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Cleveland teachers say they're teaching history, not critical race theory

 Teachers and students in Northeast Ohio say critical race theory is not being taught in the classroom. What is being taught is American history, which can be uncomfortable and complicated.  [shutterstock]

Two education bills being mulled over by legislators in Columbus would ban the discussion of “divisive subjects” like racism and sex in K-12 schools. They’re known as the “critical race theory” bills.

However, teachers and students in Northeast Ohio say critical race theory is not being taught in the classroom. What is being taught is American history, which can be uncomfortable and complicated.  

At Rhodes College and Career Academy, a Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school, Jimmy Musser teaches American Government and Advanced Placement Government and Politics. If Musser knows he’s going to teach his students about complicated history or current events like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he says he’s “intentional” about it and has a plan.

“If you just walk into class one day and say, ‘Hey, we're going to talk about, you know, the Japanese internment during World War II’ or ‘We're going to talk about the bus boycott’ or ‘We're going to talk about George Floyd today and what a white Minnesota police officer did’ without planning that, if you just want to have a firebrand of a conversation, that's what you're going to get,” Musser said. “And that's usually when you get parents calling into schools wanting teachers to be looked at.”

Teachers absolutely need to make sure their administration knows “the route” their lesson plans are going, Musser said. And, he adds, he likes to use primary sources, meaning actual documents from the time period his class is studying.

“One of the best primary sources that can be studied in American history or American government is Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from a Birmingham jail,” Musser said. “So, if someone wants to tell me that that is teaching critical race theory, they are wildly mistaken.”

The two bills being debated in Columbus don’t mention critical race theory by name, but House Bill 322 and HB 327 legislate what would be taught in Ohio classrooms, especially when it comes to lessons about race in America.

Critical race theory is taught primarily in law school. It’s not taught in K-12 schools. It looks at racism as something so deeply rooted in American history that it’s woven into the systems running the country today.

“Critical race theory to me is no different than how we study immigrant history, how we study European history, how we study women's history,” said John Adams, a world history and African American studies teacher at CMSD's John Hay High School. “We break it down into different tribes and different countries and different cultures and different races, right? We deconstruct every other group of people. But for some reason, when it comes to race in America, there are severe limitations on what we can say or what we can discuss.”

The GOP-sponsored bills are based on a misconception of what’s happening in classrooms, according to Adams.

“They’re operating from a belief that the goal is to make white people look bad or the goal is to make white kids feel ashamed to be white, which is not the intention at all. But I do think that they’re operating from that premise,” Adams said.

But some parents argue that is exactly what’s happening. 

Karen Matier, a mother-of-four, recently pulled two of her children out of the Hudson City School district because she didn’t like how early discussions about gender-identity and sexuality were being introduced in the classroom. She thinks white students have been bullied and vilified by teachers during discussions about race.  

Matier said she attempted to be a part of a diversity, equity and inclusion group for Hudson Schools, thinking that as a conservative Catholic she added good perspective, but she was not selected.  

Matier said her driving concern was this.

“How can we keep Hudson in the excellence of schools and not just creating a social system where you are disregarding parents’ concerns and moving forward with something that maybe we don't all agree with yet,” Matier said.

She points to the National Education Association, a teacher’s union, which she said vowed recently to support a George Floyd remembrance day and a Black Lives Matter pride week.  Matier says all of this goes too far.

And, she says, take for example how slavery is addressed in schools. Matier says educators should acknowledge different types of slavery in American history.

“You also need to remember slavery happened to children. They were used in factories and died by hundreds,” Matier said. “Women ... until a hundred years ago, weren't even able to vote. So, there's a lot of slavery that happened. And yes, Black slavery. I absolutely agree it was a terrible situation. But time would show that we had and have learned and we have and had grown.”

Seventeen-year-old Owen Ganor, a Rocky River High School senior, has a different take on the subject.

“This nation is essentially founded on slavery and racism,” Ganor said. “And I feel like we need to have those discussions about how race plays into government systems.”

Ganor is a member of SPEAK - Students Promoting Equity and Knowledge. The student group was organized by state Board of Education member Meryl Johnson. 

Ganor was in Columbus when hearings were recently held on the two House bills, but he didn’t get an opportunity to speak. If he had, he says, “I would say that the white kids like me don't need protection from our education.” 

Another SPEAK member, 17-year-old Jacob Rintamaki from Westlake High School, is afraid of the idea of legislators limiting what’s brought up in his classroom.

“If we're not able to have these discussions about fundamental topics in our society, about the basic concepts, about racism, about how race and gender and other things, which may be a little sticky at times, if we can't have discussions about them, how are you going to be able to become effective members of society? And the answer is, is that with these bills, we won't,” Rintamaki said.

Rintamaki said he finds it ironic that the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC]  was behind writing the critical race theory legislation that’s being introduced in state legislatures around the country. 

“A lot of these titans of industry, these very high-up political people, are terrified of an educated population having meaningful and truthful conversations about race, identity and sometimes touchy topics,” Rintamaki said.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”