How Are You Defining Rigor And Preparing Students For It?

Advanced Placement African American Studies Goal #2: Preparing Students for College Level Rigor  

Out of my three goals for teaching Advanced Placement African American Studies, the hardest to write about is the pursuit of academic rigor. 

The difficulty stems from the awareness of many institutional factors that impact my ability to fully support my students in meeting the level of rigor I want to demand from my AP classroom. I am fully aware that institutional racism in education has denied Black and brown children of classrooms they deserve. Rigor is too often defined from a western Eurocentric academic lens, while not accounting for how Black students experience and everyday experience in education.  For me, “rigor” is when my students are using critical thinking skills, engaged with the content, and are struggling with a lesson in a productive way.  My goal for college level rigor is centered on homework/studying, debates, and writing. I have been successful with two out of the three.

My AP African American Studies students are more than wonderful. They are smart.  They are creative. They are leaders within their school community in West Philadelphia. They make me laugh so much. They all participate in class. They love to debate more than ever. They are inclined to show off their talents when the opportunity arises. Ultimately, they remind me as Black teacher why I started and stayed with teaching as a profession.

They also ALL said at the beginning of the school year they want to go to college.  Some want to study business, one engineering, and one even music theory. They are not sure yet where what college they want to go to, and their college visits have only just started.

I have yet to be successful with my students regarding homework and studying. I told my students that in addition to my first course goal of learning their history, I simply want to prepare them for college. I do not accept late homework. I do not give extra credit. I want them to read for 45 minutes every night. I share with them that this practice is pivotal for developing habits and routines they will use next year. However, many of them consistently fail to meet this bar.

Why? Well the answers vary. Some have jobs, some simply forget, some have to take care of younger siblings, some choose to play the game instead, and some say it’s too hard or boring.  And yet still knowing this, it’s hard not to get frustrated.  I’m running out of motivational speeches and we are not even close to halfway through the school year! 

Generally, I think we, as Black teachers in urban locations, need to be talking a whole lot more; sharing ideas, and building community over homework and studying. For those in AP classes at private schools, or even the public school I went to (with so much more funding), studying is regular practice.

This foregrounds one of the concerns I have more generally about the AP course for BIPOC students is NOT about the curriculum at all yet.  It’s more about the means in which BIPOC students DO and MAY not have the educational tools they need to fully be successful in taking the course, and the teachers who teach it.  I want the College Board to continue to think about what outreach needs to be done with urban schools, so students like mine experience success. 

I plan also within the next month to reach out to parents and have an honest conversation about their child’s performance. I wish I would have connected with senior families about the importance of AP homework and studying sooner, because it is also about asking families the best way to support their child.  Their input is necessary.

Despite my lack of success with homework, my AP AAS students are meeting my goal for college level rigor in debates and writing. This was so evident in their engagement with the Kingdom of Kongo. They loved arguing about King Afonso and whether or not he was responsible for what happened to his Kingdom. They analyzed his letter and were shocked that an African king who participated in slavery himself could “beg” (Topic 1.11 in the AP African American Studies Course Framework) from another Portuguese king for assistance.  Some called him a coward.  Some called his letter being an example of diplomacy at the time, and others argued it was not his fault the Portuguese arrived in the first place.  This is a perfect example of LaGarrett King’s Teaching Black History Principle “Black Historical Contention.” By centering Black humanity in any teaching of Black history highlights the fact that not every part of Black histories are pristine, and not every Black person fully supported Black liberation.  The complexity of King Afonso’s rule could not be a better example for students to critically struggle with this nuanced aspect of Black history.

In addition to having students debate King Afonso’s leadership I had them write a 2-page paper about him as a summative assessment.  Was their paper completely college ready? Absolutely not, but I know we can get there. See just a few examples below:

“King Afonso is partly responsible for the enslavement of the Kongolese because he sold captives of war and he let the Portuguese take advantage of him. King Afonso was one of the Kings of Kongo who ruled and protected his people even though he sold others to make money and expand his Kingdom.” – Student 1

“King Afonso’s plea to King Joāo did him no justice given they started to abduct more of King Afonsos people. Afonso lost his credibility with being a king. He no longer had a fear factor which resulted in his vassals starting to rebel against him, further weakening his leadership.” – Student 2

“Ultimately king Afonso had 3 main jobs: to expand kongo, protect his people, and strengthen allies to better equip his nation with resources. He did accomplish and do all these things and that’s the reason he is not responsible for the enslavement of the Kongolese from Portugal.” – Student 3

I also need to share that this only happened because I reached out for help through LinkedIn. I am so grateful that I was connected to Professor John Thorton, who has spent over a decade studying and writing about the Kongo. He zoomed into my class and my students got the opportunity to ask questions.  Despite teaching African American History for twelve years to ninth graders, I will still admit that I am no expert on any one particular subject.  This is what makes me concerned when considering other teachers instructing AP AAS.  If I, as an experienced Black history teacher, doubt myself teaching the subject to students in West Philly, what could go wrong for especially students of color that are experiencing the same course elsewhere from a teacher who has never taught African American History before?  Yikes.

That being said, I am still grateful for this course.  I am grateful to provide now fifteen Black students a high level opportunity in education centered on their own history.  I am far from perfect at it everyday, and regardless of students not meeting all of my expectations for homework, I am not going to give up anytime soon on my second goal of college level rigor. 

Up next, goal number three: foster student activism.  


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