Episode 14: Teaching Accurate History

While some politicians have tried to limit what students can learn when it comes to America’s history, Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) has been advocating for a fuller teaching of Black history in Florida’s schools for years. We sat down with her recently to discuss why this issue is so important to her and why students need to be taught Black history year-round, not just on special occasions like Dr. King’s birthday or Black History Month.


Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) 


[00:00:00]Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools. Be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit feaweb.org/podcast.

[00:00:17]Sharon Nesvig, announcer: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

[00:00:43] Sen. James Hargett: One of the greatest privileges I’ve had as a state Senator in the state of Florida is to have a participated along with Representative Bradley in sponsoring the legislation to require the teaching of African-American history in the schools of Florida. I believe that it will help our young people in the state know their history. As I stated on the floor in the Senate, you can’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you’re coming from. I also believe that you can’t teach the history of America truly without teaching the history of African-Americans as a central part of it. And for that reason, I’m very proud to participate.

[00:01:28] Tina Dunbar, Host: Those are the words of former state Senator James Hargett who sponsored the 1994 legislation requiring Florida schools to add African-American history to the curriculum. Welcome to Educating from the Heart I’m Tina Dunbar with my cohost Luke Flynt.

So, Luke, we began the last episode with a history lesson. So let’s start this one with a quick quiz. What do you think about that? Well, you know, you can’t work in education without a few assessments here and there. What do you remember learning about African-American history in school? I grew up in another state. And when I think about it, most of my learning came from my family and from within my community. I don’t remember learning a lot about African-American contributions to American history in school.

I do remember learning a few names and a focus on Egypt and the pyramids. But there was no reference to the significance of Egypt being in the continent of Africa, which I see as a total disconnect because African-Americans have a significant past, and we continue to play an important role in shaping American history today. Wouldn’t you agree?

[00:02:48] Luke Flynt, Host: You know, Tina, there is so much that I appreciate about the great public education I received in Indian River County. And I am proud to be a member of the Vero Beach High School Class of 1998. When I look back at my schooling, there is no doubt that I received a sanitized, you know, maybe even a whitewashed version of history.

You know, I was taught for instance, the myth that Rosa Parks was just a lone actor who one day got tired and didn’t give up a seat on the bus. Not the reality that she was part of a larger anti segregation movement. And in fact, she was on the council of her local NAACP. That part of the history often gets left out for school children. And not just when I was a child, but that’s still happening today.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. For several years now, Representative Geraldine Thompson has been trying to ensure that no longer will entire generations of Florida school children be able to graduate with only getting a little bit of African-American history. She wants to ensure they get the full story.

[00:03:58] Tina: And you’re correct. It’s partly due to Representative Thompson that districts are now required to submit an annual required instruction report to the DOE. It details the courses being taught, who’s teaching them and how the courses are being taught.

According to the last report found on the DOE website during the 2019-2020 school year out of 73 school districts, there were only four districts that exceeded the basic rule requirements. 59 satisfied the reporting rule, and five districts provided incomplete information. Now that doesn’t really provide a clear picture of what’s going on here. But what we do know is depending upon the school district, students might get a thorough exposure to African-American history, or they might not.

Some district offers standalone classes. Others offer the course as an elective, which means students are not required to take it. So, to ensure all students receive the quality education they deserve, Rep. Thompson tells us her bill would put teeth into the current law to make sure African-American history is taught with fidelity to all students across the state.

You have been trying to promote African-American history studies through a number of attempts in terms of legislation, you and other legislators. Senator Bracy, who we also asked to join us today, and something came up at the last minute, he wasn’t able to join us. He has a bill on the Ocoee Massacre, which actually passed.

With the governor’s point of view and the ruling in terms of how teachers, educators should talk about these culturally divisive issues, what does that mean for our teachers discussing African-American history and some of these really important issues connected to what we see going on politically right now?

[00:06:01] Rep. Geraldine Thompson: Well, I think one of the things that members of the legislature have to be reminded of is that we have had in Florida law, Florida statute 1003 since 1994, over 27 years, that requires instruction on African-American history, starting with the culture of Africa, before slavery going through slavery, the civil rights movement, all of it.

And it has not been uniformly enforced. And so, if you say that you have to follow the law regarding to the parents’ bill of rights, why aren’t we following this law that’s been on the books for 27 years. And so that’s what I have been advocating. And when I filed the legislation in 2019, it was to put some teeth in the law to say that there’s some sanctions if this instruction is not being delivered. Well, the bill has yet to get a hearing. I have refiled it again this year, because I think you can’t pick and choose which laws you’re going to follow. And yes, we are in a climate and in an environment where the Department of Education, the board of education is prohibiting the discussion of race and racism in our classrooms, and that shortchanges students. That’s the bottom line.

