Kurt Russell has spent his entire teaching career exploring the darker side of American history with students attending his alma mater Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio. In his role, Russell continues to fulfill a vision that crystallized in the eighth grade while under the tutelage of a Black male, math instructor who inspired him to pursue his current profession.
As parents and far-right politicians continue to declare war on books, Russell, the 2022 National Teacher of the Year, said he remains committed to fostering critical thinking skills and ensuring that young people who’ve taken his classes develop empathy and respect for others.
“I teach courses deemed controversial [that are] about things adults tend to shy away from,” Russell said. “My courses are popular electives, which tells me that students are eager and willing to learn. What has remained the same for my school [since I was a student] is the emphasis for equitable and multicultural education.”
Russell, who has also been designated as Ohio’s teacher of the year, developed his craft in the Buckeye State. Upon his graduation from Oberlin High School in 1990, Russell attended The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history. At Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, he would later acquire a Master of Education degree.
Throughout his professional experience, Russell adopted a student-centered philosophy that emphasizes equity and representation. Students who attend his classes often explore African-American history, Black music in the African Diaspora, race, gender and oppression and the history of the Americas starting with the Reconstruction Era.
Russell often converses with students and compels them to draw parallels between the past and the present. He said the diversity of students’ backgrounds allows for rich discussions about the racism, sexism and homophobia which they currently experience.
In Ohio and across the country, state-level officials have banned books that cover controversial topics or have been written by or about people from marginalized backgrounds. As of April, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida count among the states with the highest number of book bans with Texas carrying more than 700.
Meanwhile, calls have increased to ban books in Ohio public schools deemed inappropriate, pervasive and offensive. The state legislature has been mulling over two bills that, if passed, would prevent Ohio school districts, STEM schools and state agencies from teaching, advocating for or promoting what have been described as divisive concepts.
Over the last year, books that have been on the chopping block in Ohio include Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of Butterflies,” “642 Things to Write About” by the San Francisco Writers Grotto, “A Girl on the Shore” by Inio Asano and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy.”
Earlier this month, the Milford City school board voted to keep “In the Time of Butterflies.” However, the controversy at Hudson High School surrounding sexually-themed writing prompts in “642 Things to Write About,” led Hiram College to end a college credit plus partnership with Hudson City Schools.
The call to ban books in Ohio and across the U.S. started in 2020 when conservative activist Christopher Rufo said critical race theory, post-Civil Rights scholarship that explores how racism intersects with law and economics, had infiltrated every institution in the federal government.
Since then, the Trump administration and other conservative actors attempted to stunt diversity and inclusion efforts at the federal, state and local levels. Ohioans like Russell said they continue to feel the effects.
However, he said he has no intention of retreating.
“Ohio is an epicenter of pushing [anti-CRT] legislation, so it’s tough for teachers,” Russell said. “There isn’t a single teacher in high school teaching critical race theory but because of that rhetoric, teachers are pressured about telling the truth. Without the truth, our progress will be void. We need to provide our students with the best educational opportunities and I do that by teaching.”