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Parents, politicians and activists flooded school board meetings across the country in recent months, desperate to be heard. 

In 60-second soundbites, they exploded over masks, books and so-called critical race theory. Their voices often echoed across social media and fueled viral news segments.

But hours after those tense meetings end, teachers and students walked into schools, feeling the reverberations of the culture wars that have consumed American education.

Many children are trying to be comfortable with who they are even as their identities come up for debate among adults. Educators are left to answer tough questions about history, race and sexuality, hyperaware their responses are under increased scrutiny. 

Some conservative students feel like their political beliefs aren’t welcomed on campuses while their families are set on “taking back” school boards, fueled by a desire to expand parental rights and block students from learning about their interpretation of critical race theory.

Meanwhile, vague laws passed in response to the ongoing culture wars threaten to chill candid conversations about history. And teachers are watching as attempts to foster inclusivity in their classrooms go punished. 

Navigating these conversations takes courage, teachers and students say. But it’s necessary to learn from the conflicts, they stress.

Reporters spoke to teens and educators in Alabama, Texas, Washington and Virginia who are working to build a broader understanding amid the political fights engulfing schools. They are confronting difficult history, pushing for inclusion and searching for their place within their communities. 

Vega Zaman, Decatur, Alabama

Vega Zaman walked into a middle school robotics class last year to find a fellow student playing with a Lego truck.

“It’s a bomb truck,” the student told Zaman, asking them if they were Arabian.

“I was like, ‘Why, do I look Arabian?’” said Zaman, who is Black and South Asian. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, ‘cause Arabians bomb people.’ And it was out of nowhere! He didn’t even know me.”

Zaman is currently an eighth grader at Decatur City Schools, a North Alabama district that recently obtained unitary status from a decades-old desegregation order. The system has become increasingly diverse, but Zaman said that hasn’t stopped the racist comments – especially during the pandemic. Recent state actions against “divisive concepts” and “inappropriate” discussion of LGBTQ issues also have added a level of confusion to schools’ ability to address tough topics, educators and students said.

“COVID made it worse, because you only experience life through a screen, and you don’t really have the capacity to see,” they said. “But when they can actually touch, see, feel, smell, and they can actually see it happening in their community… you never really understand something until you experience it.”

That’s why Zaman created a 13-page anti-racism guide for school leaders and teachers to use last year. Topics included racial trauma, microaggressions, white privilege and systemic racism, and Zaman suggested readings like “Blended” by Sharon M. Draper.

“I’ve read this myself. It’s a book about a mixed girl torn between her two identities,” Zaman wrote next to the entry. “It’s a good read!”

But the effort fell through with new leadership, along with a Black History Month assembly that Zaman tried to organize this year.

“It could have served as an idea,” Zaman said of the guide. “You know, just a base for something that could be. But it got shot down.”

A judge ruled the system had eliminated “vestiges of past discrimination” in 2019, after the district made efforts to diversify its faculty. And in many ways, Decatur has steered clear of controversy, while other majority-white or diversifying districts have made headlines for racist incidents and battles over equity and inclusion efforts in recent years.

But two years later, Zaman says the system has much more work to do, and they fear that racist jokes and whitewashed history lessons will only worsen as schools across the state contend with legislation that could limit discussions on race, gender and religion in the classroom.

“[Equity is] definitely something they don’t have to try to work for anymore,” Zaman said.

Lou Whiting, 17, Granbury, Texas

High school junior Lou Whiting thumbed through a thick book with a rainbow cover, the same one that’s rested in their bedroom since middle school. This copy, though, was all marked up. 

A yellow post-it was stuck next to a cartoon drawing of female anatomy. Another one was alongside a paragraph explaining how condoms help prevent sexually transmitted infections. They were among examples of “overtly sexual content” that trigged calls for banning the text from Granbury schools.

“It’s just sex ed,” Lou, a nonbinary student in the district, muttered while scanning the pages of This Book is Gay. “It’s not porn.”

Granbury ISD recently held a “public inspection” of eight books that are now banned from campus libraries after a small committee met behind closed doors and determined they were inappropriate for schools.

During the inspection, the books laid out across two tables in the administration building’s lobby. Each one was littered with those multicolored sticky notes, appearing to point the reader to a passage someone had found objectionable. 

While the committee deemed This Book is Gay inappropriate, it’s something Lou has turned to five or six times over the years. Lou came out as queer in sixth grade and wants others to have the same opportunity they did to flip through the book’s pages and find answers. 

“There’s queer stories. There’s how different labels work. There’s stuff about queer history,” Lou said. “I can look at that and think, ‘Where am I?’”

Across Texas, schools are under pressure from Republican state leaders to scrutinize libraries for books that explore gender and sexuality. It’s part of a broader conservative crackdown on the ways schools discuss LGBT issues.

Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly labeled some books on these topics as pornography. A powerful conservative lawmaker circulated a list of more than 800 books — many related to sexuality or about race-related issues — that he told superintendents to review. His list came amid a swell of anti-LGBT rhetoric from Republican leaders with some setting the stage to copy Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law next session.

Granbury – a district of about 7,300 students roughly an hour west of Dallas – acted quickly, and the district superintendent doubled down in support. 

