November 24 — 12:00 am, 2005

Teachers passionate about African American history course

Many jumped at the opportunity to teach the new mandatory high school class.

For veteran teacher Robert Gainey, teaching the new African American history course to 10th graders at Benjamin Franklin is very exciting. “I see the light bulb going on all the time,” he said.

Surprisingly, “many didn’t know about Joe Louis or Matthew Henson or Muhammad Ali – people who were role models for me in my generation – but they are very interested to learn that there is a fabric being woven in terms of history and continuity,” he said.

Gainey and other teachers of high school history who shared their perspectives on the mandated African American history course with the Notebook were enthusiastic about the course. These teachers said they had jumped at the chance when given the opportunity to teach something they felt passionately about. All seemed knowledgeable about and interested in African and African American history.

However, Shawn Beckett’s experience with student engagement has been less encouraging. Beckett has been teaching for eight years and is currently teaching the new course to ninth graders at Lincoln High School.

He said his students seem uninterested in learning about or understanding their “African roots.”

Beckett said his concern is that ninth grade students haven’t had world or United States history yet, and don’t have a context that prepares them for the material he is teaching. He stated that older students might approach the material more seriously and think more deeply about the issues presented.

Amy Cohen’s seniors at Masterman are doing exactly that. At Masterman, Cohen is teaching the new course as an elective for seniors this year. She likes the idea of teaching the course to older students because it builds upon what they have already learned.

Cohen finds that her seniors are particularly interested in the academic debates that have shaped the African American experience.

For example, the story of ancient Egypt raised “a question of what the connection is between the genius of the ancient civilization and the condition of African Americans today,” Cohen said.

However, because this discussion is completely missing from the high school text, students in Cohen’s class put together a letter-writing campaign to the publisher to object to the omission.

Michael Thompson has been with the school system for four years and teaches 10th graders at Saul.

Thompson, who comes to the teaching profession as a second career, routinely does research to find materials that will pique students’ interest and challenge them to do reading on their own in addition to what is required. He spoke about the necessity of supplementing the text with primary sources.

“I’m learning more and more about African American history, and as I read the primary sources, like Benjamin Quarles for example, I am doing research so that I can better teach my students,” he said “If I am not affected, how will I let my students know this is serious business?”

Cohen agreed that one of the key lessons she’s learned from teaching the course is the importance of primary sources and the written word. But she has been frustrated that she cannot find material about ancient Africa from an African perspective. “There’s so little documentation you don’t get a sense of the people,” she said.

All the teachers interviewed for this article spoke positively about the Saturday professional development that is being offered by the Office of Curriculum and Instruction (see story).

For teacher Gainey, knowing one’s history is the major way that a people become aware of their place in the human family. By exposing students to African American history, he hopes “that the myths get dispelled so that we [African Americans] can be more a part of this society just like others are, and we can play a role in including others because of the lessons that we have learned. My hope is that we all learn to appreciate the fullness of our humanity,” he concluded.

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