Kansas teachers should develop a defense of inclusive and responsive American history education now

By Peter Mishler
Special to The Capital-Journal
Peter Mishler is a public schoolteacher, editor and author of two books, including the recent "For All You Do: Self-Care and Encouragement for Teachers."

As a veteran teacher in Kansas, I welcome Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona's proposed priorities as a necessary shift in the teaching of American history. It would be difficult to argue against curriculum that, in the words of Secretary Cardona's proposal, "reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions and experiences of all students (to) create inclusive, supportive and identity-safe learning environments."

Unsurprisingly, however, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is giving this argument a shot, joining the GOP's national talking points on the dangers of teaching what they have termed "critical race theory" in spite of their largely misinformed understanding of the actual scholarship behind Critical Race Theory, as well as their decision to narrowly critique the rich possibilities invited by Cardona's priorities, which are likely not limited to being "taught that our country is inherently evil."

The battle for how future Kansans interpret and apply American history — namely, the legacies of slavery, colonialism, racism and the many forms of oppression our country has demonstrated — is here and won't subside.

In fact, the conservative Kansas Policy Institute has already offered its guidance.

Therefore, it is time for Kansas teachers, as well as school leaders and advocates, to prepare for a significant fight in our nation's culture war. We have an opportunity to develop lasting, experience- and research-based practices that underscore the need for factually lucid and inclusive teaching about our nation's history.

We teachers in particular have much to offer in demonstrating the value of a more responsive approach, and our positive classroom experiences can refute legislation from lawmakers that may be as harrowing as laws being considered in other states. There is work to be done today to create supportive, safe learning environments where our history is taught, and this will not only aid our students immediately but prepare to weather future threats.

Personally, this past school year offered me a remarkable look at how these priorities can be successfully approached in suburban Kansas. I was assigned to teach students who had elected to learn remotely, and my classes were aggregated from all of our district's high schools.

Mirroring national demographics for students who chose online school, my advanced English courses, which in prior years were populated mostly by white students, were now attended primarily by African-American students, Asian-American students and students of Hispanic, Latinx and Arab cultures and ethnicities.

Many were first- and second-generation immigrants to the U.S. My remote students' perspectives on American history and the effects of this history on their lives were strikingly distinct from those I've heard in majority-white classrooms.

I was also pleased to note genuine efforts of solidarity, empathy and inquisitiveness from my white students in ways I'd never seen before despite being an educator who has readily embraced challenging and unsettling conversations about American history.

Obviously, it would be absurd for educators to delay action on federal education priorities until demographics change or our curricula are more expressly threatened. This August, my students will return to their typical school buildings, and, as members of diverse classrooms or not, they all deserve the ethically sound, supportive learning experiences the Department of Education suggests.

For my part, I will continue researching, writing about and collecting stories from my classroom. No one knows better about what happens in our schools than teachers and students, and we have a prime opportunity to serve Kansas' future with facts that counteract the GOP's imaginary fears.

Peter Mishler is a public schoolteacher, editor and author of two books, including the recent "For All You Do: Self-Care and Encouragement for Teachers."