Tennessee families, schools grapple with what to teach about America and when

Chara Dixon and Keishana Barnes want Tennessee schools to teach their children about slavery, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement. They both believe that educators should roll out lessons about U.S. history in an age-appropriate manner.

But the two women have very different ideas about the right age for those lessons, stemming in large part from their personal experiences, including how they're raising their children.

Dixon, who was born in Thailand and now lives in the predominantly white town of Franklin, believes her son was too young last year to delve into a new reading curriculum that acknowledged America's complicated racial history. She says her then-8-year-old, whom she describes as a "kind and sensitive" child of mixed race, became increasingly despondent over second-grade reading lessons that included historical stories about angry white mobs taunting and sometimes attacking Black heroes of the civil rights movement.

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Barnes, a 20-year educator who is Black and lives in Memphis - where nearly 65% of the population is African American - welcomes school lessons beginning in kindergarten to teach about the nation's past and present racial struggles. Even before her three children began school, she and her husband told them that color and class have created unjust systems that linger today. While they don't share more about the horrors of slavery than they think their children can understand, they try to answer their questions about what it meant when an enslaved person was not allowed to be in charge of their own body.

The two families' divergent approaches show the ways parents who want what's best for their children are wrestling with when and how students should study hard history and its legacies, especially when it comes to racism.

Front and center are concerns about the age-appropriateness of curriculum and instruction designed to introduce painful truths about America's origins and present-day injustices - truths which some parents feel are at odds with a redeeming national narrative and which others say must be shared early if America hopes to ever achieve racial reconciliation.

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What children learn when they're young has broad consequences for the rest of their education.

Developmental psychologists say children have a natural curiosity about gender and race. Research shows infants as young as 6 months old can recognize skin color and that preschoolers form judgments about people based on race and gender.

If educators don't answer their questions honestly - or shy away from introducing truths about America's origins to children at a young age ­- youngsters may embrace inaccurate narratives that need to be "unlearned" when they're older and less malleable.

Polls show parents want educators to teach history accurately, but that age-appropriateness is a sticking point.

One national poll, conducted last fall by a network of education advocacy groups, found that most parents across the political spectrum agree "schools should teach students to love their country, but should also teach the full history of America, including the terrible things that have happened related to race and racism."

The poll found bipartisan agreement that lessons about slavery, the Civil War and civil rights should be taught in high school but less support for teaching those topics in middle school and even less for elementary school. And a clear partisan divide emerged about whether schools should teach that inequality still exists today, with Republicans more likely than Democrats to view racial history as disconnected from present conditions.

"If we can agree that we all want our kids to learn the truth, then it's a matter of how we do that," said Cardell Orrin, who is looking for common ground as the leader in Memphis of Stand for Children, an education advocacy group.

"If we agree we all want our children to be better than we are and to live in a more equitable world, then we can have those conversations too," he continued. "But if there's an insistence about teaching American exceptionalism, that's harder, because American exceptionalism is based on falsehoods."

For instance, is America willing to confront its ugly history about forging a new nation on land first occupied by Indigenous peoples? About the forced relocation of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears? Or the government's corralling of thousands of Japanese Americans in detention camps during World War II?

But when is the right time to broach such uncomfortable subjects?

Age recommendations from publishers and booksellers target a broad age range on purpose. What's appropriate for one 7-year-old may not be appropriate for a classmate based on their levels of reading, comprehension and maturity, as well as personal interests and sensitivities.

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"It's part science, part art in terms of determining what is right for the right kid at the right age," said Michael Robb, senior research director with Common Sense Media, which publishes reviews to help families and educators make smart media choices. "To some extent, age-appropriateness is subjective because every kid is a little different and so is every parent."


In Memphis, Keishana Barnes and her husband have tried to lay a foundation at home to frame what their children - ages 11, 8 and 5 - learn at school.

"We have introduced the full truth to them from the beginning, and we do that in ways that are appropriate for their ages," Barnes said.

The children know about the transatlantic slave trade, for instance. They've been taught that the white supremacy that drove the nation's slave economy continues to have implications today in dehumanizing ways. They know that, as Black people, they are more likely to be accused of stealing or concealing a weapon if they have their hands in their pockets while in a store.

