Every so often I read a book that makes me wish I could build a course around it. I would love to teach a media literacy class from Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media", or a human geography class from Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel", for two examples. I had that rare feeling also for Pietra Rivoli's "The Travels of a T-Shirt In The Global Economy", except that in this case I was able to bring that urge to fruition. Teaching high school economics is challenging, to say the least, and rarely lends itself to any one singular vision. It is a survey course, with state-mandated standards that must all be checked off by the end of the year. Aside from textbooks, which usually leave much to be desired, meaningful text almost always must be drawn from a plethora of sources, sorted by the standard addressed, and photocopied or projected onto a screen for the students. This is why Rivoli's book is such a windfall for econ teachers. This is a book that directly addresses and informs most of the introductory economics standards. The author draws insights on various economic concepts directly from economists, policymakers, farmers, laborers, scientists, business owners and others. Heavy use of primary sources like these is of great benefit in the classroom. You can see ears perk up when excerpts (in the book) from Eli Whitney's letters are read, or from letters written by young women working in textile mills, for a few examples.
With regards to standards addressed, I will mention just a few of the many. Productivity is an early focal point of the book, and slavery, the cotton gin, the tractor (after the mule), advanced fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds are all explored, and those passages make for great lesson starters. For lessons on supply and demand, I often refer to Rivoli's mentions of Crisco, which is made from cottonseed oil (input costs and complementary goods), and the production of GM "Roundup-Ready" seeds by the company that makes Roundup weed killer (complementary goods again), as well as the passages on subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers. Teaching about the role of government in a market economy is aided by a section detailing corruption, and other examples of the lack of good governance, plaguing cotton farmers in West African countries. Also, the debate over free trade versus protectionism is explored in great detail, with stakeholders from many different vantage points expressing their views.
Aside from the breadth of introductory economic concepts explored in this book, and how interesting and colorful the insights are both from Rivoli and her sources, a central benefit to economics teachers (especially in Georgia) is how relatable this all is to our young people. This book is a boon to Georgia teachers in two ways here. First, teenagers love their t-shirts, so there is some inherent interest waiting to be tapped into. Secondly, cotton farming (and to some extent textiles) often quite literally hits close to home. The importance (and challenge) of relating the concepts to students' actual lives is hard to overstate, and that this book does it for me in multiple ways is really incredible. As both a teaching tool and just plain great read, I give it my highest recommendation.