I talked to a group of students a month, a couple months ago. And I asked them to name ten individuals who were important and significant during the Civil Rights Movement. And so, they named some people at the national level, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, et cetera, the names that come to mind. Then I asked them to name ten who were from Florida or who worked in Florida; I got no response. And the reason that they did not respond is because they’re not getting the instruction. It’s not being taught in the classrooms. And so that’s what we have to keep working toward and promoting. And that’s why I’m saying. It’s the students who are being short changed.

[00:08:26] Tina: You will hear people from the DOE, the commissioner, and some folks will say, “well, we do teach this it’s mentioned.” But isn’t that the problem it’s merely mentioned, they don’t take the time to really dive in and understand the actions.

[00:08:46] Rep. Thompson: That’s exactly the problem because we’re not talking about celebrating Dr. King’s birthday. Some teachers have said to me, “well, we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday,” and they believed that that fulfills the requirement to teach African-American history. A celebration is not instruction. And we are not looking for something that you set aside just for February. We’re looking for something that’s infused throughout the curriculum for 180 days, which is the length of the academic school year for schools here in Florida.

[00:09:24] Tina: So, what’s the barrier? It’s in the law.

[00:09:28] Rep. Thompson: Well, some of the teachers have said to me they don’t have the content. And so I have been working with the African-American History Task Force that works directly with the Commissioner of Education to say, we need to make sure that all 67 counties have the content, not only African American history on a national level but Florida history in particular. And so, I think to answer your question, it is not being taught because people don’t have the content. They have not been motivated to do the research themselves, and so here we are looking to engage the task force to make sure that they have the history.

And then the second thing is that you need an advocate, and we’ve not had the advocate. And so when I came, returned to the legislature in 2018, I made that a priority because nobody is going to prioritize African-American history if it’s not African-Americans.

[00:10:38] Luke: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, when, when we look at the bill that passed, I think maybe two sessions ago now, about the Holocaust, one of the things that they did really well is they didn’t just say you have to teach that the Holocaust happened: You must teach the underlying causes. And actually in that bill, it even says you, you must talk about racism. Yet when it comes to teaching African-American history there is nothing about the underlying causes. There is maybe a desire, like you said, well, we’ll teach the names of the famous people, but, but we’re not going to talk about why they were mistreated or why Dr. King or others, you know, were assassinated. We’ll, just mention that these things did happen and not explore the why.

And I think for students, it is so by the way important that they get the why things are the way that they are.

[00:11:34] Rep. Thompson: Well with Representative Fine’s bill that was just sailing through the house, I offered an amendment. If you look at that bill that on now incorporated history on the Ocoee Massacre as a part of the requirement. And you’ve had a lot of advocates with regard to the Holocaust and the history of Jews, et cetera. You’ve had a lot of those advocates in the legislature, and we haven’t seen the same kind of advocacy in the legislature. And if you look at the fact that for 27 years, African American history hasn’t been uniformly taught and what happened in Palm Beach County when a parent called and asked how you’re teaching the history of the Holocaust. And the principal said, “Well, I’m not sure the Holocaust really occurred,” the whole community was up in arms. I haven’t seen a whole lot of African-Americans up in arms, even though this history is not being taught and has not been taught the 27 years.

[00:12:42] Tina: What would you say to teachers who are extremely concerned about not just teaching African-American history or any kind of cultural history but even talking about some of the things that are happening right now in terms of current events?

I had a teacher that we talked with for our last month’s podcast, and she mentioned the fact that right after January 6th, when they had the incident there in the Capitol that the class came in and they wanted to talk about it, they wanted to know about it. And then a few weeks later, you know, we had the ruling, and I simply asked the question: when you returned to school, would you be able to have that same conversation now with this ruling that she had previously with her students?

And she said no. No, she couldn’t have that. And I asked her why, and she basically said she was afraid that information would be used against her, even though she’s speaking the truth, even though she’s detailing facts, things that we know actually happened, things that we see that actually happened, she’s concerned that it would be used against her, that even a child could misread the information or the child could take the proper information home and the parent misread it. You see what I mean? And she is concerned that she could lose her license behind something like this. What does that do to teaching and learning in these critical areas and in this critical information that kids really do need to know in order for us to move forward as a society?

[00:14:25] Rep. Thompson: Well instructors are very concerned, and I think rightfully so. I can’t remember the bill number, but we passed a bill [HB 233] that requires that staff and students respond to a survey to determine if conservative views are being stifled. And so now they’re going to take this survey and as a part of that same bill, it allows students to tape their instructors without the instructors’ consent and without the instructors’ knowledge; for what purpose? So, yes, teachers are very concerned about that. And while I’m advocating for instruction on African-American history they’re saying, “well, you know, if I talk about this and it’s misinterpreted, what are the ramifications?” So, that’s something.

