Washtenaw County teacher takes on the AP African American History course criticized by Florida's governor
Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran. Well, as the school year winds down, there is new focus on what's being planned for the upcoming school year. And at the Arbor Preparatory High School in the Ypsilanti area, one of the courses they're preparing to teach is the controversial A.P. African-American studies course. Arbor Prep is one of only 20 schools in the state of Michigan planning to teach it. Their decision comes even after the huge backlash against the course by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who suggested its content went too far and claimed it was indoctrinating white students to feel bad about themselves and demanded certain portions of it be eliminated, like Black queer studies, Black Lives Matter, the work of some authors, like Angela Davis. Some of the content has since been eliminated by the College Board. But Arbor Prep history teacher Jessica Wood is not running away from the controversial course. Actually, she's running toward it, and she's eager to start teaching it this fall. Jessica is joining us now in the studio. Thanks for being here.
Jessica Wood: Thank you for having me.
Cathy Shafran: So, you no doubt followed the debate about the course.
Jessica Wood: Definitely.
Cathy Shafran: As you were preparing to teach it, was there ever a time that you questioned whether it should be taught at all?
Jessica Wood: Not at all. Not even once.
Cathy Shafran: And what were your thoughts as you listen to the debate, particularly in Florida, about the content?
Jessica Wood: Ugh, that strain of the controversy, this idea that we shouldn't teach divisive concepts because they might make people feel bad, really gave me some time to pause and think, like, where this idea be coming from. And I think that it stems from this idea that racism/sexism is over. So, we shouldn't talk about it because, you know, it doesn't make people feel good and it's over. So, it's not worth talking about the collateral fallout. And I think it's also interesting to hear Governor DeSantis and the way he framed the course as being too controversial. And he lauded the first three units of the course as being rooted in fact, but the last one is not. And so, I think it also kind of stems from this idea that education should be politically neutral and that education...I think he inadvertently is advocating for education to be just the dissemination of facts with no analysis or theory attached, which is never the case.
Cathy Shafran: What is your understanding of what's left in the course? I know the College Board has gone through and tossed out some items. What's been thrown out and what's left?
Jessica Wood: Yeah. So, the course is divided into four sections. The first section of the class being rooted in pre-European contact West African civilizations, primarily, moving into the period of enslavement and resistance against enslavement. And then, I guess I would categorize the third as, like, civil rights-type movements. And then, the fourth unit of the course, which tends to be the root of the controversy, is post-civil rights--well, including also civil rights, but post-civil rights issues, including theories that have happened, like critical race theory after the civil rights movement ended. And so, those are where the kind of source of the controversy is taking hold, because they're being categorized as political agendas and not facts. However, any responsible educator is going to connect explanation and theory with the reading of any sources. So, some academics have also pushed back, saying that the College Board's choice to make those aspects of the course optional in teaching rather than required has caused some academics to remove their support because they say it doesn't mirror an African American studies class that you would take in a university.
Cathy Shafran: I've been reading that some believe that with the emissions from the College Board that what is left from this course is mostly African American history up until 1965.
Jessica Wood: Yes. I would say that's a fairly accurate categorization with a pretty wide scope for teachers to teach topics that they think their students would be most interested in with allowing students also to investigate course--course, material that they find intriguing.
Cathy Shafran: So, what do you feel that this now leaves out that you would have preferred to have included in it?
Jessica Wood: The group that I'm a part of, the pilot teachers who are going through this course, I haven't met any yet in my communication who plan to leave any of that out, including myself. I'm sure that there will be teachers, depending on their student population, who might choose to emphasize some topics over others. But the idea that history should center the comfort of the learner is not an idea in American history. It's really been there since the end of the Civil War where, you know, the teaching of the war itself was reimagined in some ways to center the comfort of people who had lost the Civil War. So, the idea of centering comfort is not new in American history, but I think it's an idea that is important to push against as an educator, because history is not about comfort. It's not about patriotism.
Cathy Shafran: So, at Arbor Prep, in this course, students will be learning about Black Lives Matter movement.
Jessica Wood: Absolutely.
Cathy Shafran: And students will be learning about critical race theory?
