The Choices Blog

History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Join us at #NCSS15


We are excited to be traveling down to New Orleans for the National Council for the Social Studies 95th Annual Conference this week. Come visit us in the exhibit hall. We will be at the head of International Alley in Booth 1000. We will also be presenting five workshops.  See our workshop descriptions below. Can’t wait to see you in NOLA!

Freedom Now: Exploring Multiple Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

Friday at 3:20pm
Convention Center R03
This hands-on session introduces participants to multiple, everyday voices of the civil rights movement through Brown University’s Choices Program’s unit Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Curriculum provided.
Presenters: Nicole Means, West Felicina High School, St. Francisville, LA

Colonization and Independence in Africa

Friday at 3:20pm
Convention Center 232
Case studies from Ghana, Algeria, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo explore the contested nature of colonization and decolonization. Participants examine how cultural perspective can impact historical inquiry. Choices Program C3-aligned curriculum is provided.
Presenters: Mimi Stephens, The Choices Program, Brown University, Providence, RI

Climate Change and Questions of Justice

Saturday at 8am
Convention Center 225
Experience Choices’ C3-aligned curriculum (provided) that explores multiple perspectives on the causes, consequences and responsibilities of climate change, and ultimately asks students to develop policy on this global dilemma.
Presenters: Mimi Stephens, Choices Program, Brown University, Providence, RI

Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Foreign Policy

Saturday at 2:40pm
Convention Center 225
What should U.S policy be regarding human rights? Let students decide by analyzing primary sources, evaluating multiple perspectives, and reviewing cases to develop their own view. A C3 Framework-aligned Choices curriculum is provided.
Presenters: Mimi Stephens, Choices Program, Brown University, Providence, RI

The U.S. In Vietnam: Lessons Learned?

Sunday at 8am
Convention Center 216

The Vietnam War remains a central reference point for U.S. decision makers. Explore ten C3-aligned lessons in the Choices’ Vietnam curriculum (provided), while also evaluating and analyzing lessons learned.
Presenters: Mimi Stephens, The Choices Program, Brown University, Providence, RI News Engagement Series #4


Tor Bakhopper (CC by 2.0)

October 6 is National News Engagement Day, a day when “everyone is encouraged to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”

News and the media is a vital part of social studies education today, which is why The Choices Program does our best to get current affairs content available for teachers to use in their classrooms. Our Current Issues Series deals with some of the most important challenges facing the world today, encouraging students to consider the decisions made by policy makers and citizens in facing a changing future. We also produce Teaching With The News lessons to address situations as we see them come into the focus of the media.

For the week of National News Engagement Day, some of the Choices staff will be sharing the news-related resources they use to inform and inspire their work.


Lindsay Turchan, International Education Intern, Choices Writing Team

My recommendation for a news-related resource:

What it is:

Outsports is an online news and opinion site that reports on LGBT issues in sports. It features articles, podcasts, photographs, editorials, blog posts, videos, and more. With great content for anyone interested in sports and LGBT issues, teachers might be particularly intrigued by the many pieces that consider the relationship between sports and history, human rights, and politics.

Why I like it and think you might find it interesting:

  1. Few media outlets address LGBT experiences in sports. The very existence of Outsports alerts readers to this glaring historical silence and calls attention to the structures that make this so. In this way, Outsports helps cultivate in its readers some of the skills necessary for critical media consumption.
  2. If you love sports news but you are also a “thinker,” then Outsports is for you. It’s more than just the score of Sunday’s game. Instead, the site’s stories connect sports to broader issues with political, economic, and social importance. In a highly readable way, Outsports articles could serve as a springboard for stimulating classroom conversations rooted in history or current events about the complex relationship between sports and society.
  3. Outsports regularly features works from readers, demonstrating that engaging with the news need not be left to the professionals. The dynamic “Fanpost” section features reader-written (and editor-approved) pieces. It can read as anything from an advice column (an NCAA basketball player solicits advice on coming out in this article) to a forum for debate (this history-based piece discusses opera in order to challenge understandings of what makes something a sport). There are weekly columns, such as openly gay high school student and football aficionado Jeremy Brener’s NFL reports, that also serve as reminders that everyone has valuable perspectives to offer when it comes to engaging with the news.


Note: Outsports uses satire in some opinion pieces. If students are unfamiliar with satire, it may be helpful to discuss this concept. Also, be sure to preview articles before sharing them with students as some discuss sensitive issues and/or use language that may not be appropriate for all classrooms.


