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Greg Wickenkamp was working as an eighth grade social studies teacher in Fairfield, Iowa, when he had a very awkward conversation with his boss, the superintendent. He was hoping to talk about this new law that he was struggling to comply with—one of those bills that bans the discussion of “divisive content.” Wickenkamp wanted the district to be clear about what “divisive content” was. He’d tried emailing the district. That hadn’t worked.
Going into this meeting, things were also coming to a head for Wickenkamp, personally. There had been complaints about how he taught. He used Ibram X. Kendi’s anti-racist book Stamped From the Beginning. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, too.
For half an hour, Wickenkamp spars with his boss over the minutiae of how he is being treated. She says she doesn’t want to make a big stink about defending him because she thinks that could inflame some families more. And then, with just a few minutes until this meeting is set to expire, Wickenkamp asks this question that it feels like he has been itching to ask: whether it would be acceptable for him to teach his students that slavery is wrong. And his superintendent? She filibusters.
“I was somewhat surprised because it was so blatantly wishy-washy,” he said.
I wanted to talk to Greg Wickenkamp, because we are in the middle of an ongoing fight about what can and can’t be taught in American schools. The Florida Legislature is considering a ban on discussing menstruation with elementary kids. And a teacher like Wickenkamp? He seems so gently reasonable. Asking: What are we doing here? And why?
On a recent episode of What Next, we spoke about what can and can’t be taught in school these days, and what happened when one teacher tried to find out. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Why did you choose to teach eighth grade? It’s such a hard age. What did you like about teaching adolescents?
Greg Wickenkamp: I really enjoy it, in part because you can have the silly fun that you might have in an elementary school classroom. But then you can also start to go a little deeper in content. The students at that age are really developing their sense of self, and they’re able to also look at the world in broader ways than they might have been as younger people. And so I really enjoyed working with students to try to help them think critically and broaden their sense of self and broaden what might be possible in the world and through their lives. And seeing the students learn at that age is really exciting.
What did it mean to teach social studies at your school? What kind of subjects were you covering in eighth grade?
We covered the whole gamut of economics, geography. History was the major focus, but just social sciences generally. And really through that, my intention was to always inspire critical thinking and people who could then engage as citizens in a democracy.
One of the books you thought did a good job of inspiring critical thinking was that Ibram X. Kendi book Stamped From the Beginning. It explores the history of racism in the U.S. But it also pops up with some regularity on “anti–critical race theory” book-ban lists .
It’s just a really remarkable book—especially the youth adaptation by Jason Reynolds. It is both provocative but also deeply grounded in scholarship and also accessible for young people.
What did you want your students to take from it?
I wanted them to start to think critically about race, which is often something, especially in Iowa and the Midwest, that people are hesitant to explore in any critical way.
Were they open to that?
Many students were, and many students were hungry for a deeper understanding because that was lacking generally in K-12 education.
When the students weren’t open to it, what did that look like?
Oftentimes when I would start a unit or lesson the first day, students would be incredibly engaged. And then, after perhaps visiting with their families or something, they might occasionally bring back these biases against the particular content.
So one student, for example, when we were reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History, the youth edition, after a few days he said, “I’m not going to read any more of this. It just doesn’t jibe with my opinion. I believe that blue lives matter, and this text really is more of a Black Lives Matter thing. And that’s not for me.” Which I thought was really strange and a sad commentary on where we’re at in society, because the text itself certainly addresses race and colonization and U.S. history, but it doesn’t do so from a partisan way.
So you were feeling these rumblings in the classroom. When did things shift in terms of what you were allowed to teach legally?
That was in the summer of 2021. Iowa was one of the first amongst many states to pass these anti-CRT laws. That’s when things really started to shift dramatically and pushback became even more emboldened.
I immediately sent a letter to the school board saying, “Hey, this law has passed. I’m really looking for support, as I have been for the last year, about what to teach and whether the district will support that.” I outlined five or so steps—opportunities, really—that the district could take to get ahead of any pushback that might result from the law.
