The 15 students in Damien Ford’s class at the Baltimore School for the Arts were glued to the clip of the late Toni Morrison artfully discussing the “white gaze” — the assumption that a reader is white and writing from a Black perspective.
None of the teens had been born when the 1998 interview with broadcast journalist Charlie Rose aired, but the author’s words still resonated with them.
“I think she ate him up,” said Sydney Tugnor, a 15-year-old sophomore in the African American Literature class. “She wasn’t aggressive or rude. She said what she had to say and he didn’t say anything back.”
Classmate Briana Pooton, who is also Black, said such discussions helped her feel better about her heritage. “I think it’s important to talk about culture because it’s so misunderstood,” said Briana, 15. “He (Ford) finds a way to capture our attention. He makes it fun.”
Ford has been teaching the course for the past four years at the public performing arts high school. He creates his own curriculum, which takes his students on a journey to explore Black literature from decades past to today. Ford said he aims to develop critical thinking skills and an appreciation of history while making sure diversity is reflected in the subject matter.
In addition to extensive study of Morrison’s work, he shares comparisons between singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill’s lyrics and the work of Zora Neale Hurston, a 20th century Black author known for works such as Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“It’s important that students that look like me feel seen and have a place,” Ford said. “I want them to arrive at their own definition of African American literature.”
As the nation celebrates Black History Month, teachers nationwide are facing new challenges to what they can teach about the Black experience in America. Conservative politicians have mounted campaigns opposing the teaching of critical race theory, a decades-old academic concept that racism is systemic and embedded in legal systems and policies.
Republican-led states in turn have passed laws limiting what can be taught in public schools about current events and America’s history of racism, prompting criticism that those states are discouraging meaningful classroom discussions of topics such as lynchings and racial unrest. A 2022 Florida law, for example, says lessons on race can’t be used to indoctrinate students or make them “feel guilt,” according to The Washington Post. Such measures have virtually no chance of passing in Maryland’s Democratic-led legislature.
Still, at a time when the teaching of Black history and literature has led to divisions, Baltimore-area teachers like Ford are taking it upon themselves to ensure that students are learning about them. These educators say students are more engaged and attendance is up when they teach about such subjects. They also say that their students of color relate better to lesson plans that better reflect the history and work of their ancestors.
For all the political fights over the teaching of critical race theory, which is primarily a collegiate-level academic framework, efforts to offer Black studies are growing nationwide.
This year, the College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement courses, piloted African American history courses in 60 schools across the country. In the 2023-24 school year, that pilot will expand to hundreds of additional high schools. The following school year, all schools can begin offering AP African American studies. And in the spring of 2025, the first AP exams for African American studies will be administered.
The course curriculum draws from literature, arts and humanities, political science, geography and science, according to the board.
“As with all AP courses in the humanities, it is not a theory course; students instead immerse themselves in primary sources,” according to a board spokesperson. “The course is designed to encourage students to examine each theme from a variety of perspectives, without ideology, in line with the field’s tradition of debates.”
High school teachers involved in the pilot met at Howard University last summer to review the course framework and prepare for the launch.
The College Board declined to say which schools are participating in the inaugural pilot year. They also wouldn’t comment on how many schools the pilot would be expanded to the second year, nor share other initial details about the schools taking part.
In Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged war on “woke” teaching, the state’s Department of Education promised to reject that course, contending that “the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” DeSantis is widely expected to run for president in 2024.
On Wednesday, the College Board released a curriculum that removed the names of Black writers and scholars associated with critical race theory and made the teaching of Black Lives Matter optional, according to the New York Times.
Ford, who was weighing whether to pursue offering the AP class at his school, believes the discussions and lessons currently taught in his class will have a long-lasting impact on students. He said he hopes they become informed, socially conscious adults.
“These lessons aren’t finished yet. They are unspoken lessons,” said Ford, who is Black. “I’m planting those seeds. They’ll bloom when they bloom.”
With the achievement gap between white and Black students persisting in U.S. public schools, some say that incorporating diverse, representative material into the classroom might be a better way of engaging Black students.
Derek Chavis, a teacher at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City, plans to participate in “The Black Experience: London, Paris, and Amsterdam,” a tour that is part of his Master of Arts in teaching graduate program at Morgan State University, so he can “bring back more relatable world history to not just my students, but hopefully the district itself.”
Chavis said he tries to incorporate as much Black history into lessons as possible.
“I have to abide by the state curriculum because the state tests on what it tests on. But when it makes sense, I definitely emphasize Afrocentric history,” he explained. “For instance, in the seventh grade curriculum, I teach ancient North America toward the end of the year. I spend a substantial part of it teaching the triangular slave trade so that my students have a deep base knowledge on it before going into U.S. history in eighth grade.”
