As state lawmakers continue to introduce legislation that would limit how schools can teach about racism and sexism, some teachers are pushing back and speaking out.
This past weekend, educators in more than 50 cities held in-person and virtual events pledging to “teach truth"—in other words, to continue teaching about oppression and injustice in the face of new laws that they believe attempt to stifle these kinds of discussions.
These rallies and teach-ins are an initiative of the Zinn Education Project, a resource for teachers coordinated by the nonprofit organizations Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change. The group provides free lessons and materials aligned with historian Howard Zinn’s approach to teaching history—foregrounding the perspectives of people whose stories have been marginalized or ignored in dominant narratives.
Teachers who use this approach fear their work will be threatened by the recent pushback to classroom discussions of historical and present-day racism. Over the past year, 27 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict how teachers can discuss race. Twelve states have enacted bans on such classroom discussions, either through legislation or other avenues.
The laws aim to discourage teachers from making race or gender salient in conversations about power and oppression. And they target the kinds of diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings that many schools adopted amid last spring’s protests against police brutality, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
More than 6,500 educators have signed the Zinn Education Project’s pledge to “teach truth” in response to these laws. “We the undersigned educators will not be bullied. We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems,” the pledge reads.
While about 50 public actions are listed on the group’s website, the Zinn Education Project reported that educators in more than 115 cities had signed up to host events. This is the second national Teach Truth event coordinated by the Zinn Education Project; the first was held in June.
In Kansas City, Mo., about 100 educators, students, parents, and community members marched together through the city’s historic jazz district to the Black Archives of Mid-America on Saturday, said Michael Rebne, a physics and engineering teacher in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools and one of the event organizers. The event was hosted by a group of racial justice organizations in the city.
When marchers arrived at the Black Archives, they took tours and learned about the city’s Black history—a common theme throughout events in other cities, which also took place in spaces that were historically or culturally significant.
“It was really motivating, and really inspiring, and I think it gave people the courage that we need,” Rebne said. Neither Missouri nor Kansas have passed laws regarding the discussion of racism in class, though Republican lawmakers in Missouri have continued to pressure the state to ban critical race theory in K-12 schools.
Rebne, a physics and engineering teacher, said that laws in other states could have a chilling effect beyond social studies classrooms. He worries that teachers could face pushback for trying to spotlight Black scientists, or for teaching that the roots of modern physics and math can be found in the Mayan Civilization.
“I think the intention is to scare educators, to whip up furor in white communities,” he said of the laws.
Fears of backlash—and COVID—affected some rallies
Other events drew smaller crowds, in part because of COVID-19. In Houston, Nelva Williamson canceled plans for an in-person rally at the Buffalo Soldier National Museum, due to concerns from museum staff and participants about the spread of the coronavirus.
Instead, Williamson, a high school social studies teacher, went with her son to a local museum in her city of Richmond, Texas, to learn more about Fort Bend County’s African American history—joining other educators who posted their solo trips and actions on social media.
In other areas, organizers say, numbers were smaller because some educators were concerned about showing public opposition to this new legislation.
Some teachers who have signed the Zinn Education Project’s pledge have already seen censure from their communities after the Daily Wire, a right-wing news website, published the names of teachers who had signed the pledge in June.
“Teachers who are in white, affluent school districts where parents wield a lot of privilege and a lot of power … they are feeling an incredible amount of surveillance and fear,” said Amelia Wheeler, a doctoral student in social studies education at the University of Georgia and one of the organizers of this past Friday’s Teach Truth rally in Athens, Ga. Wheeler previously taught secondary social studies in Athens.
About 50 people, including some middle and high school teachers, attended the event, Wheeler said. They gathered at a student dorm on the University of Georgia’s campus with a troubled history. “To make space for those dorms, [the city displaced] a prosperous Black community called Linnentown. The community members had their property seized through an urban renewal program,” Wheeler said.
At the rally, community activists spoke about what it was like to live in Linnentown—residents were removed through eminent domain laws in the 1960s—and city civil rights leaders talked about other parts of the city’s Black history.
The day ended with new plans for more education about the city’s past: One social studies teacher plans to start crafting lessons about Linnentown, and the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a social justice nonprofit, plans to start hosting “Teach Truth” Thursdays.
Still, Wheeler said, teachers in Athens have generally felt free to put a focus on Black history. Schools in the city serve mostly students of color, and Wheeler said her teacher friends haven’t heard much from their administration about Georgia’s new state board of education resolution against lessons that “indoctrinate” students or “promote one race or sex above another.”
“There’s a sense that this [state board] resolution will not be enforced by the local school bureaucracy,” said Wheeler.
It’s a different story in neighboring suburban, majority-white districts, where some of Wheeler’s other friends work. “They’ve been told explicitly, if it’s not in the standards, don’t talk about it,” she said.
Ahead of the rally, Wheeler said, some teachers told her that they supported the cause but couldn’t show up, for fear that they might be featured in local news and that their school administration would see them. “Right now, they feel like there’s really no avenue for them,” Wheeler said.