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‘Whitewashing history’: Indiana teachers fear anti-CRT bill threatens lessons

Close-up of the arms of a teacher and student facing each other opposite a desk with workbooks on it.

Some Indiana teachers said the legislature’s proposed laws would the proposed laws are intended to undercut teaching about racial discrimination.

Peter Muller / Getty Images

The civil rights movement, the 1915 Armenian genocide, evolution, human reproduction.

These are some of the lessons that Indiana teachers fear they would have to water down or eliminate altogether if the state passes sweeping new regulations on how they may address race and racism. Many object.

“I refuse to be a part of whitewashing history,” said Sondra Flora, a second grade teacher at Elkhart Community Schools.

The proposed restrictions come as part of a conservative movement reacting to racial justice protests by targeting critical race theory — even though state leaders said they don’t believe Indiana’s K-12 schools teach the theory, an academic concept that examines how institutional racism is woven into law and society.

But the lawmaker behind the bill wants to ban lessons that might make students feel discomfort or superior or inferior to others.

“If people think this is a small problem out here; it’s not,” said Rep. Tony Cook, a Cicero Republican and author of House Bill 1134. 

On Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said the Senate would no longer pursue proposed curriculum restrictions. In the House, after backlash over a lawmaker’s suggestion that teachers remain impartial about the Holocaust, legislators have attempted to blunt the language of the bill. They added a “good citizenship” clause that its authors say permits teachers to express their opinions on ideas that run counter to the U.S. Constitution, like Nazism and racism. 

But many educators said they still oppose the bill, saying the ban could halt the teaching of a whole slate of history topics that might risk making a student uncomfortable. 

Hammond Schools Superintendent Scott Miller told the House Education Committee that a history lesson on religious persecution during the Spanish Inquisition could produce a complaint under the proposed law if it makes a Catholic student feel uncomfortable, for example.

“If we want to encourage critical thinking skills, we cannot set the standard for a violation to be an individual student’s comfort level,” Miller said. 

‘Our kids get it’

Teachers whose lessons cover American history have expressed perhaps the most concern about the proposed law, which they say seeks to undercut teaching about racial discrimination.

Lillian Barkes, a second grade teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools, said she relies on stories that provide examples of racism and segregation, including “Separate Is Never Equal,” a book on a California school desegregation case;  “A Girl with a Mind for Math,” which tells the story of Raye Montague, a Black female engineer; and “The Youngest Marcher,” about the youngest person to be arrested at civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

“These books are mirrors for my students. They are able to see themselves and are represented,” Barkes said. “I see my students light up and are engaged when we discuss topics like fairness. If these books are eliminated, that would wipe out a large chunk of my library.”

Rosa Snapp, a sixth grade English teacher at East Washington Schools, said even historical sources like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech might be considered a violation of the bill.  

Snapp said students have not expressed feelings of guilt or anguish after lessons on the history of racism, but rather anger over the treatment of Black people. 

“They are empowered to make sure that doesn’t happen again in their lifetime,” Snapp said.

Kathy Wallace, an elementary music specialist at Randolph Central Schools, said she previously has taught lessons on the musical “Hamilton,” or the book “When Marian Sang,” about opera singer Marian Anderson’s integrated concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Those lessons lead to discussions about equality, Wallace said. 

“The easiest thing in our current climate would be not to teach any of it,” Wallace said. “But then, that genre is lost to a group of students and it feels like their education has been cheated.”

Flora, the Elkhart teacher, said she would refuse to stop teaching grade-appropriate history lessons, like ones about Ruby Bridges, who was similar in age to her students when she desegregated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. 

“Ruby’s story helps students build empathy and find their own courage to stand up for what’s right and stand up for others,” Flora said. 

She said students had never expressed guilt or anguish about history lessons, but instead have shared shock that people could be so unkind to each other. Others have shared their own experiences of being called racial slurs. 

“Each year I watch my students listen to each other and empathize,” Flora said. “It’s their discussion, questions, and response to these lessons that give me hope. Our kids get it. I hope someday our state legislators will as well.”

Teachers concerned about lessons

Cook, the lawmaker behind the House bill, said he doesn’t intend to ban certain topics. 

Instead, he wants to prevent teachers from imposing their opinions on students, as well as ban activities from the classroom that force students to make statements about their identity, or role-play oppressed and oppressor. 

