In rural New Hampshire, a Spanish teacher took down a “Black Lives Matter” sign in her classroom.
In Lubbock, Texas, a social studies professor felt that frank political discussions with students became “a bit of a tightrope.”
And in Oklahoma City, a history professor started thinking twice about using the word “white” to describe people who defended slavery.
In February, public school teachers traditionally shape lessons around Black History Month. But this year, educators in several states are running their classes a little more carefully.
Republican-led legislatures in several states passed laws last year to ban or limit schools from teaching that racism is infused in American institutions. And while students in those states are still studying activists like Ida B. Wells and Claudette Colvin, and eras like Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, some teachers are also exercising quiet restraint.
The laws, they say, have added the threat of dismissal to the long list of things on their minds, from pandemic safety to struggling students to staff shortages.
“I won’t let any of these laws deter me from the things that I think are best for students,” said Oklahoma history professor Eric Parker. “But I also like working with students and having a roof over my head.”
As of January 2021, according to a list compiled by Education Week, 37 states have introduced measures to limit how race and discrimination can be taught in public school classrooms, and 14 have imposed laws or rules to enforce these restrictions.
“This legislation is very nebulous,” said Grace Leatherman, executive director of the National Council on History Education. “There is definitely a chilling effect.”
Some teachers say the laws seem like politicized distractions, removed from the reality of modern classrooms where lesson plans adapt to students’ needs and curiosities.
“There seems to be this perception that all of our teachers are doing, every day, getting up and talking,” said Anton Schulzki, a Colorado history professor and chair of the National Council for Social Studies. “And that’s just not the case.”
While some educators quit or lost their jobs amid debates over these new laws, there have been no reports of mass teacher layoffs.
And advocates of the measures say they are not intended to stifle teachers’ voices.
Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire signed a bill in July that says no public employer should teach that people of a particular race or gender are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”
“Nothing in this bill prevents schools from teaching any aspect of American history, such as teaching about racism, sexism or slavery,” spokesperson Benjamin Vihstadt said. of the governor.
He added that teachers are “continuing these important lessons during Black History Month — as they should be.”
David Bullard, a state senator who sponsored similar legislation in Oklahoma, said it’s “wrong that the bill prohibits the teaching of racial subjects or history.”
By state academic standards, American history classes can still cover a range of characters and topics, including slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Tulsa Massacre, WEB Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr. , Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
But in Oklahoma, as in several other states, the law prohibits educators from teaching that people are responsible “for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” and tell students that anyone should experience “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or gender.
Mr. Parker, the Oklahoma teacher who said he couldn’t speak for his district, said the law made him a bit more anxious about what he was saying.
Before his adoption last year, he said, he might have used the word “white” to describe people who fought to preserve slavery in Texas during its bloody separation from Mexico in the 19th century. Now he would be more inclined to omit this descriptor.
Middle school students are smart, Mr. Parker added, and have absorbed enough history lessons to understand contextual clues. “I let them sort it out on their own,” he said. “Which Texans am I talking about? They probably know which Texans I’m talking about.
Some educators say the vagueness of the new rules places the onus on them to avoid any misinterpretations that could cost them their jobs.
“We’ll know it’s wrong when they revoke our license,” said Terry López Burlingame, who teaches at a rural K-8 school in Gilmanton, NH. “That’s how vague it is.”
Although she removed her ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign after her state passed a law prohibiting teaching that people of a particular race or gender were ‘inherently racist, sexist or oppressive’, Ms López Burlingame said she wasn’t shy about discussing the history lessons that often accompany her Spanish classes, including slavery across Latin America.
But she still worries that her students’ parents will report her to local authorities if she says something they don’t like.
What is the 1619 project?
Recognize a historical moment. In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched Project 1619, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project explored the history of slavery in the United States and was released to coincide with the anniversary of a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans to English colonies.
“When kids ask me questions, I stop longer than usual to think about how I’m going to answer,” she said. “If I say the wrong thing, these kids will go home to their parents, who will do what they’ve been doing all year: go crazy.”
David Ring, a social studies teacher in Lubbock, Texas, usually celebrates Black History Month by having his high school students read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This is in addition to the topics he covers throughout the year, including redlining.
Mr Ring, who is black and Korean and is often the only person of color in the room, said he wanted his students to learn that the civil rights movement was not over.
“For them, the year 2000 is like ancient history, and so trying to make them understand that the 1960s weren’t that far away is small steps,” he said.
But under a new law, teachers in Texas must present slavery as a deviation from the founding principles of the United States. And the law limits teaching about the “1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine initiative that explores the lingering legacy of slavery in the United States and highlights the contributions black people have made to American society.
But, Ring and other educators said, classrooms aren’t the only places students can access information; smartphones are always at hand.
“I think some of the laws that are passed fail to take into account the ability of young people – especially this generation – to accept new information and process it, without feeling shame or guilt,” Mr Ring said.
Holly Reynolds, a high school social studies teacher in Salt Lake City, said the rules approved by the Utah school board last year – which echoed those in other states – were difficult to follow because they were so vague. It made her nervous about being targeted, she said, but she tried to keep those fears out of the classroom.
“If anything, it has strengthened my resolve that this is important work, and I have to keep doing it,” she said.
Mr. Parker said that despite his worries about Oklahoma’s new law, he hopes to keep his job while being open to questions and opinions from his students, many of whom are English language learners approaching American history with a fresh look.
“I always tell them, I don’t care what I say, or what your parents say, about the things we learn,” he said. “You have to start deciding what you think about it, on your own.”