Teachers condemn legislator’s attempt to control class

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — By the time Donnie Wilkerson begins teaching his fifth-grade students about the Civil War, some of them have already started learning about the conflict at home.

“They’ll say to me, ‘My father said the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery; it was about states’ rights,” said Wilkerson, a history teacher at Jamestown Elementary School and 2011 Kentucky History Teacher of the Year. “Or they will say, ‘Many slaves were treated well by their masters.'”


What do you want to know

  • The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, which outlines requirements for teaching history and current affairs
  • Supporters said it ensures no opinion is discriminated against
  • It also contains a list of 24 historical documents that must be taught in middle school and high school.
  • Teachers said the bill limits and could create a chilling effect in the classroom

Under a bill passed by the General Assembly and sent to Gov. Andy Beshear’s office last week, Wilkerson fears he may be required to teach that perspective.

“I certainly don’t intend to and I won’t,” he said. “But under this bill, I think I could be held to that standard.”

The language Wilkerson is concerned about is contained in Senate Bill 1, a sweeping education-related bill that is part of a nationwide Republican effort to legislate how history and racism are taught in public schools.

Donnie Wilkerson dressed as John Smith in his classroom. (Donnie Wilkinson)

Last week, language from Senate Bill 138, “The Teaching American Principles Act,” was added to SB1. It sets out specific requirements for courses on “controversial topics related to public policy or social affairs.”

These lessons and any materials used in these lessons must be “within the range of knowledge, understanding, age and maturity of the students receiving instruction”. The lesson and associated materials must also be “relevant, objective, non-discriminatory, and respectful of students’ different perspectives.”

“Those are great metrics,” Wilkerson said. He sees a blur in this language and wonders if he can legally use seventh-grade reading level books in his fifth-grade class because this reading material may be considered outside the maturity range of his students.

But it’s the bill’s wording on respecting “differing perspectives” that worries him most.

“There are Holocaust deniers here in my backyard,” Wilkerson said. “If I have their students in my class, should I have a book that presents their point of view? »

Wilkerson was quick to add that he didn’t believe he would be required to teach historical conspiracy theories, even if his students’ parents held those beliefs. But he can imagine a scenario where superintendents and managers err on the side of caution.

“They’re going to say, ‘You can teach that if you want, but let’s not rock the boat. Let’s just keep the program safe. We don’t want to have complaints from parents,” he said.

Speaking at a legislative committee meeting in February, Sen Max Wise, the sponsor of SB138, explained that the language Wilkerson is concerned about is intended to ensure that the courses are “non-discriminatory in nature for any type of person”.

A new playlist

There are other parts of Senate Bill 1 that encroach too much on the classroom for some teachers. A section of the bill lists 24 “core American documents and speeches” that teachers will be required to cover in middle school and high school.

Some have criticized the list for containing largely white male perspectives on American history. Others have said that this is an example of legislative overreach. Cassie Lyles, a social studies teacher at Fairdale High School in southern Jefferson County, thinks both things are true.

“These sources should come from diverse perspectives,” she wrote in an email. “The list they provided is not diverse. Many of them are already taught, some are not, but the reality is that I know what is best for my students.

She said she was in the best position to choose texts for her class and to create meaningful learning experiences. But that effort is compromised, she said, “if I’m crippled by legislators who don’t know what my students need.”

State education officials have also criticized this portion of the legislation, with Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass saying his concern is “that the state legislature, through a political process by design, imposes curricular resources”.

Cassie Lyles, a teacher at Fairdale High School, criticizes Senate Bill 1. (Cassie Lyles)

Senator Wise said the list is not meant to be exhaustive and teachers are free to add material to supplement it. But he told his colleagues in a committee hearing that the list is also a necessary corrective to the standards’ lack of specificity.

“Educators and parents have complained that the standards seem to lack specific references to key people, key events, key struggles and key challenges, and the ongoing successes that have shaped America’s democratic principles of equality, liberty and individual rights,” he said.

Lyles isn’t convinced.

“I don’t need a box-ticking program, or a fear-driven program,” she said. “As for me and my class, we will learn the truth.”

Wilkerson issued a similar note on how he will proceed under this new legislation.

“I will continue to teach as I have taught until one of my administrators comes to me and tells me not to do this anymore,” he said. “I will honor their wishes, but then I will take the matter to court because students need to know the true history of your country.”

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