Feb 7, 2022 - Politics

Teaching Black History Month under Iowa's new law

Illustration of an apple core with a Black student and a white student silhouetted on each side.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

February marks Black History Month, but this is the first year it will be celebrated under Iowa's new law targeting critical race theory.

Flashback: Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that bans schools from teaching the U.S. or people can be systemically racist or sexist.

  • But districts' interpretations of the law widely differ, causing confusion. For example, Waukee Community School District doesn't allow BLM signs in classrooms, but neighboring districts do.

State of play: Nick Covington, a social studies teacher at Ankeny High School, said the new law has led to teachers practicing "self-censorship" at his building.

Zoom in: In past years, U.S. history teachers at Ankeny High School played the PG-13 movie "Selma" in their classrooms, which chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

  • They're showing the film again this year with administrative approval. But for the first time, there are time stamps for when teachers need to mute or fast forward past racial slurs that are used against African Americans.
  • "Having to cut out that language from its historical context has been really kind of jarring," Covington said.

What they're saying: Students hear racial slurs and vulgar language in their everyday lives. But his hope is that by seeing how that language was used by white supremacists, they'll think twice about using those words themselves.

  • Covington said he teaches about white nationalism in his AP European history class. Last year, he tied in Dylan Roof and the 2017 Charlottesville march to show the American experience as well.
  • After facing pushback from administration and parents last year, Covington said he feels pressure not to use those materials again, "but I think I'm prepared to teach it the same way that I always have," he said.

The other side: Garrett Gobble, a Republican state representative and social studies teacher at Northview Middle School in Ankeny, said the law has not changed how he teaches his 8th grade classes.

Gobble said the law is commonly misinterpreted and that the majority of teachers aren't violating it.

  • Its goal is to avoid "stereotyping" students — not avoid topics like race or slavery. Teachers don't have to "sugar coat" American history, but to say that all white people are still contributing to racial oppression would go against the law.
  • "We have to own up to the mistakes of the past, but they’re not our mistakes," Gobble said.

The big picture: Even if most classrooms aren't in violation of the new law, Covington said he believes it's resulted in teachers' self-censoring, which leads to the "sin of omission" for students' education.

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