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Educators speak on the importance of the new AP African-American studies course

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month the College Board unveiled a revised curriculum for its first-ever Advanced Placement course in African American studies. The changes were controversial, coming in the wake of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' threat to ban the new course in his state, saying it amounted to a, quote, "woke indoctrination of students." Now, in the revised curriculum, certain topics like Black queer studies or the Black Lives Matter movement were removed or confined to a list of extra resources for students.

We invited three educators, who are teaching a pilot version of the course, to give us their take on the controversial changes. They are Maurice Cowley, who teaches at McDaniel High School in Portland, Ore., Lauren Bernstein from Randallstown High in Baltimore County, Md. and Nelva Williamson, who teaches in Houston, Texas, at the Young Women's College Preparatory Academy. We hear first from Williamson, who told us she expected some changes to the course framework.

NELVA WILLIAMSON: Putting those types of contemporary topics into the framework as additional resources that students could use for research - I believe it's appropriate just for the fact that even though it's not in the framework, those topics do come up in class, and we, as teachers, address them in class. It's not like we are not going to address it. How can I address the March on Washington without talking about Bayard Rustin? How could I do that? And by mentioning Mr. Rustin, that helps to affirm one of my students who identifies as LGBTQ+. And they could say, oh, OK. I have a place. There's this person who had a significant place in history. How can I teach James Baldwin without mentioning...

MAURICE COWLEY: Come on.

WILLIAMSON: ...You know, his background and his gender identity or within the Jazz Age?

COWLEY: Yeah.

WILLIAMSON: So those things come out kind of organically, don't you think...

CHANG: Yeah.

WILLIAMSON: ...Colleagues?

CHANG: Yeah. Let me hear from Maurice and Lauren. I heard murmurs of agreement there.

COWLEY: Yeah.

LAUREN BERNSTEIN: My first reaction was, oh, how could they take these things out? They're so important. But when I thought about it a little more, you know, like you said, they're so intertwined throughout the curriculum that even if there isn't a designated lesson on queer studies, on intersectionality, those topics are so intertwined in African American studies already that it's impossible to completely ignore them.

CHANG: Maurice.

COWLEY: What impacts, whether it shows up in my classroom, is whether it's relevant to the experience of my students and their whole understanding of the topic. So stuff being moved from a primary to kind of secondary or more optional or however AP College Board wants to handle it, if it's in Black history, if it's in Black studies, it will show up in my classroom in some way.

CHANG: Right, right - so it sounds like none of you saw the downplaying or the elimination of those topics from the course as a message to not talk about Black queer studies or intersectionality...

BERNSTEIN: Oh, gosh, no.

CHANG: ...Or the Black Lives Matter movement.

COWLEY: Oh, no.

WILLIAMSON: No.

CHANG: But let me ask you, you know, now that you were saying, if it comes up, I will certainly address it, but are any of you planning to intentionally weave any of those topics in some way into the school year - intentionally?

WILLIAMSON: I would say that I am intentionally going to weave in Black Lives Matter movement because my students here in Houston participated in those marches. George Floyd is from Houston. He grew up about a mile away from my school. There's no way that I could not bring Black Lives Matter when my students have - they actively participated in the marches.

CHANG: Can I ask about your students? Like, have they brought up the controversy over the AP course curriculum?

BERNSTEIN: Oh, yes.

COWLEY: Yeah.

CHANG: Do they have questions? What have those conversations...

BERNSTEIN: Oh, yes.

CHANG: ...Been like in class? Tell me.

BERNSTEIN: We took a whole day to talk about it because my kids are very much involved in the news. They follow the news. They brought it up to me. We took a look at the statements from the Florida Department of Education. We - I wanted to give them the space to reflect and kind of express how they felt about it because, you know, you have a state Department of Education stating that African American studies lacks educational value.

COWLEY: Yeah (laughter).

BERNSTEIN: And, you know, I teach a class full of Black students. So a statement like that coming from a state government that kind of invalidates their experience and their history, that's a tough blow.

CHANG: What about Maurice?

COWLEY: My students definitely pay attention. And it was - it was actually really - fun is going to be not quite the right word. But our final was happening shortly after the Florida Department of Education made the statement that the class lacks educational value. And so I turned that quote into part of their final - is reflecting on the first semester and all the things that we've learned. I just said, you know, somebody is saying that this class lacks educational value, so what would you say in response to that, and, like, what have you learned that would kind of disprove that statement? And it was fun to have them be able to, like, talk back to this imaginary person in the room...

BERNSTEIN: (Laughter).

COWLEY: ...Who would say that what they're learning doesn't have value. And all of them, to a person, had loads of things that they learned and that they took away from the semester, and none of them are repetitive. They all have a different piece of the course that kind of struck with them. And so there isn't a lesson that - it doesn't have value. Everything connected to some kid in some way.

BERNSTEIN: I love that you did that.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, we should point out, like, the College Board has been developing this course for about a decade now, and even after the controversy and the changes that we just talked about, it is still the first-ever AP course in African American studies. Does that at least count for something? Can you talk about why this kind of course really matters?

COWLEY: This class matters because there are students in my class who want to learn about it. I think the controversy is annoying to me because it takes the focus off of the incredible experience that our students are having and puts it in a political spectrum that is - I mean, that's not that it - the political spectrum is irrelevant, but my kids deserve to have themselves represented in the curriculum in this kind of a powerful way. And the joy of that experience shouldn't be robbed of them for our adult nonsense.

CHANG: Nelva.

WILLIAMSON: This class matters because my students matter. They matter, and they should be allowed to learn about, in particular, the history, the culture, traditions of their community.

CHANG: Nelva Williamson, Lauren Bernstein and Maurice Cowley are all currently teaching a pilot version of the new AP course on African American studies. Thank you all so much for what you do every day, and I wish you the best of luck with the rest of the school year.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you so much.

COWLEY: Thanks.

WILLIAMSON: It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHADI AL-ASSI AND SUHELL SONG, "WE WILL COME BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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