A former teacher, Cook said teachers shouldn’t solely focus on negatives of Catholicism in teaching the Spanish Inquisition, for example. He said he would teach some of the Catholic Church’s early stances, and examples of when the accusations of the Inquisition had turned out to be false.

“But you don’t condemn a group of sixth graders, only pointing out negatives that occurred in their religion,” Cook said.

Regarding a more contemporary example like the practice of redlining that blocked Black Americans from homeownership and its present-day effects, Cook acknowledged that the discriminatory practice existed but claimed its cause is disputed. 

But many educators say they must teach accurate history and take a stand against atrocities.

Ronak Shah, a seventh-grade science teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle, said the bill would prevent teachers from describing the role of oppression in historical events.

“This language is so broad, applying to every country and society, that it prevents me from teaching how Stalin used the idea of a hard work ethic to sentence political dissidents to Russian gulags, and from teaching how Mao Zedong similarly used the idea of a meritocracy to expose, and subsequently crush, opposing viewpoints during the ‘hundred flowers’ and Cultural Revolution periods,” Shah said. 

He said the “good citizenship” clause to promote constitutional values still raised questions about how to teach about the U.S. government’s treatment of Indigenous people and the Confederacy, for example.

Troy Hammon, a Shortridge High School teacher and president of the Indiana Council for the Social Studies, said the language changes do little to defuse potential conflicts between educators and parents.

Hammon, a 25-year teaching veteran, said teachers must lay the groundwork for difficult history lessons — that they can’t teach World War II the same way to a fifth grader as to an 11th grader — but that the lessons are essential. 

“Parts of the learning process can create discomfort for some.  Put me in a math class and I will be suffering discomfort through most of the session,” Hammon said. “Good teachers keep the communication open and work students through the discomfort in order to create those teachable moments.”

Fears of a teacher exodus

Other teachers have said they would refuse to change their lessons should the law pass, or would rather leave teaching altogether, worsening fears of a teacher shortage.

Some have expressed frustration at the state’s attempt to interfere in their classrooms and with the relationships they had established with their students’ families. 

Michelle Fleischer, a ninth grade English teacher at Elkhart Community Schools, said she would refuse to comply if the bill became law. 

“Most teachers would welcome any comments or concerns from parents (or) guardians,” Fleischer said. “Most parents trust teachers to teach our subject areas because, believe it or not, we do know what we’re doing.”

Educators have professional training to lead students through necessary and painful discussions, said Kay Orzechowicz, who recently retired after teaching for 35 years. 

Orzechowicz said she was always prepared with a rationale when approaching controversial topics, in case she faced questions from parents, administrators, or students.

When questions arose about the profanity in the book “The Hate U Give,” Orzechowicz said she would explain that her students felt a sense of recognition in reading the book, which is about a Black girl who witnesses a police officer fatally shooting her best friend. She would say its story — not its language — was the point of teaching it. 

Orzechowicz said that Indiana’s proposed restrictions on curriculum would not have changed how she taught.

“However, if I were a young teacher at the beginning or middle of my career, the moment parents had the authority to question, berate, and barrage me for the way I was teaching and questioning what I was teaching, I would have to look for a new career or profession,” Orzechowicz said. 

Beth Niedermeyer, superintendent of Noblesville Schools, added in a written statement that the bill would “threaten to criminalize teachers, driving educators out of a profession that is already undervalued and in the midst of a desperate shortage.”

“Education legislation is often written without any input from actual educators and with little regard for how it will actually work in the real world,” Niedermeyer said.

Other teachers also raised concerns about the bill increasing an already heavy workload. 

Christiane Beebe, a Brownsburg teacher, told House and Senate lawmakers that as an elementary educator who teaches seven subjects, she would be responsible for posting 75 educational materials online for one week alone. 

She also questioned whether she would be required to seek approval from a curriculum review committee each time she wanted to order a new workbook for her students. 

“We should not disincentivize teachers from being innovative and planning engaging lessons that meet the specific and unique needs of their students,” Beebe said. 

Paul Farmer, a 34-year teacher at Monroe County Schools, told the House Education Committee this week that the bill would likely require him to create more alternatives for students whose parents object to lessons, like those on evolution. 

Farmer said the bill puts undue pressure on new teachers.

“Is this bill really going to decrease the number of teachers going into education? The answer is, yes it will,” Farmer said. “It’s going to scare them.” 

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