Austin ISD teachers and students concerned about impacts of restricting social studies curriculum

Carlen Floyd

By Gabriella Beker

For some teachers, there’s been an extra challenge as they prepare lessons for the year – making sure they don’t violate new laws passed by the Texas Legislature.

“I second guess, I double-check, and I ponder, ‘Am I violating the spirit of the law?’ ‘Am I violating the letter of the law?’” said Carlen Floyd, a US History and Ethnic Studies teacher at Bowie High School.

Floyd is referring to Texas House Bill 3979, which was passed in the 2021 legislative session and aims to limit discussion about controversial topics in history and current events, specifically those related to race. 

Lawmakers claim that teachers all across Texas are teaching critical race theory, an academic philosophy that examines the impact of racism on U.S. laws and policies. HB 3979 and similar measures, which have been introduced in the subsequent special sessions, seek to ban this philosophy, though none of the bills explicitly name it.

Effects in the classroom
For Floyd’s Ethnic Studies students, this year’s course began with a reading of HB 3979. Students excitedly read through the bill’s opening amendments, which require reading of certain works by and about women and people of color, and were surprised at the abrupt shift to restrictions such as “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.”

Seniors Aidan Barboza and Keira Folkers found the bill “confusing and mind-boggling” and worry about how its unclear guidelines will affect the classroom.

“It’s pretty vague in the context of what is restricted and what isn’t,” Barboza said. “A lot of it is put on whether or not an individual in the class decides for themselves if they feel uncomfortable with the content. It’s a very abstract way of restricting a curriculum.”

Some teachers believe that the ambiguous language is intentional. 

“If the notion is that I’m spending time in class, in my Ethnic Studies class for example, intentionally trying to make white students feel guilty for things in the past, that is not something that I’ve ever done nor have any interest in doing,” said LASA teacher Adam Escandell. “But the bill is written so vaguely as to potentially apply to any circumstance.”

Shannon Jones teaches eighth grade U.S. history and an elective called “Sports in Society” at Kealing Middle School. Her class examines major social movements through the lens of sports. She is concerned that this bill will prevent students from developing essential critical thinking skills or seeing themselves reflected in the classroom curriculum.

“Quite frankly, I tell my students, my job is not to tell you history,” Jones said. “We want to teach them how to be historians themselves. We want them to be able to think critically and examine a variety of sources, identify biases within those sources and move forward and make their decisions that way, and to be able to support their opinions with evidence.”

Beyond the classroom
The members of Educators in Solidarity, a network of teachers and administrators that was formed in 2014 to build support for anti-racist educators in Austin, are afraid that these bills will have harmful effects on students beyond the classroom.

“It’s going to really be detrimental not only for academic learning but also the social and emotional wellbeing of our students of color, our students that are LGBTQ. To not feel like you belong or like your experience is of any value, that’s traumatizing,” says Hannah Friedman, an instructional coach at Barbara Jordan Elementary School and a co-founder of Educators in Solidarity. “When people don’t feel like they belong or like it’s safe to be themselves, you’re not setting up students to be successful at all.”

“It specifically hurts students, the individual themselves, because if they see that we need to hide the past of our own country, then they take that on themselves and feel that they need to hide their own past.” - 12th Grader Keira Folkers.

Next steps
Floyd, Escandell and Jones said they don’t intend to change their lessons as a result of the legislation, and will continue encouraging students to explore history from a wide range of accounts and sources and have difficult dialogues. They believe that this legislation is a response to misinformation sowing fear amongst lawmakers and parents alike.

“I feel very confident that if someone comes after me for what I'm teaching, this is something I'm willing to take through court,” Jones said. “Because I think there’s a lot of hearsay and a lot of fear about what goes on, but nobody is ever in a classroom. These legislators are a mile and a half away from Kealing. Come watch us teach, come learn what our students are learning, then I think a lot of what they’re fearing would go away.”

Still, legislative efforts to restrict what’s taught in the classroom are ongoing. Senate Bill 3, a more restrictive version of HB 3979 introduced in the second special session, would remove the readings required by HB 3979 and further prohibit discussion of racism in history and current events. This is the version that awaits the Governor’s signature to become law. 

Floyd fears that this political momentum will ultimately prevent students from learning from their own history. 

“Only by looking at your mistakes can you live up to the ideals that are promised in the founding documents,” Floyd said. “If we say that we’ve arrived, that this is America and we are preeminent, then there’s nowhere to go. So it is not unpatriotic, it is actually more American to try to make us better, to make us be what we’ve said we are going to be.”