Did you get any response when you sent that letter?
The response I got was curious. I got an email from the superintendent, who was admonishing me for going above her and not going directly to her. And then she popped into my class early that fall while I was teaching, which I thought was odd. And she said, “Hey, I just want you to know: Just stick to the facts, and you’ll be fine.” Which didn’t really address any of my concerns or the letter that I had written, but which set the path for the level of support that I received.
It wasn’t because I was confused about the law, which is very vague in Iowa, like many of these laws. And it wasn’t because I was confused about what best teaching practices were. It was because I was concerned that the district wouldn’t be supportive if tensions ramped up.
I know that this law passed over the summer. So I imagine you were planning your curriculum, getting ready to go back to the classroom. Once you got back to school, what was going on? Were other teachers talking about this now? Were the students?
Yeah, they were. In the fall, when I was outlining the class for students, one student in particular said, “I heard we can’t learn about Black people this year,” which was really striking because the law is vague enough in Iowa that there’s all these misinterpretations. Or maybe that’s part of the purpose of the law, actually.
So what did you say to the student?
I said, “Well, we are learning U.S. history, so of course we will be learning about people of all races. And not only that, but we’ll be explicitly exploring race since it’s so central to U.S. history, past and present.”
Did that calm the classroom down, or was there more murmuring after it did?
It did a little, but I was unsettled by that and emailed the administration, saying, “Here’s what’s going on in the classroom. I wanted you to be aware of it. Hopefully we can be a little more proactive in getting ahead of this.”
Were other teachers doing what you were doing?
To varying degrees. There were some who really didn’t want that level of pushback and so decided that they would just abandon any deep exploration of race, class, or gender. Others said, “Well, I’ll do this, but I’ll try to walk the fine line that doesn’t draw more attention to myself from those who might want to unfairly impugn my practice.”
At one point, a local state legislator singled you out at a public forum. I don’t think he used your name, but he identified you enough that it was clear who you were. He basically said you were ignoring state law by using Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning in your social studies class. What happened there? How did you hear about this?
That was very challenging. His appeal was really to a QAnon-type crowd. I was very wary of this politician already. So, when he started singling me out very publicly, that was incredibly worrisome. He said in a public forum that what I was doing was indoctrinating students, teaching them to hate America, to hate white people. I was breaking the law. And this was all news to me. I had not received any direct pushback from the district or any politicians about my curriculum. And I would have welcomed a conversation. But it was clear that what he was doing was scapegoating my practice, and he was unrelenting about that.
Were people telling you about these forums?
Yeah. It was really weighing heavily on me because I was already in a situation where I was unsure whether the district would be supportive. While this was going on, we were being asked to misgender students and do things that I know are harmful for students. I was already trying to advocate for students in those ways. And so when I caught the public attention of this perception, it was scary. I remember the weekend after the first public forum, the union president called me and said she had heard about what had happened and said, “We’re here for you. Keep protecting yourself. Lock your doors. And if things get too scary, don’t hesitate to call 911.” That was the level of fear that I was having.
This is all background for that meeting you eventually had with your superintendent, the one where she clearly is unclear about whether you can say slavery is wrong.
After that meeting, my understanding is that the district did try to support you a bit. But what happened there?
Another school board member, who happened to teach social studies in a neighboring district, was curious about how I was teaching and what I was teaching, so we reviewed that. And sadly, his guidance was that I should “both sides” controversial events or give space to not just the North Union during the Civil War and the buildup to it, but space to the Confederacy. And not in a way that necessarily said “Well, obviously the Confederacy was an error.” But to say “Well, some people thought this and other people thought that,” and he applied this example also to the Holocaust, saying, “We want to share that many people believe the Holocaust was wrong. But you also want to say, ‘Here’s why some German people embraced it.’ ”
Reflecting on that, I followed up with an email. I said, “These are eighth grade students, and that would be a real disservice to these young people.” Of course we want them to form their own judgments. And of course we want to send a broad variety of perspectives. But to imagine that we should or could be neutral on these issues like slavery or the Holocaust is really to the detriment of young people.