“Let’s not misrepresent things,” Jeremy Glenn said during a school board meeting. “We’re not taking Shakespeare or Hemingway off the shelves.”

Civil rights groups raised the alarm, saying the targeted books represent diverse stories important to both reflect students’ experiences back to them and expose others to realities different than their own. The ACLU of Texas argued that Granbury’s process violated students’ First Amendment rights. 

Lou heard from a friend which books were slated for removal. Still, they wanted to show up at the public inspection event to remind school officials that people like them exist, even in this small town. 

They are continuing to make themselves heard by forming a Gay Straight Alliance, testifying at school board meetings and designing a t-shirt to represent their movement – and then donating the profits to the Freedom to Read Foundation. 

More quietly, Lou is supporting LGBT students by lending out their copy of This Book is Gay to classmates who need it. 

Michal Friesen, Bellevue, Washington

A few years ago, when Michal Friesen began teaching third grade at Woodridge Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington, she learned that she was required to teach a unit called “Bellevue Then and Now.” When she opened a dusty plastic bin of teaching materials for the unit, she saw it included very little history on the dozens of Japanese families who contributed to what was once a thriving farming community. 

Educated as a historian herself, Friesen had previously researched the World War II era, the federal government’s Executive Order 9066, and the subsequent sudden incarceration of thousands of Japanese American residents at isolated camps scattered throughout the U.S.

“So I jumped on that right away,” she said. 

Today, Bellevue – a city of 150,000 just east of Seattle – is a thriving center of commerce. But in 1940, it was an unincorporated area of about 1,000 people, including 300 Japanese-Americans who put in the hard work of clearing the once-heavily timbered land to make it suitable for growing popular crops, like strawberries, and also for building houses. 

In 1942, those families were ordered out of their communities by the U.S. government for the duration of the war. It’s a history that still stings; in 2020, the president and vice-president of Bellevue College left their jobs after they allowed a mural of two Japanese American children in an incarceration camp to be altered by whiting out a reference to anti-Japanese agitation by area businessmen.

Japanese incarceration isn’t the focus of the Bellevue Then and Now unit. The curriculum is meant to cover the history of its development, from its earliest inhabitants to its current incarnation as a growing metropolitan hub in King County’s Eastside. 

But Friesen does ask her third-grade students to research their own backyard, think about why Bellevue developed the way that it did and how different it might be if its Japanese residents hadn’t been imprisoned in the 1940s. 

“You really can’t leave that out of the story. You cannot tell the history of Bellevue without talking about the Japanese immigrants and the community that helped form it,” she said.

She said third-graders are curious about their community’s history, even the parts some people find disturbing.

When we teach these difficult topics, kids respond with a lot of engagement, Friesen said, “because they know that it’s real and they know that it’s important.”

Gloria Zelaya, 18, Richmond, Virginia

By the time she becomes a teacher, Gloria Zelaya hopes, the furor over teaching history will have died down.

Zelaya, a senior at George Wythe High School, in Richmond, Virginia, and an aspiring educator, has spent her 10:40 am elective this spring learning about her city’s sometimes ugly history and how it informs the present. In the class, REAL Richmond, Zelaya has been introduced to places like Shockoe Bottom, once the center of the city’s slave trade, and analyzed maps to help explore questions like why the James River divides Richmond by income.

“It makes you think, when you go to places, I have the instinct to question, to wonder what the history behind it is,” said Zelaya, one of approximately 55 students enrolled in the class in Richmond Public Schools.

Since the district launched the course in 2020, history instruction in the state of Virginia and nationwide has become more fraught. In January, Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s new governor, signed an executive order banning the instruction of “inherently divisive concepts.” Youngkin also set up a tip line enabling parents to report teachers who taught students “divisive” subjects. 

Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras, who first proposed the idea for the REAL Richmond course – REAL stands for relevant, engaging, active and living – said he worries the order is a “thinly veiled effort to stop the discussion of race and its implications for our community.” He’s heard from parents who are worried their kids won’t learn about the impact of the domestic slave trade on Virginia, or grapple with current events that are affected by that legacy, he said.    

Zelaya said that so far the governor’s moves haven’t had a chilling effect in her classroom. She tends to be reserved, she said, but has raised her hand to discuss topics like the Confederate statues that lined Richmond’s Monument Avenue until they were removed recently by the state and city.

“I felt it was justified,” she said of protestors who toppled statutes there and elsewhere. “It was a constant reminder of what these people put their ancestors through.”

Zelaya is scheduled to graduate from George Wythe in June. She’s planning to study early childhood education at a local community college with the goal of returning to the Richmond public school system.

“If this is going on right now, what happens in four years when I’m a teacher?” said Zelaya of the crackdown on teaching “divisive” topics. “Will I not be able to teach what I was taught? It hits on different levels.”

She added, “Teaching what happened in history is very, very important.”

This story about history was produced by The Dallas Morning News, AL.com, The Seattle Times and The Hechinger Report and is part of a collaborative education reporting effort between those news outlets, as well as the Post and Courier, the Christian Science Monitor and the Fresno Bee.

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Talia Richman

Dallas Morning News

Rebecca Griesbach

AL.com

Caroline Preston is a senior editor who edits and writes stories on K-12 and higher education. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with...

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