(This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
A number of states have either passed or are considering legislation that would ban critical race theory and, in some cases, many types of lessons that teach about systemic racism. How should educators respond to these efforts?
In Part One, Ashley McCall, Jennifer Jilot, Lorie Barber, and Ishmael Robinson shared their reflections.
Today, Neema Avashia, Margaret Thornton, and Ruth Okoye contribute their commentaries.
‘Teach the Truth’
Neema Avashia is an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public schools, where she has taught for the last 18 years. She was a 2013 Educator of the Year in the city of Boston:
If I could get every history and civics educator in a room this summer, this is what I would beg of them:
Tell the truth to young people.
Teach the truth to young people.
Teach a more complex version of history than the simplistic, linear narrative that has been regurgitated in history textbooks for our entire lives. That narrative has gotten us to the place where we are in America today: where half of our country doesn’t have a basic understanding of the ways in which systemic racism shapes the experiences of people of color in this country—and has since before its founding. Where an education that centers a diversity of lived experiences is seen as threatening to our children, rather than affirming of them.
We aren’t doing our country, or our children, any favors if we don’t tell the truth. Our young people saw what happened on Jan. 6. Their understanding of why it happened, why the Confederate flag was marched through the U.S. Capitol over 150 years after the Civil War, why there is so much dissension in our national discourse, why polarizaton is at a peak, is contingent on what we choose, or don’t choose, to teach.
There seems this fear that teaching young people the truth will make them hate one another or hate our country. But the reality is, you can’t have a real, authentic, loving relationship with another human being, or your own country for that matter, if it isn’t rooted in the truth. As James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” The criticism isn’t born out of hatred; it’s born out of deep love, profound optimism, and a sincere belief that we can all be better than we are right now if we will just be honest about how we’ve gotten to where we are today.
I often give my students this metaphor: “You know how when you don’t want to clean your room, you just keep shoving the mess under the bed or into the closet? Eventually the mess gets too big. Eventually the mess comes out of the closet, or out from under the bed, and it’s even worse than it was before because it’s been allowed to sit and stagnate for all that time. That’s what we’ve done in America. We’ve pushed our history under the bed and into the closet and ignored it and let it sit and stagnate, and now the mess is all coming out.”
It’s time for all of us to clean our rooms. To wash the dishes, fold the clothes, and take out the trash. To pick up what’s on the floor so that we can see the scars, see the wounds that have been rendered, acknowledge the harms that have been done and cannot be undone. Our ability to move forward together is predicated on our ability to tell the truth about our past, to grapple with the implications of that past on our lives now, and make a more just and righteous way forward for all of the people who live in our country.
A study of the more nuanced, intersectional, nonlinear version of our history has taught us that any forward progress we’ve made as a nation has come through struggle. It has come at great cost to those most willing to lift their voices, and put their bodies on the line, for justice. I’m cognizant in writing this that I live in a state where my ability to teach truth is not punishable by law, as it is quickly becoming in other parts of the country. But the relationship between what is legal, and what is just, has been fraught at many other points in our history. And each time, justice has only come when courageous people have challenged what is enshrined as law.
In short, the health of our country moving forward is predicated on educators having the courage to tell the truth even in the face of threats. Our young people have the brilliance and the passion and the desire to make this country more just, fair, and equitable than it has yet managed to be. They need us to have the courage to go on this journey with them and to provide them with the historical and present-day context required to ground their plans in an accurate understanding of where we stand today and how we got here.
They need us to teach the truth.
‘Guarantee Academic Freedom’
Margaret Thornton is a former high school English teacher and current postdoctoral scholar at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs studying how to ameliorate school inequality:
I hope to see educators at all levels pushing back against this newest salvo in the culture wars at school. School and district leaders in particular must guarantee academic freedom for educators to tell the truth about our country, the good parts and the bad. As one popular internet meme noted this summer, we’re now celebrating Juneteenth as a federal holiday, but in many schools across the country, it’s now illegal to teach the history of the holiday because it focuses on systemic racism. In Texas, where Juneteenth originated, the governor recently signed legislation into law that bans some curricular materials including the 1619 Project.
Because most educators themselves went to U.S. public schools, they may need to first educate themselves on the important stories of the past that are too often intentionally overlooked in U.S. public schools. Learning for Justice and the Zinn Education Project are two excellent resources for teachers in all disciplines and at all grade levels to explore equity, history, and justice lessons for their students while filling in the gaps in their own educations.
Educators must also learn to differentiate between these important lessons and the complex critical race theory (CRT). CRT is most often taught in law schools, where it originated, or in doctoral programs where students learn about theoretical frameworks for their research. The current swarms of public commenters at school board meetings are largely the result of an AstroTurfing campaign carried out by conservative groups. When pressed to articulate their concerns, many commenters at school boards around the country have articulated concerns about anti-racist and other equity initiatives in K-12 schools. Because these initiatives are important for students to feel safe and secure at school, a key condition for student learning, educators must not abandon them based on the demands of a loud minority.
Ruth Okoye is the K-12 director at The Source for Learning. She has over 30 years of experience as a reading teacher, CTE teacher, literacy coach, and district-level ed-tech coach:
I don’t think it is wise to ask students to take on critical race theory (CRT) and I have a hard time understanding some of the approaches used to include it in curricula. One of the most important things that educators should remember is that CRT is not a theory—a generally accepted principle—CRT is a perspective or point of view. As a perspective, CRT posits the idea that the inferiority of those of African descent is a foundational belief in our society. It is one way to see American society, but it is not the only way.
As educators, we need to help students develop the skills they need to think critically and draw reasonable conclusions when presented with a person, event, or idea. An approach that has worked for me is to use literature combined with reading-comprehension strategies and the intellectual standards of critical thinking. This approach helps students to understand that people and events can be seen from multiple perspectives. It encourages them to use logical reasoning as they draw inferences and conclusions about the text and the connections they make with it. When exposed to this method of instruction over time, students learn to look at things critically rather than to accept things at what seems to be face value.
For example, when reading the book We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey, students are introduced to a character named Marf. As the only student of her kind in the school, Marf is isolated and misunderstood. When introduced to Marf, the protagonist, Lan, is told that she is a criminal. Students use the identity iceberg and a character map to study Marf as they read. It requires that they answer questions that ask them to clarify statements about personality, explain the relevance of items the author chose to include, and determine the breadth of Marf’s actions. In this way, students learn to see the character from two perspectives and determine for themselves if she is indeed a criminal.
This type of character study benefits students in multiple ways. They get to read some fabulous books and practice reading skills using popular literature. They get better at critical thinking and learn skills that can be applied to social issues when they are ready. It also removes them from the front lines as adults work out how critical race theory relates to our society
Thanks to Neema, Margaret, and Ruth for their contributions!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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