You know, I spoke against that bill obviously, and I mean, some of it just doesn’t make sense because it takes away, at the college level in particular, it takes away the prerogative of the college president to determine what kind of speech is going to be allowed on the campus and what is going to be disruptive and take away from the learning experience.

Are you going to permit the proud boys to come on campus and to make presentations about, you know, whatever? And one of the questions that came up when we were discussing this bill was, does this mean then that the members of the Klu Klux Klan can march on the campus of Florida A & M University? And the sponsor of the bill said “Absolutely.”

Anything that disrupts the learning environment has to be under the purview of the president to say, this is not conducive to the learning environment. And so this bill takes that away. And so it may be that we need to look at some repealers to make sure that all viewpoints are actually being presented. And that education is what we call the marketplace of ideas. Not just some ideas.

[00:16:55] Luke: When I was looking at the legislation you filed this year, one of the things that actually really excited me about it is that it would require all schools that receive public funding to document that they’re teaching African-American history, because we know that at these fly by night schools that receive vouchers, the standard of instruction at so many of them is so low. It is a tremendous disservice to the students and to the parents who were suckered into going into those schools. And so, to finally see some standards apply to those voucher schools, I think would be a big step in the right direction. Could you talk some as to why you thought it was important to include that in the bill?

[00:17:44] Rep. Thompson:  For many of the reasons that you’ve already stated. There has been a push in terms of not only funding, but in terms of credentials, et cetera, at charter schools that we’ve not seen for the traditional public schools.  And I feel that the tax dollars that flow into these private schools requires them to meet the same Florida standards because we are talking about Florida law. And so I did put in the bill that this is not just for public school students. This is also, uh, for charters and vouchers that they would be required to meet the very same standards.

[00:18:28] Tina: Is there anything that we can do legislatively that would help educators feel more comfortable about doing their job correctly?

[00:18:38] Rep. Thompson: We’ve got to get more voices to save that bit, to elevate this and to say that this is important. And so, I think we need to have, when we have leadership training for teachers, we need to have the commissioner come and talk about how this is compatible with a law that’s been on the books for 27 years. So, the teachers do feel more comfortable, that they feel that they can address these issues. And you know, this is, this is nothing new in terms of people wanting to sweep this under the rug.  And not to talk about race and racism, you know, that’s been pervasive in American society for  decades.

So this isn’t new, and there’s some of us who’ve been pushing nevertheless, and we’re making incremental progress. But I think we’re going to have to engage the folks, you know, those who don’t think like us to say this is important and, and you’re shortchanging students if we don’t do it. And so how do you see it? How do you see it being compatible with your edict, that you not talk about race and racism in classrooms?

[00:20:03] Tina:  It hurts, not just students, but it hurts the state. It hurts our future. How do give people a better society of people if we don’t start talking about these things?

[00:20:13] Rep. Thompson: Well, and I’m excited to have a conversation with you all and hope to get FEA involved and engaged and PTA, and I had some student government people, student government associations from some of our universities who were involved. But to get everybody, you know, kind of pushing to say that this is vital information that needs to be part of our discussion of American history.

[00:20:43] Luke: What a powerful interview from Representative Thompson. And I really hope that this is the year that her bill gets across the finish line. I understand that educators are leery about having something added to required instruction, because it seems like things are always put on the plate and nothing ever gets taken off. But this is a bill that I wholeheartedly support, because as the Representative said, for far too long, the topic of race has either been ignored or distorted. We must talk about race. We must teach about race. We simply cannot expect our children to understand the nation’s history without understanding the history of African-Americans.

[00:21:29] Tina: Yes. And I can’t agree with you more. But I don’t want to distract from the state’s efforts. Florida is among a handful of states that require instruction in African-American history, and it has established a DOE task force to provide knowledge, guidance, and resources to our teachers. Unfortunately, according to the task force website, about half of Florida districts have taken advantage of the online teacher instruction and the digital classroom programs.

Thank you for joining us for this month’s episode, until we meet again, keep educating from the heart.

[00:22:11] Dr. Primrose Cameron: Greetings. My name is Dr. Primrose Cameron, and on behalf of FEA’s Professional Development and Educational Research Department, we celebrate our members and students throughout the year with research-based and highly effective professional development. We focus on many areas to include curriculum and instruction, race and equity, professional growth, wellness, and more. Please feel free to contact us by email at feaprodev@floridaea.org 

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[00:23:15] Sharon Nesvig: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.

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