How does divisive concepts legislation affect students in New Hampshire?

A Teacher of the Year explains its ‘intimidating’ impact on her social studies classes
Mallory Langkau

Mallory Langkau

Buzzwords and big questions about education have entered political arenas across the United States. What is allowed to be discussed in classrooms? Should the government deem certain topics off-limits? Which one(s)? What should the consequence be for teachers who challenge these limitations? These discussions are here in New Hampshire echoing against the walls of the oldest operating legislative chambers of our nation. Censoring history and civics education is a dangerous pursuit that goes against the very ideals of this state: Live Free or Die. Let us be mindful of who this impacts most directly: our students.

I teach social studies at the secondary level. It is not easy, but I love it. I am passionate about digging into stories that help students connect to people throughout history and in different communities. I love to help students find a voice and encourage them to use it to direct their education. However, I have concerns about the threats looming over social studies education.

Social studies is no longer based on fact-memorization as it once was. (Thank goodness.) Instead, educators are trained and encouraged to make social studies courses engaging, authentic, and interactive. Countless educators in New Hampshire have worked hard to accomplish this for the benefit of our students. If educators are going to continue this crucial work, we require professional trust, respect, and freedom.

Students require freedom in their learning too. True and meaningful learning cannot happen if topics of interest or passion to a student are not accessible to them. Education is not equitable when students cannot learn about history and current issues that are representative of their identity or community. Divisive concept legislation is a threat to the liberating impacts of a meaningful education.

The mere presence of divisive concept legislation is demoralizing. It plants minefields in classrooms, causing educators to avoid covering certain topics or discussions out of fear of being reported and having their certification revoked. This impacts students. As a result, teachers may also limit what their students explore or discuss in their classroom out of fear. Threats by various groups have also caused teacher self-censorship. Some may say that this is unwarranted. I disagree. A bounty offered by the Moms of Liberty felt like a witch hunt. Consider the anxiety, harassment, and reputation damage that could result in being accused of breaking divisive concept legislation. This is particularly troubling, considering the crisis of teacher shortages. Good teachers are leaving education at alarming rates, one reason being that it is insulting to operate under a magnifying glass. Let us circle back to who this impacts most directly: our students.

In history courses, I teach hard history that is honest, transparent and inclusive. I utilize credible resources from renowned organizations that incorporate a broad range of perspectives. Most importantly, I seek new perspectives to include in my lessons to ensure that students are exposed to a complete history. It is crucial that students are safe to learn about the history of the various communities and populations that have been a part of our history, including marginalized groups.

In the late 20th century, the field of history in the United States experienced a change in historiography, often referred to as social history. This trend saw historians begin to explore avenues of previously ignored perspectives and voices, such as but not limited to: women, enslaved populations, migrants, Asian Americans, children, and Native Americans.

In the most recent years, this change in historiography has trickled into public classroom resources, which has helped implement an inclusive history. As someone who has one foot in the field of history and the other foot in the field of education, I would deem an inclusive approach to history as best practice. However, the timing of divisive concept legislation following this change in history education is certainly suspect. These types of laws discourage history teachers from leaning into an inclusive approach to history due to the potential repercussions of covering some relevant topics. Let us circle back to who this impacts most directly: our students.

In civics courses, I encourage students to do more than understand the technical operations of our government system. Students need to identify themselves as parts of various communities, develop their own opinions, and take action through civic engagement. This approach is in alignment with the direction of education towards competency-based education.

Yet this authentic approach to civics education has grown increasingly intimidating.

As reported by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, young people are increasingly more confident that they have the ability to create change. This gives me hope. However, young people need opportunities in school to learn civic engagement. True civic engagement requires getting into the hard issues rather than ignoring them: issues that come dangerously close to, if not crossing the line of, divisive concepts.

So, this begs the question: Should the government dictate and limit the scope of student-led inquiries of certain topics and concepts? We must protect and value a student’s access to an equitable education.

What can we do bbout these concerns? We can:

1. Pay attention to proposed legislation and share ideas. It is our duty to pay attention to proposed legislation. Not only that, but it is also important to communicate with others about this information. Talk about bills and issues with friends and family as you are comfortable and safe to do so. Write an email or letter to your representative to express your concerns or support. Our elected officials have a duty to represent us, but they may not know what is not expressed. Share your concerns and practice respectful civic dialogue. Be mindful of where you are obtaining your information from, considering potential biases and credible research.

2. Work with an inclusive history. This will look different depending on your various roles and identities. Encourage those around you to study history with an intention of seeking the complete picture. Learn about a historical time or place while asking questions, such as: What was it like to experience this? Whose perspective is missing? Whose voice is controlling the narrative we can hear? If you read in your spare time, consider picking up a book about someone in history you have never heard of before. When you visit historical sites, ask questions about missing perspectives. These are healthy and respectful ways to broaden your historical perspective. Although, be sure to prepare yourself for some tough conversations and information you may encounter along the way. It can be challenging, but discussing various stories is necessary to honor those in our history.

3. Facilitate civic engagement in our youth. My work with an organization called Mikva Challenge has been transformative for both my students and me. If you are an educator, please look into Mikva! They have helped me implement action civics in my classroom, and my students have learned how they can use their voice to speak out about issues they care about.

Don’t silence youth voices or discourage them from sharing their opinions. Encourage them to learn about issues they are passionate about and to build bridges with people who work in that field. Students belong to various communities in their lifetime, including their family, school, town, state, nation, planet, etc. Don’t you think they deserve opportunities to make their communities a better place?

Mallory Langkau, 2022 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches high school social studies in northern New Hampshire.

Categories: Education, Opinion