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Local educators bringing new African American history course to Virginia classrooms

Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 7:55 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - There have been a lot of changes to Virginia classrooms this year, but one has been a few years in the making.

It’s a new African American history class and students right here in southwest Virginia are helping to develop the course.

For Franklin County High School history teacher Michele Jones, some days are for teaching and just as many are for learning.

“We’re learning things every week that for our generation, that stuff wasn’t taught in school,” Jones said Wednesday.

This semester Jones began teaching a brand new African American History Course, making Franklin County one of just 16 districts piloting the new curriculum.

And while it’s new, she said her students are already responding.

“[One student’s] response was, ‘This class will kill racism before it has a chance to grow,’” she said. “And I thought that was really powerful. And it’s one of the things that I hope, for this class, becomes an underlying theme throughout from the beginning to the end, is addressing inequality and racism. And making the world a better place that we want it to be. Instead of just making quoting, oh ‘Be the change you want to see.’ Well stop saying it and actually do it.”

The course began with an idea in 2019: a statewide commission made of educators across the state devoted to creating a class and statewide resource focused on a new way to teach African American history.

“It was a, I would call it a get-real moment,” said Lynchburg City Schools Superintendent Dr. Crystal Edwards. “We had some tough conversations about just racism in America and history and trust and implicit bias. You name it, we talked about it.”

Dr. Edwards was on the commission and said state educators realized this class needed a refresher.

“One of the things that children often have shared with us is they don’t like studying African American history because it feels like it begins with slavery and it feels like it starts with the deficits of African Americans and very rarely does it get to the assets,” she said.

“This is more than memorizing facts,” said the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Allison Jordan.

“This is powerful and no matter what your ethnicity, you should think about the contributions of every group,” she said.

Over the course of several years the commission worked to fix that. Since the commission delivered its recommendations late last year, districts like Franklin County were among the first to take the blended course to the classroom.

“I’ve been in this system for 20, this is my 26th year, and I have longed for a class like this to occur in order to prepare our students to be more inclusive and to have more inclusive history,” said Brenda Muse, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Franklin County.

Muse said the course begins with the history of advanced African communities and moves through U.S. history with a new focus.

“We need to show students, although a group of people may have struggled, but look at where they are now,” she said. “Look at how they have advanced. Look at the contributions they have made. And that’s why I think this class is critical.”

And they’re hoping it’ll have effects beyond the classroom.

“You know, when I’ve had meetings with the parents, whether that’s over the phone or seeing them in a grocery store,” Jones said, “they too are learning a lot of history that has been for many decades hidden from public school students.”

“I would venture to say that many of our students have never learned history like this,” said Dr. Jordan. “Many of our teachers have not taught history like this. Many of our families didn’t learn history like this. But I’ll go back to Maya Angelou, ‘Once we know better, we’re gonna do better.’ And this is how we present the curriculum. We don’t always present it from one oppressive period to another.”

Dr. Edwards agreed, saying the course provides an opportunity for young people to have more conversations at home.

“And to really explore, you know, what were your lives like for your parents and your grandparents and to make that connection to the rich history that is right in their homes,” she said.

And, all four women agree, it’s just the beginning. While all districts will begin offering the course in the fall, the entirety of Virginia’s curriculum is getting a once-over through this equitable lens.

“We should be talking about contributions of everyone,” Jordan said. “We should be talking about women, we should be talking about AA, we should be talking about any minority groups that have historically been underrepresented. We need to talk about mathematicians who have made contributions. So this is not just a history movement. We need to think about everything we do.”

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