At Lookout, we’re starting a series about how local teachers confront everyday challenges in their classrooms and how they teach their curriculum. For the first installment, Lookout spoke with Kirby School history teacher Eva Schewe about the challenges of teaching U.S. history at a time when states across the country are making attempts to limit how it is being taught.
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Santa Cruz history teacher Eva Schewe knows her job is more important today than ever.
Teaching history hasn’t been this fraught or under fire in decades, as political and partisan backlashes have seen 42 states pass or introduce bills to restrict how teachers teach history, according to Education Week. One major focus is the much-misunderstood “critical race theory” discipline and lessons involving gender.
In April, both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed laws that limit and prohibit certain kinds of instruction. The Florida “Stop WOKE” act sets limits on how issues involving race may be taught and enables parents to sue teachers and school districts that violate it. Then-Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran said the state should “police” teachers to make sure they are not indoctrinating students with a liberal agenda. New laws in New Hampshire and Oklahoma, meanwhile, allow those unhappy with a teacher to complain to the state.
Those cascading actions only make history teachers like Schewe more determined.
“I have felt pressure to continue to teach history, and the way that I have been teaching it and continue to emphasize how important history education is,” she said in her classroom at Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School. “And how important it is that people in this country have a solid historical education.”
Since becoming a full-time history teacher in 2019, Schewe has been teaching U.S. history to eighth graders at Kirby School, as well as history classes to 10th, 11th and 12th graders.
Founded in 1994, Kirby School, with 209 students enrolled in grades 6 through 12, is a private institution and Schewe says that gives her more flexibility in designing her curriculum.
She grew up in Santa Cruz, attending Scotts Valley Middle School and Santa Cruz High School.
“A lot of public school teachers who have been targeted by a lot of this legislation are in jeopardy because there is a certain way that they have to teach certain material,” she said. “When those standards are changed at the state level, that can really impact their ability to teach certain elements of history or represent certain voices or touch on certain concepts.”
Critics say critical race theory teaches that the country is fundamentally racist or sexist or that it describes concepts they disagree with generally, including white privilege. Many also have mistakenly seen any discussion of equity topics and ethnic studies as being the same as critical race theory.
Critical race theory, a legal concept, has been in the crosshairs of protestors and the new laws. Though it is taught in some higher education programs and not in K-12 public schools, it has become a shorthand for those attacking history teaching that speaks of historical racism.
While no bills have been introduced in the California legislature to restrict critical race theory, at least one school board banned teaching it in a Southern California district. In April, Orange County’s Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District voted to ban CRT.
Lookout asked Eva Schewe to take us into her classroom and to show us how she teaches history.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Lookout: What do you hope students come away with from your class?
Schewe: I would love for my students to leave my classroom as citizens and residents of this country who want to lead with empathy, who want to listen, and to think critically about the world that they live in. I want them to be able to hold complicated concepts and be OK with the complication and want to dig into the complication about why it’s complicated. I want them to be OK with encountering difficult things. And instead of shying away from difficulty to embrace and investigate the difficulty, because that is life.
Lookout: Over the past few years, there have been many attempts to limit what teachers are teaching, especially in topics that touch on race and gender, and broad issues of equity. What have been your thoughts on this?
Eva Schewe: I would say that a lot of people have a misunderstanding of how history is studied and is taught. For a lot of people, they think of history as being set in stone and already decided. There’s a list of names and facts and dates that you memorize, and then after you’ve memorized them, you take a test on them. Then you either pass the test or you don’t, and then you move on to the next thing. And that’s history. History is something you’re kind of told happened, not something you really explore. That’s actually not how history is studied on the professional level, or I think in the classroom level.
One of my favorite historians, Ed Ayers — he teaches out of the University of Richmond — says that history is a discussion. History is an ongoing discussion between different sources and different people and different perspectives — and it’s happening all the time. One of the most exciting things about studying history is that you get to be put in the middle of that discussion. You get to examine new information, updated information, and different narratives of the same event, until you start to get a feel for what happened. That discussion is happening all the time. I feel like a lot of Americans haven’t been given that experience before. I think that’s kind of where we hit these moments where people are trying to legislate how history should be taught. It’s just a misunderstanding of the actual study of it.
Lookout: Have you felt pressure, directly or indirectly, to limit what you teach on topics of equity?
Schewe: I have felt pressure, but not in the way I think you are referencing. I have felt pressure to continue to teach history, and the way that I have been teaching it and continue to emphasize how important history education is, and how important it is that people in this country have a solid historical education. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but I think for a lot of people, maybe the majority, their history education ends in high school. High school is the last time they will take a formal history course. And this backlash, the misunderstanding of history, the love of a simple narrative, just continues to be evidence to me that history education and the formal study of history is so important, and that funding for the humanities and history programs and extracurriculars is more important now than ever. So I feel a pressure to continue that and make sure that my students get that from me because it is so important in our current moment.
