When it came time for Emmitt Glynn to teach the lesson on the Black Panthers in his AP African American Studies class, he says he was overcome with “fear” walking into his classroom at Baton Rouge Magnet High School on Feb. 17—fear that what happened in that class would be misconstrued by the outside world.
The school has been fielding so many media requests about Glynn’s class that administrators set up a day for the press to come see the curriculum in action.
Baton Rouge Magnet High is one of 60 pilot schools testing out the College Board’s newest Advanced Placement course, which is designed to offer college-level instruction to high school students. Glynn was worried about the reaction to one element of the AP African American Studies class’s lesson on civil rights history: having students read the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program. Required reading for the course, the 1966 document demanded equal opportunities for housing, the end of police brutality, and the release of Black people from jails because they didn’t get fair and impartial trials.
The lesson came about a month after the Florida Department of Education rejected the AP African American Studies class and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called it “indoctrination.” Shortly after, it was revealed that the agency asked the College Board last fall, “Does the course promote Black Panther thinking?” The Black Panthers have been long smeared as violent and communist.
“I really struggled,” Glynn says, describing what was going through his head prior to the class. “I’ve never experienced something like that in my teaching in 29 years, having to feel I had to take careful steps with a subject because it might make people upset.”
The class also happened to fall on the same day that local reporters, including TV news crews, came to interview Glynn and some of his students about the class. Reporters didn’t see that part of the lesson, but instead saw Glynn teach about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The subsequent coverage resulted in no local scandal in Louisiana’s capital city and no national controversy.
Glynn’s press conference is perhaps an extreme example of how AP African American Studies teachers say they’re working hard to prevent the controversy over the class from disrupting their students’ education. Teachers from Texas to New England tell TIME that they can’t ignore the news around AP African American Studies.
Many say, though, that DeSantis’s objections to the course have only made their students more engaged. Austin Sparks, who is teaching the class in the Cleveland area, turned the controversy into a teachable moment. He and his students discussed parallels between Florida’s decision to ban the course, and lessons they had already covered, including material they previously covered, like Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial discrimination. “Students were throwing up their hands left and right, making connections to what we’ve learned so far” about the fight for equal educational opportunities for Black Americans, Sparks says.
Two schools in Florida stopped the pilot mid-year after DeSantis spoke out against the class in mid-January. The course is more than a decade in the making, but launched in the fall of 2021 in large part as a response to the murder of George Floyd, so that high school students wouldn’t have to wait until college to learn about police brutality and other issues affecting the Black community in historical context. In the second phase of the pilot program, slated for next year, students will have the opportunity to earn college credit for the course if they pass the Advanced Placement test.
However, academics have questioned why the final course framework, released Feb. 1, does not include Black scholars who were listed as required reading in previous drafts—figures like Kimberlé Crenshaw, a godmother of the concept of intersectionality, the way of looking at discrimination based on how racial and gender identities overlap. But some teachers say it’s hard enough to get through the immense amount of required course content as is. As another Baton Rouge-area pilot teacher Malcolm Reed put it, “The whole story of the African-American experience can’t be taught in a school year.”
The College Board says it should have clarified that the final framework is only an “outline,” and it will allow the high school teachers to incorporate many different scholarly voices. The New York-based education nonprofit, which also runs the SAT college entrance exam, apologized in a Feb. 11 statement for “not immediately denouncing” the Florida Department of Education’s “slander” that AP African American Studies “lacks educational value” and not making it clear that it had been in contact with Florida Department of Education officials over the last year regarding the course approval process.
Thirty civil rights groups signed a letter calling on the College Board CEO David Coleman to step down. Ena Thulin, who is teaching the class in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., says, “I do think the timing was bad” in terms of the College Board’s decision to publish the final framework right after Florida sent the course back for revisions. She’s glad that the College Board publicly “acknowledged that they probably should have pushed back harder against what was happening in Florida.”
Nelva Williamson, who is teaching the class in Houston, Texas—one of the 18 states with laws designed to restrict how the history of racism is taught in K-12 schools—predicts that even if a state tries to ban AP African American Studies, there’s so much publicity around it now that the resources will just be made available to students in another way. In that case, “the class just goes underground, meaning that the class is still taught, it’s taught by another title, and select students are involved in the course,” she argues. “Educators might say, OK, I only want to teach Black kids because they’re not gonna tell on me.’ And that would be unfortunate because I think this history is for everyone to know.”
Yet, questions persist among the nation’s first AP African American Studies students about what the Florida controversy means for them. Lamont Simmons, a teacher in New Orleans, says he recently had to reassure his students that they don’t have to worry about the class getting canceled. “My students were like, ‘Is our class in jeopardy?’ I told them no.” He believes there are real-world consequences to not being able to offer this kind of in-depth Black history class. “We have a lot of crime going on, a lot of poverty, and that disconnection from history is part of the reason,” he argues. He found student participation was highest during the lessons about African kingdoms. As he put it, if Black high school students don’t learn about Black history before slavery, “your perception of yourself is limited.”
Despite his nerves, Glynn in Baton Rouge is going to keep his doors to his AP African American Studies class open. He’s invited parents to come and observe anytime, and a local pastor approached him about designing a similar course for his churchgoers. “I’m not gonna be intimidated,” he says.
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