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Education

St. Louis Teachers Say ‘Soul Of Education’ At Stake In Debate Over How To Teach History

Christina Sneed poses for a portrait on August 11, 2021 at University City High School in University City, Missouri.
Michael B. Thomas
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Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Christina Sneed is the English and social studies curriculum instructor for University City School District. Last year in her AP English classroom at University City High School, she taught the 1619 Project. While it was received positively in her class, the project has drawn criticism from some white parents and legislators across the country.

St. Louis teachers are on the front lines of a heated battle over whether to include discussions about systemic racism in their teaching plans.

In school districts across the St. Louis region, some white parents are demanding that teachers stop talking about race and identity in the classroom. At board meetings and legislative hearings, they’ve armed themselves with large poster boards denouncing three highly contested words: critical race theory.

But teachers from all over the region say they’re not teaching that theory, which is about acknowledging that racism is deeply ingrained in American life. Rather, the complex premise is found in graduate-level courses.

Instead, educators say they're presenting a more complete history of America to their students.

“I do fear for the state of education. I feel like we are at war for the soul of education in our public schools,” said Christina Sneed, English and social studies curriculum instructor for the University City School District.

History classes that have long pushed Black people to the margins are now being challenged by teachers across the country — igniting debate. Teachers in St. Louis and across the nation are facing a backlash from some white parents over their efforts to address the impact of systemic racism on Black people today.

Joseph Kibler poses for a portrait in his classroom on August 11, 2021 at Hazelwood West High School in Hazelwood, Missouri.
Michael B. Thomas
Joseph Kibler teaches U.S. history to freshmen at Hazelwood West High School. He says teachers are bringing a fuller history to students, not teaching critical race theory.

“What’s happening in the classroom is not critical race theory, but giving space and giving voice to other perspectives,” said Joseph Kibler, a history teacher at Hazelwood West High School. “It’s not being taught in a confrontational way. It’s just things that happened that weren’t taught before are being taught now.”

History has long been taught from a white-centered perspective, said LaGarrett King, associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri. This narrow view of the nation’s past has an impact, King said.

“History is about identity. History is about citizenship,” said King, founder of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History, which helps schools develop curriculum. “What does it say to our citizens in the classroom when we only teach one perspective?”

Some white parents have been highly critical of King’s work as an adviser for the Francis Howell School District, which this year plans to offer Black history and Black literature courses.

king headshot 3.jpg
LaGarrett King presents on Black history at O’Shaughnessy Educational Center in 2019.

King, who has studied critical race theory, says high school teachers don’t use that theory in the classroom.

He said opponents of the enhanced curriculum are using political battles over critical race theory to keep teachers from talking about what Black people have endured for centuries.

“Let’s talk about what it really is,” King said. “It’s all about teaching a true and more effective history in our classrooms.”

Over the past two decades, history teachers such as Kibler have seen a movement to include more Black and Native American voices in historical narratives. Those additional perspectives allow students to get a clearer picture of history that includes the horrors of the past.

Kibler uses the past to help students understand the realities of their present.

“So, anytime we talk about a historic piece of systematic oppression, we always tie it back to today,” he said. “It’s not being taught with any agenda other than good history.”

Black History posters are seen hanging in the classroom of Joseph Kibler on August 11, 2021 at Hazelwood West High School in Hazelwood, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas for St. Louis Public Radio).
Michael B. Thomas
Black History posters hang in the classroom of Joseph Kibler earlier this month at Hazelwood West High School.

But some white parents are concerned about that approach to teaching. Katie Rash, who has a kindergartener and a second grader in the Francis Howell School District, objects to a characterization of present-day America as systemically racist or a country in which all white people have an advantage over Black people.

“If you’re saying that a poor white student has white privilege, well, that’s not their life experience,” Rash said. “I think that can be hurtful to imply that you’re a certain way because you’re a certain skin color.”

Rash and other critics of curriculum changes want to rid classrooms of “divisive” discussions on race. For them, that means avoiding words like white privilege, systemic oppression or social justice.

Their concern over curriculum changes has seeped into statehouses across the nation — including Missouri’s. In July, the Republican-controlled legislature’s Joint Committee on Education held an invitation-only hearing to hear from those who opposed talking about systemic racism in schools. The committee did not invite any Black people to speak.

State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said he supports teaching difficult moments in the nation’s history, including the Jim Crow era. But he said he is concerned with the way some educators approach race and racism.

“It’s not that we are trying to keep white kids from learning about difficult history,” Richey said. “You could teach the Tulsa massacre from a Walter Cronkite approach. This is what happened leading up to the event, this is what has transpired since that event. What are your thoughts on that event? That’s not critical race theory.”

“History is hard. But hard history is something we still need to understand.”
Matt Van Horn, Francis Howell School District

Some teaching materials such as the 1619 Project have been singled out by state lawmakers as “erroneous and hate-filled.” State Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, called for an outright ban on teaching the New York Times’ series of essays and other works that put Black Americans at the center of the historical narrative.

Sneed, the curriculum instructor in University City, taught the project in her AP English class last year before leaving the classroom. She said it was met with praise from students, parents and administrators alike.

“We have focused solely on the role of African Americans within this country being connected to slavery. We have not focused on the joy and the perseverance and the strength and power that exist within Black and brown communities,” Sneed said. “Our students have not been able to see themselves represented positively within the classroom.”

The University City School District plans to continue using the project in its English and history courses. But Sneed worries that the rising tensions over curriculum will keep teachers from talking with their students about the impact of racism.

“I think it’s going to put a lot of teachers in fear of doing what’s best for their students,” Sneed said. “And those who are courageous and bold enough to do it anyway, I think they are going to be villainized.”

Books are seen in the library on August 11, 2021 at University City High School in University City, Missouri.
Michael B. Thomas
A wide scope of history books are available in the University City High School library.

Placing teachers at the center of an ideological battle could damage their ability to teach history, said Matt Van Horn, a social studies content leader for the Francis Howell district. He fears the national debate could make teachers hesitant to introduce multiple perspectives.

“I’m concerned that some teachers might be so afraid of backlash that they might tend to skip topics, or simplify them,” Van Horn said. “History is hard. But hard history is something we still need to understand.”

At Hazelwood West, Kibler said he will not go back to the previous way of teaching America’s past. He predicts he will be just one of many teachers who will continue to teach a more complete history, no matter the consequence.

“I cannot in good conscience go into that room and teach them a partial history where their experiences and their voices are minimized or reduced,” he said.

Follow Kendall on Twitter: @kcrawfish33

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