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Lawmakers want to ban discomfort in school. But Black history isn't always comfortable

Therrious Davis for NPR

Updated February 24, 2022 at 12:37 PM ET

For the past three years, librarian Cicely Lewis has organized weekly Black History Month celebrations at her school in Norcross, Ga. This year was no different.

"We had a head-wrapping station. We had a storybook station ... We had a station where you can listen to August Wilson monologues from our own drama department," she says. "We even had our school jazz band there."

But there was a moment before February when Lewis wasn't sure whether this year's celebration would actually happen. In January, Georgia lawmakers introduced four bills that would ban teaching concepts that cause "guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress" because of a student's race, sex or identity. Even if they haven't passed yet, Lewis says, the proposed laws have had an impact.

"They have put so much fear in educators," she explains. "You're threatening them with policy that could possibly prosecute them for teaching the truth."

According to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, 39 states have introduced over 160 bills in the past year limiting what schools can teach about race, politics, American history, sexual orientation and gender identity. For some educators in those states, that's made teaching about Black History Month especially fraught.

Does discomfort have a place in the classroom?

The "guilt" and "anguish" language in Georgia's proposed law has been replicated in legislation across the country, leaving many educators wondering: What role do tough emotions play in the classroom?

Lakeisha Patterson teaches third grade in Pasadena, Texas, where a new state law says teachers can't be compelled to discuss current events or controversial issues, and if they do, they must not "give deference to any one perspective." Teachers are also prohibited from teaching concepts that cause "discomfort, guilt [or] anguish."

"I felt like they [are] silencing our voices ... [and] questioning the integrity of teachers," Patterson says. "And now you have teachers who are afraid to even touch on certain topics."

She says when she teaches about the difficult parts of Black history, her students have never expressed discomfort — even when they can see that she is upset.

"I get emotional, but students don't run from that. They run to it. They want to know more. 'Why? Why does this upset you? Why does this bother you? Why does this draw out this emotional reaction from you?' So then I can have conversations with them about why this bothers me or why this upsets me."

Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with some of the material, but I know that in times of being uncomfortable is where we grow the most.

Christopher Tims teaches high school history in Waterloo, Iowa, where the state banned the teaching of "divisive concepts" last June. As in Texas, the Iowa law also prohibits teaching students anything that might make them feel uncomfortable — but Tims believes there's a place for discomfort in the classroom.

"It's life. It's not going to be the first time you feel uncomfortable."

And he says feeling discomfort isn't the same as feeling guilt or responsibility for historical events — something he makes clear to his students: "You didn't cause the Tulsa Race Massacre, you didn't murder hundreds of people."

That discomfort goes both ways. As a Black U.S. history teacher, Tims often has to work through his own negative emotions while teaching the material.

"You know, I get frustrated and disgusted by it, too," he says. "Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with some of the material, but I know that in times of being uncomfortable is where we grow the most."

Tims says that's why he has been teaching a little bit of Black history every day this February — to promote healthy discomfort and growth in his students.

Not all teachers can count on their school's support

In Georgia, librarian Cicely Lewis doesn't agree with the way history, and particularly Black history, has been politicized.

"I'm using that frustration to go even harder, and to do more, and to make [Black History Month] bigger and better," she says.

Lewis has the support of her school's administration, but she worries about schools where teachers don't have the same level of support.

Teachers have families. Teachers have bills to pay. They may not be willing to ... step out of the way and lead the charge simply because, you know, they've got their own lives to worry about.

Anton Schulzki, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, says some educators are choosing to stay quiet during the curriculum debates for fear of losing their jobs.

"Teachers have families. Teachers have bills to pay," Schulzki explains. "They may not be willing to ... step out of the way and lead the charge simply because, you know, they've got their own lives to worry about."

He respects any teacher's decision to stay out of the debate, because he knows some teachers are in more vulnerable positions than others. He says teachers who belong to a union or have academic freedom protections in their contract "may be a little more capable of addressing some of these topics without fear of retribution."

Some teachers are facing blowback anyway

Brandt Robinson knows the threat of blowback is not just a hypothetical. He teaches at a high school in Dunedin, Fla., where the state Board of Education banned teaching critical race theory last June, even though it's not in the curriculum.

Last semester, a parent complained to the district about what Robinson was teaching in his African American history class and filed a public records request for everything related to the class.

"That meant I had to produce all of the materials," Robinson says. "Course outlines, handouts ... even video links that I used for the whole semester, which I did."

Robinson says the complaint didn't surprise him because of the political debates around history curriculums. And while his district found no wrongdoing on his part, he says it's made him understand why teachers might be hesitant to teach about certain topics.

"The last thing they want is for an administrator to come in and say, 'You know, a parent called me and said you made some comments about something.' "

Some teachers don't have enough time to talk about Black History Month

Robinson covers Black history all semester in his African American history class, but he says it's rare to be able to focus that deeply on Black history and still meet the social studies curriculum's learning targets.

"Black History Month doesn't really mean much in a school if you're not really given the license and the freedom to really go in depth about anything you're teaching," he says.

Fellow Florida teacher Patrick Mugan says the speed and content of the curriculum makes it difficult for him to teach Black history the way he wants — and that's more concerning to him than the recent state Board of Education restrictions.

Mugan teaches middle school social studies in Pinellas Park, and he worries about focusing too much on the painful and negative parts of Black history.

"Especially for my students of color ... I can only imagine how growing up and just always hearing the pain and always hearing the trauma — what that must do to a child's perspective of their history."

He has a few things in the works for this month, like highlighting the victories of Black women scientists and local Black leaders, but he wishes he could do more. He already feels stretched thin, juggling the everyday responsibilities of being a teacher.

He says if he had less on his plate, "I could just be spending my planning time really fleshing these things out instead of just dreaming about them."

"We have to continue to let our voices be heard"

In Georgia, librarian Cicely Lewis says she starts planning Woke Wednesdays a month in advance, but she thinks about the celebration year-round — jotting down ideas when she feels inspired. All that work is worth it. Seeing her students interact with all of the exhibits, she says, makes her feel like she's in "librarian heaven."

But she worries about what will happen if the proposed legislation passes in Georgia. Sometimes she feels frustrated or disheartened by the attempts to restrict history curricula. When that happens, she grounds herself in the history she knows.

"I look at people like John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer, all of these people and how they faced so much to get us to where we are," Lewis says. "It's motivating to me, in a sense, because I know that we have to continue to let our voices be heard."

Lewis hopes that after Woke Wednesdays, her students will feel the same.

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Anya Steinberg