For a taste of how Outsports discusses human rights and LGBT experiences in sports, you may be interested in the following articles:  

Coaches Sue University Over Homophobia, Discrimination

Principal Bans Gay Football Player Artwork From Exhibit  

Gay Slurs at the Gold Cup Match?  


Choices Program resources:

Outsports may interest teachers using Competing Visions of Human Rights: Questions for U.S. Policy, especially those who wish to engage students in conversations about freedom of speech and expression as well as LGBT rights.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.17.35 AM
The resources on Outsports might also be of interest to teachers looking to build upon discussions of the historical roots and importance of sports raised in History, Revolution and Reform: New Directions for Cuba and Brazil: From Colony to Democracy (revised edition upcoming). 
Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 4.11.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.46.06 AM

Seed Magazine: News Engagement Series #3

October 6 is National News Engagement Day, a day when “everyone is encouraged to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”

News and the media is a vital part of social studies education today, which is why the Choices Program does our best to make current affairs content available for teachers to use in their classrooms. Our Current Issues Series deals with some of the most important challenges facing the world today, encouraging students to consider the decisions made by policy makers and citizens in facing a changing future. We also produce Teaching with the News lessons to address situations as we see them come into the focus of the media.

For the week of National News Engagement Day, some of the Choices staff shares the news-related resources they use to inform and inspire their work.

This post follows #1 and #2 in the National News Engagement series.


MacKenzie Abernethy, Program Associate, Choices Writing Team


My recommendation for a news-related resource: Seed Magazine

What it is:   Seed is an online science magazine published by Seed Media Group that connects science, culture, and current events. Search the expansive archives by categories including globally impacting issues on the World page (or under subtopics such as Politics, Development, and the Environment.) Readers may also explore specific topics on the hashtag sidebar, like Education.


Why I like it and think you might find it interesting:

  1. Seed promotes a cross-disciplinary approach to current challenges. CEO of Seed Scientific and creator of Seed, Adam Bly (Canadian) considers science a “creative human enterprise.” His leadership drives Seed to connect readers across disciplines of the arts, politics, etc., by spotlighting contributions of other fields and showing the widespread applications of science.

“It’s about applying neuroscience to economics, math to global health, virology to manufacturing, and genetics to law… It’s about experimenting all the way to understanding. It’s about changing your mind with new evidence – and getting as close to truth as humanly possible. Getting 7 billion people to think scientifically has never been a small mission. And it has never been more important.” – Seed Media Group

  1. Seed offers free tools for the classroom. Alongside thought provoking, discussion generating articles, the magazine offers downloadable “cribsheets” that help teachers explain scientific topics such as climate change and solar power.
  1. Seed empowers readers. The magazine often encourages action and provides the tools to contribute to the conversation on environmental policy. For example, this article asks readers to email government and business officials about biodiversity, climate change and water access. Seed Media Group says that it takes scientific thinking to parliaments, courtrooms, hospitals, construction sites, boardrooms around the world – to catalyze scientific thinking at scale.


Choices Program resource:cover225x225

Climate Change and Questions of Justice

First Edition. January 2015



Recommended with the National Science Teachers Association’s “highest praise. . . This latest curriculum offering from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies is one of the best introductions to teaching about climate change that is currently available on the market.

Bonus:  Share Neil Degrasse Tyson’s lifelong love for astrophysics with students via this interactive tour of his personal space.

Russia: News Engagement Series #2

October 6 is National News Engagement Day, a day when “everyone is encouraged to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”

News and the media is a vital part of social studies education today, which is why The Choices Program does our best to get current affairs content available for teachers to use in their classrooms. Our Current Issues Series deals with some of the most important challenges facing the world today, encouraging students to consider the decisions made by policy makers and citizens in facing a changing future. We also produce Teaching With The News lessons to address situations as we see them come into the focus of the media.

For the week of National News Engagement Day, some of the Choices staff are sharing the news-related resources they use to inform and inspire their work.


Andy Blackadar, Director of Curriculum Development

My recommendation for a news-related resource:

Johnson’s Russia List

What it is:

Johnson’s Russia List or JRL is a daily email of English language news sources on Russia. The website provides a table of contents of the daily email and selected articles, but the email provides the full text of between 10 and 50 articles daily on all aspects of Russia: including foreign and domestic policy, daily life, politics, public opinion, and culture. (Information about obtaining an email subscription is available from David Johnson <David Johnson through davidjohnson[AT]>.

