Teaching Black History Month is especially fraught this year Scores of state bills aim to limit what schools can teach about race, politics, American history and more. For some educators, that's made teaching about Black History Month especially fraught.

Lawmakers want to ban discomfort in school. But Black history isn't always comfortable

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the past year, more than 35 states have introduced more than 150 bills limiting what schools can teach about race politics in American history. That's according to tracking by PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates freedom of expression. For many educators in those states, it's made teaching Black History Month especially fraught. NPR's Anya Steinberg has this story.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Students in the gospel choir at Meadowcreek High School are rehearsing for their annual performance of African American spirituals.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Troubles of the world, the troubles of the world.

STEINBERG: The school is in Norcross, Ga., and this rehearsal is part of a Black History Month celebration organized by the school's librarian, Cecily Lewis.

CICELY LEWIS: We try to do something really, really big every Wednesday.

STEINBERG: She calls it Woke Wednesdays. There's a head wrapping station, a storybook station and performances by the jazz band drama department and more. Lewis says she was inspired by her days as an English teacher.

LEWIS: I know when the kids are not getting something. And when we would do Black history in the class and they have to report, they were just regurgitating information.

STEINBERG: This will be her third annual celebration, and she hopes it makes Black history come alive for her students. But it's been trickier to navigate this year in the middle of all the political turmoil over school curriculum. So far this year, four bills have been introduced in Georgia that would ban teaching concepts that cause, quote, "guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of a student's race, sex or identity." And over the past year, similar legislation has popped up all across the country, including in Idaho, Arizona and Texas.

ANTON SCHULZKI: We're tired. You know, it seems like all of a sudden the ills of the nation are the result of education.

STEINBERG: Anton Schulzki is the president of the National Council for the Social Studies. He says more and more teachers are choosing to stay quiet during the curriculum debates for fear of losing their jobs.

SCHULZKI: Teachers have families. Teachers have have bills to pay. They have mortgages. You know, they've got their own lives to worry about.

STEINBERG: For one high school history teacher, the threat of blowback isn't a hypothetical. Brant Robinson teaches in Pinellas County, Fla., where the State Board of Education has banned teaching critical race theory, even though it's not in the curriculum. Last semester, a parent complained to the district about what he was teaching in his class and asked for all his course materials.

SCHULZKI: That meant I had to produce all of the materials, of course, outline handouts, materials, even video links that I used for the whole semester, which I did.

STEINBERG: The district dismissed the complaint, and Robinson says he hasn't changed how he's teaching. But he understands why educators would want to be cautious.

SCHULZKI: You know, I think for a lot of teachers, they're definitely more aware because the last thing they want is for an administrator to come in and say, you know, a parent called me said you made some comments about something. You know, you got to be really careful, right?

STEINBERG: Robinson teaches in African American history class, so he covers Black history all semester, but not every teacher can do that and still meet the social studies curriculum's learning targets.

BRANDT ROBINSON: Black History Month doesn't really mean much in a school if you're not really given the license and the freedom to really go in depth about anything you're teaching.

STEINBERG: Patrick Mugen (ph) teaches in the same district and says the speed of the curriculum has made it difficult to dedicate the time he wants toward planning for Black History Month.

PATRICK MUGEN: I don't know. And that's one of the parts that's painful about teaching right now.

STEINBERG: He says he's frustrated that he can't do more for his students, and you can hear it in his voice.

MUGEN: This is the kind of thing that I really wish - sorry. I really wish that I could just use my energy to plan a badass lesson for my kids, but there's literally not enough time.

STEINBERG: Mugen still has a few things in the works for this month. He wants to highlight some victories that don't normally get talked about, like the achievements of Black women scientists and local Black leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING AND STOMPING)

STEINBERG: In Georgia, the Meadowcreek High School step team practices for their Woke Wednesday performance. Librarian Cicely Lewis says the school has been supportive of her Black History Month celebrations, despite the political debate around what can be taught in schools. Far from causing the guilt and anguish cited in the proposed Georgia legislation, Lewis wants her Black students to feel inspired.

LEWIS: 'Cause our history is not just about slavery. Our history spans beyond beyond that, and that our history is rich, and that they have reason to celebrate. And they should be proud.

STEINBERG: Anya Steinberg, NPR News.

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