The Challenges of Instruction in a Politicized Environment
By Paul J. Blass, Ed.D.
I think my colleagues would agree that the past two years have been the most exceptional of our careers. The internet didn’t exist when I took teacher training, and now I know how to instruct a class of students without being in the room with them. Teachers were initially praised for their ingenuity and perseverance during the COVID pandemic, but that would fade as the pandemic dragged on. One of the consequences of the long road back to normal has been that public attention has turned to more divisive issues.
Teaching history has always been my passion. I approach it as telling a story. Throughout my career, I’ve continually added to this story by learning more from books, workshops, and the occasional good documentary. Yet over the past year, there seems to be a growing number of people who want students to present an incomplete story. Not only is this unacceptable to me, but it is unfair to the students.
I understand that there are ups and downs in culture wars. A recent target has been critical race theory. I hadn’t heard of it until I was in college, where I had to study the frameworks for my current research. Critical race theory, which focuses on how racism is rooted in the foundations of American society, was one of many possible approaches. I ultimately chose the Disability Studies in Education approach because it better suited my goals.
There is a concerted effort by some to portray critical race theory as a type of left-wing agenda, where the teaching of race is used to pit those with power and privilege against those they exploit. . But Critical Race Theory is not a curriculum used in K-12 schools, although I can see why people would believe it is based on some of the media coverage of the subject.
Nonetheless, bills have been introduced in 35 state legislatures to restrict or regulate discussion of race in the classroom. New Jersey is one such state. A bill (S-598) has been referred to the Senate Education Committee that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in New Jersey public schools and bar public teachers from engaging in advocacy political, ideological or religious in the classroom.
Looking at my own teaching
If passed, like similar bills in other states, this legislation would force teachers to choose between teaching history in its full context or following a law that restricts such examination. While under the legislative direction and the current governor of New Jersey, the bill will likely not become law, I have decided to evaluate my civil rights teaching against the stipulations outlined in S-598.
The United States History II curriculum at my school has included a unit on civil rights since the 1970s. The initial focus was on African Americans and women. It has expanded to include the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, the Latinx community, people with disabilities and students.
I started the unit with a pretest that presented a list of 17 people and events. Students are encouraged to describe each person or event in their own words. Just over half of the names and terms were taught in middle school. I wanted to see what they were holding back before they started the six-week civil rights exam.
I was not surprised that every student could identify Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Most could describe the March on Washington and write a definition of lynching, but no student could identify Freedom Rides, John Lewis, or the four terms listed that related to women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights. It was clear that the students had an introduction to the civil rights experience of African Americans, but not any other group. Obviously, their understanding of the whole story would require further exploration.
I readily admit that I haven’t tried any particularly creative methods of teaching civil rights. I approached each of the groups separately and followed each story chronologically. I had a plan on a PowerPoint for the students to copy. There were plenty of pictures for us to discuss. I showed many video clips, especially from the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize”.
Some topics elicited more reactions: the Tuskegee syphilis study, images of disfigured Emmitt Till and the screaming crowd at Little Rock High School.
A student asked why he hadn’t been taught the ‘real story of Rosa Parks’. He was referring to the misconception that she was sitting at the front of the bus when asked to move. I said I wasn’t sure, but I guess most teachers only know the built version. I showed my students an interview with Parks where she explained the whole story. She also wondered why he was deformed.
Discussing that Jackie Robinson’s “quiet demeanor” was part of the reason he was chosen as MLB’s first black player, one student announced, “I wouldn’t have been chosen.” When discussing Selma, one student asked rhetorically with a confused tone, “Why did they beat them? Was it a peaceful march? It was these comments and many more throughout the unit that made me realize that students were personalizing the material. They made their own understanding of the story being told to them.
My culminating activity on African American civil rights used Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In this article, McIntosh lists 50 daily life experiences that are different for a white person compared to a person of color. The students found the list stimulating. This generated a lot of discussion.
The common theme was “I had never thought of that”. One student said, “I see a pattern running through the white privilege ‘matrix’ as I read this list.” Students then had to write a reaction to McIntosh’s ideas. Although some disagreed with some of the experiences McIntosh described, every student felt that white privilege existed.
Arguably, some students may have responded in the way they thought I wanted to hear; however, I have fostered a classroom environment where all ideas, properly supported, are welcome. Also, many students disagreed with parts of McIntosh’s list, without rejecting the general premise.
Local social media weighs in
A few days after McIntosh’s list was discussed, a parent, although not a high school student, asked other parents on a local Facebook group page, “Is it okay to teach our children about ‘white privilege’?” The poster also questioned whether it was appropriate for a teacher to teach students that the town was segregated.
Although I am not named, it was clear that the message was referring to what was happening in my class. As is usually the case with these types of posts, it triggered a deluge of comments: 174 of them. I was glad to see that most comments went one of two ways: “Did you ask the teacher or principal before posting?” or “The full story must be told; the whole story is not good.
No parent has ever reached out to discuss course content. If they had, I would have explained how we discussed de facto segregation and tied it to community and school, and, yes, we discussed the concept of white privilege.
Choose the truth or follow the law
A section of S-598 considers instruction to be a form of critical race theory when “an individual, by virtue of race or gender, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously”. If S-598 were the law, I don’t know how topics like Jim Crow laws, school segregation, and redlining could be taught in their own context.
The architects of the bill may have recognized this because the next paragraph of the bill, which seems contradictory, does not prevent schools from using programs or materials concerning “impartial instruction on historical oppression of a particular group of people because of their race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion or geographic region”. I wonder how a group could be oppressed if the oppressor was not privileged.
If the concern is acknowledging past events but not seeing their continuing effect, then the sponsors of the bill are underestimating our students. During the “unboxing” activity, a student announced that he knew white privilege existed; he had seen it. He said he was in a store where, despite his age, he was not followed, but a black man was. If the concern is that teachers are somehow indoctrinating students, then the professionalism of teachers is once again in question.
I have always found this unit interesting to teach largely because of student feedback. It is taught between the Early Cold War unit and the Vietnam unit. However, the subjects extend to the present day. We have connected the protests of the 60s to those of Black Lives Matter. We discussed the struggles of the gay rights movement with the now broader LGBTQIA+ movement.
In every class, someone eventually noticed that “this didn’t happen not that long ago.” I think that’s the biggest takeaway. It is not a story that is only part of a book. It’s a story that people are currently experiencing first-hand. It is a story that is still evolving. Ignoring part of it is an injustice to our students.
Dr. Paul Blass is a social studies teacher at Pitman High School in Gloucester County. He is also the counselor for the school’s mock trial team and liaison with the Pitman Borough Youth Advisory Council. He is also an assistant at Camden County College and past president of the Pitman Education Association. He can be contacted at [email protected]