Controversial elsewhere, AP African American Studies widely popular in Michigan
- AP African American Studies is being taught in several high schools in Michigan
- The class has caused controversy elsewhere, but Michigan students and educators say it’s been well-received
- Students taking the course this year will be the first to earn college credit from taking the exam
ST. CLAIR SHORES — The bell rings at 8:45 a.m. Monday and 15 students at South Lake High School take their seats for Advanced Placement African American Studies.
On this day, social studies teacher James Settimo has a tough assignment for his junior and seniors: He placed 12 images depicting slave auctions in the class and asked students to pick six that stood out the most and write how the photos made them feel.
“You can see the slave is smiling, and you can see that the master picks at his clothes,” said senior, Victoria Ekutu when she described one of the pictures.
“I’m thinking the white man is telling him to smile and be presentable for the auction.”
The old image reminded Ekutu of an ongoing problem — the tendency of African Americans to feel they have to present a certain image or conform to certain ideas or behaviors to be deemed as valuable.
While the AP African American Studies is not a history course, it uses history to teach students about contemporary problems. And unlike other states, Michigan students and educators are embracing the class.
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On Wednesday, the College Board, the national nonprofit that offers the class, finalized the curriculum following an outcry in southern states including Florida, which had initially rejected the course on claims it indoctrinated students.
The course, which has been revised several times this year nationally, was changed after some critics said it had been watered down too much to satisfy critics.
The section on the Black Lives Matter movement which was once part of the framework was added back to the course as an optional topic for the final week of classes. Other optional topics include reparations, incarceration and Black women writers and filmmakers.
“This is the course I wish I had in high school,” Brandi Waters, the lead author of the plan for the College Board, said in a statement. “I hope every interested student has the opportunity to take it.”
South Lake High School is one of over a dozen schools in Michigan teaching the class this year after it created controversy in other states amid ongoing battles over culture wars and the teaching of Black history.
The class is one of 40 from the College Board, the nonprofit that invited hundreds of schools across the country to teach the course for the second year pilot.
Next school year, all schools nationwide will be able to offer the course.
Originally, 20 Michigan schools were selected to pilot the course that allows students to earn college credits for the 2023-2024 academic year.
The course was designed to cover broad historical topics and contemporary issues, including early African kingdoms and the trans-Atlantic slave trade through slavery, to the Reconstruction era, the Great Migration, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement and historically Black colleges and universities,
This year, the College Board has made several changes, following outcry from critics like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who banned the course because he said it would “indoctrinate” children.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order that bans “indoctrination and critical race theory” in schools, but six high schools will teach the course as planned despite the state’s Department of Education saying students who take it won’t earn college credit.
Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi also reviewed the materials in the course to ensure it doesn’t break state laws that prohibit teaching critical race theory.
Offering class a ‘no-brainer’
At South Lake and many Michigan schools, there is no such controversy.
Settimo said he encouraged students to take the course by explaining to them that it won’t be another African-American history class.
Soon after the class started, students began to worry that they were being taught some of the same things they had in other classes because the first unit of the course is history based.
“Now that we're moving on into other areas, we've started looking at more of the culture based topics than just the history based topics so they're pretty excited,” he said.
The AP African American Studies course comprises four units: the origins of the African diaspora, freedom, enslavement and resistance, The practice of freedom and movements and debates.
The College Board provides teachers with maps, photos and documents as primary resources, but teachers may also use additional resources.
Settimo uses documentaries and movies as another way to teach the course. Students have watched a PBS documentary on the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave rebellion in North America, “12 Years a Slave,” a movie about an African American born free and was sold into slavery. Students will watch the movie “Harriet,” the story of Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom, in the coming weeks.
Topics like the African kingdoms, slavery and the civil rights movement were discussed in AP world and US history, but the course allows students to review those topics with a different lens, Settimo said.
“When you take them in world history and U.S. history, you don’t always have such a time to break down a lot of the culture … music, writing, poetry, or … culinary experience.”
William Mcgee a junior at South Lake High School, said looking at images throughout the course reminds him of things happening in the world today.
“I saw (the course) as an opportunity to learn more about myself,” he said.
“When we were learning about ancient civilizations in Africa, we learned more about spices and stuff we put in our food for cooking,” he said. “You learn where you come from.”
West Bloomfield High School is also piloting the course.
“I've been here in this building for 10 years, and this is the largest demand we've had for a new AP course,” said Eric Pace, principal at West Bloomfield High School.
“We have 94 students currently enrolled in three sections and their experience has been very positive.”
The problem wasn’t generating interest in the class, Pace said, it was finding someone who the students could relate to teach it.
Pace said the course is about, “using history to predict and to shape the future.”
“When you analyze it in that way, it's got to be harder for somebody who doesn't have the same experiences as the students that take the course,” he added.
Parents have also been supportive. The African American Parent Network in West Bloomfield was instrumental in encouraging the high school to pilot the course.
Supporting the course was “a no-brainer” and it was “about time” students had been offered a course like this, said Sherri-Anne Wynter, president of the African American Parent Network.
Wynter noted there was one school board member who questioned the necessity of the course, but there were no other concerns expressed outside of that.
“We trust the curriculum that the pilot was built on, and trust individuals who put the time and effort in building that curriculum.”
Nate Reik, social studies teacher at Grand Blanc High School has started preparing to teach the AP African American Studies course next year, when it becomes widely available across the country, and may use the updated version of the textbook “African American History” published by Prentice Hall to teach the course.
He was instrumental in introducing a semester-long African American history course at the high school and may also use materials from that class to teach the AP course like, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “March: Book Three,” by John Lewis and “A Rose that Grew from Concrete” by Tupac Shakur.
“I always try to find books that are mostly closely aligned to the standard,” he said. “As a teacher, it's good to see those resources that are in the book or that come with it.”
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