Little Rock Central High teacher defends pilot course on Black studies

LITTLE ROCK — A Little Rock Central High teacher is defending the Advanced Placement African American Studies pilot course that is under scrutiny for possible violation of the governor’s order prohibiting “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.”

Ruthie Walls, a veteran Arkansas social studies and economics teacher as well as a former charter high school director, told the Central High School Tiger newspaper this week that the course that she is teaching “does not violate … the executive order by any stretch of the imagination.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Jan. 10, her first day in office, issued the executive order that has since prompted Arkansas Department of Education leaders to ask the New York City-based College Board — the maker of the course — for information on its content.

[DOCUMENT: Read African American Studies – PILOT COURSE GUIDE »]

The Arkansas request for information from the College Board came on the heels of news that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education leaders there had rejected the course for violating that state’s law prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory.

Critical race theory is described by The New York Times as an academic framework for understanding racism in the United States.

[The course doesn’t] teach CRT, I just teach history,” Walls told the Central High Tiger in a Monday article by Sophia Finkbeiner.

“I don’t add anything,” Walls said. “I don’t take anything away. History will stand by itself. I hope they will take a look at the framework and recognize that it is history, it is rich history, that everyone has the right to learn if they so please.”

Walls who previously taught at Little Rock’s Hall High and was high school director at eStem High Public Charter School, said she has taught African American history for 10 years but not an Advanced Placement course on the topic.

Students have clamored for an Advanced Placement course that would give them the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school, she said.

“The first day of AP African American Studies, we went over the limit that the state says is allowed to be in the course,” Walls said. “Every seat in here was taken. There was an interest, and for that, I’m really excited.”

In email responses to questions from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Walls said it is “of vital importance to teach” the history course because students want to learn the information and it helps students be well-informed and able to think critically.

“The history actually helps them understand the very complex world that we live in now,” she said.

Walls called the pilot course challenging but also said she is “very pleased with the curriculum and the primary sources that the College Board has made available.”

Walls is currently teaching one section of the course to 27 students at Central. She said students are engaged in the course and working hard in it.

“I’m getting quite a bit of positive comments about the class,” she also said. “My fellow teachers were so happy to see the course being offered. The students are engaged, and the parents are on board. I have even received emails from other social studies teachers around the state in support of the course.”

The College Board is piloting its new African American Studies course this school year in 60 schools nationwide, including Central and The Academies at Jonesboro High.

Walls said Central became part of the pilot of the course after the district’s gifted education coordinator saw an article about it and asked Walls if she would be interested.

Revisions to the course prior to it being piloted a second year — 2023-2024 — are expected to be announced by the College Board this week.

College Board leaders have said that the revisions to any new course are standard procedure and were in the works for the African American Studies course long before the Florida objections and the Arkansas inquiries.

The College Board offers dozens of Advanced Placement courses and accompanying exams, several of which are taught in Arkansas high schools as required by state law.

The courses are meant to be academically challenging, college-level material. College credit hours or assignment to upper-level college courses are given for Advanced Placement exam scores of 3, 4 or 5 on year-end exams. Earning college credits while in high school can save on college tuition costs and/or enable students to proceed more quickly to upper-level courses and graduation.

The Little Rock School District, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, released the 240-page Advanced Placement “Pilot Course Guide: Fall 2022” for the African American Studies course on Tuesday.

That guide covers four thematic units of lessons to be taught over 28 school weeks. Those units are:

• Origins of the African Diaspora — subject matter includes early African Kingdoms.

• Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance — subject matter includes the transatlantic slave trade and abolition.

• The Practice of Freedom –subject matter includes Reconstruction and Black politics.

• Movements and Debates — subject matter includes the civil rights movement, Black Power and Black Pride, and Black feminism, womanism and intersectionality.

Teachers do not have to teach the units in any specific order but to be an Advanced Placement course, all topics must be covered, according to the guide.

Each topic includes “source encounters” such as literature, video, art and historical records. Just some of the resources include the writings of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Frederick Douglass, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, W.E.B. De Bois, James Baldwin, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Kimberle Crenshaw. The source encounters also include Charles Mingus’ jazz compositions “Original Faubus Fables” and “Fables of Faubus” referencing former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High.

Each topic also includes “learning objectives” that a student must know and be able to do after covering the lesson, and “essential knowledge” or the detail that may appear on an Advanced Placement exam.

There are also in the guide optional resources listed for the lessons and additional content that provide a broader context of the topic but would not be on an Advanced Placement exam.

Near the end of the course, teachers and students are given options for the study of topics within the unit dealing with contemporary issues and debates. The options for study are medicine, technology and the environment; incarceration, abolition and the new Jim Crow; repairs; and the movement for Black lives.

As a result of the overall course, the Advanced Placement guide says students will be able to:

• “Apply lenses from multiple disciplines to evaluate key concepts, historical developments, and processes that have shaped Black experiences and debates within the field of African American studies.

• “Identify the intersections of race, gender, and class, as well as connections between Black communities, in the United States and the broader African diaspora in the past and present.

• “Analyze perspectives in text-based, data, and visual sources to develop well-supported arguments applied to real-world problems.

• “Demonstrate understanding of the diversity, strength, and complexity of African societies and their global connections before the emergence of transatlantic slavery.

• “Evaluate the political, historical, aesthetic, and transnational contexts of major social movements, including their past, present, and future implications.

• “Develop a broad understanding of the many strategies African American communities have employed to represent themselves authentically, promote advancement, and combat the effects of inequality and systemic marginalization locally and abroad.

• “Identify major themes that inform literary and artistic traditions of the African diaspora.

• “Describe the formalization of African American studies and new directions in the field as part of ongoing efforts to articulate Black experiences and perspectives and create a more just and inclusive future.

• “Connect course learning with current events, local interests, and areas for future study.”

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