"There are many situations that exist - not because of what they are or look like - but because of how a system might treat them. Then, skin color absolutely matters," says Barnes, a former classroom teacher who has a master's degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education and instructs teacher candidates at the University of Memphis.

"I would be doing my children a great disservice if I were to pretend that this world is colorblind," she continued. "I would not be preparing them for reality."

Barnes remembers her own early school lessons as "mostly patriotic" and rooted in the idea of American exceptionalism. For her children, she wants exposure to different perspectives at an earlier age.

"I think curriculum can always be improved to present the truth instead of just one version of the truth," she said.

Some 200 miles away in Franklin, Chara Dixon watched online lessons last year and noticed her son becoming increasingly quiet and disinterested in school over what she calls "dark and depressing" stories about one heavy topic after another - from the near-extinction of buffalo from the Western frontier to racial discrimination in the South in the 1950s and '60s.

"The Story of Ruby Bridges," which is told from Ruby's perspective, included drawings of angry white people holding up signs and calling the little girl names as she walked to school. A different text, "When Peace Met Power," depicted nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, with white firefighters using fire hoses to violently spray young Black protesters.

Both readings provided historically accurate representations of events in U.S. history and aligned with Tennessee academic standards for second graders.

For English language arts, the texts supported reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension goals. To meet social studies standards, the readings developed geographic and historical awareness, including the concept of democracy, the contributions of famous Americans and "how collaboration and respect for others is necessary to achieve and maintain a functioning society."

But Dixon found the lessons unbalanced. In her eyes, they focused more on the evils of white oppressors than on the heroism of Black civil rights leaders and their white allies such as Ruby's first grade teacher, Barbara Henry.

"They taught hate first," she said about the lessons, which she believes robbed her younger son of his "childhood innocence" and interjected a racial lens that she and her white husband have sought to move beyond when raising their children.

Dave Allen, assistant superintendent over teaching, learning, and assessment for Williamson County Schools, said the district "patently disagrees" with any claim that it teaches hate.

"We received zero reports of student writing samples with any indication of hate after this second-grade module," he said. "The writing samples express positive takeaways from the content learned."

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For all the pitched debates, the issues remain fairly straightforward to Dixon.

A tipping moment, she said, came when her then-second grader began telling her he was not American, but Thai like his mother's side of his family.

"It broke my heart," she said. "He hates to be American. He's ashamed to be half white."

Dixon shared her concerns first with her son's teacher, then the school principal, then the district superintendent and school board members. The superintendent offered to move him to a customized curriculum. But Dixon declined, worried that would isolate her son. He finished the school year, then began third grade last fall at a nearby private school that promotes a "classical curriculum that embodies traditional American values."

"He is doing well. He is happy," said Dixon, whose fifth-grade son remains in public schools.

Dixon, who supports the state's law targeting critical race theory, testified about her family's experience before the district's curriculum reconsideration committee. She also told her story to a community presentation on critical race theory hosted last spring by the local chapter of Moms for Liberty. Last summer, she joined a small contingent of moms, including the chapter's leader, in a private meeting with Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to air their concerns.

"I'm just a mom trying to protect my children," Dixon said.

In Memphis, the Barneses moved their children last year to a private school for gifted children in the mostly white suburb of Collierville - not over curriculum concerns in their local public schools but to seek a better academic fit.

As a mom, Barnes watches closely to make sure her children are learning accurate history at school - for instance, rejecting Thanksgiving narratives that promote harmful stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.

But like many African American parents, she doesn't completely depend on school to introduce her children to Black history, which has been taught unevenly since a wave of schools began incorporating those subjects into curricula in the mid-1970s.

Now, the future of how Black history will be taught in schools is uncertain, with at least 36 states restricting or trying to restrict classroom discussions about race, including Tennessee.

"At home, I taught our children early that humans have done really horrible, hurtful things to other people and unfortunately that continues," Barnes recounts. "And so I tell them that I want you as children to keep learning about these things and I want you to grow up and treat others in a loving way.

"I'm trying," she said, "to teach them how things were, how they are, and how things can be better."

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.