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Educating students for a more just and equitable world sounds idyllic. In reality, however, teaching students to think critically about racial, economic, and social injustices can lead to a host of difficult and controversial problems.

With the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday – and Black History Month fast approaching – it seemed like an ideal time to look specifically at how schools teach the life of Dr. King, in addition to how schools approach social-justice education overall in a way that’s authentic and represents all the complexities.

The Chicago teacher Gregory Michie says his lessons on the social-justice icon are designed to upend what he views as a simplistic and clichéd image often presented in schools. Since many of his students know King’s famous excerpt hoping for a day when no one is judged by the color of their skin, Michie’s social-studies class zeroes in on lesser-known sections of the “I Have a Dream” speech, like the “fierce urgency of now” and “tranquilizing drug of [white] gradualism.” The youngsters quickly realize that they’ve never really heard the full message of the speech, he said, and “it’s a lot more nuanced, and more fiery, than they’d thought.”

As the country observes the federal holiday named in King’s honor, it seems that schools are increasingly coming under sharp criticism from educators and activists for their approach to teaching King’s life. Some question a sanitized teaching of the black civil-rights movement, its leaders, and other struggles for social justice that denies students an accurate and complete account of history. These debates are complicated by the inherent professional dangers in teaching through a social-justice lens.

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Few famous figures in American history are as divisive as Christopher Columbus. Many find the Italian voyager’s reputation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A growing number of cities and states – Alaska just joined the roster – are shunning a day named for the explorer in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.” And schools, which reflect society’s broad cultural and political values, must find ways to navigate this new terrain.

So I looked at the annual pushback to this holiday – and went in search of how teachers talk about Columbus in an authentic way in the classroom.

Today, over 500 years after he sailed the ocean blue, Columbus is equally derided and praised. Starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992, cities started renaming the second Monday in October “Indigenous People’s Day” to shift focus from the conqueror to the conquered. Since August, eight cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including several in just the last week. This follows both Minneapolis and Seattle, which adopted the new name in 2014, with a bevy of Native American groups and progressive activists applauding the changes.

The picture grows even more complicated when you factor in teachers and schools, which often rely on textbooks, materials, and lesson plans inundated with Anglo-American, mono-cultural viewpoints. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen, a history professor, reviews the common misstatements and misrepresentations in the retelling of American history—from the first Thanksgiving and reconstruction to the mythology surrounding Columbus. The result is “a whitewashed version of history,” Shannon Speed, the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last year. “Omission of the truth is, in fact, a form of lying. I would offer that the purpose of teaching history in schools is to create critical thinkers capable of meaningful participation in a democratic society.”

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(Photo: Elaine Thompson / AP)