‘Why Am I Just Learning About This?’ In New College Board Offering, Students Explore the African Diaspora

Oct 19, 2020

Shocked. Outraged. Frustrated. Curious. Determined. Excited. Proud.

Those are some of the emotions Mario Herrera’s high school students experienced as they learned about the African diaspora, as part of a two-year pilot for the College Board’s new curriculum on the subject.

For many of his students, who attend Atlanta Public Schools in Georgia, the course introduces significant historical events, art and cultural contributions and glaring injustices that they are learning about for the very first time. And that tends to draw out a lot of indignation, exasperation and “wows,” Herrera says.

“‘Why am I just learning about this?’ That is the most common question I hear all the time,” says Herrera, who is a speech and debate coach and co-teaches AP Seminar at Henry Grady High School. “They’ll say, ‘You mean this was going on for hundreds of years and I’m just now learning about it?’”

The African diaspora is not taught as a standalone Advanced Placement course, but rather as a theme in AP Seminar through which students learn about real-world issues while developing skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, research and presentation.

Now out of a pilot phase that involved about a dozen high schools across the country, the curriculum is designed to amplify the history, culture and experiences of Black people all over the world, and it’s coming at a time when many in the United States—including teachers, education leaders and students—are examining their own understanding of race and history.

In 2017, the College Board began working with researchers at the African Diaspora Consortium to identify relevant educational content for a diaspora curriculum. Staff at the College Board helped shape that curriculum to align with the learning objectives of the AP Capstone Program, which, along with one other course, includes AP Seminar.

The College Board, which administers the AP program as well as the SAT, wanted to offer a curriculum on the African diaspora so students and educators would have more opportunities to study, reflect on and connect with Black experiences, for the benefit of students and teachers of all races and backgrounds.

“The African diaspora has a profound influence on global policies, economics, arts, culture and more,” said Rushi Sheth, executive director of the AP Capstone Diploma Program, in a statement for EdSurge. “The complexities of the Diaspora are an excellent fit with AP Seminar’s interdisciplinary research focus. We are excited to share free resources and lesson plans with interested AP Seminar teachers and encourage students to make personal connections with the diaspora through research and collaboration.”

When Herrera first heard that the College Board was developing a curriculum around the African diaspora, he and his co-teacher said, “Ah, we’ve gotta teach that here,” he recalls. Henry Grady High School is in the middle of downtown Atlanta—just a couple blocks away, Herrera notes, from both the King Center and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. The student body is slightly majority white, with a substantial number of Black students as well, he says.

Despite the school’s diversity, seats in its advanced classes tend to be occupied primarily by white students, in what Herrera describes as the “ridiculous, unfortunate, mind-boggling separation—almost segregation—between honors and AP courses that differentiate by ethnicities.”

One reason for introducing the African diaspora curriculum into AP Seminar was that educators thought it would help diversify the racial makeup of students who register for the course. So far, that hunch has proven correct, Herrera says, which he feels helps with buy-in for the course.

In class, Herrera starts the semester by covering the journeys of enslaved people out of sub-Saharan Africa, using a website called SlaveVoyages.org. He covers art and culture, along with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Then, he says, he pulls up Athena (an online platform with free educational content and lesson plans) and asks students to tell him what looks interesting. The Caribbean? Afro-Latinx culture? Performing arts? Literature? Colonization? Systemic oppression? Identity? Resistance and resilience? The options are many.

For Herrera, the students’ reactions—and their brimming curiosity—are energizing.

“Rarely does a teacher get to see, for one, students excited about something they had no idea existed, and then two, the growth in a single school year,” he says. By the end of the year, “they can view the world differently. Aspects of the world they took for granted or thought they understood become part of the knowledge they get from the class.”

Cary Hurt, who teaches AP Seminar at Grissom High School in Huntsville, Ala., says students at his school learn all about the Civil Rights Movement, but less about African history and African influence.

“My hope is they are exposed to things [in the diaspora curriculum] they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, and that we’re teaching understanding and empathy,” he says. His school is about 70 percent white, with a growing population of Black students.

After a few years teaching the African diaspora to classes of 10 to 12 students at a time, Hurt actively recruited students for this year’s course and wound up with 26 enrolled. They registered for the class in January, Hurt says, before the outbreak of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color in the U.S., and before the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. While those issues didn’t necessarily influence this year’s class, they may generate more interest in the course for next year, Hurt says.

“The fact that we have it in place, I think, puts us in a position to better address topics that might not naturally come up in another class,” he says of the curriculum, acknowledging the racial unrest in the United States.

Herrera says he has already had students who are signed up for his spring course tell him they want their research project to focus on George Floyd and police brutality. Other students in the past have used the individual and team research projects to learn about issues outside the U.S.

Two months into Hurt’s fall course, his AP Seminar students have already proposed their research topics. He rattled them off on the phone: African-American English as a valid dialect; terminology of “African-Americans” (to be more specific, such as Nigerian-Americans, or inclusive of Black people outside of Africa, such as Haitian-Americans or Jamaican-Americans); African influence in music; lack of representation of people of color in the makeup industry; Chinese investment in Africa; the argument for reparations and more.

If recent years are any guide, some of those projects will have a profound impact on the students researching them. Herrera says he once oversaw a group project where students examined the gentrification of their own neighborhoods, talking to city planners, reading old news articles and contacting neighborhood associations. It led one of the students in the group to choose to study urban planning and development when he went to college.

Another case that stands out, Herrera says, was one of his Black students' projects on hair—specifically, the expectations for Black women and their hair in the workplace. As the student’s research progressed throughout the course, the way she saw and styled her own hair changed. “It was much more natural at the end of the semester than the beginning,” Herrera says. “I pointed it out, and she said, ‘Yes, it is!’ She was proud.”


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