Hamilton County educators say state's new limits on teaching about race leave them confused, concerned

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A new school bus, provided by First Student Inc., is seen at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A new school bus, provided by First Student Inc., is seen at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County educators say they expect difficulty navigating already sensitive conversations about race after the passage earlier this month of legislation that would punish school districts if they allow teachers to discuss certain concepts related to critical race theory.

That theory holds that race is not biologically grounded but a social construct embedded in U.S. history, life and laws to oppress and exploit African Americans and other people of color. Its concepts are not embedded in the state's or school district's curriculum, but they often arise from discussions in history and social studies classes, according to teachers.

"They have questions"

Catherine Casselman teaches second grade at East Side Elementary in Chattanooga. She said critical race theory is not part of the curriculum but something she acknowledges as a teacher, and that the legislation would make an already-taboo topic more difficult to discuss with students.

"It worries me there because, for my kids, it's important to talk about it because they don't have the words to discuss their experiences with race, and if I can open that conversation up in my room and give them the language and talk about power and how they can use language to express what they're going through, that is really important to me to see my kids feel empowered in discussing race and pointing out racism," she said.

Certain classroom experiences may be more difficult to organize under the legislation. Casselman said her class read and discussed the book "Antiracist Baby" during one of their guest reader days this year, which may not be possible under the bill.

"Now with this bill, if I bring someone in to read a book called 'Antiracist Baby' and that gets noticed by other people in school, I'm worried about the implications of that," Casselman said. "Or, if I am continuing to give my kids access to resources like that and the next year they have a teacher who's not open, what is that gonna look like for them?"

Chandler Davenport teaches world history at The Howard School. She said Tennessee history standards outline exactly what to teach, but that people of color are typically only discussed through colonization, like the trans-Atlantic slave trade or imperialism in Latin America.

"So in order for me to teach them effectively, I have to bring in examples that show students people that look like them, and they have questions, and when they start asking those questions, it almost always ties back to race or class or gender in some way, shape or form, and maybe it ties into all three. So it's that part that worries me about the bill," Davenport said.

Davenport said that she is comfortable facilitating uncomfortable conversations with students, but that she worries the legislation might hinder other teachers from starting to have those conversations in their classrooms.

"For me and the way I teach, it's pretty discussion-based, so I want my students to feel comfortable voicing their opinions, and I'm not taking sides when I teach. I'm presenting them with facts and letting my students come to their own conclusions," Davenport said. "So for me, there's not anything that I can readily identify that I would have to teach differently, but for teachers who are not comfortable facilitating those types of discussions, I don't want this to be a deterrent and then we end up taking a step backwards instead of forwards."

Both Casselman and Davenport teach at schools that are predominantly made up of students of color, and Casselman said that she wonders how the legislation could affect schools made up of majority white students, who may not hear about critical race theory at home.

"Working with predominantly Black and brown children, I know that most of my kids have access to that information at home because it's something that their parents talk to them about, or that their parents are more likely to acknowledge, but it has really made me wonder how that's going to further affect the education of white kids in kind of more privileged schools," Casselman said.

Some concepts prohibited under the bill

> An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.> An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.> This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.> Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people.Not banned by the bill> The history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with present law concerning textbooks and instructional materials.> The impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history.> The impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.

A confusing precedent

Statewide teaching groups have also weighed in on the bill's possible effects, with the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance sending a letter to Gov. Bill Lee on May 12 urging him to veto the legislation.

"This legislation denies teachers and students the ability to explore the difficult truths of our state and national history in light of race, sex, class and other social markers, establishes a confusing precedent for educators to follow in the classroom and gives the Tennessee Department of Education a challenging mandate for monitoring and enforcement," states a portion of the letter.

Another education organization, the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, issued a statement Wednesday about the bill.

"The bill perpetuates a misunderstanding of what practices occur in Tennessee public schools and of what constitutes history and social studies education by conveying the notion that teachers present only static facts about the past. What we know about the past is only known to us through the interpretation of evidence, which is an extension of imperfect individuals who have limited perspectives, biases and prejudices," according to a portion of the statement.

The Hamilton County school board briefly discussed the legislation at the May 10 agenda meeting after board member Rhonda Thurman asked for some clarification on it, with board attorney Scott Bennett outlining some of the aspects of the bill. He said the school district would not be affected by the bill because none of the banned concepts are taught in Hamilton County classrooms.

"I can see how somebody might look at some of those prohibitions and might think 'Well gosh, that kind of makes it hard to teach this aspect of history or maybe to teach about this work of literature,' but the statute goes on to say there's nothing wrong with teaching historical fact or developing these issues as long as you do it with an even-handed approach," Bennett told the board last Monday.

School board member Tiffanie Robinson expressed concern about the legislation, saying she was worried in part about how it could affect the district's funding from the state. Bennett said the legislation doesn't cover how the state department of education would enforce it, but that several steps would likely take place before removing funding.

Robinson told the Times Free Press that Bennett's explanation didn't address her concerns. She said the legislation feels like an overreach and that discussing race involves students utilizing critical thinking skills.

"The legislators are saying that teachers cannot talk about topics that are relevant to what's happening right now in our country, and that's really alarming to me, and then the fact that it's tied to school funding makes it even more alarming to me because I think that it's not well spelled out, how stripping funding away for a school system, if an incident were to occur, what that process would even look like," Robinson said.

One recent thrust of critical race theory has been a movement to reframe U.S. history around 1619, when the first enslaved people arrived on the continent, rather than around 1776, when U.S. independence was declared.

Thurman told the Times Free Press Wednesday that a lot of parents and teachers have contacted her asking about the issues and how they are addressed in Hamilton County Schools.

"Why don't we just teach American history, I don't see any need to pit one group against the other," she said. "I just don't understand it, trying to rewrite history about when America started, I mean we have all the documents we know when that was, this is not rocket science to figure this out, and I don't like pitting these students against each other. We need to be uniting and not dividing our students. We need to get them to care about each other and love each other as fellow Hamilton County citizens. I just don't see the point in this at all."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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