By TERRY FARISH, InDepthNH.org
So much is at stake in matters of education in New Hampshire. The impact of COVID. New laws that some say divide people. In the relative educational calm of summer with children on vacation, I talked to two seasoned teachers, M. Louise White at Somersworth High School and Susan Hewey at Winnisquam Regional Middle School, and a parent who is not a teacher, Rachel Goldsmith, chair of Moms for Liberty, an organization demanding parental rights in the classroom. Goldsmith is the former executive director of the Free State Project.
We talked about three things: 1) a glance back at education during COVID, 2) the effect of current legislation on teaching, and 3) hopes for the school year fast approaching.
My goal is to let you hear each of their visions for a New Hampshire classroom.
A Glance Back
M. Louise White teaches world literature and American literature at Somersworth High School. She has many Asian and Latino students in a city with a large Indonesian community. White said remote learning was extremely hard. “What students got so burned by was sitting at home in their rooms [the first year of the pandemic.] When they came back this year, they didn’t want to [do school] work at home again. It was like eating food you got sick on.” White cut back some assignments because they couldn’t “get through the work” as quickly as before.
It was huge to come back in person this past year, White said, “with the only requirement being that they had to be masked. One thing that surprised White was what happened after February vacation when the mask requirement was lifted. “I didn’t realize how hard it had been to teach with a mask. My students didn’t realize I was smiley, which I am!”
Rachel Goldsmith moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project, a libertarian movement, and is a former executive director of the organization. We met on a breezy day at Livingston Park in Manchester. Goldsmith is chair of Mom’s for Liberty-Hillsborough County, an organization “dedicated to unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” She said, “I found the national organization while scrolling Twitter. Moms for Liberty was the only organization advocating to get kids out of masks. I had read about problems with masking children. It inhibits speech learning. It takes away your humanity. How do you know what someone is saying to you if you ca n’t see her face? Is the teacher angry, irritated, happy? Facial expressions are comprehensive. My research showed that masks are not the answer.”
Susan Hewey is the 8th grade English Language Arts curriculum leader at Winnisquam Regional Middle School. We talked on the phone a week after school was out while she was making strawberry jam. Hewey said that upon returning to in-person teaching this school year, she anticipated her students would have learning gaps. “What I found was, yes, there were gaps, but the bigger issue was the social-emotional side. They had forgotten how to do school. Things like working in groups. Getting to school was a challenge.”
“Masking,” Hewey said, “was something that had to be done to keep us safe. With a mask, it was hard to hear. It was hot. I thought it would be a major battle, but the kids took to it. Some kids continued to mask all year.”
A challenge that Hewey highlighted was addressing staff shortages. This past year the school lost its social studies teacher, and Hewey didn’t want the 8th graders to move on to high school without the history class. So, she combined English language arts and history and taught a combination humanities class of literature and writing through history-based texts. Their books included the young readers edition of Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s “Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge.” “It was very successful,” Hewey said.
Teaching under HB2
Goldsmith is in favor of the parental rights provided in the New Hampshire law HB2 passed mid-pandemic, on June, 25, 2021.
Dear Reader, allow me to pause here. In case education hasn’t been your priority issue, let me provide context.
Under HB2, also called “Divisive Concepts” by some, parents can file complaints about a teacher and what they are teaching with the district superintendent. If a parent is not satisfied with action taken, they can file a complaint with the state Department of Education. The Department of Education put out a Fact Sheet attempting to answer confusions about HB2 and stating that if an educator violates the educator code of conduct “it may result in disciplinary sanction by the state board of education.” Much of the impact of this law focuses on the teaching of the history of race.
Rachel Goldsmith expresses her concerns around teaching race and racism. In her concerns about her, she defines what divisive concepts mean to her about her. A large concern was about her children from her as they will learn about the history of race relations in the United States. Her children de ella are young, ages 1, 3, and 4 ½, but they will grow up and study social studies and American history in school. What she said about her reflected her interpretation of the teaching of the “full history” of slavery. Goldsmith expressed that, “[White] Children are taught to self-identify as the oppressor. It’s really awful to teach kids that they are inherently good or bad because of the color of their skin or what’s between their legs.”
Divisive concepts is a term that others call simply antiracism training which provides historical facts that help students be aware of the country’s racialized past and present. The language of HB2 has been inserted into many states’ statutes. Chalkbeat has tracked 36 states that are working to restrict education on racism and bias and “how students discuss the nation’s past.”
The beliefs of the local Moms for Liberty led the organization to offer a $500 “incentive” for a parent who successfully filed a complaint with the DOE providing evidence that a teacher violated HB2. The incentive has since expired though it received national coverage in the Washington Post in December, 2021
White, in Somersworth, said, “We’re politically supported by our local school leaders. I’m not afraid [of HB2].” But she does know teachers who have already resigned, including two close colleagues. “It’s disheartening,” she said, “when your own commissioner says teachers are dismantling families.” White is referring to Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s April 15 Op-Ed addressed to educators. Edelblut supported parental complaints about curriculum material on the subjects of gender identity, human relations, equity and diversity, and anti-racism including the work “Stamped (For Kids)” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The original edition written by Kendi, “Stamped from the Beginning” won the 2016 National Book Award.
White said, “I feel like I’m supported to challenge my students to be global thinkers.” White’s world lit curriculum includes, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini and “Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah.
A word about the unions. The tumult continues with both of the teachers’ unions in New Hampshire, the NEA, the largest, and the NFA, National Federation of Teachers, affiliate of the AFL-CIO, filing lawsuits charging that the “Divisive Concepts” law restricted certain lessons, is unconstitutionally vague and an abridgment of free speech.” In May, the suits were consolidated into one and is still making its way through the legal system.
In Tilton, Susan Hewey said the law has not affected her. But she’s concerned. She wants parents to understand how she builds her curriculum. She said, “A good teacher bases her instruction on what’s going on in the classroom. You get to know your students and you go in that direction. All teachers send home the syllabus. We all have websites with access to e-mail, a homework page, online grading. I would always be open to sharing.”
Hopes for the New School Year
Hewey said that a goal the teachers have for next year is to be consistent with behavior expectations for students. “Make sure there are high expectations that better the behavior, which leads to higher achievements.” They will continue using a program called RTI to monitor learning and determine which students are in need of small-group tutoring in reading or math. Because of the success of the cross-disciplinary humanities course, Hewey is in the planning stages to continue teaching literature and writing through history-based texts.
Moms for Liberty continue to work to keep kids out of masks, to support free choice in matters of health in general. Vaccinations should be voluntary. They will work to ensure that “books in school libraries and curriculum are age-appropriate.” Goldsmith wants to focus on how to “give parents confidence to go to school board meetings and speak up.” She said, “Teachers need to think of [Moms for Liberty] Complaints as a job review. Teachers are working for parents. That’s their job. Take that feedback. Take some responsibility. We’re not teaching them properly.”
White will be head of the English Department come fall. She plans to work with teachers as they increase expectations and acknowledge small [and large] accomplishments in academics.” They’ll address learning gaps and provide reading interventions. Her students of her come from many religious faiths and political views. She said, “I’m more concerned about my students. I want to make them comfortable, and then I can teach them.”