You quit your job at the end of the year last year.
Yeah. I didn’t renew my contract.
How did you come to that decision? You sound like you love teaching.
That was a really hard decision to walk away from K-12, and to recognize that perhaps Iowa is a challenging place to teach for justice, to teach for critical thinking was really, really hard. Teaching is something that I thought long about before entering and thought that that is what I would do until I retire in some way or another. And so to not renew my contract was really, really a hard thing.
Many proponents of laws restricting what’s taught in schools, what they say is that children can’t grapple with racism. That teaching white kids about racism will make them hate themselves. That teaching not-white kids about racism will make them hate white kids or even feel bad about themselves as well. You taught kids for more than a decade. In your experience, was that true?
No, not at all. Whether you’re explicitly teaching about race or not, you’re teaching about race because it’s such a fundamental thing to the United States and the world. And so, to remain silent on it just allows whatever prejudices are floating out there, namely white supremacy, to be adopted by many students, to their detriment.
For example, there’s the doll test, where students are asked to identify, among a Black and white doll, which is beautiful and which is good and which is bad. And these are elementary students who are already reflecting racial prejudices and white supremacy. And these tests have been repeated and repeated.
If students are young enough to reflect the white supremacy of society, they’re old enough to learn about it.
One of the most interesting things about those doll tests is that they found that Black children also prefer the white doll. And that’s so important because part of what people misunderstand about an academic like Ibram Kendi is they frame his viewpoints as teaching that white people are bad because they have these beliefs about Black people, when in reality what he’s teaching is that we all swim in, like, a racism soup. And we’re all absorbing these ideas, so it impacts all of us.
Yeah, absolutely. Are we talking about white people or whiteness generally? As a society, many of us don’t fully understand that, so people become defensive.
In the months since you left the classroom, politicians in Iowa have only widened their attacks on public schools in many different ways. In addition to race, there’s now a lot of talk about gender and sexuality. Your governor gave this speech where she was characterizing people opposed to her administration. She’s a quite conservative Republican. The way she put it was “They think patriotism is racist, and pornographic library books are education.”
I wonder how you hear something like that, because it sounds like what you started seeing in 2020, it’s only metastasizing.
It’s only growing, and it’s scary, and it’s sad. I think it reflects this narrow view of what the U.S. is and can be, and this narrow view of patriotism. If we really want to live to our highest ideals, we owe it to students to teach them to think critically about these things.
Since you left the classroom, Iowa legislators have banned gender-affirming care for trans youth. The House has passed a bill that would prohibit the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through sixth grade. There’s a bill that limits bathroom use in schools to ”biological sex.” There’s curriculum measures that remove the requirement to teach students about HIV, and that’s just awaiting the governor’s signature. If you were back in the classroom now, would you be able to have the kind of open conversations you want to have with kids?
I don’t know. I think it would depend on the district, how supportive they were of all the students, how they interpreted these laws. We’re approaching a time when supporting students in these ways is becoming illegal. And I know people with trans kids who are considering leaving the state just because of that, because they want their students to grow up in a safe and supportive environment, which Iowa is becoming less and less.
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I wonder if you think about your state differently now. I ask that because I think people may have forgotten that Iowa was, like, the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2009.
Iowa has a longer tradition of progressive, inclusive politics, going way back. This recent turn is a dangerous direction for Iowans in a lot of ways. And we’re seeing it reflected in a variety of ways. The brain drain is talked about a lot.
I’m actually having lunch today with a colleague who quit after death threats and another who felt forced out for advocating around issues of diversity for students. There are a number of teachers who are firmly committed and able to carry on in the classroom and do really good and thoughtful work. And I also know a handful of teachers who have not been able to continue to do that.