Johnson has been putting the list together since 1996 and is based  at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. During the recent crisis in Ukraine, the list has attracted criticism for including Russian news sources as well as others sympathetic to the Russian point of view. Johnson includes those sources (as he has since starting this service) to provide a voice to opinions often not found in the U.S. news media. I think that the scope of the list would be very daunting for the great majority of high school students and requires the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. On the other hand, teachers could find great content there and choose a small selection to present to students.

Why I like it and think you might find it interesting:

  1. If you follow Russia, it would take hours to discover all of the resources the David Johnson puts in his emails. The daily email comes with a table of contents or forty or so articles. It’s easy to scan and decide what you are interested in reading.
  2. In addition to many different takes on the hottest political issues of the day, there are frequently interesting articles on Russian culture, history, and society. There’s a handy dropdown menu that allows you to search the massive archives by category.
  3. Russian sources often have a very different take on events in Ukraine or Syria, for example. These disparate viewpoints are extremely interesting and important to consider when thinking about some these pressing foreign policy problems.

RussiaCoverChoices Program Resource

Russia’s Transformation: Challenges for U.S. Policy








South Africa: News Engagement Series #1

October 6 is National News Engagement Day, a day when “everyone is encouraged to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”

News and the media is a vital part of social studies education today, which is why The Choices Program does our best to get current affairs content available for teachers to use in their classrooms. Our Current Issues Series deals with some of the most important challenges facing the world today, encouraging students to consider the decisions made by policy makers and citizens in facing a changing future. We also produce Teaching With The News lessons to address situations as we see them come into the focus of the media.

For the week of National News Engagement Day, some of the Choices staff will be sharing the news-related resources they use to inform and inspire their work.

Danielle Johnstone, Program Associate, Writing Team

My recommendation for a news-related resource:
The Mail & Guardian Online

What it is:
The Mail & Guardian is a South African newspaper. The website reports on National (South African), African and World news. M&G also runs various blogs and a center for investigative journalism.

Why I like it and think you might find it interesting:

  1. M&G should definitely be bookmarked if you are teaching about South Africa. The journalists reporting on national issues often make strong historical connections, particularly to the apartheid era and the challenges it has caused for contemporary South Africa.
  2. I like to visit the M&G world news section to be aware of how news outlets outside of the United States are covering U.S. and international issues. Often M&G will be covering issues or situations that have been ignored by the U.S. media. Sometimes they cover issues that have dominated U.S. and European news with a different (perhaps more nuanced) perspective. M&G’s coverage of African issues, in particular, tends to be remarkably different to what you will see on the BBC or New York Times.
  3. The M&G Thought Leader blog by Mandela-Rhodes scholars is a gem. The contributing writers are young South Africans who are/were recipients of the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship, and they express their opinions about things happening in South Africa and beyond. Not only are the posts engaging and well-written, they also show how young people in South Africa are grappling with many of the same issues facing their counterparts in the U.S. and beyond—race, violence, injustice, an intimidating economy. Reading the blog is an excellent way to challenge stereotypes; it encourages readers to recognize that young people in the developing world are not just victims but are also educated, thoughtful, and facing complex questions about their world and their futures.

For a sample of M&G’s arts and culture reporting, check out this article on musician and composer  “Mac” McKenzie and his innovative impact on South African music.

Choices Program resource:
Freedom in Our Lifetime: South Africa’s Struggle

Using Choices Values Cards to Examine Value Differences Between Generations

Anyone that has used the Choices Program curriculum units would agree that the Prioritizing Values Activity is a simple, yet powerful, strategy for encouraging students to think carefully about how their own beliefs, presuppositions, and values impact their opinions on political and social issues. I developed a lesson to use in a Sociology course that builds upon the Prioritizing Values activity that I wanted to share with fellow educators. This lesson is an effective way of introducing concepts of demographics, shared culture, generational shifts in values, and changes in public opinion. In my experience, it also encourages students to discuss values and worldviews with people outside of their own generation. After completing this lesson, I received several emails from students and parents, thanking me for providing an impetus for meaningful discussions in their homes.

I start the class by asking the students to define the concept of “culture.” After some class discussion, I provide several anthropological definitions, many of which include “shared values and beliefs” as part of the definition of “culture.

I then pass out an envelope with the ten Choices value cards:

  • Community
  • Cooperation
  • Democracy
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Justice
  • Security
  • Self-reliance
  • Stability
  • Tolerance


And this Handout

Before I ask them to rank these values according to their own definitions and beliefs, just as the Choices lesson has them do, I explain that while culture is, in part, a collection of shared values, individuals do not share and prioritize these values in the same way. People may have different definitions of these values and also may rank some values as more important than others.

