Jonathan Brown teaches first grade at Orchard Knob Elementary and says that, even at that level, children need critical thinking skills.
That's why he was taken aback this week when the legislature passed a law restricting the teaching of several concepts revolving around race. Brown is co-chair of the education task force for Chattanooga in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence or CALEB — an organization that is anti-racist.
"My biggest thing about it when it came to the classroom is it's taking that opportunity for students to critically think of our past, especially with Tennessee being such a rich state full of history, even looking at Chattanooga," Brown said. "Through this legislation, we're losing that opportunity to critically challenge, critically discuss and just create conversation around what was done in the past and how that's now affecting our current day in the present."
Brown said his classroom is a safe space for students to have cross-cultural conversations and the legislation would make it more difficult for students to have those conversations and learn from each other.
"CALEB is going to continue to be anti-racist and work to mobilize the community in that aspect, but as a teacher, I'm going to teach within the state standards and within the legislation," Brown said. "But it's kind of like my hands are tied in the same sense."
If the legislation is signed by Gov. Bill Lee, schools that teach these and several other concepts may have state funding withheld from them:
> "One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex."
> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously."
> "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."
> "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex."
> "An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."
Mark Finchum, executive director of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, taught social studies in Jefferson County, east of Knoxville, for 33 years before retiring last year. He said educators he knows are concerned that the legislation may hinder students from using facts beyond memorization.
"The concern that I have that is reflected in a lot of these teacher comments that I have seen, pretty much all of them, is this bill is going to put a damper on people who are trying to take the facts and share those and help kids analyze and synthesize and understand, compare and contrast different perspectives and so forth," Finchum said.
Tennessee students are currently taking standardized tests, and testing began in Hamilton County on Monday. Finchum said the timing of the bill also caused concern with teachers in the midst of the testing period.
"I hate to see something of this importance come up this late in the legislative session because this is the time of year teachers are still at work and a lot of teachers probably in the last week or two dealing with the TCAP testing, the TNReady testing and that's a stressful time, and they're not going to be logging on to find out what somebody's screaming about in Nashville," Finchum said. "So I think the next time legislation about teaching takes place, there needs to be an opportunity for input from teachers, and I don't know if that happened this time. If it did, I didn't see it, but it should."
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