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Critical bans on racial theory make teaching considerably more difficult

American history in Iowa classrooms could be different this year.

In early June, Governor Kim Reynolds (R) signed a law restricting what teachers in K-12 schools and public universities can teach, particularly regarding sexism and racism. It prohibits 10 concepts that Republican lawmakers define as “divisive,” including the idea that “one race or gender is superior to another,” that members of a particular race are inherently oppressive, and that “the US and Iowa are fundamentally racist or are sexist. ”

The law, which is already in place, has created confusion and despair among educators, some of whom say it is so broad and the language so ambiguous that they fear that if they talk about even nuanced conversations, they may face consequences Racism and Sexism in the Context of US History.

"Teachers need to know what the law means to us, and they ask, 'Will the district support us and strengthen our backs?" "Monique Cottman, who has taught the state elementary and middle school for 15 years, said Vox .

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds speaks during the FAMiLY Leader Summit in Des Moines on July 16. Reynolds recently signed a law restricting what teachers can teach in K-12 schools and public universities.

Rachel Mummey / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cottman is a teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, a role that requires her to regularly coach approximately 50 teachers on teaching strategy, curriculum, and lesson plans. This year there is the additional work of creating a comprehensive list of FAQs for teachers about the new Iowa law – the questions are many.

Cottman and other teachers in the district have worked to introduce anti-racism into the curriculum since at least 2014, when students went to school boards to request an ethnic degree. But with the new law, much of the momentum they have built has been undermined. "Teachers who would have thought of me last year don't even listen to teachers like me out of fear," she said.

Cottman is not alone in her predicament. Educators across the country are figuring out how to deal with laws like Iowa, anti-racist education – often summarized under the umbrella of "Critical Racial Theory," an academic framework used by scholars to analyze how racism is endemic in US institutions – into a boogeyman. While opponents of Critical Race Theory fear that the framework blames all whites for inequality, proponents argue that their goal is to use the lens to identify and eradicate systemic oppression. Educators who want to teach anti-racism in view say their teaching simply reflects an honest story of the country's creation and development – including contributions and discrimination against marginalized people – that has traditionally been glossed over in textbooks and curricula.

But in the past six months, seven more states – Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and South Carolina – have already passed laws similar to Iowa's, and 20 more have passed similar laws or are planning to introduce a new report the Brookings Institution. Meanwhile, in states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Kentucky, state education boards and local school boards have denounced, if not banned, the teaching of Critical Racial Theory and / or the 1619 Project, a collection of essays that make the basic contributions of enslaved Black people for the USA.

"Given the current social climate, it will be more acceptable to manipulate the truth and denounce people who make profound conversations about oppression a part of their classroom" —Justin Coles

The teachers must also expect the consequences. While the Tennessee State Legislature was debating critical racial theories, a high school teacher was fired after teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The First White President" and the video of the spoken word poem "White Privilege ”had played. A black school principal in Texas was recently suspended without explanation after a former school board candidate complained that he was implementing critical racial theory, promoting "extreme views of race" and "the conspiracy theory of systemic racism."

In higher education, entire courses of study that struggled with inequality were removed from the curricula or recognized as compulsory electives. And even in states that have not passed anti-critical racial laws, educational leaders are under pressure.

The first black Connecticut county superintendent resigned after parents and parishioners complained to school boards that he was trying to indoctrinate students with critical racial theory. (He reportedly advocated diversity and inclusion training and opposed conspiracy theories surrounding the U.S. Capitol uprising.)

The country is This culture war is just beginning, educators and curriculum specialists told Vox. "On the one hand, there will be many teachers, especially in states that have not yet passed the bills, who will continue to do justice work in their classrooms," said Justin Coles, professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "But others will resort to glossing over key issues in our history that are deeply intertwined with race and racism and overlooking nuances."

While teachers like Cottman will continue to teach with an anti-racist lens despite these laws, more teachers are expected to be silenced. "Because of the current social climate," said Coles, "it will be more acceptable to manipulate the truth and denounce people who have deep conversations about oppression in part of their classroom."

Ultimately, the laws and the discussions around them have created havoc for teachers who don't know what to teach and what not to teach. Much of the anti-racist discussions that educators brought into class after the 2020 riots and even before that could be in danger of being removed. And the people who will feel the most impact are students.

