Some teachers curtail lessons on racism to conform to new education law

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2022 5:01:11 PM
Modified: 1/15/2022 5:00:07 PM

For Jocelyn Merrill, a ninth grade English teacher at Nashua High School North, this school year has brought a few changes to her usual curriculum.

She has removed Tim Wise’s 2013 documentary White Like Me from her curriculum, along with an accompanying sheet of discussion questions. She has also removed several articles from her classroom materials, including an op-ed that explains the concept of systemic racism, and an info sheet titled “discussing difficult topics in the classroom” that has definitions of systemic racism and white privilege from Learning for Justice, and also an essay assignment that would typically incorporate those articles alongside the book The Other Wes Moore.

Merrill made the changes in order to comply with New Hampshire’s “Freedom from Discrimination in Education” law, which passed in June 2021, restricting how teachers can teach about discrimination.

“Those are a lot of those things that I’ve felt like I’ve had to stay away from,” Merrill said. “I just felt like with the way that things were worded in the law, that I couldn’t use an article that debriefed systemic racism, even though most kids nowadays have some sort of understanding of what that is, because they have access to the internet.”

Merrill is currently one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over the law, filed by the AFT-NH teachers’ union. The lawsuit claims RSA 193:40 violates freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and also violates the Fourteenth Amendment due to its vagueness, which it says has a “chilling effect” on teachers who are avoiding subjects entirely because they’re unclear what books, materials or discussion questions might get them reported.

Merrill says although she believes some of the materials she removed with references to white privilege could probably still be used legally, she is reluctant to test the limits of the law.

“If I’m strictly going by the law, ‘white privilege’ with its definition and the way the phrase sounds invites the criticism that I could be trying to teach that ‘white is wrong’ or that my white students should feel shame,” Merrill said. “Although shame and guilt are natural emotions for all of us, I would never try to deliberately make my students feel bad for who they are, what they look like, and where they came from.”

The week of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, educators nationwide are introducing lessons on civil rights history, the history of racial discrimination in America and the impact it’s had on modern society. But this month, many New Hampshire educators are testifying to state legislators that they feel censored by a state law that restricts how they can teach about discrimination.

“AP English teachers in our state are now worried about continuing to use the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved” in their high school class, as the book centers on the traumatic impact of slavery on the characters,” said NEA-NH president Megan Tuttle, testifying at a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. “They no longer are asking their class if slavery had a legacy elsewhere in American culture, government or policy and allowing them to discuss, explore and defend their opinions, because they fear the discussion will be misinterpreted as indoctrinating students in one of the prohibited areas of the act. … They feel they cannot allow students to dialogue with each other, to peer-review each others’ work or to allow students to lead classroom discussion because they don’t know if student-driven learning will lead to a discussion that could be interpreted as instruction of a ‘banned concept.’ ”

The state law in question, RSA 193:40 “Freedom from Discrimination in Education and the Workplace,” was passed through a rider bill to the state budget, signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in June 2021. The law bans public school teachers from teaching that any group “is inherently superior or inferior,” or “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Empowered by the new law, the state Department of Education created a web page in November that links to a form where parents can report any teacher for an alleged violation. Teachers found to have been in violation may be stripped of their teaching credentials.

Critics of the law say it restricts teachers’ ability to discuss with students the historical impacts of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, including against LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, and prevents discussion of ideas like systemic racism and white privilege.

“It just makes many of us feel like someone is just looking to catch us at any point in time, and we’re just waiting to be scolded or told that we’re doing the wrong thing, when this is what we do,” Merrill said. “This is what we know how to do.”

Since the law passed in June more bills have been filed, like HB 1313 which seeks to expand the law to college and university professors, and HB1255 which seeks to add the idea that America “was founded on racism” to the list of things teachers cannot advocate for.

James McKim, president of Manchester NAACP said having the law in place this year gives “all the more reason” for Granite Staters to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts.

“It has spawned an environment where teachers are the target of personal vendettas,” McKim said. “It has also created an environment where other legislators have been emboldened to craft legislation … a number of them are looking to censor conversation, to censor conduct and censor what is being taught. Us continuing to celebrate Martin Luther King Day and how we celebrate, I think, has been impacted. And it’s more necessary than ever.”

Dan Marcus is a social studies teacher at John Stark High School in Weare. He says the law unfairly targets teachers who he says typically enter the profession because they love helping young people learn to think critically.

“On its face, you do see some things that are certainly very agreeable,” Marcus said. “Nobody wants to treat anyone, based on an inherent characteristic that they have, in an unusual way. But there’s language in the law that can be interpreted, and as a result the teacher might inadvertently do something that could be interpreted to run afoul of the law.”

Marcus, who teaches AP US History and an honors-level civics class called We the People, says he regularly encourages students to consider all sides of an argument through the use of different exercises. In one class, students recreate the Federalist/anti-Federalist debate on the merits of the Constitution. In another class, the students take on the role of colonial-era French, Spanish, Dutch and English leaders and prepare arguments about who took the “best approach” to the “new world,” and making critiques about each others’ plans, like Spain’s use of slavery. Often Marcus won’t tell the students until the day of the debate which side they are on, which he says forces them to prepare and consider all arguments.

“There’s so many millions of permutations that can happen in a conversation with students, and that’s what makes it exciting and wonderful for kids,” Marcus said. “Controversial topics are what make a civics class interesting. We should be able to talk about the things that are pressing our society, pressing our culture, making us think, and we want teachers to be able to lead those discussions and not worry about their livelihood.”

Merrill says there’s a disconnect between the basis for the law and the realities of what happens in New Hampshire classrooms, which she believes is the result of misinformation about how educators actually teach.

“I’ve never thought of myself as an indoctrinator; I’ve always thought of myself as a facilitator and as a collaborator with my students,” Merrill said. “I don’t tell them how to think a certain way; I help them become critical thinkers, and a lot of them are critical thinkers already.”

Marcus says in the last several years he has put additional emphasis on lessons about fact-checking and finding academic information from reliable sources.

“We’re not in the classroom to espouse our own personal theories of government or our own personal views on politics or policy,” Marcus said. “What we do is we teach students how to find reliable information, and then how to use that information to develop their own outlook.”

When students bring up topics related to discrimination of their own accord, Merrill says she lets them discuss it, only redirecting the conversation if she feels it starts leaning too much toward the law’s gray area.

But Merrill says she wants her classroom to be a place for open discussion and dialogue.

“I feel like there’s a lot of potential for our state to be a good leader within our educational system, and I think there’s a lot of potential within my own school,” Merrill said. “I just don’t want things to keep going backwards.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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