Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Sept. 23, 2021. Read more of CT Mirror’s “Best of 2021” stories here.
As the school year resumes, so has an accusation creating tension in communities here and around the country: that teachers striving to help students understand how racism has influenced American society are using Critical Race Theory in their classrooms.
In Manchester, a second-grade teacher took to social media earlier this month to announce her resignation because she felt her racially diverse district was covertly embracing Critical Race Theory through “cloaked terms like ‘equity.’”
And in Guilford — where five conservative activists invoked Critical Race Theory to win a Republican primary last week — teachers like George Cooksey are being drowned out by those who say classrooms in his district are teaching “anti-white” lessons to students.
How history actually intertwines with race, however, is a much more nuanced conversation that does not include Critical Race Theory, teachers say.
“What we ought to be talking about is what we are actually doing in the classroom and where we stand,” said Cooksey, who is the English department chair at Guilford High School. “It’s become so polarized, and I think that the original sense of [CRT] has been lost, and it’s been used as a weapon against teachers and districts.”
CRT is a framework developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ’80s to examine and understand race in America. It looks at how racism is embedded in present-day laws and society as a result of structures that were put in place throughout U.S. history, like the enslavement of African-Americans.
Some teachers link stories of those seldom taught about – or not in the standard curriculum – to inspire and engage students with a history lesson that includes perspectives not always found in a textbook.
For example: When the choir students at the two high schools in Fairfield wanted to stage a performance focused on the music of the civil rights movement this past spring, media specialist Kevin Staton gave them a lesson on the history of protests in music.
His presentation covered the history of African American music up until the civil rights movement and, overall, how music was inspired by and fueled various social causes.
Staton, who was a longtime history teacher in Connecticut, walked the students through music from Black artists like Bessie Smith, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Mahalia Jackson, discussed the evolution of blues and highlighted other prominent musicians, like Bob Dylan, who intertwined their music with the movement to show its diversity.
“We also looked at a message in hip-hop, where they basically deal with urban blight in the late ’70s, and what they’re talking about, their protest is, ‘It’s been 10 years since the Civil Rights Movement and we are still living in poverty … what happened?’” Staton explained.
This teaching strategy, which explores history and stories beyond the textbook, has recently been confused with Critical Race Theory, teachers say.
“Twenty-five years and I’ve never had a workshop on Critical Race Theory,” said Staton. “Nobody has ever come in and said, ‘Hey, today we’re going to talk about Critical Race Theory,’ because it’s not law school.”
Laying the groundwork
In Shelton, middle school social studies teacher Katelyn Botsford Tucker says primary and secondary school teachers are “laying the groundwork for students to look at the environment that they’ve grown up in, the country that they’ve grown up in and to be able to inquire about it and to think empathetically and to think broadly,” especially when it comes to topics that look at how racism is at work in the U.S.
Botsford Tucker treats her class as an open forum. She provides primary source documents and narratives for her 7th- and 8th-grade students because she doesn’t believe the textbook tells the whole story.
“I don’t use a textbook, because I don’t like how the textbooks can be very skewed and present one side of an issue or sugarcoat things,” she said, recalling her frustration with one textbook that had an “absurd” cartoon depiction of Frederick Douglass, the renowned 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer.
“Why are we presenting these children with this? It’s through like … a cracked glass or something, where we can’t give them this clear image,” Botsford Tucker said. “They’re seeing all of these shards, and I can’t teach that way. So we have to go to the sources, we have to look at the source material in order to understand what was being written, and then we can interpret for ourselves.”
Botsford Tucker said her students are eager to have discussions about difficult subjects.
In her classes last year, for example, students studied apartheid, Native American removal, Jim Crow segregation and miscegenation laws, making connections to current events they’ve learned about outside the classroom.
“When you break it down for them and you allow them to really understand and read the law, they look at that and they are very aware, and they are very understanding of how wrong this is and what this does to a society,” Botsford Tucker said. “I think that teachers are the ones doing the work to bring an understanding of history to their kids, but we have to give the kids credit that they’re going to be able to understand on a deep level and that that’s nothing to shy away from.”
Tony Roy, president of the Connecticut Council for Social Studies, said social studies teachers across the state are using Botsford Tucker and Cooksey’s strategy.
Roy said social studies classes provide the opportunity for students to comfortably engage in guided conversations about current events. He added that historical topics like Jim Crow, Brown v Board of Education and redlining should ideally be discussed in the context of what students see happening in the world today because “all of these things come together to really help us understand where we are.”
“I really just hope that we can turn down the temperature just a little bit so social studies teachers can get in there and do what they’ve been doing for many years, which is educating young people to be able to understand where they are, how they got here and where we’re going,” Roy said. “And part of that is the legacy of race relations. We have to understand that.”
Part of the mainstream attention CRT has gained in the last year resulted from comments made by former President Donald Trump during a White House event last September. Trump called The New York Times Magazine 1619 Project, a series developed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, and CRT “toxic propaganda” and “ideological poison” that needed to be removed from public schools.
The 1619 Project is a collection of essays and literary works that are aimed at providing a deeper understanding of the history of American slavery and its long-lasting impacts on African-Americans. The Pulitzer Center partnered with The Times to develop curriculum for K-12 educators to use in their classrooms.