I then ask them to put the Values in order of importance to them as individuals, emphasizing that this is about examining their own personal values and that the order of other students’ value cards should not influence their own ordering of values.   After they have had adequate time to order their cards and answer the questions provided, I collect the assignment and enter their rankings on a spreadsheet.

On the spreadsheet, there is a row for each value and a column for each student. This allows you to use spreadsheet functions to do all of the addition for you. For the purposes of data collection, I assign the inverse number of points to their ordering. For example, if the student ranked “Freedom” as #1, I added 10 points to the Freedom row on the spreadsheet. This seems like a lot of work but it actually only takes 10 minutes or so to enter all of the data for 100 students (several classes compiled together). After adding up all of the rows, I sort the final column with the totals for each value and add ranking labels (#1) to each value. This is what it looks like when all student data is compiled, sorted, and ranked:


This can then be easily transformed to a graph to show the relative “importance” of each value for the collective student group.


The percentage data labels are merely an indication of how each value was ranked by the students. The higher the percentage, the greater amount of support for that value as important among the students as a group. It can be misleading because it does not mean, for example, that 15% of students ranked Equality #1 (though a graph that did show the data this way would be very easy to generate from the spreadsheet). I call this a “strength of ranking” score because it reflects how strongly the value is regarded among the population group.

Assignment #1 is then returned to students and we have a class discussion about their individual and collective rankings. At some point in the discussion, I ask the class where we get our values and why we place more importance in some values than others. The most common answers are “our parents” or “our family.” At this point, I hand out assignment #2.

Cautioning students to not reveal their individual or the classes’ rankings to the parent or family member that provides the data for assignment #2, I instruct them to go home, hand the selected person the cards, and show them assignment #2 without providing any additional information. Students report back that the discussion prompted by completing the questions on assignment #2 is an interesting one, especially if they show their own rankings and talk about the similarities and differences after the parents or family member completes their own ordering.   Here is the chart for the parents’ generation collective rankings:


Two differences between the two age cohorts’ value rankings stand out immediately. First, the top 4 for each group is completely different, with Freedom being the only value that makes the top 5 for each group. Secondly, there are less very high and very low percentages in the parents’ age cohort rankings. For example, notice that there are only 2 values higher than 12% in the parents’ age cohort, compared with 4 in the students’ data. The same trend can be seen on the other end of the spectrum too with the parents’ lowest ranked value, Tolerance, receiving a 7% “strength of ranking” score. I interpret this as meaning that there is less agreement on the importance of these values among this group than among the student group.

After a class discussion comparing the composite rankings of the student and parent age cohorts, students receive assignment #3.

In my experience, students are engaged and enthusiastic about continuing the project with their grandparents’ age cohort. Often, parents are interested in knowing how the grandparents will rank the values and join the post-ranking discussion with the students. It is fascinating to hear students talk about the discussion with three members of their families about values and what life experiences shaped their ranking orders. This is the chart from the grandparents’ value rankings:


This lesson is a very simplified version of social science research that can be done with students of all ability levels. While I never took it further myself, this method could also be used to examine gender differences in the prioritization of values as well as aggregating data by other demographical categories.

If you decide to do this project with your students, I have a few suggestions:

  • Do not tell students about assignments #2 and #3 initially. I suspect students would do their initial rankings differently if they knew parents and grandparents would be asked to do the same task.
  • Be aware that students’ individual life situations may require exceptions or alterations to the assignment. For example, students may have parents older than the assigned parents’ cohort age range.
  • Emphasize to students that the aggregate data is the only part that will be shared with the rest of class and that individual responses, from students and their family members, will not be shared.
  • Consider discussing the meanings of the values with the students before they do the ordering task. I found it helped to come up with a “crowd sourced” broad definition of what is meant by each value.

I hope this post will get you thinking about creative ways to engage your students as the new school year begins. It is likely that many teachers, especially those with training in statistics and quantitative research methods could improve the validity and presentation of research results significantly. If you have suggestions for improving or expanding the lesson, I would be very interested to hear from you.

 Jeremie Smith
Outreach Coordinator
Center for Global Studies
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Have you done something creative with our Prioritizing Values Activity ?  Tell us about it in the comments section below. 

