(This is the first post in a multipart series.)
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?
Attacks on critical race theory and educators’ efforts to teach about systemic racism are happening throughout the country.
In this series, teachers will share how they plan to respond to those attacks and how they think others should, too.
Today, Ashley McCall, Jennifer Jilot, Lorie Barber, and Ishmael Robinson share their reflections.
‘Go on Offense’
Ashley McCall serves as 3rd grade bilingual ELA teacher at César Chávez Multicultural Academic Center on the southwest side of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @ashlm_12 :
Pundits, caregivers, and educators alike have gone from zero to 100 with opinions about critical race theory, also known as CRT. David Theo Goldberg summarized the coordinated attack on CRT by explaining the catch-all nature of the term: “an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all … or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes.” This attack includes broad state legislation banning critical race theory from schools and more recently, legislation that explicitly limits conversation on racism, sexism, and oppression.
See Something? Say Something!
I am a public school teacher who cares deeply about the holistic development of my students and their preparedness to be skilled, knowledgeable, critical thinkers. What we are witnessing is the epitome of baseless, uninformed claims—the type teachers hope our students never make. As teachers, it’s easy to distance ourselves from CRT (because we are not teaching specialized college-level coursework) but the harder, and necessary work is to speak up when we hear these broad-stroke claims about CRT.
Rather than go on the defensive about not teaching CRT, let’s go on offense with inquiry: What do you think CRT is? Why are you concerned about race conversations in schools? If racism in our public institutions is not systemic, where does it come from? Educators do not need to be critical race theorists in order to, one, endorse the analysis of race in our legal institutions and, two, advocate the right (and need) for all teachers to teach about the way race has impacted our past and continues to impact our present.
Ground Your Commitment in the “Why”
Today’s stated mission of our United States Education Department is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” I wonder how we expect our students to compete with those of other nations when we, as a nation, are not committed to providing them with accurate records of its inception, development, and sustainment. What is “excellent” about lacking the courage to face our history, learn from it, and forge a path forward that is not built on the backs and blood of Black people, the theft of indigenous land, and the criminalization and imprisonment of those we fear?
Teachers have a unique opportunity to help students see the world through a lens of equity with the books we read, the units we design, and the conversations we facilitate. This is the type of public education all students deserve. This American experiment has resulted in some amazing products. And those products are bloodstained. How can we and future generations clean up a mess we refuse to collectively acknowledge? How can my students dismantle a system some teachers believe does not exist?
Join the Fight
I am committed to being a public educator that tells the truth. I want each one of my students to know what values are. I want them to know how to express them, live them out, and tell the difference between the two. A common retort to culturally relevant instruction is, “That’s too political for me”—an excuse that ignores the inherently political nature of education and centers the comfort of the educator over the needs of students.
I implore my fellow educators to have difficult conversations with your family members, neighbors, colleagues, and friends about what’s unsaid in this coordinated attack against CRT and discussions of race in schools. This is everyone’s fight because if we stay quiet and let fear win the day, we all lose.
‘Teach It Anyway!’
Jennifer Jilot is a member of the Chippewa-Cree tribes but resides and teaches in Arlee on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. She teaches high school English and coordinates conferences and cultural events:
In May, my district’s school board courageously approved the teaching of the text All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to high school sophomores. This book challenges white privilege and takes on racial oppression. It is a story told from multiple points of view about police brutality. At the book’s core lies the essence of social-justice curriculum. This bold move speaks volumes about the trust my district has in my teaching and the district’s commitment to critical literacy.
A week later, I read Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen’s plan to ban critical race theory and teaching about systemic racism in Montana’s public schools. Shock, disgust, fear, and anger consumed me. How could a state whose constitution literally upholds the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity” (Article X) suddenly ban education of the historical and contemporary impacts of systemic racism, oppression, and genocide?
Her decree alienates 12 tribes living on seven Indian reservations, as well as other people of color living in the state. It perpetuates white privilege and power over the lands and resources that the tribes maintain for future generations, while preserving the impact of generational and historical trauma that plagues these communities.
How should educators respond to this assault on truth and equity in American public education? As an American Indigenous woman who has been teaching for 16 years, mostly on the Flathead Indian Reservation, I believe teachers should respond with protest. Teach it anyway! Teachers should continue to select carefully reviewed critical-race-theory-aligned curriculum, and they should continue teaching it anyway.
The truth is that privilege exists and has existed in this world for a long time, including during the first conflicts between European Christians and Muslims, when Europeans stripped Muslims of their resources. Later, Europeans expanded their power in the Western hemisphere and Africa while exploiting any resource they deemed valuable. Apparently, this remains true with our public education system, the resources being the future generations that will run this country. Citizens who continue the work of the original pillagers keeping power in the hands of a select few based on race seem to be what Arntzen and others are after.
