As a child in her San Antonio fourth grade classroom, Alejandra Lopez learned about the Battle of Alamo the way most Texas students do: The Anglo fighters were valiant heroes against the Mexican enemy, led by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, I have the same last name as the bad guy, as the villain in this story,’” she said. “That is really messed up, to carry that as a fourth grader.”
When her father tried to tell her the story from the Mexican perspective — that the white settlers were colonizers — she said she didn’t trust him.
“I put the trust in my teachers,” she said.
Years later, arriving as an undergraduate at Stanford University, she took an introductory course in Chicano/Chicana studies. She said she learned that white settlers wanted independence from Mexico largely to preserve slavery, which Mexico had outlawed, and she quickly realized that the history she had learned in K-12 had been “severely lacking.”
“It was written from a perspective that is not the perspective of my people — that is meant to indoctrinate me, a working class woman of color, into an American narrative of exceptionalism,” she said. “As a young brown child, I was being meant to experience history through the lens of the colonizer.”
That “absolutely atrocious” feeling eventually helped lead her to become a teacher back in her hometown.
“I wanted to teach differently than I had been taught,” she said.
How Texas students learn about race and history has become an incendiary topic in recent months. In a state where more than half of public school students are Hispanic and 27% are white, many conservative state lawmakers have raised alarm about the idea of lessons that seek to reframe history lessons.
Those lawmakers have repeatedly claimed that “critical race theory” is being used to teach children that they are racist and that the U.S. is an irredeemably racist country. They have already passed one measure, House Bill 3979, purportedly to combat the theory, though the bill never mentions it by name nor does anything to ban directly teaching its concepts, such as racial formation and intersectionality.
Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott has called for more legislation, declaring that he wants to “abolish” critical race theory in Texas classrooms and adding the issue to the agenda for two consecutive special sessions of the Texas Legislature. One such bill that calls for students to be taught a “a commitment to the United States and its form of government” has already passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee hearing Tuesday.
But as those debates rage on, some teachers across disciplines are pressing on with approaches to teaching that are influenced by forms of critical theory — such as critical race theory. These approaches look very different from how Republicans characterize it, they say.
Far from trying to incur guilt in white students or establish racial superiority, they say, anti-racist teaching efforts are about affirming and empowering all students, in light of their race, class and all aspects of identity, to be critical thinkers and agents of their own learning — and to make sense of themselves, their communities and their society in complex ways.
“Grounded in counternarratives”
In 2018, Lopez and other colleagues founded PODER, the social justice caucus of the San Antonio teachers’ union.
“I was angry at the fact that a district that has over 96% students of color was not equipping teachers to meet their needs, to teach in a culturally relevant way,” said Lopez, who is now president of the union.
The group runs trainings several times a semester that roughly 20 teachers from across the district join, discussing teaching methods based on Gloria Ladson-Billings’ work on the intersection of education and critical race theory.
At one recent training, Lopez told teachers about a monthlong project she carried out in her second grade classroom. The class first reads a book titled “Milo’s Museum,” in which a young Black child feels alienated at a museum and goes home to create her own community museum. Students then go through “artifacts” at home, choose something that’s meaningful to them and set up a community museum in the classroom. Family members come and act as guides.
“It shows, ‘These are the things that are meaningful to me in my community’ and showcases them in a way where the children feel pride and their identities are being affirmed,” she said.
Another PODER co-founder, Luke Amphlett, trains teachers about the concept of counternarratives and uses them in his U.S. history classroom at Burbank High School in San Antonio.
On the first day of class, he shows his students a double-layered painting where a portrait of Thomas Jefferson is pulled back, revealing the image of Sally Hemings — one of the people he enslaved, and the mother of six children he fathered.
Every year, almost all of his students recognize Jefferson in the painting by Titus Kaphar, he said, but not a single student can name Hemings.
His class — in a high school where 98% of students are Latino or Latina and more than 87% are economically disadvantaged — then discusses why that is, the significance of that and through whose perspective American history is usually taught.
Luke Amphlett is a San Antonio Independent School District teacher and co-founder of PODER, the social justice caucus of the San Antonio teachers’ union.. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune
“They realize in that moment, on day one, that they’ve basically understood the story of this country through the eyes of powerful, rich, white men,” he said.
He said that teaching a history “grounded in counternarratives” is not just about representing and including multiple groups, which is important — but it’s also about thinking about why some groups have been left out or put in the limelight, as well as what that says about our current society.
“There is a deep, rich, complex view of the world, and view of the past, that can emerge from the fact that we have people in different intersectional positions of power and oppression in society,” he said. “Some of those stories are amplified and some of them are erased.”
“Opposite of indoctrination”
Teachers are doing this work amid an ongoing backlash against efforts to discuss and address racism in America, as lawmakers and parents raise alarm around what they call critical race theory.
State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said that much of the new “critical race theory” law, which he authored, was motivated by concerns he heard from parents who feel their kids are being “indoctrinated.”
“We’ve heard, ‘You should feel guilty for what [white people have] done,’” he said. “We have heard, ‘You’re people of privilege, and you should feel guilty for that privilege.’”
