(This is the first post in a two-part series.)
The new question of the week is:
Have attacks on critical race theory, which have morphed into attacks on educators teaching about systemic racism, affected what you do in the classroom? If so, how? If not, why not?
As so many of us realize, many critics are trying to stop educators from teaching about systemic racism by using critical race theory as a red herring.
In this series, educators will share how these attacks have impacted their work.
Today, Marissa Dillon, Kathryn Vaughn, Erica Buchanan-Rivera, and Bill Ivey contribute their responses.
‘The Boogie Man Is Hiding in Classroom Bookshelves’
Marissa Dillon teaches AP English Language and Composition in West Virginia. She has been an educator for eight years, including six years at the high school level and two as an adjunct at Marshall University:
CRT – Three little letters that create responses from anger to confusion. If someone asked educators what CRT stood for, even just a few months ago, many would say culturally responsive teaching—a way to meet all student needs through their background. Far from the big scary concept that some deem these letters to represent.
In the legal world, CRT stands for the ethical framework of critical race theory. This theory is not taught in K-12 schools. However, because political leaders and select national news stations have used the acronym of “CRT,” no one knows what it actually represents; it has been simplified to just three letters. This is rhetorical redefinition at its finest. Because this concept is shortened to three letters, someone can create new meaning—even inserting a conglomeration of made up information. The acronym definition becomes broad, allowing anyone to fit their own implications onto it, with some in power indicating that it is used in schools to discuss a growing range of concepts such as white privilege and white guilt. Parents have been swayed by self-serving politicians and media outlets to believe the CRT boogie man is in their local schools. In my state of West Virginia, our legislators passed a bill fueling this rumor—the boogie man is hiding in classroom bookshelves.
While the language may seem open-ended at first, West Virginia’s recently passed Senate Bill 704 creates an atmosphere of distrust between parents and educators. It requires that classroom teachers “comply with the requests of parents/custodians/guardians of enrolled students to inspect county board-adopted instructional materials, supplemental instructional materials which do not require the approval of the county board, and books available in their classroom for students to read.”
One major component of this legislation is that if a parent requests, an educator must explain how books relate to content standards, and if a teacher does not comply with any of the requirements, a parent may file a complaint with the county superintendent. This bill creates an undue burden on educators, especially for those of us who have multiple bookshelves in our classroom with an array of literature for students to read, even just for enjoyment. While educators can ask that parents make an appointment to review books in the classroom, the language of this bill is not based on a trusting relationship. This distrusts comes from the fear of CRT.
Many see this bill as harmless and ask, why shouldn’t parents have access to what their child reads? I always encourage students to discuss their learning at home and have always provided a list of required readings for them—this relationship building and conversation creates an atmosphere of trust. A bill making these requirements compulsory and putting the responsibility on the educator, creating language to “comply” with parental request, already displays suspicion, which stems from the redefinition of CRT. Because many, especially social studies and English, educators began providing lessons on systemic racism, politicians who want to hold on to power sensed that history, or even their positions, were being called into question and they became fearful, claiming that educators were teaching CRT. They began attacking teachers for educating students and providing them books of high interest such as The Hate U Give, How to be an Anti-Racist, among others. Educators in rural areas of West Virginia have been condemned for having students read these books when they should be applauded for allowing students to broaden their minds and study a differing worldview from their own.
At a recent education conference, I witnessed the phenomenal Principal Kafele provide a keynote address. He spoke on the CRT scare fueled by the news and politicians on parents and communities, stating that educators are not teaching CRT but are simply teaching American history. Many of these books, lessons, and pieces of history need to come to light, need to be taught, but those in power fear this light shining on their own racist actions. Therefore, they divert it away using fire and brimstone language to engulf public education, while educators try to douse the flames of misleading discourse. As we continue to battle these attacks, we will rebuild from the ashes of distrust and continue to educate our students.
