Jason Kamras and Rodney Robinson share a bond that goes beyond their work as educators. The two former National Teachers of the Year are working together to eliminate racial inequities for students of color in the former capital of the Confederacy. “The very painful history of Richmond casts a long shadow over just about everything we’re doing,” says Kamras, superintendent of the 24,000-student, 90 percent minority Virginia district. “History looms large here.”
How schools across the U.S. teach history—especially around topics of race—also looms large amid a cultural and political divide fueled by a summer and fall of protests over injustice and police misconduct. The “good, bad, and ugly” approach to history has long been controversial. However, the blowback is particularly fierce now among traditionalists angered by the tearing down of monuments and uncomfortable with the prospect of a curriculum that does not put Christopher Columbus, the Mayflower, and the Founding Fathers front and center.
“There have been efforts to change and transform the history curriculum for as long as we’ve had the curriculum,” says Keffrelyn D. Brown, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Innovation in Race, Teaching, and Curriculum at the University of Texas. “But to change the curriculum means you must accept that what exists is not the full story, and that’s hard. It’s difficult in a country that has a narrative of progress, of freedom, of liberty.”
Sorting through these issues, especially during a period of major racial and societal upheaval that evolves daily, is challenging for school boards, administrators, and teachers. The history curriculum has long been a flashpoint, but educators involved in this work say not having courageous conversations in any class with students means you risk losing their trust.
Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School “It’s imperative because our students are talking about Black Lives Matter whether we are teaching it or not,” says Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School and co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives. “They’re talking about it on the school bus, in the cafeteria, in the hallways. We have to find a way to scaffold those conversations and help them find a safe place for the videos they’re seeing and the articles they’re reading, or we will just make the curriculum irrelevant to their lives.”
Richmond Public Schools and 2019 Teacher of the Year Rodney Robinson in front of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
Robinson, who taught U.S. history for two decades and was the 2019 National Teacher of the Year, moved from the classroom to Richmond’s central office this summer to oversee the district’s racial justice programs and minority teacher recruitment. He says schools must make every effort to “dig deeper into the work” of teaching history with diverse voices rather than just from a single point of view.
“It takes having more voices of people of color at the table making education decisions,” he says. “The history of America is a very diverse one, but it’s always told from a white point of view. The curriculum framework for the state goes along with the textbooks, and everyone is in the same business, so they leave out diverse voices and diverse history. And some people don’t want to change how they’re doing it, no matter what.”
White washed history
This fall, schools that use a curriculum developed around the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues that our nation’s foundational date should be based on the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, have been rebuked by the Trump administration and the U.S. Department of Education. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, has introduced the Saving American History Act to prohibit schools from teaching the curriculum or risk losing federal funds. And in mid-September, President Trump signed an executive order to establish a 1776 Commission to “promote patriotic education” in the U.S.
Hagopian is familiar with these battles as a leader of Black Lives Matter at School, which started in Seattle in 2016 and since has spread to several large urban districts, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York.
“It’s clearly a sign that we’re having a huge impact when the White House feels the need to attack us,” he says. “It’s a sign that we are reaching large numbers of teachers and students and helping them to see a more complex, rich, and important view of history that is often left out of the corporate curriculum.”
Textbooks, Hagopian says, have “for years whitewashed American history to exclude the incredible triumphs and struggles and innovations of Black people in this country.” He and other critics point to a 2018 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which found that most high school students did not know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War or that ending slavery required Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Robert E. Lee Monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.
A particular sticking point for educators is how the traditional curriculum fails to discuss Reconstruction, the difficult 14-year period following the Civil War that led to Blacks briefly holding elected office, and temporarily instituted government programs to build better education systems for African American youth. The end of Reconstruction, Hagopian notes, ultimately resulted in the rise of segregationist Jim Crow laws and practices that Blacks are still trying to overcome.
Brian Keith Mitchell, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor, is writing a graphic history book for elementary and middle grades students on Reconstruction. Mitchell is basing the book in part on his childhood experience as an African American youth growing up in a suburban community during white flight in Louisiana.
“I heard nothing about Reconstruction as a child in school, and if it had not been for the fact that one of my relatives was a Reconstruction politician in the state, I would not have known anything about it until after high school,” Mitchell says. “Children need to see themselves in history for them to relate to it. They need to know how they got to where they are.”
Rebecca Temple, an English teacher at Mississippi’s Madison Central High School, agrees. She is working with her Advanced Placement Language and Composition students this year on a “the past is our present” theme focused in part on the 1619 Project.
The timing is not accidental. Mississippi retired its state flag, which since 1894 prominently has featured the Confederate battle symbol, in June during the George Floyd protests. A statewide vote on a new flag is scheduled for Nov. 3, the day of the presidential election.
