Social Studies Q&A

‘I Must Teach Truth to Power': A Top History Teacher Discusses ‘Divisive Concepts’ Laws

By Sarah Schwartz — July 06, 2023 5 min read
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Teaching social studies has been especially complex over the past few years—and the challenges are following educators in the coming school year.

Since 2021, 18 states have passed legislation that would restrict how teachers can discuss race, gender, or issues deemed “controversial” in the classroom. Twenty-two states have introduced legislation that would explicitly target instruction that covers LGBTQ+ issues.

Researchers have said that social studies—already a subject that gets short shrift in elementary classrooms—may have been further de-prioritized in recent years, as schools prioritized the tested subjects of math and reading in their pandemic recovery plans.

In May, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed drops for 8th graders in U.S. history and civics scores.

These declines are a call to action to make history more engaging for students, said Kurt Russell, the 2022 National Teacher of the Year. Russell teaches U.S. history, African American history, and other history electives in Oberlin, Ohio.

Doing so is at odds with the restrictions Republican politicians have put in place in states across the country, he said.

“If we feel as though we only should provide a singular story, then we are leaving out a multitude of stories that should be celebrated. We are leaving out too many of our students within the classroom, and their stories and their culture and their history,” Russell said.

Education Week spoke with Russell about the NAEP results and the challenges facing the social studies profession. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What stood out to you about the U.S. history and civics NAEP results?

The scores are not pleasant, if I could use that word. And it’s because we are not providing our children with a realistic education.

There are many teachers in the discipline who are fearful, who are afraid of really tackling the true meaning of history as a discipline, afraid of being given backlash, or for some, being terminated from the job. So the scores are not as high because we are watering down the curriculum.

Students are engaged when the lesson relates to them. Especially for history, it has been seen by many schoolchildren as being boring, outdated, because many teachers, and many policies make it outdated. And it’s hard for students to really relate to history, if they can’t relate it to their current experiences.

So that’s where we have to do a better job with making sure that when we teach history, that we relate it to our current time. We can’t be afraid to tackle the tough issues. I always tell my students that we have to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how you learn and that’s how you grow.

I hear you drawing a connection between the falling scores and the idea that there is real political pressure to sanitize American history.

When the scores came out, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said something similar—he said that bans would “move America in the wrong direction.” Some criticized that statement at the time, saying that there are all of these other factors that play into the scores. What do you think about that?

Of course, with any issue, there could be multifaceted issues behind it. So it’s hard just to say, “It’s only this.” But I do agree with Secretary Cardona, in that, yes, there’s a problem with our scores. If there’s a problem, we can’t automatically say, “Well, let’s take away some of the controversial topics.” No: This is the time to expand on these controversial topics.

I’ve been in the classroom for 27 years. And from my experience, students—Black, white, straight, gay, doesn’t matter—are so engaged in topics that relate to them. And when I say topics related to them, it’s our current issues. They would like to talk about race, they would like to talk about sexism, they would like to talk about discrimination, so forth, and so on. It’s time for us to really expand upon that so our students can be more engaged. And if you are more engaged, then you are more willing to put more effort into schoolwork, study a little bit more.

Have these so-called ‘divisive concepts’ bills, and also bills that are targeting LGBTQ+ topics in the classroom, affected anything about the way that you’ve been able to teach recently? Have you heard anything from colleagues about how it’s affecting them?

Traveling the country as National Teacher of the Year, I have heard from many teachers that it’s affecting them. Even though they know what we can do in the classroom when we are teaching a multifaceted story, they are still fearful of doing so because of the political backlash that they might receive.

We are still confused, because nothing has been definite, right? So many teachers are just in limbo. And when you are in limbo, you can’t put forth your best work, because you’re not sure how far to go, you’re not sure if what you are doing will be acceptable to the school board, to the state, to the national government. And so living in that space, it’s not good for teachers and it creates trauma. It creates that uncertainty that tomorrow might be a brand new day where everything that I worked so hard for is scratched, and I have to reinvent myself not for the better, but for the worse.

Personally, for me, I always tell myself, I must teach truth to power. And I must make sure that I provide my students with a holistic education. I know that what I’m doing is right, because I’m making sure that all of my students see themselves in the curriculum, and my students are engaged. I will not allow it to affect me, because I do not allow politics to play a role in terms of my teaching.

I also have a problem with politicians not trusting teachers. Teachers are the experts in the classroom. Listen to teachers, invite teachers to sit at the table, have these conversations and allow us to explain, to give a story of what’s happening within our classrooms.

I recently talked to some professors of education and leadership at the National Council for the Social Studies, who are trying to create resources for teachers to be able to counter some of this rhetoric and any challenges that might come their way. How much do you think teachers and their supporters should be speaking up?

It’s tough. I think it’s on an individual basis how much someone should speak up. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we take that mindset, then I believe that teachers should speak up.

However, speaking up does not necessarily mean speaking up on a national level or a state level. It could mean that you are speaking up to a colleague that is right next door, that needs some encouragement. It could be speaking up to your building administrators; it could be speaking up to your local school board, right? Or having a conversation with parents.

I think speaking up is not in a silo where everyone has to do this one type of speaking. But if you feel as though something is not right, then, of course, you have the option to express that.

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