4 ideas on how to teach in a time of curriculum battles

State laws against teaching certain concepts understandably made teachers anxious. But there are ways to safely address controversial topics in the classroom, and it’s critically important that teachers continue to do so.

A growing number of states are passing laws prohibiting the teaching of concepts deemed politically sensitive. Language can be vague and, in at least some states, teachers who break the law could lose their teaching licenses. In others, schools or districts could lose funding.

Unsurprisingly, some teachers say they avoid content that could trigger a complaint. But that could leave students in the dark about important events, especially in history, an area where student knowledge is, on average, already seriously lacking.

Teachers in states that have enacted or are considering these misguided legislative bans can mobilize to have them reversed or changed. In at least one state, Indiana, teachers are mobilizing has succeeded to strike out the most controversial provisions of a bill. But if political action isn’t possible, teachers must figure out how to comply with the law — and, even in states without such laws, how to avoid or manage parental complaints — while providing children with an education. significant.

It may be difficult, but it is not impossible. Here are four suggestions:

1. Know the law

The laws are intended to prevent educators from teaching that individuals of one race or gender are “inherently” superior or inferior to another, or that individuals bear responsibility for acts committed in the past by a person. of the same race or sex. I imagine that few if any teachers actually teach these concepts.

Even if a class discussion strays into this territory, the laws do not prohibit discussion. Rather, they target what lawmakers consider to be indoctrination. the Tennessee Laws which prohibits the teaching of 11 concepts, for example, also states that it does not prohibit “unbiased discussion of controversial aspects of history” or “unbiased teaching of the historical oppression of a particular group of people because of their race, ethnicity, social class, nationality, religion or geographic region.

Some teachers, however, remain suspicious because of another common provision, which prohibits teaching that individuals “should feel” guilt, anguish, or discomfort because of their race or gender. . A high school history teacher in Tulsa Recount the publication Education week he would no longer teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre—even though the subject is included in Oklahoma’s academic standards and state law says it does not prevent teaching about subjects in the standards – as this could violate the ‘discomfort’ provision. An eighth grade teacher from Tulsa said she would no longer teach slavery because she could face retaliation “if a child comes home and says they are uncomfortable.”

But the laws do not prohibit teaching events that make children uncomfortable. They forbid teaching students should to feel uncomfortable. Parents may not be aware of this distinction. But if they complain, teachers, backed by administrators and school board members, should point out that just because a student feels uncomfortable does not mean the teacher broke the law.

2. Know your audience

A recent Washington Post article detailing teachers’ concerns also mentioned that so far the laws have not led to massive changes in the curriculum, and “few educators have faced prosecution or punishment.” The article added: “Some teachers say they see no change.”

In many classrooms, teachers’ fears about laws, or parents’ complaints in general, may be out of proportion to the actual threat. Surveys show a high degree of consensus, across party lines, that schools should teach about subjects like slavery – that 90% of respondents in investigation approved – the civil war and the civil rights movement.

People are more likely to approve the teaching of these subjects at higher levels. It’s a shame, because young children may find them very appealing and because it’s important to lay the foundation for early historical learning, so that students are equipped to delve deeper in later years. But it is far from wanting these subjects to be taught at all.

There is more division on the teaching of the present than on the past. The survey revealing that 90% of respondents were in favor of teaching about slavery also revealed that only 49% of this group were in favor of teaching about contemporary racism. And it revealed an unsurprising partisan divide: 77% of those who voted or leaned on the Democrats favored teaching about “the lingering effects of slavery and racism,” compared to just 16% of those who voted for the Democrats. voted or leaned on Republicans. Yet, because many regions are culturally and politically homogeneous, this type of disagreement may not exist within a given school district.

Even where there are conflicting views, complaints may be few or localized. In this case, it makes sense to allow parents to deny their children reading material that they find objectionable. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than giving them the power to veto a text or even a curriculum in an entire district. In Williamson County, Tennessee, for example — where 31 elementary curriculum books were challenged by a small minority of parents —administrators reported that 66 families had chosen not to participate in the program. More than half were in a single school, and 12 of the district’s 28 elementary schools had seen no waivers.

3. Know the difference between closed and open issues

Teachers said legislative bans mean they cannot “tell the truth” or discuss issues like police brutality. The Zinn Education Project has launched a “Pledge to Teach the Truth” campaign, which complaints that legislators are trying “to force teachers to lie to students”. But these assertions overlook the disagreement about what “truth” is.

A history teacher, for example, told Ed Week that no one teaches that white men should feel guilty. But she went on to say that teachers are teaching that “the laws and systems of our country were deliberately developed to uplift cis white males. It’s the truth.” And yet, as the polls indicatemany people, including many parents, would disagree.

Teachers may have absorbed viewpoints during their training that are not shared by many members of the general public. And the traditional view is that social science teachers should ensure that students acquire factual knowledge and teach them How? ‘Or’ What think rather than What think. But two academics who train future humanities teachers argued that these teachers “should assume that neutral or objective knowledge does not exist” and “prompt students to take concrete action” to alleviate the injustices revealed in teacher-led “critical inquiries”.

Teachers don’t have to lie. They don’t need to exclude factual information about the dark side of American history, and they don’t need to stifle discussion. They too no need to teach “both sides” of a settled problem like the Holocaust – which all reputable historians would agree was a horrific event. But no matter how strong their own beliefs — and whether or not they live in a state with a legislative ban on certain topics — they must distinguish between widely accepted perspectives and those on which there is deep division. Perhaps they might wonder how they would feel if their own children had a teacher whose opinions were diametrically opposed to theirs and who presented those opinions as “the truth.”

4. Make sure students are prepared to discuss controversial issues

The laws do not prohibit discussion between students. But asking students to engage in a debate on a controversial issue from the past or present might lead to problems and not advance their knowledge or understanding.

Ideally, students will first have a good understanding of the facts and views of those on either side of an issue before offering their own views. It’s also helpful to start with issues that are less likely to tap into strong pre-existing beliefs.

Jon Bassett and Gary Shiffman, professors of social studies and creators of the Method in four questionshave put forward a frame that can foster thoughtful and productive discussions on issues of the past and present. In one blog post, Bassett recounted debates in his high school class over the question “Who deserves a statue?” The first appeared in the context of Genghis (or Chinggis) Khan, on the 13thandMongol conqueror of the last century. This laid the groundwork for a later discussion, during a European Exploration unit, about whether the city of Boston was right to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus. In both cases, the students first determined what really happened and explored the actors’ points of view.

Most members of the public I am okay that legislators should not try to control what is taught in the classroom. And clearly, these laws make a hard job a lot harder. Nevertheless, teachers owe it to their students – and to all of us – to find a way to impart the information and knowledge essential to informed participation in a democracy.

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