‘I No Longer Experience the Immense Joy I Used To Feel’
Kathryn Vaughn is an elementary art educator and writer from rural west Tennessee. She has taught for over 17 years and is a passionate advocate for public schools and maternal health:
When I first heard the term “critical race theory,’ in the spring of 2021, I must confess, I had to Google it. It was not something I was familiar with in my 17 years of teaching elementary art in rural west Tennessee. I immediately thought “the fuss about this is ridiculous, we don’t even teach this in elementary school.”
My own state representative was the sponsor of the anti-CRT bill that flew threw the Tennessee state legislature so quickly educators could hardly get their thoughts together on what this legislation would look like in their classrooms in the coming years.
Concerned and having questions about the bill, I signed a letter with my friends, in the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, asking our governor to veto the bill. At the time, I didn’t understand what an intense issue CRT would become and how people would react to my name being on the letter asking for a veto. The bill was signed into law.
Over the summer of 2021, I received harassing messages online from leaders in my community’s local Republican Party telling me that they knew I opposed the bill and asking why I was OK with CRT being taught in our schools. I explained that CRT wasn’t in our schools or in my curriculum, and they called me stupid and told me it was sad that a teacher couldn’t recognize the “woke Marxism movement,” that they were sure was taking over our schools.
Back to school time in August of 2021 felt heavy. The COVID-19 delta variant was running rampant in the community, the governor took masks out of our schools, and the political extremism on the right was ramping up as school began. I started to feel nervous about my safety in the community; I was nine months pregnant with my first child at the time and still getting threatening messages about CRT online. A concerned friend gave me a bottle of pepper spray for my purse, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP had words with Republican leaders to leave me alone, and my husband accompanied me everywhere I went in public. My superintendent even wrote a piece for the local paper to try to calm the community and assure them that district curriculum was far from the liberal indoctrination they were led to believe.
The storm of animosity toward educators continued to build, I decided to change things in my classroom so that my lessons were beyond reproach. I knew under this new law, I would be a target. I shifted my focus from art history to just teaching art techniques; without the context of the artists who used them, my lessons felt hollow. I took down several pieces of modern art off my classroom walls. Gone were the prints of artwork by Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Shepard Fairey, and Amy Sherald. I left only classical landscapes. I published all my lessons online so that if disputed I could easily show exactly what I was teaching at a moment’s notice. I packed up my classroom library and stored it out of sight from the eyes of my wonderfully curious students and went on my maternity leave.
When I returned from leave later that fall, things had calmed down in the community. People had found a new boogeyman, and the Republican Party had even issued a statement on their social media apologizing to teachers and claiming to support them after being called out in the national press. The CRT bill is still on the books and now the Age Appropriate Materials Act is also being implemented and shutting down classroom libraries across the state as book bans take over the national narrative.
I no long teach the way I was trained. I no longer share the incredible stories of overcoming injustice that many artists faced and that my students relate to. I no longer experience the immense joy I used to feel in my classroom. The joy I felt is replaced with fear of backlash from the outrage culture that has taken over our country, fear of losing my livelihood before I even have the time to pay off my student loans. I like many other teachers I know am looking for a way out of education, but I doubt I will ever leave. You can’t change the system from the outside so I choose to stay and fight.
District Leadership Makes a Difference
Erica Buchanan-Rivera is an educational equity scholar, consultant, community organizer, and author of the newly released book, Identity Affirming Classrooms: Spaces that Center Humanity. She has served in education as a teacher, principal, director of curriculum, adjunct professor, and is currently a director of equity and inclusion in a P-12 public school district in Indiana:
As a director of equity and inclusion in a metropolitan school district in Indianapolis, I have not experienced significant backlash from anti-CRT, ideological groups while leading systematic, anti-racist efforts. Although anti-CRT movements have been prevalent in Indiana and neighboring counties, the blatant attacks against educators and push for curricular censorship has not been commonplace in the community where I work. There are many factors that contribute to the climate of Washington Township schools, including courageous leadership, proactive work to dispel misinformation, and strong community partnerships.
Prior to the start of the last school year, district leaders developed intentional approaches to help staff understand the definition and existing misconceptions of critical race theory. Considering how oppositional groups or individuals have co-opted culturally responsive teaching or social-emotional learning as tenets of critical race theory, it was important to equip teachers with resources and language to respond to questions or critiques.
