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Schools can teach full US history under critical race theory bans, experts say. Here's how

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/28/2021 Alia Wong, USA TODAY
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Lucero Saldaña, an educator in San Antonio who taught Texas’ first-ever Mexican American studies elective for middle schoolers, has always discussed “heavy topics” such as racism and language discrimination in her classrooms. These days, doing so is tricky. 

Last summer, the state passed a law prohibiting educators from promoting a set of vaguely described ideas. Under the law, their teaching can’t, for example, make a student feel guilty on account of his or her race. Lawmakers said their goal was to protect students from being indoctrinated with critical race theory – a graduate-level framework that examines how systemic racism continues to permeate U.S. law and society. 

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Saldaña considers herself lucky, having inadvertently found a “loophole” in the law that allows her to continue teaching the same lessons she did before they were blacklisted. A few years ago she transitioned out of the classroom and became a family specialist, working with students’ parents and caregivers. She regularly hosts parent events where attendees can learn about and discuss aspects of Mexican American history. 

“I'm able to incorporate Mexican American studies because I’m actually informing adults and parents about that history,” she said. “I’m using my role to still do what I had done in the past with ethnic studies.” Her latest event featured a documentary about the Lemon Grove trial – the country’s first school desegregation case, in which Mexican and Mexican American families in California succeeded in securing their children an equal education. 

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Rally against "critical race theory" in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021. © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images Rally against "critical race theory" in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.

Educators across the country now find themselves navigating restrictions – real or perceived – on how they discuss topics such as racism and sexism in their classrooms. 

Lucero Saldaña says she can teach Mexican American history lessons in Texas because she invites parents to the lessons. © Courtesy of Lucero Saldaña Lucero Saldaña says she can teach Mexican American history lessons in Texas because she invites parents to the lessons.

Texas is one of eight conservative states that passed laws earlier this year targeting critical race theory. Lawmakers and officials in nearly two dozen states have either introduced similar legislation or denounced such teaching. In other states still, school boards have walked back or altogether eliminated equity and inclusion initiatives, many of them under pressure from parents accusing educators of indoctrinating their children. 

Equity efforts under attack: What happens when conservative school boards gain power at districts around the country

The national outcry over critical race theory, combined with the restrictions’ vague and subjective language, has had a chilling effect on the type of content, materials and talking points educators introduce in their classrooms. For some, the impulse is to overcorrect – to remove politically sensitive buzzwords and subject matter from their curricula out of fear of retaliation

But research underscores the benefits of teaching about topics such as racism in the classroom, for students of color and their white peers alike. And despite widespread disapproval of critical race theory, most American parents want their children to learn about the history – and ongoing effects – of slavery and racism in the U.S. 

How do schools teach those subjects without discussing racial divisions past and present?

‘I don’t have anything to hide’

Experts say the restrictions denounce practices that rarely happen in schools. Most educators aren’t teaching kids that white people are inherently racist. They’re not teaching their students to hate America. In most cases, they aren’t even teaching critical race theory. 

One of educators’ first lines of defense against misconceptions is to be transparent with their students’ parents. 

Teachers should be public about what they do teach, said Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, which has penned letters to lawmakers opposing the anti-critical race theory bills. “Stand in front of a group of parents and say, ‘Here’s what I teach. Here’s the textbook I use. Here are my exams,'" he said. "A lot of the legislation basically outlaws things that don’t actually occur.”

They're the same thing: Parents want kids to learn about ongoing effects of slavery – but not critical race theory

Shawnta Barnes is a veteran educator and consultant who works with a range of schools, including a rural, predominantly white district in Indiana. She’s often approached by teachers wondering how they should adjust their curriculum to avoid backlash from parents. One teacher even asked her if they should stop teaching about slavery because it makes students “feel sad.”

Shawnta Barnes now works as a consultant with teachers in rural, predominantly white Indiana. She encourages teachers to share the content of their lessons with parents. © Courtesy of Shawnta Barnes Shawnta Barnes now works as a consultant with teachers in rural, predominantly white Indiana. She encourages teachers to share the content of their lessons with parents.

“What I say to the teachers is, 'You have to have open lines of communication,'" she said. If they’re being interrogated about their curriculum, they can invite parents into their classrooms and answer their questions. They can show, “I don’t have anything to hide. … I teach the truth. I teach the state standards.” 

Educators should be just as transparent about what they don’t know, said Stacey McAdoo, a former classroom teacher at Little Rock Central High School “You have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to have these hard, uncomfortable conversations,” said McAdoo, who was Arkansas’ 2019 Teacher of the Year and is the founding state director for the nonprofit Teach Plus. 

Stacey McAdoo, a former teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas, said teachers have always had to navigate tough history with their students. © Courtesy of Stacey McAdoo Stacey McAdoo, a former teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas, said teachers have always had to navigate tough history with their students.

That vulnerability helps to ensure class discussions are constructive and incorporate multiple perspectives. Students “have to feel comfortable,” she said. “They have to feel that they're in an environment where it's safe and they are able and encouraged to be ... their inquisitive selves.”

Those uncomfortable conversations, McAdoo said, are especially important at her school. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine became the first children to desegregate Little Rock Central, putting the school on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. “We've been struggling with the race relations and race in education” for decades, she said.

