Florida history teachers explain how they'll educate students amid controversial new standards

'We're going to teach the truth, and that standard is not the truth,' teacher David Calhoun says
Posted at 10:10 AM, Aug 14, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — David Calhoun and Sam Jenkins are among the Florida history teachers caught in the middle of teaching America's complicated past amid Florida's increasingly combative politics.

"History is our story, and it's ugly," Calhoun, who's been teaching in Hillsborough County for more than 20 years, said.

Calhoun has a problem with teaching the state's newest standards.

"It's not the truth," Calhoun said. "It's very inaccurate."

Florida's newly approved high school curriculum includes instruction on how violence was "perpetrated against and by African Americans" during some high-profile race-related massacres including the 1920 Ocoee massacre. The massacre occurred when a Black man trying to vote was attacked by a white mob.

Calhoun said the state's new guidelines, which suggest Black people contributed to the bloodshed at the time, distorts the facts since African Americans were forced to defend themselves against the angry mob.

As a result, Calhoun said, the state's new benchmark won’t show up in his class.

"We're going to teach the truth, and that standard is not the truth," Calhoun said. "We're not going to stand in class and say the state school board got this wrong. We will simply just not talk about it. We'll ignore it."

He is referring to the guidelines suggesting Blacks perpetuated the violence.

"I'm going to make sure that I teach factual, accurate history," Sam Jenkins, who teaches eighth-grade history in Brevard County, said.

He may also end up ignoring some of the state's new guidelines, which include teaching middle school students how slaves "developed skills which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit," according to the state.

"The wording is a big problem for me. We're going to talk about how certain slaves had particular skill sets, but we'll do it in a way that we've always done, which is more accurate and factual, and we're going to leave the rest out," he explained, adding he will not teach students that slaves benefited in any way from being enslaved.

Across the state, Florida's new African American history standards, which will be fully implemented next school year, have prompted outrage among Democrats, including Vice President Kamala Harris, rallies and community protests.

The National Council for History Education released a statement condemning the state's new standards while supporting history teachers who may be too afraid to speak up.

"Teachers are not in agreement with a lot of these standards, but they're fearful that if they speak out against these standards they might lose their position," Shauna Liverotti with the council said.

 In Miami Thursday night, a community town hall was not attended by Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, who claimed he was too busy visiting schools to attend the 7 p.m. forum.

Diaz defended the new standards.

"If anyone takes the time to look at the standards, you can see everything is covered," he said during a state Board of Education meeting recently.

Still, teachers are voicing their concerns and their plans to teach or not teach the controversial new curriculum.

"I have to be extremely careful with what I say and how I say it," South Florida teacher Danielle Irvin said. "I have to be careful with how my students question things and how I direct their way of thinking and then with parents as well. This puts me in a really crazy situation."