‘Teach the truth.’ Teachers angry over Florida deleting race, social justice from textbooks

Eliminating references in some Florida social-studies textbooks about social justice and the death of George Floyd has teachers concerned the state is doing a disservice to students, who — in learning about such issues — can understand history in real-time lessons that they can relate to.

“We’re taking away [students’] ability to think critically and to know there are many sides to an issue,” said Mayade Ersoff, who teaches sixth-grade U.S. history and eighth-grade world history at Palmetto Middle School in Pinecrest. “They’re going to know only one side of an issue, [and] that’s not reality.”

Ersoff plans to use primary sources to “fill the gaps” left by the textbooks, she said, but the omission of certain discussions in some textbooks will hinder students’ ability to solve problems and be empathetic once they leave grade school.

Ersoff’s concerns were echoed by several teachers and educational experts whom the Miami Herald spoke to after the Florida Department of Education on Tuesday released an initial list of 66 approved social-studies textbooks for K-12 students. School districts use the list to select books for classrooms. Publishers of two-thirds of those books, however, “updated their materials to comply” with Florida laws before the books were adopted, a news release said. In total, 101 books were submitted, with 35% rejected by the state.

READ MORE: Florida approves social studies books after references to racism, social justice removed

The changes included removing any mention of the Black Lives Matter movement, deleting references to the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and omitting a suggested conversation about why some Americans chose to “take a knee” to protest police brutality and racism. Other removed topics included what the department deemed as an “inaccurate description of socialism” and “politically charged language when referencing the Hebrew Bible.”

An example of a section a publisher removed from a social studies textbook to satisfy the Florida Department of Education.
An example of a section a publisher removed from a social studies textbook to satisfy the Florida Department of Education.

Teachers and education advocates worry that crucial and factual information is being removed, that teacher-retention efforts could be harmed amid a nationwide teacher shortage and that teachers could self-censor.

READ MORE: What was rejected from Florida textbooks? Passages about the Holocaust and George Floyd

Jessica Ellison, executive director of the National Council for History Education, argued history should be taught with “all the complexities that exist in these stories and [how they are] connected to students’ lives today.” Removing from textbooks the discussions around the calls for social justice in the summer of 2020 isn’t teaching students what they need to know, she said.

“If we aren’t feeling discomfort when teaching history, then we aren’t teaching and learning history,” she argued. History teachers don’t teach so students can memorize dates, names and passages of historical documents, she said. Instead, teachers “make connections so that students can make connections.”

The state education department, for its part, argued discussions regarding calls for social justice and Floyd’s murder were “unsolicited topics” for students in grades six through eight. Ellison, though, said eighth-graders today were in fifth grade at the time and remember when protests erupted all over the country, including in Florida.

‘Disservice’ to students

“Our students want to learn about themselves, their place [in the world] and their place in the past,” Ellison said. “Students notice when their stories are the ones being erased. If decision makers are choosing without enough educator input which stories to include and which to exclude, we are doing our students a disservice.”

Moreover, she argued, the George Floyd passage that was removed aligns with Florida standards that include analyzing “current events relevant to American History topics through a variety of electronic and print media resources” in eighth grade.

In a tweet Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, Bryan Griffin, called the original versions in the textbooks an attempt to “indoctrinate” children. In a series of tweets, though, he said all the examples were all “caught and all fixed” under DeSantis’ watch.

Textbook reviews are not new, though in recent years they have garnered more attention, partially because of new laws that were put in place during DeSantis’ tenure and restrict what can and can’t be taught in the classroom.

Last year, the department’s rejection of dozens of math textbooks over what officials claimed were “indoctrinating concepts,” such as critical race theory, drew national attention and pushback from educators. (A Herald analysis found that only three reviewers found just four math books violated a state rule that prohibits the teaching of the concept.)

The department later approved more than a dozen of the initially rejected books after officials said publishers removed what the department deemed was inappropriate content.

READ MORE: Only 3 reviewers said Florida math textbooks violated CRT rules. Yet state rejected dozens

Impacts in the classroom

Crystal Etienne, a middle-school civics teacher at West Homestead K-8, said the initial list foreshadows a nearly impossible task for the upcoming school year.

Racism and social-justice issues are “part of teaching [about] civics,” she said. “The fact is, we have the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Why? Because of slavery. I’ve had these conversations before and I know they will happen again.”

The inability — or even the perceived inability — to include certain topics in classroom discussions is “very difficult, and it’s causing teachers to self-censor or to leave,” she said.

The potential exodus of teachers as a result of recent decisions made by the Florida Department of Education also raises concerns among former educators, including Shawn Post, former associate dean of education at the University of Miami.

The recent apparent attacks on public education will, over time, result in fewer professionals wanting to stay in a field that can be viewed as corrupt and “anti-democratic,” Post said. There will always be individuals who want to enter the teaching profession, she acknowledged, but the retention factor will be much more severe in states like Florida.

READ MORE: DeSantis ally with no higher-ed experience says he’s getting a state college’s top job

Like Etienne, Post anticipates the immediate result will be teachers self-censoring.

“Instead of producing multiple views, teachers will [forgo] the topic entirely because they’re so afraid of having problems,” either with the school district or the state department of education. When potentially questionable conversations arise, “teachers just aren’t going to address [them].”

Ruth Gordon, a former social-studies teacher in Miami-Dade County and the advisor for the Holocaust Impact Theater — which showcases plays written, performed, produced and directed by students ages 15-18 — hopes teachers will take a stand and teach history the way they know it to be true.

If it were her final year as an educator, she would teach what she knew was correct. But, she lamented, she isn’t sure what teachers will do.

The social-studies book adoption is the last step in the state’s effort to move away from the Common Core standards and adopt new standards, the Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking, or B.E.S.T standards, approved in 2020.

It also comes after a months-long debate between the department and the College Board over its new AP African-American studies course, which the department rejected because it said it had concerns with lesson plans, which included discussions about Black Queer Studies, the Black Lives Matter movement and Black Feminist Literary Thought, among others. The College Board was sharply criticized for removing those topics from its final course, which it published in February.

READ MORE: ‘It was shocking’: Miami AP African American Studies students react to DeSantis rejecting course

The department has yet to announce whether it will accept the course for next year.

For Gordon, when you’re teaching about history, “It only makes sense to teach the truth.”