As they await state guidance, teachers consider how ‘divisive concepts’ law will affect lesson plans
The program was passed as part of the two-year state budget. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire)
For a history teacher, Ryan Richman’s assignments are often firmly rooted in the present day.
Every week, students in Richman’s world history class at Timberlane Regional High School receive a simple assignment: find an event in the news, bring it to class, and be prepared to discuss its connections with the past.
The results vary, but a clear theme emerges.
“Nine times out of 10, they are stories about oppression,” Richman said. “They’re stories about exclusionism. They’re about the Rohingya genocide, they’re about the Uyghur genocide, which are going on right this second. They’re about Black Lives Matter.”
The class gets to work, connecting the conflicts of today to historical patterns of conquest, subjugation, and oppression.
It’s the kind of instruction that could now run into problems. A new update to the anti-discrimination laws in the state budget prohibits instruction that one race, gender, or class is inherently advantaged or superior to another, or that one group is consciously or unconsciously oppressive.
Richman has no idea whether it will affect his class, or that instruction. Many of his peers don’t either.
Meanwhile, teachers in New Hampshire are awaiting advice from the Department of Education on how to interpret the state’s new anti-discrimination law – and how they should be designing their curricula around it.
Guidance is expected soon. The department is planning to release a “technical advisory” to teachers sometime this week, Commissioner Frank Edelblut said in an interview last week.
That advisory will aim to delineate exactly how the new teaching prohibitions will apply in the classroom, Edelblut said. The Department of Education passed it over to the state Attorney General’s Office for final review last week, Edelblut said.
“My goal is that it’s going to be a useful technical advisory so that people can feel comfortable and there’s not some ambiguity around what somebody should or shouldn’t be talking about,” Edelblut said.
But some teachers wonder how helpful any guidance will be as they attempt to navigate a law that could have professional consequences if they misinterpret it.
Under the new law, any violation of one of the new requirements by a teacher “shall be considered a violation of the educator code of conduct that justifies disciplinary sanction by the State Board of Education.”
The upshot: Beyond sparking a lawsuit against a school, teachers in violation could land in personal trouble and have their credentials threatened.
The Department of Education does not plan to change the state’s educator code of conduct – which helps the Board of Education make disciplinary decisions – to meet the new law. “I don’t anticipate that we’ll need to update the code,” Edelblut said in the interview.
Without a change to that code, teachers are left to interpret the department’s guidance and the law itself.
The inquiry method
The new teaching law comes as social studies classes have embraced new teaching methods. Gone is the strategy of rote memorization of dates and battle names. In its place is a model by which students lead discussion of thorny historical issues, and use research to arrive at their own conclusions.
Known as the “inquiry method,” the approach means teachers veer away from providing direct answers to difficult questions, instead asking questions to help provoke suggestions from students themselves.
“Instead of telling kids what caused the Civil War, you give students the evidence, and you say, ‘What do you think caused the Civil War?’” said Kelsie Eckert, a social studies teacher at Moltonborough Academy and the current board president of the New Hampshire Council for the Social Studies.
One approach used by many teachers is “four corners” debates. In her classes, Eckert might pose a provocative question – such as, “Should the United States have dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” – and divide the classroom into four physical corners.
Corner one might adhere to popular history: Yes, dropping both bombs was the only way to win World War II. Corner two might have an alternate view: No, America should have stopped after the first bomb. Corner three: No, the country should have used diplomacy and invited Japanese diplomats to observe a controlled detonation. Corner four: No, the military should have resorted to a ground invasion.
Thrown into a thorny decision, students start by picking a corner. Members of each corner are given an opportunity to explain their position and entice others to join. By the end some classmates may end in different corners than they started through persuasion and interaction.
Facilitated well, the technique can be powerful, a way for students to hone analytical skills and connect the dots from previous readings and lessons to form arguments.
Richman uses it to teach world history, asking fundamental questions about power and government that students can answer using global examples.
But exactly how the new teaching prohibitions might affect an open discussion or debate is unclear.
Supporters of the law say it doesn’t prevent those debates or nuanced discussions, arguing the intentions of the law have been misinterpreted. So long as no student feels singled out as being an inherent oppressor due to their race, gender, or class, conversations can be freewheeling, they argue.
Opponents warn that teachers might steer clear of open-ended discussions to avoid student insinuations that indicate one race or class systemically oppresses another – or shut it down prematurely.
