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A teacher pilots new African American studies AP course

DON GONYEA, HOST:

As many educators are shying away from classroom discussions about race this school year, some will be piloting a brand new program - Advanced Placement African American Studies. The program launched at 60 high schools across the country, and more schools will be added next year. The curriculum will be an interdisciplinary look at the history of civil rights in the U.S., as well as African American music and other topics. But this comes at a time when classroom instruction about race and racism has become a hot-button political issue. At least 36 states have introduced or passed legislation restricting instruction about race and racism. We wanted to know how teachers piloting the program are thinking about this, so we called Marlon Williams-Clark. He's a teacher at Florida State University Schools and he joins us now. Marlon Williams-Clark, welcome.

MARLON WILLIAMS-CLARK: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: You teach at a racially diverse high school in Tallahassee. I'm wondering, what were your initial thoughts when you learned that you would be teaching this AP class?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: I was excited. I was the teacher that was getting ready to take over the African American history course. And so having AP added on to it gave a certain level of legitimacy that I believe that students would want to flock to.

GONYEA: Do you have a diverse group of students for the class?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: My classes are comprised majority of Black students, and I do have Hispanic and white students as well.

GONYEA: How are they reacting to this course?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: Well, the reactions that I've seen so far have been very positive. They have been ready to indulge in conversations, and they don't shy away from it. You know, when we first began the course - on the first day, I said, I cannot offer you a safe space, because, quite honestly, some things that we will talk about in this course could trigger someone, and I wouldn't know that. So I can't offer you a safe space, but I can offer you a brave space - brave to indulge, brave to ask questions, brave to be curious. And so they've really taken that mantra and they've just kind of gone full blast.

GONYEA: And I know the school year is just a few weeks old, but what, if anything, are you hearing from parents at this point?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: They have said that their students are coming home talking about the class. They're loving the class. They're loving the discussions. They're loving the materials that they are being exposed to. And that was a good thing for me to hear because when you're dealing with students in the classroom, sometimes you cannot really gauge if they are really feeling the lesson. And I think what they've been doing is taking it in as we've been going through. But according to their parents, they're coming home and they're talking about it, excitingly. And so that's a really good feeling.

GONYEA: Have you heard anything from parents or students or anybody that has maybe been negative or critical?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: I haven't heard anything negative about the course.

GONYEA: And what subject matter have you covered in these first couple of weeks of the school year?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: Well, in these first couple of weeks, we've talked about the introduction of African American studies. So how did Black studies first get started at colleges and universities in the 1960s? We've looked at what I call the diversity of Blackness. I posed the question to them - what does it mean to be Black? What does it mean to be African American? And essentially, it was to lead them into a lesson about - either there are many different ways to be Black or African American. There is no one particular way. And so they really enjoyed that conversation, and they've been bringing up things that they understand from their own viewing of TV and commercials and books and cartoons. And they're bringing it into the class, you know, with the information that they're engaging with. And it's just a lovely thing.

GONYEA: Your state's governor, Ron DeSantis, has championed efforts to ban conversations about race in classrooms. I'm wondering if, because of that and because of the politics as they're playing out surrounding race and education, have you shifted your approach in any way when it comes to these conversations about race in the classroom?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: Well, the law is the law. And it's not really my place to give my opinion on it, as far as when I'm dealing with the students. I let them know, point-blank, there may be some topics in which it is a thin line and that we'll just have to be careful how we talk about some things and how we approach some subjects. I can't lead any conversations. I can never stop the conversations they're having with each other, but I stick to the Florida state standards for African American history and other social studies standards that are integrated within the course, and that's just the route we go.

GONYEA: What are your hopes for this course? - I'm wondering. And is there anything that you're just really excited to have the chance to teach?

WILLIAMS-CLARK: This subject matter is something I'm very passionate about. When I was in school, I learned Black history. I felt like it was better incorporated when I was in school than it is now, but I still only learned a little bit. I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded by Richard Allen, and he is - you know that's Black history in itself. So we learned it through church and, you know, the Black History Brain Bowl, which is associated with the AME Church. But it wasn't until I got to Florida A&M University for college where I truly began to take classes and have a deeper understanding of the multifacetness (ph) of Black history in America, and not only just in America, but the African diaspora.

And so I'm excited that these students are able to have that exposure that I wasn't able to have until college, and so they'll go into college having a stronger sense of history. For some of them, they have a stronger sense of self. And for other students, it will just have - be a stronger sense of understanding. Unfortunately, when we're not exposed to someone else's experience, it may be hard to walk in those shoes to understand their experience when they may have grievances or, you know, they are expressing an experience that is different than yours. And so I think this class will help bring together an understanding of the African American experience.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Marlon Williams-Clark. He is a teacher at Florida State University Schools in Tallahassee. Thank you for joining us, and have a great school year.

WILLIAMS-CLARK: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.