Continual Reconstruction: The Confederate Flag Controversy in the Classroom

The Confederate flag stands—or sits in a museum display case—as a symbol of very different sentiments depending upon perspective.

For some, the flag flies in pride of past Civil War fighters and American heritage, but to others, it is an archaic symbol of racism, segregation and slavery in the United States. Following the fatal shooting of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley finalized a bill to remove the flag from the state capitol building on July 10, 2015.

“No one should ever drive by the statehouse and feel pain. No one should ever drive by the statehouse and feel like they don’t belong.”  Governor Nikki Haley

When the Charleston shooting first spurred national debate about whether the Confederate flag should be lowered, one female activist took it upon herself to scale the 30-foot flagpole and remove the battle flag herself.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 2.27.30 PM

June 27, 2015. Bree Newsome climbs South Carolina Capitol building’s flagpole, removes flag.   Washington Post.

“I’m prepared to be arrested,” Brittany Ann “Bree” Newsome told police, who demanded that she come down. Then she climbed a bit higher to unhook the flag before descending to greet the authorities, who handcuffed her and immediately put the flag back in its former position.

Newsome spoke for a greater community when she explained her motive:

”We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” —”Bree” Newsome

Politicians have struggled to reach an agreement about how to best honor history through the flag’s placement. A majority of civilians and government officials haven chosen instead to focus on what lies ahead; whether or not the flag represents a commendable moment in time, it does not represent the future of the United States.

An immense, mostly cheering crowd gathered to see the official lowering of the Confederate flag on July 10 — in the state that was the first to secede from the United States in 1860. Back then, Southern states that depended upon slave labor saw Abraham Lincoln’s election as a threat to their lifestyle and liberty. South Carolina lead the way in separating from the Union to form a new nation called the Confederate States of America. Ten other Southern states followed suit: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The ideological and legal division between the (Northern) United States and the Confederate States of the South led to the Civil War.

“It wasn’t just about rights for African Americans, it was about reconstructing the nation…. It was about wholesale re-conceptualization of rights, on a national and international scale.” — Michael Vorenberg

Tensions continued to rise after officials removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol. On July 19,  confrontation occurred at a rally between members of the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panther Party.   At the height of the Klan in 1925, there were an estimated 5,000,000 members, while in the Civil Rights era (in the 50s and 60s) there were about 42,000 members. Approximately 24,000 remain today. While the KKK has diminished over time, this is the first Klan rally in South Carolina since the late 1980s.

Perceptions of race and its relevance throughout history remain a highly contested topic. Still able to provoke anger and pain, past instances of racial inequality can be difficult to discuss.   For students and future leaders who will likely face similar challenges, this history is important to learn.

New standards of the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 will introduce a new social studies curriculum to 5 million public school students this upcoming semester. Many people are concerned that stories of suffering and fighting for civil rights are veiled, important lessons left unlearned.

Continue reading

Money in Politics

“Elections should be determined by who has the best ideas, not who can hustle the most money from the rich and powerful.” There are the words of Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democrat nomination for the 2016 presidential election, famous for being a self-described democratic socialist and the longest serving independent in Congress. While Sanders is known for pushing political boundaries, his views on money in politics are not exactly radical. A recent CBS-New York Times poll has shown that a whopping 84 percent of people (90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans) think that money has too much influence on political campaigns today. 46 percent of respondents believed that the system for funding political campaigns is so flawed it must be completely rebuilt.

Although campaign financing did not rank high on the list of most important problems facing the United States (the economy and jobs, predictably, dominated the poll), campaign funding is becoming an important talking point in the long run up to next year’s election. For example, Hillary Clinton, the predicted front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has made campaign financing a key element of her campaign. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” Clinton said at an event in April 2015.

The controversy around money in politics revolves largely around recent developments in laws about campaign funding. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that there cannot be limits on third-party spending on political campaigns. This ruling was based on the First Amendment. But why is third-party political spending important? What is the public’s concern?

The New York Times released the following video, explaining “the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.25.31 AM

In many ways, the question of campaign finance is similar to many other questions we ask about the government, the United States, and the world we live in. Decisions about issues like how money in politics should (or should not) be regulated revolve around values. Values play a key role when defining the broad parameters of public policy. What do we believe about ourselves? What matters most to us? When strongly held values come into conflict, which are most important? Equality or free speech? The democracy of changing a system that most people believe to be in need of an overhaul, or the stability of maintaining a system that is not ideal but works? Some values fit together well. Others are in conflict. Governments and their citizens are constantly being forced to choose among competing values in their ongoing debates about public policy.

