Chatter filled Beatrice Mitchell’s 8th grade social studies class on a recent afternoon. “Two more minutes before we start presenting,” Mitchell announced.
At each table, students took a quick vote to decide who would represent them. A girl with long red and black braids was up first. Zaniyah Williams read her group’s answer about Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the only effective slave rebellion in U.S. history.
“It says he’s a preacher, but he’s going around killing people. It doesn’t sit right,” she said.
Mitchell asked her to elaborate. How does that make you feel? Was he justified?
Another student took a turn. “I’m in the middle,” he said. “Yes, he killed a lot of people. But slave masters also killed people and made people suffer.”
The class at F.D. Moon Middle School in Oklahoma City is part of a pilot for a social studies curriculum built on encouraging students to engage in civil discourse and celebrate American ideals while also examining darker chapters of history.
Many of those weighty topics are underscored by race. Slavery. The Holocaust. The Tulsa Race Massacre.
Overshadowing that teaching today is extreme political polarization and an intense scrutiny of teachers. Oklahoma’s one of at least 36 states that prohibits certain classroom discussions on race or gender, including what are considered “divisive concepts.”
Oklahoma’s law, House Bill 1775, passed in 2021, comes with stiff penalties. The state could downgrade school districts’ accreditation and strip educators of their teaching credentials. It’s part of a national effort by some conservative activists to prevent schools from teaching what’s considered “critical race theory,” an academic framework that examines how policies and laws uphold systemic racism.
But at the same time, there’s an urgent push for more and better civics education. Many adults lack foundational knowledge in American history and government and aren’t civically engaged.
The program Mitchell’s class is piloting aims to be a solution. It was created by iCivics, an organization founded by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was alarmed by Americans’ lack of understanding in how the country’s constitutional democracy is supposed to work.
iCivics started by creating digital games with themes like constitutional rights and the branches of government that are used by millions of students each year.
The organization developed its U.S. History core curriculum based on the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, a joint project with iCivics, Harvard, Tufts and Arizona State universities.
Oklahoma City Public Schools is one of three districts piloting the curriculum; the others are in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Jefferson County, Colorado.
Mitchell, who’s been teaching 13 years, is a big fan.
Students are retaining the material and taking ownership of their learning, she said.
“Up until this point (in their schooling), they’re being told what to think, what to do,” Mitchell said. “It blows their mind when I say ‘what do you think ?’”
Mitchell said she used to imitate voices of historical characters like George Washington to keep her 13 and 14 year old students engaged. This content is so rich, she hasn’t had to do that this year. “It’s not the bland history most are used to,” she said.
Though it’s only the first year, there are signs the pilot is working. All of Mitchell’s 8th grade students passed the U.S. naturalization test, a new graduation requirement starting this school year.
Across the district, 68% of 8th graders passed (students can take the quiz each year starting in 8th grade.)
And a recent survey found just 1 in 3 adults can pass the exam, even though 40 percent said U.S. history was their favorite subject in school. Oklahoma’s passing rate was even lower at 1 in 4 adults.
A majority of adults across the political spectrum agree students need a more robust social studies education. Scores released Wednesday show U.S. 8th graders’ knowledge of history and civics dropped significantly between 2018 and 2022, according to the Nation’s Report Card.
But what gets taught, and how, and which texts are used, continues to be a significant source of disagreement and polarization.
iCivics has not avoided that controversy. While the organization is committed to nonpartisanship, it does uphold moral imperatives like racial justice, its director, Louise Dubé, said in an interview.
And its mission to provide equitable access to civics education has, at times, drawn criticism from conservatives. Equity is the E in DEI, another target of politicians who say education has gone too “woke.”
The Oklahoma Board of Education last week requested a special report of all school districts regarding spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the request of State Superintendent Ryan Walters. Walters, a former history teacher, claimed such programs are “Marxist at its core.”
It’s unknown whether this program would fall under DEI spending.
The goal of iCivics is to ensure every student has access to high-quality history and civics education by training teachers to feel confident using inquiry-based learning, which is essentially guiding students to use critical thinking by asking the right questions.
“We’re not making a curriculum or a program for kids in red areas or blue areas or purple areas. We’re making curriculum and designing programs for all kids in America, no matter where they are,” said Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics.
Of the three states where iCivics is piloting its curriculum, Oklahoma is the only one with a so-called anti-critical race theory law. Humphries, though, said that wasn’t an issue. “I just don’t think there was anything in there that was problematic or ran counter to the law,” she said.
The curriculum was customized to align with Oklahoma’s standards, but no changes were needed based on the law, which specifically protects teachers’ ability to teach concepts laid out in the state standards.
The law prohibits teaching eight concepts, including that one race is superior to another, that someone is inherently racist because of their race, or that someone should feel discomfort or guilt because of their race or sex.
That doesn’t mean teachers aren’t afraid of violating the law, intentionally or unintentionally, or being accused of doing so. Many people misinterpret the law to mean students can’t feel uncomfortable at all.
“I would assume legislators know that we can’t fully control how any one person’s going to feel in a given moment. But what we can control is what we present and the primary sources we use and the discussion questions we ask,” Humphries said.
Reading the language of the bill convinced Dave Corcoran, an assistant professor of history and coordinator of social studies education at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, it was written by people who never spent time in classrooms.
“People don’t understand that education is a really dynamic process and there’s lots of emotions that will circulate for any given topic,” said Corcoran, who has taught in middle and high schools and mentors student teachers and observes them in the classroom.
House Bill 1775, he said, has had little to no effect on how educators are prepared, aside from causing fear.
But he’s also seeing increasing interest in teaching social studies, especially among women. Some of them are offended they didn’t receive a robust civics education and want to do better.
“The responsibility of social studies teachers is citizenship education, right? It’s about developing students that are engaged in communities. Voter participation is just one indication of that, but it is pathetic here,” Corcoran said.