In a local sixth-grade class, a teacher asked: “What languages do most of you speak?” The students responded, “English and Spanish.” The teacher continued: “Why do you think that is?”
After some discussion, she explained: “Today, we’re going to talk about how conflicts of the past shape our current events. I want you to learn how colonialism impacted the languages spoken today by people in the New World.”
The teacher derived the goal from curricula standards adopted by the State Board of Education, known to educators as the TEKS, for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Using graphics to complement her story, she explained European expansion into the Americas and the physical and cultural decimation of indigenous peoples.
As the lesson continued, she showed the class a video of a recent incident in which a man berated and threatened Spanish speakers in a New York restaurant. “Why do you think the man doesn’t want people to speak Spanish in this restaurant?” she asked the students.
As a professor supervising this student teacher, I appreciated the way she made the lesson relevant to her students’ lives. I gave her high marks for integrating activities and materials that had real-world implications. Because she connected her lesson to a current news story, she was able to help her sixth-graders understand the concept of colonialism.
The Texas House recently approved legislation, House Bill 3979, that would discourage educators from teaching lessons that integrate current events. Lessons such as this could be scrutinized or forbidden altogether because it includes what some might perceive as controversial.
The bill, a different version of which has passed the Senate, explicitly conflicts with what teachers are required to teach. In nearly a dozen places, Texas’ vetted standards emphasize learning about current events and issues.
The Texas Council for the Social Studies opposes the legislation, admonishing: “Students must learn to grapple with the controversy of current events and the complexity of the past.” Centering learning around current events and issues relevant to students’ lives improves understanding, deepens engagement and is supported by decades of research.
Teachers must not overly politicize current issues or indoctrinate students into holding certain beliefs. In my role as a teacher educator, I observed many Dallas-Fort Worth area teachers and student teachers. Teachers are not integrating current events in harmful ways.
If this is truly the concern, however, we must address it by improving instruction, not by removing current events altogether or passing legislation that would have a chilling effect on the free speech of students and teachers.
This bill is a stunning overreach that limits conversation and experiences around civics at a time when both are sorely needed. The bill goes even further by preventing businesses and foundations from supporting schools to develop related materials or training and prohibiting students from earning credit for civic activities.
Teachers must be respected as the professionals that they are. They should be equipped to make prudent decisions about their practice. Experts in school districts and state-sanctioned teacher preparation programs – not the Legislature – should oversee the effectiveness of teachers’ classroom practices.
Let’s not tie the hands of teachers who are preparing students to be critical thinkers and informed citizens. Grappling with tough questions with the guidance of a skilled, thoughtful teacher helps ensure students are equipped to lead our state and country in just and humane ways.
Dr. Altheria Caldera is an Education Policy Fellow with the Intercultural Development Research Association. A former teacher and teacher educator, she lives in Tarrant County.