With these prohibitions, "learning will be incomplete because (children) are only taught half-truths," Coles said. “The classroom becomes insecure space for marginalized students because they cannot discuss their lived experiences. These bans make it difficult for our country to change. "

How critical racial theory bans got into schools – and how they worked

The pushback to anti-racist teachings began shortly after last summer's social justice protests that swept the country when many Americans began to grapple with the racism embedded in institutions like the police. In August 2020, Conservative activist Christopher Rufo declared a "one man war" on critical racial theory, appearing on Fox News, claiming that state diversity training (which he mistakenly called critical racial theory) divided workers and indoctrinated government employees.

It didn't take long before then-President Donald Trump took up Rufo's story and went so far as to issue an executive order that banned racist sensitivity training in the federal government. When Trump lost the presidential election a few months later, Republicans in state legislatures picked up, drafted and introduced bills, government agencies, public colleges, and K-12 schools that are "harmful sex and race based" teach, set boundaries ideologies. "

At the center of these bills is the desire to prevent discourse about America's racist past and present. Last year, amid a deadly pandemic and social justice protests, students had questions about the police shootings of black and brown civilians and why the coronavirus disproportionately affected black and brown communities, and teachers couldn't ignore the conversation about a president, who threatened "when" the looting begins, the shooting begins. " As Texas high school teacher Jania Hoover wrote for Vox in July: “The reality is that kids are talking about race, oppressive systems and our country's ugly past anyway – from media coverage of last summer's protests to this controversy itself, my students take up these conversations and want to know more. "

The past year and subsequent social justice movements Many teachers have had to rethink their history lessons and question the colonialist narratives that have long been anchored in elementary and high school curricula. For example, a third grade textbook Cottman was forced to use tells only part of the story of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in Louisiana. Bridges was 6 years old when federal marshals escorted her and her mother into the school building, when white mobs surrounded them, rioted and shouted threats and racial slurs.

The textbook states that the marshals "protected them from angry people who lined the streets and stood in front of the school." It makes no mention of why these people were "angry" or who they were, and omits the key context in which white people struggled for decades to keep black children out of schools because they believed black people were inferior, a detail that Cottman needed to bring up during classroom discussions.

The story of Ruby Bridges, in a textbook for third graders in Iowa, makes no mention of white people and their role in opposing school integration.

Courtesy Monique Cottman

Another story in a similar textbook tells of a girl abducted from Greece and sold into slavery in ancient Rome; According to the text, she chose to remain enslaved because her owners treated her well and they all felt like "family". "Students kept taking away that slavery is fine as long as slave owners are kind to their slaves," Cottman said.

"If teachers keep doing what they did, nobody wins," added Cottman. "You need to question why some of your lessons are problematic."

"Roman Diary: The Story of Iliona" in a McGraw-Hill Wonders sixth grade textbook.

Courtesy Monique Cottman

When bills against critical racial theory entered state legislatures this spring, confusion over what the theory was and what the bills meant overshadowed Americans' desire to have nuanced class discussions about race. A Reuters / Ipsos poll in July found that less than half of Americans (43 percent) said they knew about critical racial theory and the debates related to it, with three in ten saying they didn't ever heard of it. Respondents were even less familiar with the New York Times' 1619 project (24 percent). Still, a majority of Americans said they support teaching students about the effects of slavery (78 percent) and racism (73 percent) in the United States. State laws banning Critical Theory of Race in public schools received less support (35 percent). There was a partisan split on all fronts, with Republicans being more interested in banning talks on slavery, racism, and the doctrine of Critical Racial Theory and the 1619 Project.

In Iowa, Cottman, also co-founder of Black Lives Matter at School Iowa, says a handful of parents who support the ban have already contacted teachers about the 2021-22 curriculum (one parent emailed one over the summer Principal). to inquire about a teacher's email signature which said they were part of a "black union") but they are not the majority. Parents who advocate anti-racist education have also expressed their support at school board and community meetings.

But the vocal minority, coupled with the new law, is a burden on teachers and administrators. Though Iowa City is known as the bluest part of the red state, Cottman says she spoke to a number of teachers who are as good as possible with the curriculum; She has also spoken to those who are concerned about losing their jobs if they talk about race.

A group of 10th grade English teachers decided to stop teaching Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Walker's short story "The Flowers" (a story about a young black girl who came across a corpse picking flowers, presumably a black man who was lynched became the woods) after parents argued about it on social media for fear of further controversy.