“One of the key elements that has made me successful as a teacher is to make sure my classes are relevant,” says Temple, one of 60 educators chosen for The New York Times Teaching Project this year. “A lot of our history is relevant today to these kids, to their parents and grandparents, and we need to show them how these symbols have evolved here and what they represent.”
The students started by reading The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s historical 1850 novel that tells the story of a woman’s public punishment for adultery, as well as The Lives of Frederick Douglass. Using that knowledge, combined with reading the 1619 essay and listening to the 1619 podcasts, they will write essays and do their own audio project based on what they’ve learned.
“I’m not saying they have to agree with what they read and hear, but they just have to see that it’s out there,” Temple says, noting students also will read other memoirs such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. “These are opportunities for me to show them what’s out there before they get out there in the real world. If I can give them those recognitions, those lenses, those understandings, even if they for a minute take the time to try to listen, this knowledge will help them be successful in their own lives. That’s how they’re going to make this life better.”
More than 1,100 miles from Temple’s school, teachers in Buffalo, New York, also are working to broaden their students’ knowledge. The district’s “Black Lives Matter” curriculum for grades pre-K through 12 focuses on five major areas: collective value, empathy, diversity, love and engagement, and restorative justice.
The program, which ran for two weeks this fall and will expand over time, is part of Buffalo’s effort “to integrate materials written by people that look like our students” in the 33,000-student, 83 percent minority district, says Associate Superintendent Fatima Morrell.
“For too long, we’ve had one voice, one history, one perspective,” Morrell says. “It is critical with such a large population of Black and brown children that we teach with accuracy and a diversified voice related to who we are as people. White children deserve to know that as well. What is hypocrisy is teaching them to be insensitive to other races and glorify white superiority. That’s is just wrong.”
Morrell says the district, which has been conducting implicit bias, anti-racist, and culturally responsive practice training for its 3,500 teachers for the past four years, is “not pushing political rhetoric or propaganda” but an “emancipation curriculum that takes shackles off students’ minds so they are able to think freely.”
“This is not easy work,” Morrell says, noting 80 percent of Buffalo’s teachers are white. “When we started rolling out training about what it means to be culturally relevant and what is a social justice education, you could see faces turn red and arms get folded among our staff. Some would go out for long bathroom breaks and not come back. But we never stopped, and that’s the key. We are making a difference.”
As the capital of the Confederacy and the hub of mass resistance against school integration, Richmond’s history of oppression toward Blacks can be seen throughout the city, from its housing projects that are clumped together to the poor condition of many of its schools.
The most visible is Monument Avenue, a tree-lined street dividing the east and west parts of Richmond. For more than 100 years, the street featured massive statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Navy Chief Matthew Fontaine Maury.
When Kamras became superintendent in February 2018, his first priority was to visit each of the district’s 40 schools. Asking students how the district could make the schools better, he was surprised “by how many times they mentioned the bathrooms and just how awful they were.”
Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools and 2005 National Teacher of the Year Jason Kamras in front of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
“I contend the condition of the bathrooms in our schools, and by extension our facilities more generally, is a reflection of how different things would be if our [district] was 90 percent white instead of 90 percent kids of color,” says Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year who spent his career prior to Richmond working in the Washington, D.C., school system. “You can draw a direct line from 1619 to those bathrooms today.”
Since 2018, Richmond has rebuilt three of its 40 campuses and renamed those schools. One named for Stuart, the Confederate general, is now Barack Obama Elementary. Another, finished earlier this summer, saw its name changed from George Mason to Henry L. Marsh Elementary, in honor of Richmond’s first Black mayor.
Richmond started renaming its schools before the current wave of protests, but until this summer, nothing had happened on Monument Avenue. That’s when protesters and city contractors brought down all but one of the immense memorials. Now, only the 12-ton Lee statue remains, its fate tied up in litigation. The base is covered in graffiti, and the circle has been taken over as a community park.
On a sunny October morning, Kamras and Robinson met at the statue site for a photo shoot. The former National Teachers of the Year, the only pair to work in the same district—albeit outside the classroom—in the program’s 60-plus-year history, exchange pleasantries about family and how this unprecedented year is going.
Robinson notes that he is still finding his way in his new role, which also includes work on the REAL Richmond classes that are now being offered to high school students. The class, Kamras says, is a warts-and-all view of Richmond’s “good, bad, and ugly” history. It’s a class, both men say, that is long overdue.
“There is a pernicious sentiment among some quarters in America that being critical of America is somehow unpatriotic,” Kamras says. “I believe that nothing could be further than the truth. When you take a hard look at America, there is much to be proud of and much not to be proud of, but I think a true sign of patriotism is working every day to acknowledge what is not perfect and strive to be a more perfect union. That’s what education is all about.”