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In this political climate, how can I teach the U.S.’s diverse history?

Learn your rights. Allow your students a voice. Make available recent young adult books. Fight oppression.

Illustration of a woman standing on a larger than life book. She is trying to hold up the cover of the book while a large figure stomps down on the book. In the background appears the word: HISTORY.

In this politically-charged environment, a teacher wonders how to teach a full picture of U.S.’s diverse history.

Source: Malte Mueller, MHJ, Mamluke Photography by Duane Dial / Getty | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat

A weekly advice column for K-12 teachers to share their joys, frustrations, and ongoing questions about teaching.

In our current educational and political climate, millions of children are being deprived of their right to fully learn history, read diverse books, and even be themselves in school. 

How can teachers push back against these laws and policies impacting our practice? — History Repeats

[Are you a teacher? Submit your question for our advice column here.]

Dear History Repeats,

I grew up in a segregated town. 

In my elementary years, district lines were redrawn so the children in my neighborhood could integrate schools. Our integration was not met with violence, and many teachers embraced the brown children who showed up at their school. 

The problem was the curriculum never changed to meet our needs. 

My parents told me I could be whatever I dreamed, but I had few role models. The closest representation to Black success I had at school was the fictional character Jim from Huckleberry Finn, who ran away from slavery.

In fact, most of what I learned at school was that Black people were enslaved and would remain subservient to white people. This message drove playground and bus fights, and led to poor grades and parental outrage. 

I still remember being in the school chorus while my friends eagerly sang the “Dixie” song, with the words, “I wish I was in Dixie,” about a formerly enslaved man who longed for the plantation of his youth. I appreciate that my mother voiced her concern to the principal and the following year we had a new choir teacher. 

It took me a long time to reject the notion that I wasn’t good enough. Even while working on my doctorate, I struggled with imposter syndrome, or feelings of inadequacy in the academy. 

My elementary school teachers wanted so badly to be good human beings, but their best efforts were not enough to undo what they had (or hadn’t) learned about Black people. 

They were not equipped to understand Black culture.

I know the fate that was met by other children in my community who did not have strong parental support like I did. Some went to prison, others had battles with addictions.

History Repeats, I believe the first step in creating a better America starts with us. The future of the students we serve matters enough for us to address our own biases.

As educators, are we voluntarily reading books that deal with anti-racism and anti-discrimination across gender identities? Are we contributing to the invisibility marginalized students feel every time they walk into our classrooms and face rejection and unsafe environments like my peers felt growing up? 

This movement to censor teachers comes as no surprise. Racism is often overlooked and slavery is downplayed in U.S. history textbooks.

Bias has been taught to generations of students who have become teachers. Georgia State University published education professor Chara Bohan’s interview on the “Lost Cause narrative,” and the Southern Poverty Law Center published a report on why schools aren’t adequately teaching the history of American slavery

But, in 2022, teachers have plenty of resources available to address our biases. 

- Learn your rights. The August 2022 edition of NEA Today (National Education Association) provides resources for educators who need to know their rights as it relates to racism, sexism, and historical prejudice. 

- Provide your students the space to have a voice. Even if you are in a state where a gag order is in place, learn the topics in which your students are interested. 

My students love field trips and in St. Louis we have a lot of options: The Black Rep, National Blues Museum, and Missouri History Museum

I also bring in pictures from family vacations and share literature from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). On field trips, I encourage students to ask questions and share their family experiences because it creates space for conversations we might not otherwise have.

- Stay current on recently published young adult books. When I choose books, I research characters and how they are portrayed. If you do not have the autonomy to add a diverse book to your core curriculum due to red tape or other issues, then add YA books to your classroom library. Cultivate a relationship with your school librarian to ensure the most requested books will be available.

During my career, I taught Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Underground Railroad. His fictionalized account of a runaway slave covers the Tuskegee Experiment, Harriet Jacobs and her seven years living in a cramped cellar, and the patrols that later became America’s police force. 

Students have a choice in my classroom. I would never force a book on them, but I will make sure that if someone asks about a book that’s not on our curriculum, I point them toward what they are seeking. Hopefully, they can locate the book in our school’s library/media center. 

- Work with other teachers. Early in 2022, thousands of teachers in Indiana unified and helped block the ‘divisive concepts’ bill that would have potentially censored classroom instruction about race and racism. These teachers demonstrated the power of organization and unity. 

The National Council on Teachers of English (NCTE) provides the latest resources for teaching in the contemporary classroom.

The organization recently released its position statement on writing instruction in school: “Writing instruction and assessments also serve as gatekeeping devices when they are built around deficit notions surrounding students’ languages and literacies. Narrow definitions of and attitudes about writing and language too often perpetuate white, Eurocentric ideologies about what it means to write ‘well’ or ‘effectively’ (Chavez, 2021), upholding racist and linguistic barriers and inequities for students whose writing does not easily assimilate to dominant norms.”

Our new group aims to provide a refuge for busy teachers looking for ongoing advice and support.

I work in the same district that I integrated as a child. 

The only reason I know about Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni, and so many more authors, inventors, and abolitionists is because I worked in the library during college.

As a newer teacher, do not be afraid to check in with your mentors. In many cases, they have a story to tell about how they overcame challenges with racism and discrimination.

When I see my students, I feel a deep connection to them and the community because I understand what it is like to be misunderstood. I know the pain of not seeing positive images of people who look like you. As educators we have to take a stand. 

We can learn our rights. We can organize. We can push back against oppression. Let’s remain on the path to being better humans. Generations of children need us to stand up and acknowledge the difference between right and wrong. 

In order to educate the children, we all have to educate ourselves. 

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with History Repeats, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org.

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