The Options Roles Play in Choices curriculum units not only invites students to identify and express the key values present in different policy perspectives or options, it also creates a framework where students can identify and prioritize their own values.  As the United States enters this long campaign period, recognizing values and how they relate to policy will be a vital part of being an engaged citizen and choosing a government that will help create the kind of future you want to see.


Related resources from the Choices Program:

Considering the Role of Values in Public Policy is an activity that uses “value cards” to analyze how political values play a part in civic life.

U.S.RoleStudentThe U.S. Role in a Changing World is a full-length curriculum unit where students reflect on global changes, assess national priorities, and decide for themselves the role the United States should play in the world today. It places U.S. policy in global perspective, inviting students to decide how the United States should frame its future.

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.



While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?


History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Mexico: Searching for a Safe Future

Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)


In September 2014, in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, first-year students from the teacher training college of Ayotzinapa came into conflict with the police, who fired on their bus. During the confrontation, forty-three of these students disappeared. The remains of only one of the students have been found.

Guerrero is known as one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Its inhabitants live under the constant pressure of poverty and fear. The following video by The New Yorker shows that the abduction of the students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School is part of a long-ignored history of insecurity and pain in Guerrero.

Note: this video contains some disturbing content and images.Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 10.51.20 AM


The abduction has shaken the world. Not only has it shown the violence against young innocents (in stark contrast to the common narrative of Mexico’s violence being enacted between drug cartels and national security forces only), it has also shown the striking complicity of the central government in brutality against ordinary citizens. The Mexican government’s claims that the students were murdered by drug-traffickers after being kidnapped by police, and their promises that municipal government officials will be tried have been greeted with scorn. Witness testimony suggests that, in addition to local police forces, military personnel from a nearby base were also present at the confrontation. But the government refuses to investigate the military. Many people in Mexico feel that this symbolizes the failure of the government to ensure the safety of its citizens and to take responsibility for the violence. For some, this seems to be proof that the federal government is deeply implicated in the violence.


Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)


Unsurprisingly, protests have broken out across Mexico. The cries of the protesters reflect various types of pain, anger at multiple injustices. There have been links made to the government’s violent suppression of student demonstrations in 1968, known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Proponents of greater autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous populations, such as the famous EZLN or Zapatista Army who led armed rebellions against the central government in the 1990s, have added cries for economic equality, land reform, and more local power. These people have joined together in common frustration at a government that has earned their deep mistrust. For most, the abductions signify yet another instance of state-sponsored violence, widespread impunity, and the failure of the government to perform the most basic terms of the social contract—to protect its people. In light of this, many have begun to question the legitimacy of the national government, and there have been calls for revolution.


A march in solidarity with Ayotzinapa. The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) fights for greater rights for indigenous communities and increased economic equality across Mexico. They have established thirty-two autonomous communities in Chiapas, where there have been documented improvements to gender equality and public health. Somos El Medio (CC BY 2.0)


Ultimately, the Ayotzinapa kidnapping has brought a history of tensions to a head. The Mexican people are asking what the future of their country can be. How can they secure their families and themselves from vast, unpunished violence? How will crime, corruption, and poverty be addressed? Can the central government, a body whose public support and citizen trust is corroding, play a part in creating this future? While international bodies like the UN have condemned how the Mexican government has handled the case, the U.S. government has been largely silent. Human rights organizations were outraged when U.S. President Obama did not mention the case during a meeting with Mexican President Peña Nieto in January 2015. This begs even more questions—what should Mexico’s relationship with the United States look like as the country moves forward? Can the U.S. government be trusted to partner in protecting the lives and interests of the Mexican people? What effects might this have on trade, foreign investment, and the lives of Mexican immigrants living across the U.S.-Mexico border?

These are the questions we ask students to grapple with in the latest edition of Between Two Worlds: Mexico at the Crossroads. Students learn about Mexican history from the Olmecs through Spanish colonization and the fight for independence, investigate the economic and political changes the country encountered after independence, and consider some of the challenges Mexico faces today. Students then examine three options for Mexico’s future in a role play. They use their knowledge of Mexico’s history and current challenges to present arguments about who is responsible for Mexico’s problems; how crime, violence, corruption, and inequality should be addressed; how the United States should be perceived; and what the role of the central government should be in building Mexico’s future. Finally, students design their own options for Mexico’s future, sharing their opinions on what Mexico’s policies and priorities should be. Learn more about the unit here.

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