During the regular legislative session, Toth cited “Not My Idea,” a children’s book examining how power and privilege affects white people, as the main example of critical race theory in Texas classrooms, claiming it was being recommended in Highland Park schools — though the district said it was not being used.
Meanwhile, the issue has become a talking point in districts and school board elections across the state as some parents say the theory sows racial division and indoctrinates students into a far-left ideology.
“The majority of teachers want to get back to teaching kids how to read and write at an early age, and as they progress through the process, how to be critical thinkers, to think for themselves — not to indoctrinate these children,” Toth said. “Critical race theory does not teach a child how to think critically.”
Teachers and experts say that no one is teaching critical race theory in classrooms, nor are they teaching Republicans’ characterizations of it. Angela Valenzuela, an education policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called the idea that teachers are blaming their white students for systemic racism a “false, exaggerated claim.”
Amphlett said that these teachers aren’t trying to force students to reject the dominant account of historical events, but instead are teaching them to critically weigh multiple perspectives and understand the complex, political, subjective ways that knowledge is created and understood. They teach them to be engaged in that process as critical thinkers in what he called the “opposite of indoctrination,” he said.
“[We] will caution students not to accept the counternarrative on face value just because it’s different from the dominant narrative, but to develop complex syntheses of these different approaches to perspectives on history,” he said.
Keffrelyn Brown, a teacher-educator and professor of cultural studies in education at UT-Austin, said this tenet of critical race theory is essential to anti-racist teaching — that “knowledge has never been neutral.”
“Because of the way that power has operated, there have been Eurocentric standards that have defined what counts as what we know,” she said.
When Andrew Robinson, an eighth grade U.S. history teacher at Uplift Luna Preparatory in Dallas, teaches about Christopher Columbus, he gives them multiple perspectives — including a cartoon video that shows the dominant narrative that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” excerpts from Columbus’ journal that show his attitudes toward Indigenous people, historical documents describing his abuse of them and an article that defends Columbus’ actions. Afterward, he asks the students to write about what they think and why.
“Giving them multiple perspectives gives kids a chance to consider, ‘OK, what is propaganda, what am I being fed here and why am I being fed this?’” he said. “It gets them asking questions and hopefully gets them interested to a point that they become self learners—where they’re going in and looking stuff up and reading stuff on their own.”
Even before that, he teaches material about Indigenous communities and histories that aren’t in the state curriculum. This works to counter the dominant narrative that American history began when Columbus arrived.
Critical pedagogy in all disciplines
Brown, the UT-Austin professor, said that kind of approach can be used in all subjects.
For example, in arts education, she helps teachers think about questions like, “Who are the musicians and the visual artists that get identified as important for all students to learn about? What are the approaches that are left out, or that are not valued in the same way?”
And Lopez, the San Antonio teacher, said the approach applies to all aspects of students’ identity and learning, not just race.
“When you talk about culturally relevant pedagogy or anti-racist education, people think that it’s just about race — they don’t recognize that systems of oppression affect people in an intersectional way,” Lopez said. “Race is central and very important, but it is not the only way that dominant ideology perpetuates itself in our education system.”
For example, she noted that class is also an important factor.
“If I’m only showing them books about people who have an upper middle class background, then my students who come from a working class background are still not going to see themselves reflected,” she said.
Many teachers pursuing anti-racist work find solidarity in formal and informal networks of like-minded educators. One such group, Educators in Solidarity, was formed after the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014 and connects teachers in Austin committed to anti-racist teaching.
Eliza Gordon, one of the group’s co-founders, said one of its arms is a cultural proficiency and inclusiveness team that plans a yearly conference, which last year had more than 800 attendees and focused on themes like reimagining discipline practices. A legislative and policy arm does political advocacy, including organizing against HB 3979 during the regular legislative session. The group has 28 active members, most of whom are full-time educators, and engages more than 1,500 people across social media and newsletters.
One member, AISD kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Wilson, heads a teacher mentorship program that connects about 15 newer teachers at a time with more established teachers to offer support and guidance for doing anti-racist work.
“That relationship and that mentorship has been really powerful and empowering teachers to say no, this is important — and even though I’m a first or second year teacher, I understand that this critical work needs to be done,” she said.
She said that EIS has given her a crucial community and support network.
“Sometimes when you’re doing this work, and you feel like you’re in isolation, it can feel like, ‘Wait, am I crazy? Is this right or wrong?’” she said. “Having a network of teachers who you know you can lean on is really helpful.”
These networks will be even more important as the school year begins and HB 3979 takes effect, Amphlett said. He’s spearheading a group called the TEACH Coalition, which currently has about 20 professors and K-12 educators across the state meeting weekly to prepare to support teachers.
They’re preparing an academic defense of critical race theory, which is helpful to their practice despite not being something they directly teach students. But overall, they plan to focus more on the law’s underlying attack on anti-racist education. In the works are events and teach-ins for teachers to learn more about anti-racist and culturally relevant teaching, as well as curriculum resources they’re developing and plan on disseminating to teachers. They created a statement against HB 3979 that has more than 300 signatures.
“The purpose of our work as anti-racist educators is not to be Democrat or Republican — it’s to do what’s right for every kid,” Gordon said. “And to make sure that when we go into a school building, we’re honoring kids’ lived experiences and their stories.”
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.
Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.