Social Studies

What Two Teachers Piloting the AP African American Studies Course Have to Say About It

By Eesha Pendharkar — February 16, 2023 8 min read
Shekinah Hall in her classroom at McLain High School in Tulsa, Okla.
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Darren Williams is one of two teachers in the Tulsa school district who signed up to teach the pilot version of the Advanced Placement African American Studies course this school year.

During a discussion on lynching, he recalls one of his students asking: “I wonder if people ever were sorry about what they did?”

So Williams decided that, as part of his class at McLain High School, he would show a video about the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization that established the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala.—part of the supplemental resources provided for the course—to talk about the legacy of enslavement and its connections to mass incarceration and more current racial inequality.

After watching the video, students began asking if they could take a trip to see the museum, which Williams spoke to his principal about coordinating. The initial interest came from a Hispanic student in his class, Williams said.

“I’m seeing that students from other racial backgrounds [and] ethnic backgrounds are interested in the subject too,” he said.

“This history, African American history, is American history. It is world history.”

For Williams and Shekinah Hall, his colleague who is also teaching the pilot AP course in Tulsa, the course has been instrumental in exposing students to different aspects of Black history and culture. It’s proving to be enlightening and engaging to the more than 40 students taking the class at McLain, the only high school offering two separate classes of the pilot course in the country this school year, according to the Tulsa district.

“The fact that the subject African American studies was given the attention of an AP course was the main attractive piece to me,” said Williams. “And outside of that overarching thing, whether intended or not by the designers of the course, by the College Board, this course is actually a step towards educational justice.”

Oklahoma is one of 18 states with similar laws to Florida, which has rejected the course for allegedly lacking educational value, historical accuracy and violating the state’s “Stop W.O.K.E” law. The resulting dispute between Florida and the College Board—the organization that developed the course—has opened a new front in the larger conservative push to limit what students in K-12 learn about America’s difficult history with race and racism.

The recently released framework for the AP course—which includes changes from the pilot version now being taught in 60 high schools—will be just as valuable, both teachers said in interviews with Education Week.

However, the criticism in Florida and beyond is disheartening for both Hall and Williams, because the course allows students representation and knowledge they’ve never received before, and will eventually give students a chance to earn college credit for studying history from a non-Eurocentric perspective for the first time.

While Oklahoma officials have taken no action against the course, both teachers are keenly aware of their state’s restrictions on conversations about race and racism, and the consequences of violating those. Last year, the Oklahoma education department downgraded the Tulsa district’s accreditation in response to a teacher’s complaint that a staff training on implicit bias “shamed white people.”

“Especially as a Black woman, to hear all this criticism about African American studies is ridiculous because you’re saying ... this racial group doesn’t matter,” said Hall.

“Children, especially like Black boys and girls, and all the students that we have, they need to be taught that it’s okay to be Black and it’s okay to see that we’re not ... just enslaved, we’re not just always going to be oppressed.”

How the teachers are teaching the topics Florida objected to

In January, Florida’s department of education sent a letter to the College Board, the organization that offers AP classes, that the pilot version of the African American Studies course would be banned from Florida high schools because it lacked educational value and historical accuracy. It also allegedly violated state law, according to that letter. There were a few topics within the pilot course, such as intersectionality, abolishing prisons, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black queer studies, that the department and DeSantis specifically raised objections to.

Since then, the College Board has released a finalized versionof the course framework and assured its members that neither Florida nor any other state or school district’s feedback helped shape the final version despite speculation that a lot of those content areas Florida objected to are made optional in the final version of the curriculum.

The course received some criticism from Black scholars for not mandating the study of topics Florida officials disapproved. But others called it a good first step, given that most states don’t require any kind of African American studies or African American history classes.

When Hall first saw the final version of the course, she thought it didn’t look that different from the pilot she is teaching, and only took note of the changes once the public perception and reporting started highlighting some topics that they alleged the College Board had removed, she said.

“If I wasn’t teaching the course, and I saw all these things being taken away, I would be frustrated too,” Hall said.

“But as a teacher, nothing’s really being taken from us … you can still use it and [there are] resources for anyone wanting to do these things. I think that is the beauty of the course, because it gives so much say for students to create their own thoughts and perspectives.”

The more modern aspects of the course, such as Black queer studies, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and abolishing prisons were not mandatory even in the pilot, according to Williams, and because the course is taught chronologically, those topics would not even have come up until later in this ongoing semester.

But teachers are still able to use those subjects in a way that is meaningful to the rest of the course.

“You’re talking about things like Reconstruction and the 13th Amendment and policing, it’s basically impossible not to connect that to mass incarceration that we see today, especially with people of color,” Hall said, drawing a comparison between turbulence caused by attempting to reintegrate 4 million newly-freed people into the United States following the end of the Civil War, and modern day systemic racism.

What stands out about the course

The AP course they have been teaching is comprehensive, both teachers said, and provides an unprecedented opportunity for all students to understand how interconnected African American history is with American and world history, and how it ties to modern day life. The course starts before enslavement, with the history of African civilizations. The decision to start teaching African history before slavery is “radical,” Hall said.

“If you start with African Americans and slavery, everything else that happens to that seems like progress,” Williams added. “But if you move the goalposts back and recognize the success of African civilizations before that, what is understood is that the enslavement of Africans was an interruption of African history.”

Both teachers said that the College Board considered their feedback on teaching the pilot version of the course, which the organization solicited in a weekly email on Fridays, asking teachers what they learned that week.

“A lot of us gave feedback and opportunities for growth, and I think that’s where a lot of the changes are coming from,” Hall said about the finalized framework.

Hall said students have been more engaged in this AP class compared to other classes she teaches because of the flexibility of classroom discussions. While Williams’ class is more racially diverse, Hall’s class is mostly Black students, who she says can see themselves reflected in the lessons and materials.

(Tulsa Public Schools has more than 33,000 students across more than six dozen schools and its minority enrollment is more than 50 percent. For McLain High School, the student body is 91 percent nonwhite.)

Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law makes teachers nervous to teach AP African American Studies

Other Republican-led states might be following in Florida’s footsteps, as the AP African American Studies course is under review in Arkansas, and Texas lawmakers introduced a bill attempting to remove any parts of the course that violate its anti-CRT, or divisive concepts, law.

“Any attempt to keep students from learning all about what this country’s history is instead of just a romanticized version of what this country’s history is, holds us back as a nation,” Williams said. “And the students in the states of Florida, Texas, wherever else laws will be made against teaching of AP African American Studies, the students will be the ones who suffer.”

Both teachers said they won’t be surprised if Oklahoma follows Florida’s lead. Oklahoma was one of the first states to pass a divisive concepts law almost two years ago. Since then, it has become the only state where school districts have had their accreditation docked for allegedly violating the law.

Despite the challenges it has faced, the Tulsa district has continued to stand up for the fuller teaching of race, racism, and history. For example, in 2021, the district mandated that the Tulsa Race Massacre be taught in its schools ahead of the 100-year anniversary of a white mob destroying Tulsa’s Black Greenwood neighborhood, killing hundreds of people and destroying many successful businesses.

Williams and Hall said it’s natural for teachers to be nervous when talking about these topics in light of these laws, but the support of their district leaders gives them confidence.

“It’s an injustice for me and my students and everyone that worked so hard for this course not to teach what we have to teach,” Hall said. “I don’t think that we are forcing anyone to believe anything … because CRT is so vague, anyone could attack anything that we say. And I think that’s just like a daily thing that teachers face.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Pilot AP African American Studies Course: What Teachers Are Saying


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