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Friday, March 01, 2024

‘We want to see our classrooms look more like our hallways’: Madison teachers express excitement for new AP African American Studies course

Two Madison schools volunteered to offer AP African American Studies in fall 2023.

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) will offer Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies in the fall of 2023 at Madison East High School and Vel Phillips Memorial High School.

Madison East and Vel Phillips Memorial are the two MMSD high schools to volunteer as part of a nationwide pilot program.

Kevin Attaway, the social studies department chair at Madison East, said the district will pay for training for interested teachers over the summer and send out curriculum guides in the near future. 

“Sophomores through seniors will have the opportunity to sign up,” said Attaway. “In MMSD,  it's a requirement that you're taking a U.S. history course in junior year — this fills that requirement.” 

Alyssa Paolocci, a social studies teacher at Madison East who volunteered to teach AP African American Studies, expressed excitement about this opportunity. 

“In the past few years we’ve had to cut a lot of classes, we just really want to be able to offer more than one class for a requirement,” Paolocci said. “It’s an opportunity to talk about Black joy. That was a big idea behind introducing the class. A big piece of this is intersectionality and the idea of knowing how different identities that you hold impact you in various ways.”

Terriun Green, another Madison East social studies teacher who volunteered to teach the course, said he hopes to see more representation in the classroom.

“We want to see our classrooms look more like our hallways. I'm hoping to attract a lot of students,” Green said. “It's very depressing to teach AP and honors and see kids who stick to regular classes just because people who look like them are there. I’ve seen kids of color who are very excited about it. I hope that continues, it’s been a big issue for a long time.”

Attaway added how he hopes this is just the beginning, envisioning additional classes that explore other facets of American identity.

“We would love to see an AP LGBTQ or Indigenous Studies, or an Asian American Experience AP class,” Attaway said. “We’re laying the groundwork.”

Attaway also echoed the optimism of Paolocci and Green when asked how teachers have responded to this change.

“There’s nothing but excitement,” he said. “Our department is very comfortable with this. We’ve added a lot of new classes, especially when there is student interest.”

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MMSD has a long history of listening to student voices. According to Attaway, Madison East was the first school to offer an ethnic studies class in the 1990s. Additionally, he said the school added an Indigenous emphasis to their Wisconsin history class and collaborated with Madison West to make the change district-wide. 

Due to this legacy of progressive curriculum, MMSD staff are no strangers to criticism. When asked if they received any in response to the inclusion of AP African American Studies in course selection, Attaway, Paolocci and Green said they are anticipating it. 

“Not yet,” said Paolocci.

“It’s coming,” said Attaway.

“We’re ready for it,” Green added. 

Paolocci expressed her gratitude to the MMSD community for having faith in the staff at Madison East. 

“Our families are very supportive of our teachers,” Paolocci said. “I feel very lucky to work here because of that.”

Attaway said criticism of the course at both the local and national level is to be expected.

“You're always going to count on at least one third of opposition because people always find a way to oppose anything, so there will be some,” Attaway said. “Hopefully some of that opposition can be tempered with the more information that can be provided to them. Very often, people are demonized through hearsay and misinformation, like the boogeyman of Critical Race Theory.”

Critical Race Theory stole headlines across the country in 2021 during a national debate over how history should be taught, with many Republicans pushing to remove curricula that acknowledge the role of race and racism in U.S. history. Now, officials such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis voice similar opposition to the AP African American Studies pilot program.

In a January press conference, DeSantis said inclusion of queer theory in the curriculum was pushing a political agenda.

“Who would say that an important part of Black history is queer theory?” he said. “That is somebody pushing a political agenda on our kids."

Green said DeSantis’s push to remove the course should not have influence over Madison’s classrooms. 

“Ron DeSantis isn’t my parent, or my significant other or my governor,” Green said. “He has no hold over what I do. He has the same amount of a hold over me as the guy down the street.”

Green said organizations should stand up to the Florida governor. 

“I wish [the] College Board had a spine to go against him,” said Green.

The College Board removed Black scholars who wrote about queer history and Black feminism from the AP African American Studies course after DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education criticized a leaked draft of the curriculum. The College Board denied that the changes were made due to political controversy.

Paolocci said she is apprehensive about the possible consequences of DeSantis’s claims.

“DeSantis is just loud enough for people to listen to him,” Paolocci said. “There have been many people who have disagreed with the things that have been taught for a very long time. [The] College Board is for profit at the end of the day, and everyone is allowed to have their opinion about what happens in the schools, but also at the end of the day, it is the teacher and student who get to determine what happens.” 

Paolocci said she welcomes the opportunity to have discussions about what DeSantis is saying in the classroom because it opens up questions about racism in the present as well as the past.

“He's repeating this ugly history that he's trying to erase,” said Paolocci. 

Attaway referred to DeSantis’s history as an educator, appealing to their shared experience. 

“He knows better and he should be ashamed of himself,” Attaway said.

Returning to the excitement of adding AP African American Studies, Attaway emphasized the significance of the course for students at Madison East. 

“Our students want this, so let's give it to them,” Attaway said. “Let's give them something to be excited about.”

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