Challenges of instruction in a politicized environment
By Paul J. Blass, Ed.D.
I think my colleagues would agree that these past two years have been the most exceptional in our careers. The internet was not around when I went through 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 stretched on. One consequence of the long road back to normalcy was that the public’s attention turned toward more divisive issues.
Teaching history has always been my passion. I approach it as telling a story. Throughout my career, I have continually added to that story as I learned more from books, workshops, and, occasionally, a good documentary. Yet, over this past year there seems to be a growing number of people who want students presented with an incomplete story. Not only is that unacceptable to me, it is unfair to the students.
I understand there are ebbs and flows in the culture wars. A recent target has been critical race theory. I had not heard of it until I was in graduate school, where I was required to investigate frameworks for my pending research. Critical race theory, which focuses on how racism is ingrained within the foundation of American society, was one of many possible approaches. I ultimately chose the disabilities studies in education approach because it better fit my goals.
There is a concerted effort by some to portray critical race theory as a type of leftist agenda, where the teaching of race is used to contrast those who have power and privilege against those they exploit. But critical race theory is not a curriculum used in K-12 schools, though I see why people would believe it is based on some of the media coverage given the topic.
Nonetheless, bills have been introduced in 35 state legislatures to restrict or regulate the discussion of race within the classroom. New Jersey is one of those states. A bill (S-598) has been referred to the Senate Education Committee that would prohibit teaching of critical race theory in New Jersey’s public schools and would prohibit public teachers from engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.
Looking at my own teaching
If passed, as similar bills have in other states, this legislation would force teachers to choose between teaching history within its full context or following a law that curtails such an examination. While under current legislative and gubernatorial leadership in New Jersey the bill is not likely to become law, I decided to evaluate my teaching of civil rights against the stipulations outlined in S-598.
The United States History II curriculum in 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, those with disabilities, and students.
I began the unit with a pretest that presented a list of 17 people and events. Students are asked to describe each person or event in their own words. Just over half of the names and terms were taught during middle school. I wanted to see what they retained before starting the six-week examination of civil rights.
I was not surprised that every student could identify Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Most could describe the March on Washington and a write a definition for lynching, but no student could identify the Freedom Rides, John Lewis or the four terms listed that were related to women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights. It was clear that the students had an introduction to the African American civil rights experience but not of any other group. Clearly their understanding of the whole story would require a more extensive exploration.
I readily admit that I did not attempt any especially creative methods to teach civil rights. I approached each of the groups separately and followed each history chronologically. I had an outline on a PowerPoint for students to copy. There were plenty of images for us to discuss. I showed numerous video clips, particularly from the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.”
Some topics stimulated more of a reaction: the Tuskegee syphilis study, the images of the disfigured Emmitt Till and the screaming mob at Little Rock High School.
One student asked why they had not been taught the “real story of Rosa Parks.” He was referring to the misconception that she was sitting in the front of the bus when asked to move. I said that I was not sure, but my guess is that most teachers only know the built-up version. I showed my students an interview with Parks where she explained the full story. She also wondered why it became distorted.
When discussing that Jackie Robinson’s “calm demeanor” was part of the reason he was chosen as the first Black player for the MLB, a student announced, “I wouldn’t have been chosen.” When discussing Selma, a student rhetorically asked with a tone of confusion, “Why did they beat them? It was a peaceful march?” It was these and many other comments throughout the unit that made me realize that students were personalizing the material. They were making their own understanding of the story they were being told.
My culminating activity on African American civil rights utilized Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In that article, McIntosh lists 50 daily life experiences that are different for a white person as compared to a person of color. The students found the list thought provoking. It generated a lot of discussion.
The common theme was “I had never thought of this.” One student declared, “I see a pattern running through ‘the matrix’ of white privilege while reading this list.” The students then had to write a reaction to McIntosh’s ideas. Though 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 welcomed. Besides, many students disagreed with portions of McIntosh’s list, without dismissing the overall premise.
Local social media weighs in
Within a few days of the discussion of McIntosh’s list, a parent, though not one of a high school student, asked fellow parents on a local Facebook group page, “Is it OK to teach our children about ‘white privilege’?” The poster also wondered if it was appropriate for a teacher to teach students that the town was segregated.
Though I was not named, it was clear the post referred to what was happening in my class. As is typical with these types of posts, it set off a barrage of comments: 174 of them. I was glad to see that most of the comments took one of two paths: “Did you ask the teacher or principal about this before posting?” or “The complete story needs to be told; not all history is good.”
No parent ever reached out to discuss the course’s content. Had they done so I would have explained how we discussed de facto segregation and related it to the community and school, and, yes, we discussed the concept of white privilege.
Choosing the truth or following the law
One section of the S-598 considers instruction to be a form of critical race theory when “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” If S-598 were the law, I am not sure how topics such as Jim Crow laws, school segregation and redlining could be taught in their proper context.
The architects of the bill might have recognized this because the next paragraph in the bill, which seems contradictory, does not preclude schools from utilizing curricula or materials regarding “the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.” I wonder how a group could be oppressed if the oppressor were not privileged.
If the concern is to recognize past events but not see their continued effect, then the bill’s sponsors underestimate our students. During the “unpacking” activity one student announced that he knew white privilege existed; he had seen it. He recounted being in a store where, despite his age, he was not followed around, but a Black man was. If the concern is that teachers are somehow indoctrinating students, then teachers’ professionalism is, once again, being questioned.
I have always found this unit interesting to teach in large part because of the students’ reactions. It is taught between the unit on the early part of the Cold War and the unit on Vietnam. Yet the topics stretch into the current day. We connected the protests of the 60s to those of Black Lives Matter. We discussed the struggles of the gay rights movement to the now broader LGBTQIA+ movement.
In each class someone eventually noted that “this didn’t happen that long ago.” I think that is the biggest take away. This is not a history that is only part of a book. This is a history that people are currently experiencing firsthand. This is a history that is still evolving. To ignore any part of it does our students an injustice.
Dr. Paul Blass is a social studies teacher at Pitman High School in Gloucester County. He is also the adviser to the school’s Mock Trial team and liaison to the Borough of Pitman Youth Advisory Council. He also serves as an adjunct at Camden County College and is a former president of the Pitman Education Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.