AP AAS Goal #1: my students will “Learn Their Truth.”
Learning their truth is just as important as teaching their truth.
I am regularly inspired by my inaugural cohort of the amazing sixteen Advanced Placement African American Studies (AAS) students I teach. None of the students have to take the course, and yet they opted in for a more challenging course. They are aware of the political moment in which they are taking the course, and curious to know what the big freaking deal is over their history. One hundred percent of my students are students of color.
I believe that any Black student taking AP African American Studies at this current time is participating in a beautiful act of resistance. Baldwin appropriately stated that “to teach Black children is a revolutionary act.” I am humbled by this every day I step in front of my seniors.
I have 3 goals in teaching AP African American Studies, and in this brief mini series I am going to write about each of them and share some anecdotes from my experience teaching this course.
My 3 goals for my AP AAS students are:
- Help students learn their truth.
- Prepare students for college level rigor.
- Foster student activism.
Please note, that none of my goals are related to students getting a 3 or higher on the exam. For me, that’s not the focus at the moment, and who knows if it will ever be.
There has been much conversation about teaching truth lately. I want to flip that discourse and encourage that for students of color it’s just as much about students “learning their truth.” Due to the whitewashing of Black history, there has never been enough conversation about what Black students get to learn about their own history.
This really hit home for me early in the course in Topic 1.3 on Bantu Expansion. One of the essential knowledge statements for this topic states “Africa is the ancestral home of thousands of ethnic groups and languages. A large portion of the genetic ancestry of African Americans derives from Western and Central African Bantu speakers.”
For the first unit of AP AAS I am having students create a large 11×17 map of Africa. We add new kingdoms and trade routes as we learn them, and talk about where our ancestors may have come from. It was during this topic of Bantu Expansion, when this fantastic student said “we should get tested Ms. Henry.”
I followed up by asking her what she meant and she said something “like DNA tested so we can know where we come from and truly understand where we come from. (Looking around the class) don’t you all want to know where you come from? How cool would that be!” Everyone in class said yes or nodded their heads. And for those of you that know me, when a Black student has a brilliant idea I will promise to at least try to deliver.
My Black and brown students want to get genetic testing done so they can have a better sense of their racial identity and learn the truth of where they came from. To make this happen each of them have written a brief letter to the College Board requesting funding for DNA testing. I have written my own request to go on top and will email them to the College Board today. All of their letters can be fully read here, and I want to share just a few gems in what my students wrote (all excerpts are from a different brief letter):
“Knowing that I’m just ‘African American’ isn’t enough for me. I want to know more. So with that being said, may you please grant our DNA test kits so we can know our origins.”
“This would be important considering that this class is about learning Black history and knowing where we are from could help increase our understanding and involvement in the course. This also helps students who are interested in their heritage find out more about themselves. Giving them the chance to connect to their ancestors.”
“I’m grateful for being able to learn this course because as a Black woman in this country, it’s important to know and understand where you come from. Learning that I come from Kings & Queens and not just from slavery is so refreshing.”
“This will give us a way to know where we’ve come from and connect with our history more. It’ll also give us a type of belonging.”
“If we were to receive those dna tests a lot more of us could connect to the lesson, possibly learn if any of us are from these historical kingdoms and actually know where we came from, it would give us the ability to learn and connect to our people.”
What stood out to me the most when reading their letters is the keen and eager individual curiosity each of my students have to learn more about themselves. For Black people, due to the atrocities of enslavement we just can’t trace our ancestry back as easily as others. This is beyond frustrating, and they feel and know it.
James Baldwin wrote about how white supremacy uses education as a tool to remain in power in a letter to his nephew. Inspiring his nephew to not seek peace “mediocrity” rather he argues “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” This could not be more relevant today as I am seeking to honor the revolutionary act of having my students truly learn about their own ancestors. Please share this, especially if you know someone who works for the College Board. My students are also prepared to do fundraising if needed. Next up: Goal #2 “Preparing Students for College Rigor.”