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Here’s How AP African American Studies Helps Teachers ‘Get Students to Think’

Ahenewa El-Amin has taught African American literature and AP English Literature and Composition for years at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky.

She heard that Florida state officials moved to ban the pilot of the College Board’s AP African American Studies course last year for allegedly defying state law that restricts instruction on race. (Kentucky itself has a similar law in effect.) That got her interested. El-Amin spoke to her school administration about getting involved in the pilot program.

This school year, El-Amin’s students are helping her give shape to the course ahead of its official launch nationally and at Henry Clay in the fall.

El-Amin spoke with Education Week about her experience with the pilot, the skills her students are learning in the interdisciplinary course, and how it can help students learn to build connections with others.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What has it been like to teach AP African American Studies?

It is truly interdisciplinary. You have to know a little bit about a lot to be successful for the students. It’s been hard but it’s been so much fun. Because not only am I trying to figure out exactly what the College Board wanted me to know and what they wanted the students to know, [but] I don’t have a practice test to look at to see exactly what the kids [need to] know. I just have to figure it out on my own. So it is difficult. However, it is so much fun.

Unfortunately, time is a thing. I knew nothing about the Haitian Revolution and the lesson should have taken two days. The lesson took me almost a week and a half, because I would stop and say “oh this is so interesting.” And then we had to follow my mind as it meanders through history.

I also have gotten enormous support from not just an online community of educators, but also from the people in this building. Because when I’m teaching unit one for AP American Studies, it’s the African diaspora. And we started with a map of the continent of Africa. I’ve been to places: a Fulbright scholarship to South Africa, studying reparations after the fall of apartheid, and then I’ve been to Senegal and The Gambia, because I read Roots and decided I wanted to go there. That’s all I knew about Africa. So I had to pull a lot from the information of my colleagues who taught AP [European History], and AP World [History] and AP Human Geography, just to understand that. So I have loved this year, because it has made me collaborate with so many different people.

What are some of the skills students are learning in the class that they can use in college and beyond?

Critical thinking skills. I tell them you were blessed with cognitive functions. Thinking should be [the] number one thing that you do every day. And the way we start thinking in this course, it’s wonderful. It forces you to change the lens from which you view the world. It really is probably some of the same information that is in other studies, you’re just looking at it from a different lens. Kind of like when I teach in AP [English] Literature [and Composition] we’re looking at The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is absolutely white-centric. You’re talking about the times of the 1920s. And there are very few African Americans. But if you take another novel, another great love-story novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was told entirely from an African American perspective, you can see that they are talking about the same time period from two different perspectives.

It’s also some research skills. We’re not there yet, except for when we did take that trip to the library [to learn about redlining in students’ neighborhoods]. They were fascinated by the microfiche machine and the idea of going into the stacks and looking at books.

How do you feel about teaching a course that has become a hot-button political issue?

As a teacher, my entire goal is to get kids to think. I don’t care what they’re thinking about. And read everything and then use that reading to think.

I’ve been at Henry Clay as the only Black teacher of a core class for 15 years or so. And I teach at Henry Clay, named for a grievous slave owner. Even when I wear Henry Clay across my chest, I have to think about these things. I’ve navigated a world in which when I was teaching AP [English Literature and Composition] was criticized for teaching too many Black voices.

To me, it’s par for the course. And I also teach British literature. Rudyard Kipling has never been brought up in a conversation to ban, and he [espoused] more on white supremacy than anyone. Never once have I been questioned for teaching white voices who speak actively about separatism and supremacy. But I’ve been questioned for teaching about Black characters, who are not even expressing Black [thoughts] in any kind of way.

So par for the course, doesn’t bother me.

Any other insights for teachers looking to teach the course this fall?

One of the primary jobs of a teacher is to make connections with students. If you can make connections with students, and have those students make connections with the curriculum, [then] that breaks down barriers, [and] there can be no choice but to offer the course. Teaching a course like this is important. It’s not simply important because you’re teaching historical happenings. It is important because it gives you a level of knowledge to have conversations.

There can never be a wrong time to break down a barrier of communication and learning.

It’s one of the reasons I love teaching. Something I say to somebody eventually is going to help them communicate better with somebody else in this life. We’re all connected. And I truly do believe it’s not the grades that you make, it’s the hands that you shake. And you can’t shake hands outside of your own group unless you are willing to learn about other groups.

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