Community education was also devised in the form of a public statement that was supported and signed by multiple school-community organizations. The district provided information about the origin of critical race theory, while making it clear to community stakeholders that an identity affirming school system does not disregard the racial experiences or histories of students. With the rise of anti-CRT bills in Indiana (which did not pass), the district also made a bold move to publicly denounce censorship legislation through the adoption of a resolution. Washington Township was one of two school districts in Marion County that opposed anti-CRT legislation.
Prior to working in the Washington Township district, I served as a chief equity officer in a predominantly white, suburban community in Hamilton County, Ind., where I often encountered racism and targeting from right-wing groups. Although I enjoyed my work with students, teachers, staff, and families, I chose to leave and work in a district with equity-focused leaders who would provide support and embrace anti-racist practices as “collective” work—not my work. Leadership matters.
It makes a difference to work in a school community where leaders (e.g., school board members, superintendents, directors, principals, etc.) are committed to the work of honoring the full humanity of youth and make their stance on anti-racism unapologetically clear to stakeholders.
‘My Students Want to Know the Truth’
Bill Ivey (he/any) is middle school dean and teaches Humanities 7, Rock Band, and Academic Skills at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, a gender-inclusive girls’ school for grades 7-12 in western Massachusetts:
First, I need to recognize my privilege: I am a white person who teaches in one of the most liberal regions of Massachusetts, in a progressive independent school that has committed to teaching criticality, “the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression.” (Muhammad, quoted in Ferlazzo). Furthermore, I have a degree of economic privilege in that my kid is all grown up and I am gradually nearing retirement. Moreover, I was raised to see, and resist, systemic racism, and I have many people in my on- and offline lives from whom I am continually learning.
That said, the attacks on critical race theory have certainly affected what I do in my 7th grade classroom. Far from limiting it, they have expanded it. My students want to know the truth about what it is and why so many people are opposed to it, and exploring their questions adds another layer to our ongoing study and discussions. We’ll often start with them sharing what they know and what questions they have.
I’ve long been teaching my students about Kimberlé Crenshaw and intersectionality, so that’s a strong anchor point to discuss critical race theory. An example I’ve often used is that in practice, our legal system works like a series of sieves: More Black people are detained than whites; of those detained, more Blacks are arrested than whites; of those arrested, more Blacks are charged than whites; of those charged, more Blacks are convicted than whites; of those convicted, Blacks are given longer sentences than whites; of those seeking parole, Blacks win their appeals less often than whites. We’ll talk about how individual bigotry on the part of some police officers, judges, and/or jurors can’t alone explain this pattern and thus that there must be something about the system itself contributing to these outcomes. Critical race theory, as it was originally conceived and taught, focused on these systemic inequalities. At this point, students often ask, “Isn’t it taught in law schools?” and, of course, the answer is yes. At the same time, more broadly speaking, systemic racism can (and I would argue must) be part of the curriculum for students of all ages, those who experience it directly and those who do not. My students and I will talk about this distinction.
In teaching students about the source of the attacks on CRT, I reference Christopher Rufo’s tweet: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” (Rufo, quoted in Jones) Besides offering a chance to discuss what Rufo means by “Americans,” this ties into broad questions my students bring up every year about how disinformation is created, believed, and spread, and how it can be resisted. My students quickly realize that, in discussions about CRT, it’s important to find out what different people think it means. That of course does not automatically lead to agreement. But it does at a minimum mean each person in the conversation knows where the other person is coming from. This, too, is an important skill for navigating what are often referred to as “difficult” conversations.
For young adolescents, identity development (another piece of Gholdy Muhammad’s HILL model) is critically important, as is questioning and understanding how the world works. It’s also a time of life when commitment to justice and resistance to injustice is especially strong. Studying critical race theory and how the national conversation about it has been shaped can help my students grow in all these areas.
Thanks to Marissa, Kathryn, Erica, and Bill for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.
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- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
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- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
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- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
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- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.