November 24 — 12:00 am, 2005

Preparing teachers in African American history: a major focus

Good professional development for teachers is vital to the success of the School District’s new mandated high school course in African American history.

“We have numerous teachers whose educational experience didn’t include African American history as preparation for teaching history and social studies,” stated Nancy Hopkins-Evans, the School District’s high school curriculum specialist, explaining the thinking behind the District’s professional development strategy.

“Deep content knowledge is critical because for some …this is really a first opportunity for them at an academic level,” she added.

This year’s twice-monthly, District-sponsored professional development sessions focus on developing teachers’ content knowledge about African American history.

“Trainers are experts in the field. They are some of the best we can get, and the teachers are responding magnificently,” added Melvin Garrison, an American history specialist in the District’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction.

On a recent Saturday morning at the District’s central office, 25 teachers congregated for a morning session. The District-sponsored sessions are voluntary, but teachers here are regulars. The group was diverse – some veterans, some new teachers, male and female, 14 of whom were African American, most of whom taught history or social studies.

As one African American teacher stated, “The big turnout has shown us that teachers have wanted this course all along.”

The District mandated African American history this year, meaning that from the class of 2009 on, all students must take the course to graduate. All schools were required to offer one section of the course, and many chose to offer more. Interest in the course is high, and the District has been proactive about providing support.

The School District started providing professional development for the course in the spring and summer, and voluntary Saturday sessions will continue through the year. As increasing numbers of students and teachers will be involved in the course, professional development will be expanded next year.

Each session this fall has focused on a topic in the curriculum that teachers should be covering at the time. Teachers have a District-created core curriculum that aligns with the new African American history textbook (see our review). There also is a resource CD, though many teachers said that they had not had time to look at it or had not received it. Information on additional workshops was distributed to the teachers, and all of the materials from the sessions were offered to teachers upon request.

Dr. Greg Carr, a professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University, is a frequent presenter at these sessions. His two-and-a-half hour professional development session ran like a well-organized college lecture. He briefly referred to the core curriculum and the textbook, but his emphasis was on extending and applying the topic to build teacher knowledge.

Carr began the session by playing the song “Misrepresented People” by Stevie Wonder, during which he placed many images of Africans and African Americans on the overhead – some from the textbook and others from his personal collection. The strategy of showing students images to make the lesson more real resonated with the teachers, and he skillfully incorporated the photographs into his lecture. He also showed two movie clips – one from Amistad and one from Roots – and emphasized that family histories extend back to Africa. He pointed out that these movies are easily accessible to teachers.

Though Carr lectured for most of the session, teachers brought up ideas and issues that related to their teaching.

Afterward, Joe Lawless, a teacher at George Washington, explained, “As a White guy, many of my students don’t look like me. But it doesn’t mean I can’t teach it if I know the material… This course is more than intellectual – it’s interrelational. It helps us understand each other.”

Community activist Jerome Avery, one of the longtime proponents of the course who was involved in development of the curriculum, was also in attendance. He observed, “Teachers are beginning to get a better understanding of why it’s imperative that it be taught to all students and how to teach it.”

The teachers present said they were invested in the course and agreed that the professional development was helping them to teach it. Half the teachers stayed to talk after the session ended at noon and some still remained an hour later, discussing issues of African American culture and the course.

The time and space provided for these teachers to discuss the course with each other and the presenters may be the greatest benefit of the professional development sessions.

One teacher participating in the professional development sessions, who asked to remain anonymous, stated in an email that teachers of the new course were getting a level of support and a quality of materials that was above the norm for the District.

This teacher added, “We tend to get trained just a day or so before we are expected to teach the material, which is not ideal, but this is still much more than teachers usually get.”

While teachers were energized and gained valuable content knowledge from “experts” at the sessions, teaching strategies must also be addressed to ensure that the content meaningfully reaches students.

Hopkins-Evans noted, “We have had teachers who have said, ‘I’m not African American, so I’m a little uncomfortable teaching this.’ Those are things that are addressed in the workshops so that teachers feel comfortable.”

District curriculum staff acknowledged that how teachers present the material will be a big factor in fulfilling the hope that this course will result in greater student engagement.

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