Parents and educators debated over the Wit and Wisdom curriculum and Critical Race Theory during the Metro Nashville Public Schools’ (MNPS) board meeting on Tuesday.
The room was filled with individuals, 60 of which had signed up to speak. Not all of the public commentary concerned the Wit and Wisdom curriculum or Critical Race Theory – but the dialogue that did focus on those two topics was equally, deeply divided. A total of 10 individuals spoke in favor of Critical Race Theory and the Wit and Wisdom curriculum; three spoke against it.
Those who spoke out against the Wit and Wisdom curriculum and Critical Race Theory were all mothers. Whenever opponents of Wit and Wisdom or Critical Race Theory spoke, supporters in attendance laughed. No similar audience noise occurred when supporters spoke – just clapping and sounds of affirmation.
Traces of Moms for Liberty of Williamson County’s parent-led deep dive team were present in these mothers’ arguments. They rattled off the titles and some quotes from K-4 books that contained topics like gender fluidity, anti-police, anti-church, anti-nuclear family, rape, murder, adultery, stillbirth, cannibalism, and suicide. Books cited included “Thunder Rolling in the Mountain,” “River Between Us,” “The Boys’ War,” “We Are the Ship,” “Separate Is Never Equal.”
“You’re indoctrinating our children. Some subject material should be taught privately at home, not in the school setting. With that being said, we would be teaching adult subjects to young children. Is this fair? There have been students who have had to go to therapy after having been exposed to the content being taught within Wit and Wisdom,” said one mother, Amity Marsh. “It would be beneficial for us to consider the words of the apostle Paul, Philippians 4:8: ‘Finally, brothers and sisters: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.'”
One mother, Stephanie Upchurch, explained that she’s a therapist and her professional judgment predicts that Wit and Wisdom curriculum will have the same potential impact on young minds that the Netflix television series “13 Reasons Why” did, due to its graphic, dark subject matter. Following the release of that TV series, the country experienced a 29 percent increase in teen suicides.
“[I am] shocked and literally sick to my stomach at times looking at the books and the content,” stated Upchurch.
Supporters of Critical Race Theory in school argued that it was “truth” and an accurate, honest history. They argued that the Tennessee legislature’s recent ban on Critical Race Theory in schools would prevent schools from teaching about certain histories involving slavery, segregation, and Native Americans.
“My white children don’t need to be protected from the harm people who look like us have done and caused,” said one mother, Bethany Rittle-Johnson. “They need to learn from honest history so it is not repeated.”
Rittle-Johnson is the chair and a professor of Vanderbilt University’s Psychology and Human Development department. She is also a chair in the child development department.
Wit and Wisdom curriculum supporters said that social-emotional learning was necessary for student development.
A former teacher and MNPS Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Coach Stefanie Rapp said that she was glad of the city’s support of SEL in schools – she claimed SEL would disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and racial disparities in school discipline. Rapp said she also supported the Wit and Wisdom curriculum, which she called a “rich variety of authentic children’s books” that offered a “firsthand account of history.”
Rapp alluded to the Williamson County parents’ efforts to remove Wit and Wisdom curriculum from schools, rejecting the notion that topics like race and racism shouldn’t be taught. She insinuated that students should be taught that systemic racism exists.
“I reject these efforts to prevent teachers from being able to teach students to think critically about painful truths that are part of the country’s history and which continue to impact life today,” said Rapp.
One mother and lawyer named Anna Williams said she was once a student of Kimberlé Crenshaw – the pioneering scholar behind Critical Race Theory. She said that those opposed to Critical Race Theory don’t really understand it. Williams claimed that students of color have “different realities” than others.
“We cannot ignore, rather we have to teach,” said Williams. “If we are not willing to speak truthfully about the history of this country, we cannot move forward. That is not Critical Race Theory. That is not anything to be afraid of, nor is that prohibited by statute.”
An MNPS middle school teacher, Karen Sun, asked the board how they plan to protect teachers like her who will continue to teach Critical Race Theory. Sun is a member of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association’s (MNEA) Racial and Social Justice and Early Career Educators Committees. She was also a graduate student of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, awarded last year for her LGBTQ+ advocacy.
I am here today wondering how you are planning to protect teachers who will continue to teach the truth about race and racism, the truth about U.S. history and U.S. society, despite the law, House Bill 580 that the state legislative body and Governor Bill Lee passed earlier this year in May. The state attempting to legislate away the ugly truth in this country’s history and foundation will not change the facts, it will only render a massive disservice to our students and make it difficult for teachers to teach their curriculum. Our students are not too young to talk about race and racism, especially since a lot of our students are certainly not too young to experience it. When teachers talk to students about racism and white supremacy when we talk about the awful things people have done to others throughout history without redeeming themselves, which is the truth, students are going to feel sad and upset and confused and angry and shameful but those aren’t bad things to feel. It’s okay for students to grapple with difficult conversations and emotions. We should give students space to do that and figure out what they can do with those uncomfortable emotions. Our students are our future. How can we ask them to help create a more equitable and just world and society if the state won’t let us talk to them about the issues that have existed and still exist? How can we ask them to do better if we can’t help them understand the oppressive systems that our country was founded on?
MNEA President and MNPS teacher Amanda Kail wore a t-shirt that says “Black Educators Matter.” Kail accused the Critical Race Theory ban of “codify[ing] white supremacy.”
Another teacher, Eli Foster, said that he opposed the ban on Critical Race Theory because teaching racialized history is important to repair our past. He claimed that the gospel message in Galatians 2 concerning differences in religious practices had to do with racism. He wore a Black Lives Matter (BLM) t-shirt that said, “I CAN’T BREATHE: Black Lives Matter.”
Foster noted that he was a 2020 recipient of MNPS’s Blue Ribbon Teacher Awards.
Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn promised to publish educator guidance on the Critical Race Theory ban by August 1.
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