What about kids of color? History curriculum, books were written by and for white people.

Sticking to the standards

In early October, an administrator with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, made a comment that for critics demonstrated the extent to which the state’s anti-critical-race-theory law had gone awry.

During a training session, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News, the administrator reminded teachers that the law requires educators to “explore” controversial issues “from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” Which means, she suggested, that if teachers have a book lamenting the Holocaust, they should also have one that has a different take on what happened during that time. 

Such an approach flies in the face of what experts agree is the right way to teach history – regardless of where you live or fall on the political spectrum. 

Social studies standards vary but they generally include the same tenets – teaching multiple perspectives and using evidence to draw conclusions based on those perspectives, for example. Texas’s law, in that regard, holds up. But those perspectives need to be credible, as do their sources. Books denying or celebrating the Holocaust are anything but. Texas' House Bill 3979 says nothing about credibility. 

US history is complex: Scholars say this is the right way to teach about slavery, racism.

Credible sources are critical because good history instruction revolves around facts: that most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, for example, or that slavery was deeply embedded in American culture, politics and economics for two and a half centuries. 

What happens when students scrutinize those facts is, teachers say, where the learning happens. 

"Our children are critical thinkers. They are not little robots who mimic what teachers say or what their parents say,” says Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of Learning for Justice. © Dan Chung "Our children are critical thinkers. They are not little robots who mimic what teachers say or what their parents say,” says Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of Learning for Justice.

The job of a teacher isn’t to proselytize; it isn’t to convince his or her students that the United States is a bad country because its revolutionary leaders were hypocrites. It is, rather, to “give students the information needed to wrestle with these ideas themselves,” the American Historical Association's Grossman said. It’s to have students analyze the founding documents, for instance, and discuss questions that arise. Does it matter that the men who wrote those documents grew up in a slavery-based society? If so, why? 

Quiz: Test your knowledge of US history

“Obviously, there is a tension right now between what’s in this legislation and what’s required of teachers … but in our discipline (the standards) haven’t changed,” said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies. “Our goal is teaching how to think, not what to think.” 

“We underestimate the brilliance of our children,” said Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of Learning for Justice. “Our children are critical thinkers. They are not little robots who mimic what teachers say or what their parents say.” At least, they shouldn’t be. “My role as an educator is to help them develop those skills to examine and analyze and think critically about any content that’s put before them.”

Finding workarounds

Educator organizations say they’ve seen a growing demand from teachers for resources to help them navigate curricular bans and the larger ideological tensions that have seeped into their classrooms. Many are sharing curricula and exchanging tips on how to avoid jeopardizing their jobs or getting into trouble.

Dunn stressed that educators still have wide latitude in what they can teach, even if complying with the bans can feel like a contortion act. “Educators are the most creative people,” she said. 

Amid all the pressure to recalibrate their curricula, some teachers are taking a “show versus tell” approach – demonstrating they believe Black lives matter without uttering that phrase, for example. 

Tomiko Ball, an educator in Washington, D.C., suggests teachers greet students in their native language to affirm their cultural identities. © Courtesy of Tomiko D. Ball Tomiko Ball, an educator in Washington, D.C., suggests teachers greet students in their native language to affirm their cultural identities.

Tomiko Ball, an educator in Washington, D.C., said these kinds of workarounds allow teachers to get ahead of the bans “before they go too far.” They can greet students in their native language, for instance, and incorporate into their instruction other “nuggets” that celebrate cultural identities. “You don’t have to use the word ‘diversity’ to affirm a person’s sense of belonging,” she said. 

After all, “unless empathy and compassion are outlawed,” said Little Rock’s McAdoo, “educators can and should and will continue to advocate for historically marginalized students.”

They’re doing this despite the fear of backlash. Abigail Henry, an African American history educator at a charter school in Philadelphia, is in the process of teaching her students a three-week unit on The New York Times’ 1619 Project. The project, led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, seeks to reframe the legacy of slavery in U.S. society. 

The Black families at Abigail Henry's school want their kids to learn about Black history. © Courtesy of Abigail Henry The Black families at Abigail Henry's school want their kids to learn about Black history.

Henry, who’s taught at her school for a decade, hasn’t faced any pushback for her approach to teaching. “I know the families and community really well, and they are fully supportive of what I teach,” she said. “They want their Black students to learn about Black history.” According to Henry, they find it fascinating that what they’re learning is considered controversial elsewhere. 

But the Pulitzer Center has been publishing some of her 1619 Project-related lesson plans, giving her a broader platform. “I’m nervous,” she said. “What if people in the suburbs found out what I was teaching? Are they going to start calling and complaining to a school their kid doesn't go to?” 

Even if that happens, she’s going to continue teaching her students nuanced history that reflects their lives. “A predominant way for white people to remain in power, historically, is to deny Black people an education,” she said. Whitewashing her instruction would only reinforce that trajectory.

“The first thing we have to recognize is it's not the state that informs whether the Black or brown child feels affirmed and included,” said Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. “It’s the state of mind of the adults."

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Schools can teach full US history under critical race theory bans, experts say. Here's how

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