold over 1.5 million copies and helped to establish the field of "history from below," emphasizing the influence of grassroots struggles for freedom and justice in shaping history.

The Cultures of Resistance Network honors Professor Zinn's legacy by promoting The Zinn Education Project and Voices of a People's History of the United States, two organizations that work to bring Zinn's inspiring conceptions of history and popular struggle to a new generation.

A People’s History of the United States recounts the nation’s history from the perspective of ordinary citizens: union organizers, slaves and abolitionists, suffragists and veterans, musicians and railway workers. Since its original appearance, the book has gone through numerous updates and incarnations, including several aimed at classroom teaching. The ongoing mission of the The Zinn Education Project is to harness the book's potential to transform the teaching of American history.

Further building on the enduring success of Zinn’s classic, the nonprofit organization Voices of a People’s History of the United States also works to get the book and its inspiring message to a wider audience. One of its signature initiatives, a documentary film called The People Speak, made its debut on The History Channel on December 13, 2009. The film's impressive roster of performers, who to bring life some of the most rousing voices in Zinn's work, include Matt Damon reading from the Declaration of Independence and Morgan Freeman reading the words of Frederick Douglass. The project has attracted many more performers to join a tour of live readings around the country. Once such performer, Alfre Woodard, read the words of Sojourner Truth:

The Zinn Education Project, a collaborative effort by Teaching for Change and Rethinking Schools, has launched its new "Teaching A People’s History" website. The site makes field-tested, interactive classroom lessons available to teachers at no cost, and it is the only collection of its kind for educators – print or online — in the country.

Take Action

You can join in the effort to honor Professor Zinn and teach history from below. Get involved by:

Volunteering with the Zinn Education Project. Volunteers and interns are needed to help with promotion, documentation, identification of more titles for the resource list, and more. Availability in the Washington, D.C. area preferred but not essential.

Donating to the Zinn Education Project so that it can make its website interactive for use in the classroom and hold summer writing workshops for teachers to share and document their stories.

If you are a teacher, you can also help teach history from below by:

Sharing stories, photos, and/or film clips about how you teach A People’s History in your classroom. The Zinn Education Project will use selected examples for its website and other outreach to demonstrate the impact of using A People’s History and share teaching ideas (remember that, for photos and film clips, the Zinn Education Project needs permission from students’ families to use classroom images).

Letting the Zinn Education Project know if they can refer the media to you when they are looking for a teacher in your school district who teaches A People’s History.

Making sure other teachers and teacher educators in your networks know about the Zinn Education Project website. Post a notice about the Zinn Education Project on teaching email lists, in newsletters, on social networking sites, and at your school.

Cultures of Resistance is honored to highlight the educational efforts of Voices of a People's History of the United States and the Zinn Education Project. These efforts are powerful tributes to Howard Zinn's legacy and will help to spread the belief that--in the words of activist Marian Wright Edelman, a former student of Professor Zinn-- democracy is not a spectator sport.