Jessica Wood: Yes, they will.
Cathy Shafran: And students will be learning about African American history post-1965.
Jessica Wood: Absolutely.
Cathy Shafran: Is this a controversial approach, or is this something that will be embraced by your school officials, by authorities at the school? And also, how does it prepare, I hate to say this, but I know that when you have students, it's always preparing them for the test?
Jessica Wood: Yes, of course.
Cathy Shafran: In AP courses, it's always preparing the students for the test. So, if the College Board has actually eliminated portions of this, and you are going to be teaching it anyway, do you have a problem with the fact that maybe you're not preparing them specifically for this test?
Jessica Wood: I think, in staying true to the College Board framework, they'll be prepared, even if I teach things that are optional in the course. And I think they're important to teach because the dominant cultural narrative in American history is that the civil rights movement ended racism and racial inequality and, therefore, "Hurray, it's done!" And now we're ushered into the modern era and Barack Obama and three cheers for America overcoming. Our progress is one large upward trajectory. And I think, in many ways, it's a false story. And I think that that's important that students understand that, in the days after the civil rights movement, had experienced some real successes with the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, there continued to be inequality, police brutality, and many of these, quote unquote, theories have been to make sense of that experience when, on paper, legal racism had ended. And so, I think that that's important to continue the story past the civil rights movement, because not doing so would be inaccurate. Not only is that doing a disservice to students, it's really not telling the story as it should be told--as it actually happened.
Cathy Shafran: So, we are hearing from yourself, Jessica Wood, what you intend to incorporate into the course. Are you hearing at all from many members of the community, any members of the administration on this particular course, what should be included and what should not be included?
Jessica Wood: Our community has actually been extremely supportive and embracing of the course, enthusiastic about the course. I've had parents approached me, signing their kids up early, and lots of students are planning on taking it. And it's something that I hope to run every year, and my administration is extremely supportive.
Cathy Shafran: What's the racial makeup of the student body at Arbor?
Jessica Wood: That's a great question. We are, somewhat, I think, a bit of a unicorn. We're a pretty racially integrated school. It is approximately like 40% white and about 50% Black and then a smattering of other groups.
Cathy Shafran: And you said that there's been a lot of interest from parents wanting to sign their students up early. What's the racial makeup of those who really want to take the course?
Jessica Wood: Predominantly Black and Brown students. I do have a couple of white students who have signed up. I hope that more do.
Cathy Shafran: And do you think it's important to reach out to the white students as well?
Jessica Wood: I do. I do think that that's important. We know that students always do better when they see a representation of themselves in a course or in a classroom. And so, I'm excited that Black students are taking the class because I think that that is going to be exciting content for them to learn. And an entire course that centers a story where they're not a an add-on or a side mention, but that they are the main focus of the course, I think, is a really unique opportunity. But I also think it's important for white students to take history classes that don't center their voices because their voices are frequently centered in the world and then on media, etc.. And so, I think it's also important for white students. I also think, in my typical standard U.S. history class, I also try and give my white students good examples in the course of white allies. So, I think it's also a false narrative to say that white people feel bad when they look back at history. But their history is also filled with white allies who pushed against enslavement, who advocated, who gave platforms to Black activists as well.
Cathy Shafran: And to bring the interview full circle, what do you say to Ron DeSantis about your course?
Jessica Wood: Well, I guess I would say to Ron DeSantis that one of the beautiful things about history is it gives us the opportunity to explore another world and others' experiences of that world. And the world is not only filled with stories of progress and triumph, it is also filled with stories of hardship and sadness. And those are not stories that we should shy away from. There are lessons to be learned in those stories, and it's important to explore and honor and center the voices of Black Americans.
Cathy Shafran: Jessica Wood, Arbor Prep history teacher. I thank you so much for joining us and sharing these words and these thoughts. And I know it's going to be an exciting time for you over the summer getting ready.
Jessica Wood: Thank you.
Cathy Shafran: And for the students ahead. So, I wish you the best of luck.
Jessica Wood: Thank you very much.
Cathy Shafran: Thank you for joining us. This is 89.1 WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti.
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