New Hampshire Law Banning ‘Divisive Concepts’ in the Classroom Leaves Teachers Vulnerable and Students Unprepared

New Hampshire’s “Divisive Concepts” bill has restricted teaching about racism, sexism and oppression in the state. Educators are pushing back.


Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Cue: a new series from Ms., ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

The new school year brings a fresh onslaught of conservative attacks on public education. As I prepare the syllabus for my “Teaching English for Middle and High School Teachers” course at the University of New Hampshire this semester, a new court challenge to New Hampshire’s HB 544 “Divisive Concepts” bill is underway. Passed in 2021, HB 544 prohibits the teaching of racism, sexism and any materials that claim “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” 

While debates over issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in public education are not new, the extremity and uncertainty surrounding recent legislative attacks leave teachers and teacher educators particularly vulnerable. As egregious as white supremacist and misogynistic bills like HB 544 are on their own, the lack of clear guidance or support for public school teachers and teacher educators expected to comply with them is enraging. 

In addition to the widespread coverage of the impact of anti-DEI legislation on teachersstudents and university professors, there needs to be more attention given to teaching students and teacher educators. As a unionized, tenure-track professor, I have academic freedom and built-in support systems if my teaching is challenged. Yet, my teaching students are not guaranteed the same support. I feel at a loss for preparing them to develop ethical pedagogies within a society that seems determined to make education from kindergarten to graduate school less diverse, equitable, and inclusive. 

As a public university, the University of New Hampshire is not immune to a state law passed in 2021 that bars teachers from advocating for certain positions around race, gender, and other protected classes. (Denis Tangney, Jr. / Getty Images)

In the absence of clear legislative or administrative guidance on the implementation of HB 544, my students and I adopted methods for pushing back. Every semester since the bill’s passing, we devote class time to reading, analyzing and discussing its language. Together, we deconstruct intentionally vague rhetoric like “divisive concepts” that masks the bill’s white supremacist logic. Students recognize how the bill co-opts language commonly used in calls for social justice to argue against diversity. 

We also work to dispel claims in the bill regarding students’ best interest, in that they are spared any “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress.” As one of my students put it, the bill “assumes how students will feel and what they will find divisive.”

These discussions of the bill’s language help us acknowledge its broader impacts on all students and teachers. My students point to how the bill’s censorship of materials that teach about the realities of racism and sexism in this country will affect their future students’ critical thinking skills, historical knowledge and personal development. They identify how bills like HB 544 rob white students—particularly those in predominantly white states like NH–of the few opportunities they have for exposure to people, identities, and communities unlike their own, while forcing students of color to see even less of themselves in their classroom materials. 

As one of my students eloquently put it after reading the bill for the first time, “How are we supposed to teach?”

Rhetorical critique of anti-DEI legislation is a valuable method for helping current and future teachers find innovative ways to teach around it. Furthermore, criticism that fails to recognize the white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia and general intolerance that inform these bills does a disservice to us all. 

Much of the debate on anti-DEI legislation in public education constellates around banned books. As such, students and I integrate banned books, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, into our course reading list and create lessons for teaching them. Reading banned books in class exposes students to the types of materials currently being banned in public schools. Students gain practice creating heuristics on Maus’ genre, history and connections with contemporary and local contexts, which can be applied to other texts they may teach. 

Engaging with banned books also helps students see the pedagogical value in such materials, arming them to make arguments against future bans. We have frank discussions about the academic freedom they likely will, or will not, be afforded, depending on the state, district and school they end up teaching at, much of which undergraduate teaching students are unable to predict. 

Anti-racist and feminist pedagogical theories that privilege students’ personal knowledge and lived experiences have been central in our navigation of HB 544.

We review strategies for community building and student-led instruction that provide opportunities to teach about issues of identity, difference and intolerance that HB 544 aims to stamp out—feminist pedagogies, such as those offered by bell hooks, that recognize discomfort as a conduit for critical thinking provide us with philosophical and practical methods. Together, we wrestle with the question: How do you make a student feel comfortable in a classroom, as they’re being told their histories and very identities are “divisive” or worthy of banning? We’re still not sure you can.

As one of my students eloquently put it after reading the bill for the first time, “How are we supposed to teach?”

While I’m calling for more attention to the impact of anti-DEI legislation on teacher educators and teaching students, I recognize the good work that has been done by teacher organizations in this area, such as Teaching for Change, Black Lives Matter at School, the National Council for the Social Studies and the National Council of Teachers of English. On my own campus, my education colleagues have worked tirelessly to provide legislative updates and resources. It is the legislators that pass and the administrators that enforce these abhorrent bills that are most to blame. The methods I’ve shared here are just temporary solutions at best. Most important is the inclusion of more teachers and teacher educators in legislative processes. 

As a unionized, tenure-track professor, I have academic freedom and built-in support systems if my teaching is challenged. Yet, my teaching students are not guaranteed the same support.

I often tell students that given how much society devalues them, to want to be a public school teacher is to be an idealist at heart. Each semester, we talk about how being an idealist has become increasingly more difficult. Even through the rage I have towards these hateful bills and the incompetence with which they’ve been applied, my students still fill me with hope. When faced with the lack of equitable pay and necessary resources, and legislative attacks like HB 544, they still want to be teachers. They remain determined to find ways to build equitable classrooms that celebrate difference, truth and tolerance. 

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


C.C. Hendricks is an assistant professor in Communication Arts and Sciences and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is a mom and feminist rhetorical studies scholar whose work has appeared in the journals Peitho, Across the Disciplines and The WAC Journal.