Data from the Pulitzer Center show that 114 educators in Connecticut have self-reported using the 1619 Project curriculum in their schools.
Cooksey explained that teachers in Guilford are neither banned nor encouraged to use the 1619 Project in their lessons, he has offered it to his students as optional reading that can be used as a discussion point in the classroom.
“A lot of the time, we give kids choice at Guilford,” Cooksey said. “We find it’s important that we’re not dictating everything that they learn in the classroom.”
After some criticized the district for not having diverse voices in its curriculum last year following the murder of George Floyd, Cooksey and his colleagues in the English department reassessed the curriculum.
They decided to keep the classics they were already using, like William Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies, but also found ways to “include voices from other cultures and other religions and races … to put us into conversation with voices that were different than the traditional things that we’ve been teaching.”
“It’s always evolving, shifting,” he said. “I think when we talk about the last few years, especially, I think with response to things that have happened in the United States in terms of, specifically, Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd incident, and other incidents that have come up … in the nation, we’ve really worked to try to make sure that kids in Guilford have more of a voice, that they hear more voices from people that are not necessarily in the same demographic as most of Guilford is.”
Cooksey added that students are having real discussions in classrooms that are different from those they have had before. Cooksey said he does not go into the classroom and tell the students to critique Shakespeare’s views on women, for example, but rather asks them about what issues they see in the literature they’re reading and what they want to talk about, which “leads to good questions, good thinking.”
“I’ve read things at board meetings that people have said we’re indoctrinating kids. That’s the furthest from our intent that you can get,” Cooksey said. “To me, it’s exactly the opposite of indoctrination. It’s the process of asking questions, having discussions, letting things play out, letting the students wrestle with this idea and see them change as they move through text and as they move through the year. This is about open-mindedness. This is about allowing kids to sort things out for themselves.”
The debate over CRT has been fueled by predominantly white parents who are uncomfortable having America’s history with racism being taught in the classroom.
But Staton said educators often don’t dive deep enough into the country’s history with its treatment toward marginalized communities because the time spent on teaching kids about certain topics is left up to the teacher’s discretion — so sometimes lessons that could help provide that broader perspective get left out.
“I have seen countless times [the Reconstruction era] get skipped over,” he said, adding that this period is the key to really understanding African American history and the long-lasting impacts the result of that era has had on the community. But teachers have to cover several topics in one year, so it doesn’t get the treatment it should.
“When you teach Reconstruction, now you have to tell the real reasons why the Civil War was fought,” Staton said. “You can’t hide behind state’s rights, state’s sovereignty, because if that was true, why do you need Reconstruction? Why do you need to go in and take over the South if this was just about state’s rights?”
The state is moving forward on efforts to provide that deeper perspective through the African American, Black and Puerto Rican, Latino studies courses that all high schools in the state will be required to offer students by fall 2022. Only 69 high schools in the state reported that they already provided such courses prior to the state mandating that all high schools do so, according to data from the State Education Resource Center.
“I think the state is moving in the right direction by mandating an actual course because the issue … is that you can’t micromanage what teachers are going to teach,” said Staton.
The implementation of this course is a direct result of a public act signed by Gov. Ned Lamont in June 2019 and will cover a range of topics including historical movements, accomplishments, citizenship rights and intersections between the groups.
Several high schools will begin offering the course this academic year. By fall 2022, every school district will be required to offer the curriculum. The state Department of Education will also be required to conduct an audit from July 2022 through July 2024 to ensure the course is being offered by each board of education.
The State Education Resource Center, also in charge of developing the African American, Black and Puerto Rican, Latino studies course, released a statement in June to add its perspective to the heightened attention surrounding the outrage about CRT.
The statement reiterates what many teachers have said regarding CRT not being taught to students and that while they understand recent conversations about CRT and discussions about race can be confusing, it’s impossible to ignore the legacy of racism in the U.S.
They noted that they hope that the African American, Black and Puerto Rican, Latino studies create “a vision for how racial equity and cultural responsiveness result in improved student performance, strong relationships among educators and students and effective school-family-community partnerships.”
“I think what’s important is that the course itself .. it is really about history. It’s not to be interpreted as an indoctrination of students to some of what we’re hearing about racist ideologies or the shaming of white students,” said Michelle LeBrun-Griffin, a consultant at SERC who works on the team developing the Black and Latino studies courses.
LeBrun-Griffin added that as someone who has been participating in the development of the curriculum, she knows the course is going to steer discussions about topics that challenge what students have learned throughout their school experience because it’s being told in a different perspective.
Paquita Jarman-Smith, a consultant at SERC who is also part of the team with LeBrun-Griffin, said these are conversations people want to have.
She has heard from a broad range of perspectives to want to engage in conversations about racial equity that include wanting to understand how that looks for people with disabilities and what that looks like within private schools as well as community agencies.
“What we’re really, really wanting to address is that this is not a moment,” Jarman-Smith said. “Everyone should have their identity affirmed, they should all have their history available and accessible for whatever their age group is, pre-K on up. We all need to know about one another. We all need to know about the history behind that so that we can learn and think about what changes we might bring to this world to make it better.”