Lookout: How do you see your role as a history teacher and what do you hope students will take away from your class?
Schewe: My role as a history teacher is to provide my students with as much as possible, the actual words, or actual images of the people and places and things that we are studying. So my students can examine primary sources, they can read multiple perspectives and multiple viewpoints on things and come to a conclusion based on a preponderance of the evidence that they’ve looked at.
Some of the skills that I hope my students get out of these lessons — I talk a lot about empathy, and that history is a study of empathy in a lot of ways. Being able to place ourselves in a place and a time and try to understand how events — whether it be battles or laws that were passed — how events affected people is a really, really powerful skill, particularly in today’s world, where it can be easier not to have empathy than it is to have empathy. History is a wonderful teacher for giving children that basic sense of empathy for their fellow human beings. I also hope that they emerge as critical thinkers, that they seek multiple perspectives, and they are able to hold multiple, harder concepts at once. And understand that history is complicated, and it’s complex, and it’s frustrating. Very often, you don’t arrive at easy answers. It takes a lot of study and back and forth. But that’s what makes it so fun.
Lookout: Why is it important for students to develop those skills for our country’s current climate?
Schewe: There’s a lot of talk currently in our moment about how divided a lot of us have become — how divided our country is and how we’re leaning more into divide. I would love my students to grow into adults who lead with listening, who approach others with empathy, in hopes that they can start bridging some of that divide, while also serving their country as informed citizens able to take a look at the entire history of their country and able to make connections with present-day things. Being able to see different people in history and events in history as being relevant to their day-to-day lives. So many of us think of history as stuff that has already happened, that it’s irrelevant now, because it happened so long ago. I really push my students to consider that that’s not really the case. History is always relevant all the time. It’s also always happening. History is not something that happened and it’s over. It’s a constant thing and my students have a role to play in it.
Lookout: Legislators are trying to limit critical race theory teaching. How do you define it?
Schewe: To my knowledge, and what I have read and know, is that critical race theory is a legal terminology that is taught in law school or upper graduate-level education, that focuses on the role that race and power play in the creation of laws and how laws have been applied. Throughout history, that’s how I understand CRT. I don’t know of any history teacher who teaches CRT in public schools K through 12 public schools.
Lookout: Why do you think so many communities across the country think CRT was being taught in K-12 classrooms?
Schewe: I think a lot of it ties back to the beginning of our conversation that there is a lot of misconception about what studying history is. I think plenty of people probably experienced the study of history as that first definition, just a set narrative of facts that you memorize and dates that you learn and people that you learn kind of surface-level details about. And then you are tested on it and you move on. And so when they encounter materials in their child’s classroom that are from perspectives that they did not themselves encounter in school, there might be a reactionary instinct there just because it’s unfamiliar.
Lookout: How do you teach complex historical topics such as Reconstruction?
Schewe: Reconstruction is an incredibly important time period to teach. It is a time period that I’m very passionate about teaching, mostly because Reconstruction historically has been either skipped over entirely or framed in ways that are dishonest. Reconstruction was a time period where post-Civil War, the federal government of the United States sent aid and troops into the South in order to maintain Black freedom. Once the United States won the war, and enslaved people were starting to leave and gain their freedom and move, the federal government and organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau were responsible for helping enslaved folks seize their freedom and become full citizens of the United States, especially after the passing of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
It is a time where Black people have seats in government. We have Black representatives and senators and Congress, we have Black people elected into statehouses in states like Louisiana. We have Black people all over the South that are elected into positions of power, Black sheriffs, Black mayors, Black attorneys general, etc. It is, in many ways, a time of enormous hope for many Black Americans. However, Reconstruction ultimately fails. And it fails because of decisions, choices by people in power that allowed it to fail. And it is an enormous betrayal of Black Americans.
What ends Reconstruction is the deal by the federal government of Rutherford B. Hayes in order to take the presidency. He says that he will pull federal troops out of the south, thereby leaving the Black population of the South open to white violence, white backlash. And what follows after the ending of Reconstruction is the years and years and years of violence against Black Americans and those positions of power that Black Americans found themselves in being taken away from them either by election or by violent force. That’s something that’s really important to understand that just because the Civil War was won by the United States, and that slavery was abolished under the Constitution does not mean that that ends the the conflict, or that that ends the story of of enslavement in the United States — it doesn’t.