AP African American Studies Class Helps Brooklyn Students Connect with History

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Prior to her junior year, history classes didn’t capture the interest of Brooklyn high school student Afag Sidahmed.

“I had had enough of studying about Europeans,” she expressed. The curriculum seldom delved into Black history except for Martin Luther King Jr.

However, this academic year, Afag’s sentiments about history transformed with the introduction of a novel course at her school, the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women.

“Upon learning about AP African American Studies — particularly with ‘African’ emphasized — I knew I had to take this class,” she stated.

In 2022, the College Board introduced its inaugural Advanced Placement course in African American studies through a trial program at 60 educational institutions nationwide. Presently, the program has extended to nearly 700 high schools across the country, with 59 local schools in the city offering the course.

The forthcoming academic year will witness the official launch of the course, permitting any high school to include it in their curriculum. Nearly 160 more high schools in New York City have expressed their interest in the offering, although this figure might fluctuate as schools solidify their plans for the upcoming school year, as per officials.

The course materials have ignited controversy in some states. Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared that the state’s schools would not teach the course, citing an alleged violation of state laws restricting the teachings related to race and racism. Subsequently, when the College Board revised the curriculum by eliminating the contentious content, critics accused the organization of yielding to political pressure and toning down the course.

Nevertheless, despite being embroiled in a nationwide political debate, educators both in the city and nationwide underline the significant role the course can play in schools and the value it offers to students.

At the Institute of Math and Science, two classes comprising 32 students are undertaking the course, led by teachers Kelly Preston and Martine Mercier. The classroom’s walls are adorned with a timeline of Black history spanning centuries and the flags of African and Caribbean nations. A class constitution promotes questioning, respecting diverse opinions, and expressing disagreements courteously.

For Preston and Mercier, the focal point of the class lies in student-engagement and discussions. The lessons predominantly involve students analyzing primary sources in small groups rather than conventional lectures.

“Students should actively engage in learning,” noted Preston. “They should not passively absorb information. They have the capacity to construct their understanding, and we strive for them to feel empowered in their educational journey.”

Students delve into primary sources

In a class session in February, Preston and Mercier weaved a hypothetical scenario to introduce a lesson on the Great Migration, a significant 20th-century relocation of Black individuals from the rural South to urban regions throughout the U.S.

Confronted with the question of under what conditions they would consider switching schools, the students deliberated whether negative treatment alone would spur the decision or if a viable alternative school environment was a precondition.

Following this discussion, students resorted to historical documents, engaging in group analyses. Preston and Mercier circulated among the groups, listening in, posing additional queries, and encouraging students to justify their conclusions.

Mercier emphasized the importance of the students examining sources beyond the instructors for affirmation of their interpretations.

Alizett Tavarez, an 11th grader, revealed how she deciphered the essence of the Great Migration from clues in paintings by Jacob Lawrence, an American painter focusing on aspects of the Black experience.

During the discourse, students frequently referenced key figures and events in Black history, drawing parallels with Harriet Tubman, Black Wall Street, the Harlem Renaissance, and more.

When discussing why numerous individuals opted to migrate north, a student provided insight.

“For genuine freedom,” articulated Esha Azam, a 10th grader. “Following the abolition of slavery, the South introduced the Black Codes, literacy tests, and Jim Crow laws,” she highlighted, alluding to the laws that curtailed the rights of Black Americans to vote or own property and enforced racial segregation.

Beyond the exam’s scope

The piloted AP course is one component of New York City educators’ efforts to broaden the landscape of Black history teachings in schools.

Sonya Douglass, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the director of the Black Education Research Collective, collaborated in formulating a pre-K-12 Black studies curriculum recently implemented across around 10 school districts as part of a trial program. The curriculum emerged through the collaborative efforts of the Education Equity Action Plan Coalition, a consortium comprising educators, non-profit organizations, and governmental officials.

“Educators, community members, and even older students have exhibited tremendous enthusiasm, indicating that this was long overdue,” Douglass remarked. “We are particularly thrilled about the opportunity for generations of young learners to access this information at the K-12 level.”

The AP African American studies course has sparked further dialogues and exhilaration within local communities, noted Douglass. She stressed the necessity for educators who will delve into the material for the first time next year to approach it with “cultural humility.”

“Irrespective of one’s background, even if you have African heritage, many are unaware of this history,” she emphasized. “Adopting a learner’s perspective is crucial.”

Preston and Mercier have shared insights with educators in recent months, emphasizing their experiences conducting the class on a local forum panel among various Brooklyn schools and at the national College Board Forum in November.

The duo has advised educators new to the course to embrace the challenge and have faith in their students.

“Introducing a brand-new course — particularly centered on narratives and stories not traditionally emphasized — is no easy feat,” explained Preston. “It will entail unlearning and relearning. … But trust the students. They are capable of interrogating sources, crafting their understanding, and engaging in meaningful, productive discussions.

“The key is figuring out how to support them in this process,” she concluded.

Kiri Soares, the principal of the Institute of Math and Science, commended Preston and Mercier for implementing a successful model for the course in its inaugural year at the school. However, Soares expressed concerns that fewer students might enroll in the course if it does not fulfill the U.S. history credit requirement for graduation. (The city’s Education Department labels the course as a humanities elective.)

Soares’ aspirations for the course extend beyond the outcome of the AP exam in May, which will be administered for the first time this year, focusing more on the knowledge students acquire from its content.

“My aim with this course is for the students to see themselves included in history,” she articulated. “This challenges the historical narratives in their families, creating a powerful impact that transcends the significance of exam scores.”

For certain students at the school, the class has achieved precisely that.

“It frequently links back to your heritage,” Alizett remarked. “The classroom provides more than anticipated learning.”

“The classroom imparts knowledge about your ethnicity,” added Amna Sobahi, an 11th grader. “I don’t even need a DNA test anymore — Ms. Kelly provides that.”

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