“My gut reaction is I don’t really like the law because it’s not promoting discussion of ideas,” said Eckert, who is leaving K-12 education this fall and taking a role as professor of social studies education at Plymouth State University. “. . . You’re promoting a whitewashed version of American history and American government.”
Sometimes, all students migrate to one corner of the classroom on a particular topic, Eckert says. On those days, Eckert might walk to an empty corner herself and argue the counter point to drum up discussion.
They aren’t her personal views – she may be playing devil’s advocate or presenting a hypothetical. But Eckert still worries about it. What if a teacher is misinterpreted?
Because classroom teaching styles – and school management – can vary from school to school, Eckert said she isn’t sure how the law might be uniformly enforced. Often there are no other adults in the classroom to witness instruction. Those interpretations could make a difference.
“Are my students going to be turning me in?” she said.
To Richman, the new law is built on a fallacy that the past can be cleaved from the present.
In order to discuss the historical oppression of a particular group, the most effective launching point for a teacher can be the present day, he said. That’s where the current events assignments come in.
“You can’t understand the crisis in Gaza if you don’t understand the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “You can’t understand why paramilitary groups in Africa are active and using the tactics they use if you don’t understand imperialism in the 19th century. You can’t understand why Russia is so authoritarian if you don’t understand the history of Eastern Europe. And so you can’t understand the present day world, and your role in it, if you have no frame of reference.”
But talking about oppression in the past can at times come uncomfortably close to suggesting that certain groups are systemically advantaged over others in the present day. That kind of instruction is not allowed under the law, but it could come up organically from the students during their assignments, posing a test for instructors, Richman said.
As a final exam question, Richman often includes a passage from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s speech on bystanderism during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, and asks the students to connect it to a present-day issue. Most of the students – even the conservative ones – draw on racial oppression in the United States.
“Bystanderism permitted the Nazis to do exactly what they’re doing, and bystanderism plays a role in all aspects of oppression,” Richman says. “They’re making those connections, and to pretend that our students aren’t smart enough to realize that, I think isn’t just a disservice. I think it is an insult.”
As they wait for the guidance, some teachers are evaluating how they teach. But Richman, who’s taught for 18 years, says he’s sticking to his current methods.
“I won’t be intimidated,” he said. “I won’t be badgered into whitewashing the experience that my students deserve. So if I get in trouble, I welcome it.”
Still, the new law could affect the behavior of younger or newer teachers with fewer protections, he added.
Under New Hampshire law, public school teachers have a five-year waiting period before they can achieve tenure. Before a teacher reaches that threshold, school districts can choose not to renew their contract without strongly stated reasons.
“Teachers that are newer, that are more concerned about making sure that they have their jobs and they have a livelihood, are going to feel the most pressure to kowtow to this political manipulation of curriculum,” Richman said. “Not talking about anything that could potentially ruffle any feathers at the expense of the students.”
A question of interpretation
Edelblut and others say teachers should not be threatened by the new law. Rather, they should look it over carefully and do their best to adhere to it, he said in the interview.
“They themselves are capable of reading the law and understanding, you know, what that means,” he said. “And if they then have a question, that’s what the technical advisory will hopefully weigh in on.”
Gov. Chris Sununu has echoed the sentiment and has argued the impact is overblown.
“The biggest misconception is you can’t talk about slavery or implicit bias,” he said in an interview with New Hampshire Journal published Wednesday. “Of course you can, and we should. We need to know what implicit bias is, where it might exist, what racism is and slavery and civil rights, and what that movement was about, the successes, the failures – all of that can and must be discussed. I think we can all agree on that.
“All this rule simply says is you can’t look at somebody and classify. Say, ‘you’re an African American student, therefore you’re a racist; you’re a white student, therefore you’re a bigot; you’re this, therefore that.’ You cannot make those class judgments on people. That’s it.”
Teachers are of mixed minds.
“It’s going to censor students, because teachers, for fear of retribution, will be afraid to allow those conversations to happen in the classroom,” Richman said. “And so students will be censored as a result.”
Eckert said she’s willing to be optimistic about the future guidelines from the department and hopes Edelblut will deliver information that allows teachers the ability to foster nuanced conversations.
“What we want is kids thinking about thinking,” she said. “We want kids thinking. If they’re not thinking and forming their own conclusions, then we’re not really teaching. We’re not really teaching them how to be citizens of the country.”
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