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Race, Policy, Gender: Politics in the Classroom

Phil Roeder
Nearly 3,000 students from Des Moines Public Schools participated in the National School Walkout, marking the anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School and calling for action against gun violence.

All beliefs and all actions are political. And often, inaction is just as political.

That’s according to Jeanne Dyches, assistant professor of education at Iowa State University, whose research centers around the idea of how teachers bring their political beliefs into the classroom.

“There is absolutely no way for a teacher not to bring his or her politics to the classroom,” she says.

“As humans, we all have storied identities, experiences, and goals that shape who we are. That, of course, is going to inform the texts that we choose to select, and also the texts we choose not to select, and the conversations that we gloss over, or the conversations that we really pursue with our students.”

On this edition of River to River, Ben Kieffer talks with Dyches, as well as Iowa civics teachers, about divisive subjects in the classroom and how teachers and students navigate these topics. They also discuss how history and social science textbooks tend to gloss over certain aspects of American history to avoid controversy.


“There’s so much evidence to show that our textbooks have a very limited view of American history, and they fail to use multiple perspectives,” says Amber Graeber, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. “So we have to, as teachers, supplement textbooks with primary and secondary sources from a multiple skew of perspectives other than that dominant group.”

Jamie Furlong, a government teacher at MOC-Floyd Valley High School in Orange City, has done away with textbooks in his classes, which he says raises the level of engagement among his students.

“So for instance, yesterday I’m home and I hear that a federal panel of three judges in North Carolina ruled that North Carolina has to redraw their congressional districts before the November election,” he says. “Well, do I wait until December to bring that up when gerrymandering is in my textbook?”

No, he continues, “I’m not going to do that. So I have that freedom to bring in things that are going on today and make it relevant to them, and then they’re engaged at a much higher level.”


Hear Ben Kieffer's interview with James W. Loewen

Later in the hour, Kieffer talks with sociologist James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

Loewen says the main issue lies with the publishers themselves. 

"Publishers don't want to offend anybody, and they might offend neo-confederates if they said flatly that the Southern states seceded for slavery. So they say it, but they say it in such a mystical vague way that most people conclude it was states rights and not slavery.

"Worst thing of all is," he adds, "the books are so very boring."

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River