Shouting matches at school board meetings. State laws that restrict classroom discussions of race and gender. And students who—despite this vocal resistance from some adults, and in some cases, because of it—are advocating fiercely for their history classes to tackle the darker chapters of the American story.
It’s a complicated time to be a social studies teacher. But leaders in the field say they won’t shy away from controversy.
At the National Council for the Social Studies’ annual conference held here this week, speakers urged teachers to delve into “hard history” in their classrooms and to plan how they would respond to potential political challenges to their content.
“Far too many of us in this room are having to justify our content, defend looking at multiple perspectives, and trying to convince others that we don’t have an agenda,” Shannon Pugh, the president of NCSS, said in the opening session on Friday morning.
One of the conference’s guiding themes is “navigating the political landscape”—a topic that wasn’t originally anticipated when the group started planning for the 2022 meeting several years ago, Pugh said.
The intervening years have changed things. They brought a global pandemic, what is estimated to be the largest racial justice protests United States history, and a swift and crushing backlash to ensuing efforts to broaden and deepen how schools teach about race and racism.
Since January 2021, 17 states have enacted laws or other policies that dictate how teachers can discuss race, civics, and controversial issues, according to Education Week’s regularly updated tracker. Pundits and parents have falsely claimed that schools are teaching “critical race theory,” and have pushed to ban books that they argue discuss race in inappropriate ways.
Republican politicians’ attempts to restrict classroom content have deep historical roots, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, in a keynote presentation on Friday. Jeffries compared those efforts to laws enacted during slavery that banned enslaved people from learning to read and write, or the Daughters of the Confederacy’s efforts during the first half of the 20th century to influence the content of textbooks to be sympathetic to “lost cause” narratives.
“There’s a throughline in all of this,” Jeffries said. “This isn’t just about, ‘I don’t like the tone or tenor of this book.’ This is about preserving power and privilege.”
Teaching about painful parts of American history in this environment is challenging, he acknowledged, but educators must confront that challenge.
“We didn’t sign up for this. We didn’t sign up to be on lists, we didn’t sign up to get the emails, we didn’t sign up to get the death threats,” he said.
“But nobody said it was going to be easy. When you look back at American history, when has it not been political? But this is what we’ve been called to do. And this is the moment we find ourselves in.”
Difficult histories, universal themes
Throughout the day, teachers wrestled with how to meet this moment.
In one session with authors of Teaching Difficult Histories in Difficult Times, a recently published collection of reflections and strategies from social studies educators, attendees crowded into the room, sitting on the floor and spilling into the hallway.
In small group discussions, teachers asked for advice on the practical problems they face: What do you do about negative feedback from parents? How do you approach talking about race in a class with only one or two kids of color, without making them feel singled out? And perhaps most visceral of all: How do you navigate these topics without getting fired?
One key strategy presenters highlighted: Return to the standards. Know and be prepared to explain how these topics connect to the skills and content that students are required to learn.
Jeffries had a similar message in his keynote. He told educators to “teach universals.”
Teachers have to acknowledge that racism is real, and they have to explain how it’s embedded in the structures of U.S. society, he said. They also need to show how Black Americans have fought for freedom and rights, and present marginalized people—not just white men—as “political thinkers.”
But those insights can be taught in the context of universal social studies themes: democracy, civics, good government, and citizenship. “We’ve got to be sophisticated in how we explain that,” he said.
In the coming months, NCSS plans to convene a task force that will create a toolkit of responses that educators can use when their content or methods are challenged, said Pugh.
“Those who question us have practiced their questions,” she said. “So we need to practice our answers.”