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Don't Be Too Quick to Label Me!


Eighth graders cluster around the world map, peeling off their little sticky tags and moving them.

Ashley: China—Again???

Amritpal: Oh yeah! I’m Belarus! Nobody’s ever been Belarus!

LeMaj: Yeah, but now you have to find it!

Ryan: I’m Greenland!

Kristen: Not! No way you are Greenland, Ryan! You made that up!

Geography? No, this is my eighth grade Family and Consumer Science class. For the last week, they’ve been checking the permanent-care labels in their clothes and "claiming" their shirts' country of origin. It's an eye-opening activity. While China may have produced the majority of today's clothes, students huddled around the map are complaining that Honduras and El Salvador are so crowded with markers that some are oozing over into Nicaragua and Guatemala.

"No wonder China make so much stuff," says one student. "They've got more land and more people. But Honduras is tiny and look how much comes from there."

A quick look at the stickie-infested map makes it clear that clothing construction is concentrated in China and surrounding nations and in Central America. Why? Because clothing construction is low tech, requires minimal infrastructure, and the work force is usually women and children. A quick Internet search indicates that the average wage in many of these countries is less than $5,000 a year and that, in many cases, children younger than my students are working six-day weeks to produce those clothes.

Katie is outraged. "It's not fair!" Should we boycott? What happens if we do? Do the child laborers go to school instead? Or do they starve? If a country begins with low wage jobs, will its economy grow, resulting in better jobs in the future? Or will it continue to exploit the weakest members of its society?

The social justice issues are only part of the picture. Our conversation soon begins to veer off toward practical economic concerns closer to home. Outsourcing of textile manufacturing and clothing production contributes to the national trade deficit and has been devastating to the economy in southwest Virginia, where we live. What is the real cost of the lost jobs here and the flow of money out of the country? How much more would we be willing to pay for clothing produced locally? What would that do to the retail marketplace, if the price of clothing reflected American wages?

The discussion gets fierce at times, but tomorrow we will move from the theoretical to the practical. We will begin their sweatshirt sewing projects, and they can hardly wait. Will most of these students ever sew again? Maybe not, but they may develop a greater appreciation in the future for the people who will construct the clothing they wear. They will be better consumers—more likely to look at quality of construction. But the most important thing they will learn is to manage their own time, set their own standards, assess their own work, live with their own mistakes. These are Career and Technical Education skills that will serve them for a lifetime.

Do we stitch things and stir things in my room? You bet! We also do a lot of thinking, and use learning strategies like the world map activity (which a geography teacher in our school is incorporating into his own course) to build 21st Century knowledge and know-how.

What really matters is this: In Family and Consumer Science class, we validate academic concepts by connecting them to how we meet our own basic needs and improve the quality of our own lives. Laquisha put it this way: “This is my favorite class because instead of telling us a bunch of stuff, you let us do stuff that makes us figure out why we need to know stuff.”

Just a FACS teacher? You bet.


Clothing labels do indeed indicate that more and more clothing is coming from just a few spots around the world. Your blog reminded me of a conversation I had with my neighbor, a youth pastor when she works.

She was raging against the exploitation of children and women who work in clothing factories and also against China's harshness toward its workers in general. I agreed with her, but also noted. as gently as possible, that she frequently shops K-Mart and Wal-Mart for clothes for herself and her young son. (Each shopping trip is generally followed by her rejoicing over the very low prices she paid.)

I, too, enjoy getting clothing at great prices, I told her. If we support the industries overseas as they are, I asked, can we also justify railing against the very things that make the clothes a good buy? I wasn't so much asking her as asking myself, for this is a question I wrestle with frequently.

My neighbor responded by sharply informing me that she has chosen to be a stay - at - home mom for her son and can't afford to shop for anything but the lowest prices. She went on to talk about the many other people who must stretch every dollar to the maximum. I know where she's coming from, and I recognize the value of her arugment, but I still ask the question: Can we buy and support the clothing manufacturers and still keep the right to be critical of how the clothing is produced?

What a coincidence - we just did a similar experiment where we tried not to use products made in China for a week in our classroom.

When I read your post to my students this morning they wanted to pursue this discussion even further. And here I thought they had enough of this experiment!!


Thanks for the great post!

Susan, I loved reading this. What a great example of interdisciplinary work that is high level and developmentally appropriate. I also wish I knew how to make a sweatshirt!

As always, I love the connections that you help children make in their world. :)

I just had a meeting with the present and former FACS teachers in my district. We are having difficulty filling open FACS positions because so many former FACS teachers are filling other positions in the district ... I believe this is because of the experience and mindset that you write about in your entry ... that ability to connect the theoretical with the practical...a way of thinking that is desired in many situations. Students seem to always love FACS courses, but most are discouraged from taking them because those courses aren't on recommended lists for college entrance.

I teach Life Skills to 9th graders and have been connecting their clothes to the countries of origin, and the illegal CD's they download using Limewire and Napster to the concept of theft of Intellectual Property. My students come from inner city, primarily low income families and can't always understand how "stealing" songs and burning them onto CD's to sell to their friends hurts the originators of these items. It's not until I make it personal for them that they "get it." Even when they get it, as one students said, "But, miss, those people have a lot more money than we do and won't miss the few things we burn." There were enough murmurs of agreement to let me know that they weren't totally convinced - especially when they heard that companies are going after Limewire, Napster and other software that facilitates the downloads more than individuals.

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Recent Comments

  • Elizabeth J. Sawyer-Cunningham: I teach Life Skills to 9th graders and have been read more
  • Laurie Stenehjem: I just had a meeting with the present and former read more
  • Deanna: As always, I love the connections that you help children read more
  • Ariel Sacks: Susan, I loved reading this. What a great example of read more
  • Head Monkey: What a coincidence - we just did a similar experiment read more




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