Last fall, Cottman says, her school ordered 1,000 copies of Ibram X. Kendi's book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You to improve its course in American history. But when some parents got wind of the effort, the teachers decided to remove the books from the curriculum. "Teachers were supported by the school board, but when the book became optional, most teachers chose not to use it," Cottman said.

At the center of these bills is the desire to prevent discourse about America's racist past and present

Teachers in other states are also calling it back. Joseph Frilot, a middle school liberal arts scholar, learned from his curriculum manager that any content he has developed about Black Lives Matter and the civil rights movement will not be part of his classroom this year given Texas law which restricts discourse on Racism and sexism. "Much of the curriculum I created was about oppression and resistance, so all of that is being excluded from our curriculum," Frilot told EdWeek. "May I be the transparent and honest educator I have been over the years?"

In Tennessee, where one of the earliest anti-critical racial bills was passed, teachers have sought guidance on how to redesign their teaching and conduct classroom discussions. The Ministry of Education's guide, released in August, makes it clear that teachers can bring issues such as racism and sexism as part of the discussion when described in textbooks or teaching materials about the state and country. The state's guidelines also provide dire consequences for schools and educators who are found violations: schools could lose millions in government funds annually, and teachers could have their licenses denied, suspended, or revoked.

However, some teachers plan to keep anti-racist classes alive despite these new laws. Cottman tells teachers that even under the new law, they don't have to say anything to parents, nor are they required to seek feedback from parents before class, but she reminds them that it is "important" to make sure yourself the parents feel welcome and that “two-way communication is established at the beginning of the school year”. When teachers expressed concern about their classroom libraries, Cottman said she told them, “They don't need to remove books from their classrooms. If there is an anti-racism book on the shelf, a student has the choice to read it. "

Lakeisha Patterson, a Houston teacher, said she plans to keep talking about "Africans were viewed as less than human," and the San Antonio Teachers Union's Social Justice Committee encourages teaching, inclusion and non-white perspectives the story promotes.

"For many black teachers, we don't even raise financial concerns," Cottman said of the possibility of being fired for including racial discussions in the classroom. "We're just pissed off that we're constantly being silenced."

What anti-racism education looks like in states without prohibitions

States and districts without anti-critical racial theory laws have more leeway to experiment with anti-racist doctrine. For Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school history and folklore teacher, the moment is right and long overdue. Starting in September, Hagopian will be a co-lecturer in the school's two-year Black Studies course organized by Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in the wake of the police shootings in 2016.

"If anyone asks, the answer is yes, we teach critical racial theory," said Hagopian. “Most educators didn't know what critical racial theory was until Republicans made it their primary re-election tool. But many of them are looking now and seeing how it fits in with their principles, which I find wonderful. "

Hagopian's curriculum includes a wide range of texts designed to help students center black people's contributions throughout history, including Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, A Different Mirror, excerpts from A People's History of the United States, Jazz and Justice, and the YA version of The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks. Each text helps bring nuances into the Black experience. "We're going to learn about the intersectional identity of blacks – all blacks don't have the same experiences, so it's important to understand sexism, ableism and all forms of oppression," Hagopian said.

He also made it clear what his class was not about. “I don't teach white children to hate themselves. I'm teaching them to understand how systemic racism is and that they can be part of a multiracial struggle to make change, ”said Hagopian. "It empowers white students and doesn't put them to shame."

Young children hold signs saying “I am not an oppressor” at a rally.

A demonstration against the critical theory of race taught in schools in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12th. The backlash on anti-racist doctrines began shortly after the social justice protests that swept the country last summer.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images

Hagopian is not alone in his efforts. While some states are trying to suppress anti-racist education, others are calling for teachers to expand it: the California Board of Education approved a statewide curriculum of ethnic studies for high school students March of this year, and the next school year, the Indian Education for All standards will go into effect in schools in Wyoming. Meanwhile, Illinois became the first state to mandate Asian-American history for elementary and high school students in July, and Connecticut required all high schools to offer African American and Latino studies by the 2023-24 school year.

While education against racism advocates see these initiatives as promising advances – anti-critical racial laws also face legal challenges – teachers in less progressive districts still face an uphill battle if they want to include nuanced discussions about race in their classes. For many of these teachers caught up in the culture war, the most important thing is to provide children with an education that reflects America's true, intricate history.

"As a Black woman in public school in Iowa, this is my calling as a teacher and an attorney," said Cottman. "I basically believe that students and teachers must know the truth."

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