Essentially, if states such as Montana are successful in this endeavor, All American Boys and books like it will become illegal to teach in public schools. In fact, most of the texts that I use in my English courses would be banned. Everything I’ve worked for, every reason that led me to my career in education would be banned. Imagine the return of whitewashing to our curriculum. What would that do to our children, to our communities? As it is, history is still taught mostly from one side. People of color are just beginning to have a real voice in our education system. I will not let my voice be silenced and I will keep teaching for all students. I hope that other educators join me.
Lorie Barber is a former elementary school teacher turned educational director for an independent bookstore:
In late June, author Jason Reynolds wrote, “People are conflating Critical Race Theory with History. Y’all really protesting the teaching of HISTORY in schools. And just because that history makes some uncomfortable, that doesn’t make it any less true.”
Growing up, a lot of us were taught a singular perspective of history: Columbus discovered America, the pilgrims landed on Plymouth and settled, the 13 colonies, the American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and the civil rights movement. We learned them in a disconnected way, as though we were buckets to be filled with facts. In a nutshell, this was our understanding of United States history.
As a 5th grade teacher for the past eight years, I was responsible for teaching history. I bet many of you are, too, or have been at some point in your career. I imagine many of you have broadened your scope of history to include multiple perspectives (Native Americans, enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans, South and East Asian Americans, members of the LGBTQIA+ community) that have been historically left out of our country’s narrative by people in power (textbook publishers, educational leaders, and state and local officials.) The latter did—and still do—want to paint a picture of our country as a “shining city on a hill.” It’s not. It never has been. It never will be.
Because of this conflict, teachers are now under attack. In our communities. By our state leaders. By our federal senators. And I’ll bet a lot of you are asking, “How should I respond to these ‘efforts’?” Having just left the 5th grade classroom and broadening my lens of education and its role in our current world, I have a few ideas that might be helpful for all of us.
First, recognize that this is, was, and always will be about the kids. Should you stop teaching U.S. history from multiple perspectives because your (white) parents and legislators are angry? Their anger stems from ignorance. They grew up learning American history like we did: Our country is the center of the universe; everything and everyone else was erased. They are used to being centered and are afraid because other voices are being brought to the table that they haven’t heard before.
But here’s what that means for you: If you choose not to amplify these previously erased points of view, you are erasing your students. You will erase the kid who has a desire to learn about their Indigenous ancestry, the kid who wants to know why their grandparents were in an internment camp in 1942, and the kid who needs to understand why people with their skin color were emancipated, but their lives didn’t improve. Kids have questions. Kids are curious. And this is about them.
Second, listen. Open your heart. Listen to the voices of Indigenous people, of people of color, of Black people, of people in the LGBTQIA+ community. Listen to your students and their families. More than 80 percent of you are white. That’s most likely not the demographic of your students. Listen to their stories, their strengths. Listen to the assets they bring to your classroom.
Finally, speak up. If you’re teaching kids our country’s history from multiple perspectives, This is not harming kids. It might make adults uncomfortable, but your work helps your students understand the world around them, think critically about that world, and grow to make positive change. SAY THIS. Repeat it to your administration. Repeat it at board meetings. Repeat it to the parent who says their child is being “indoctrinated” or “taught that white people are bad.” Teaching the entire scope of U.S. history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is your job, and many of you are doing it well.
The only harm being done is to those students whose histories continue to be erased.
With love and solidarity,
Former 5th grade teacher
Current advocate and ally
P.S. Notice I never once used the term “critical race theory” in my letter to you other than quoting the inimitable Mr. Reynolds. That’s because, like he said, you don’t teach it. You teach history.
Ishmael Robinson is an educator, administrator, and civic leader with a passion for tackling the opportunity gap, especially in the realm of mathematics. He has over 20 years of educational experience, including teaching math, being a school and district administrator, capturing and utilizing data on various research evaluation and assessment teams, and now leading P-12 mathematics in St Paul, Minn.:
There is a myth that talking about race divides people in the United States. The reality is that not dealing with the racial injustices causes the biggest division among people in this country. Avoiding these conversations actually caused explosive events to occur and linger across the world. Critical race theory points out that white people have advantages in this country; therefore, it is hard to release that power to others who are not part of the traditionally dominant group. This is why culturally relevant curriculum and instruction is absolutely essential.
Educators need to speak up and fight against efforts to avoid and dismantle conversations about race. Providing professional development will be needed to help white people learn how to teach students of color in ways that are meaningful and impactful to those students.
Thanks to Ashley, Jennifer, Lorie, and Ishmael for their contributions!
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