Chavis, who is American Indian, said that when he introduces Black history to his class, which is overwhelmingly Black, they lock in on what he’s saying.
“They appreciate it more than other units, for sure,” he said.
Dawn Harrell, who teaches about fashion design at the Baltimore Design School, said she has incorporated a mix of local and celebrity Black designers into her lesson plan.
“It gives them a more viable space to connect,” said Harrell, a former fashion designer and boutique owner who believes she is the first high school teacher in the state to develop an Afrocentric curriculum in fashion.
Harrell has brought in local experts such as the designers behind the brand DifferentRegard to talk to students. She’s even gone as far as to recruit the likes of famed designer Dapper Dan to critique the work of her class. She also worked closely with Project Runway alum and Baltimore native Bishme Cromartie to help craft content for the course, which she said taps into the student’s social and emotional learning.
“It gives them a more viable space to connect,” she said, adding that she prioritizes spotlighting Black designers and stylists. “I want them to see themselves and see that opportunity is possible.”
Some teachers have faced resistance when they have tried to incorporate ethnically diverse subject matter into the classroom.
Charles Evans III said he stayed 10 years in the Carroll County Public Schools for the kids of color, who made up less than 20% of the student population. They didn’t have teachers who looked like them, he said. But he said the lack of support for people of color and the LGBTQ community pushed him to leave and take a new teaching job in Howard County.
“As much as I loved those kids, as much as I wanted to be there for them, it wasn’t enough for me to stick around,” he said.
While in Carroll County, Evans said he tried to incorporate as much Black history and culture into the curriculum as he could. And not just during Black History Month. As a technology education teacher for seventh graders, he introduced them to Black inventors such as Madam C.J. Walker, who invented the hot comb.
“People know about Ben Franklin, but they don’t know who Lewis Latimer is,” Evans said, referring to the inventor who helped make the lightbulb practical and affordable.
He also found ways to incorporate Black history into activities, such as the culture club’s door decorating contest. His door had a Black Panther Party theme.
“In Carroll, I still had to be cautious with what I was doing,” he said. “I had to find a way to justify why I was doing what I was doing. It sounds ridiculous, but that was the nature of the beast.”
Last June, Carroll County’s school board prohibited the display of the rainbow pride flag. And in January, the board approved a policy on political neutrality. It was introduced in response to parents incorrectly claiming that critical race theory was being taught in schools. Critical race theory is not being taught in any Maryland public schools.
“I’d be doing a disservice by staying in that county,” Evans said.
Students mostly responded positively to Evans’ lessons and activities in Carroll County. But he did have to explain to a few why there wasn’t a white history month. He’d tell them to think about how often they learn about white historical figures. Then he’d ask them to point to names they recognized on a list of Black historical figures. They couldn’t.
While only 4% of students in Carroll County are Black, 25% of Howard County students are. Howard County is more supportive of teaching Black culture and what’s happening in the real world, he said. He has yet to hear anything about critical race theory.
“You can’t teach social studies in America without diving into Black culture and Black relevancy to that,” said Kareem Neal, a special education teacher in Arizona.
Neal goes around the country to talk to schools about implicit bias and a different CRT: culturally responsive teaching. It’s when teachers incorporate the cultures of students and their lived experiences into the classroom as tools for effective instruction. But he’s not always welcome.
He said he’s had school districts cancel on him because school officials weren’t sure how his talks would go over. He’s been giving the talks for about seven years; requests ramped up after he was named Arizona’s teacher of the year in 2019, and again following the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
“And of course, when critical race theory became a talking point … that slowed down,” Neal said.
Neal, who was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame this year, now mostly focuses on special education in talks around the country. He’s only had one request to talk about culturally responsive teaching in the last two years.
Neal Lester, who teaches English and humanities at Arizona State University, often uses Black culture and literature in his classes. In one lesson, he incorporates songs from artists Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Billie Holiday when they contextualize the book “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, regarded as a classic from the Harlem Renaissance.
He also used Beyoncé as an example when talking about how literature connects with what’s happening in the world now. Her “Lemonade” album speaks about women’s empowerment and freedom, he said. It ties in nicely with his lesson on the 1976 theater piece, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide,” by Ntozake Shange.
“If I’m excited about it, the likelihood that it will excite students is there as well,” he said.
Lester recognizes that K-12 teachers may not always have the resources and energy to do that. Semesters are only three months long, and he doesn’t have lesson plans or parents’ phone calls to worry about. How ironic, he noted, that the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death was followed by states passing legislation that prevents meaningful discussions about race.