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Amid push for ethnic studies classes in high school, Obama Elementary starts them in kindergarten

Teacher Chris Pierce
MinnPost photo by Sarah Brandt
Chris Pierce reading aloud "Desmond and the Very Mean Word" to a room of fourth-graders in his African-American Studies course.

At Barack & Michelle Obama Elementary School in St. Paul, something about the daily, elective-style courses called “enrichment classes” wasn’t working. Students were leaving their classrooms, being sent out, or, as one teacher, Chris Pierce, put it, “nobody was engaged.”

Four years ago, Pierce said, that "totally" changed. He started teaching a new enrichment course called African-American Studies, and the attendance issues quickly went away.

“It’s been ridiculously amazing,” Pierce said. “We don’t even have to focus on keeping scholars in the room anymore. Everyone is engaged.”

The issue, Pierce explained, was that in the earlier classes kids didn’t see themselves in what they were learning. At Obama Elementary, more than 90 percent of students are black, but those demographics weren’t reflected in the curriculum.

The solution, then, was to design a class that didn’t just teach history from the white, European perspective that tends to dominate traditional social studies courses. Instead, every student in grades kindergarten through fifth would visit Mr. Pierce one day a week for a different kind of history lesson during his new African-American Studies enrichment course.

“It’s important for kids to understand that it’s not a separate history,” Pierce explained. “There is no American history without African-American history.”

A few decades ago, Pierce himself was a young black student in the St. Paul elementary school system. Then, lessons on the contributions of African-Americans to U.S. history didn’t extend beyond the standard examples of Rosa Parks and The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and discussions didn’t last longer than the few weeks every year set aside for the celebration of Black History Month. “It was like, ‘That’s it?’ ” Pierce asked. “‘That’s all there is?’ ”

Now, Pierce has his own classroom in the St. Paul elementary school system. His walls are lined with posters celebrating lesser-known African-American figures like comedian Moms Mabley and historian George Washington Williams, and his lessons last for all months of the school year.

The African-American Studies class at Obama belongs to a category of “ethnic studies” courses that aim to teach social studies from traditionally underrepresented points of view. While Pierce teaches his course from an African-American perspective specifically, ethnic studies classes might include Asian-American, Native American, and Latino and Latina points of view as well.

Classes like Pierce’s are appearing more in classrooms both across Minnesota and across the nation. St. Paul's public schools offer three ethnic studies courses at the high school level, which will expand to five options in a few years. Next door, all public high schools in Minneapolis recently started offering five different ethnic studies elective course offerings. And beyond Minnesota, cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Albuquerque require that all of their public high schools offer such classes as options for their students.

Though colleges and universities began developing the subjects as early as the 1960s, the courses have only really started to expand to the K-12 level in the past decade. And just this summer, national news events have added relevance to discussions about expanding ethnic study course offerings.

Late this August, a federal judge struck down a ban on ethnic studies classes in Arizona, and soon thereafter, educators began this school year grappling with how to discuss this summer’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia. But as districts across the country increasingly incorporate these courses into their high school curricula and graduation requirements, almost none tackle the subjects as early as a student’s kindergarten year.

The curriculum didn’t exist, so Pierce designed his own

On a Thursday morning in late September, a class of fourth-graders sat huddled around Pierce in room 1116 of Obama Elementary. Pierce held up “Desmond and the Very Mean Word,” a children’s book based on the childhood of apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, and read aloud the foreword, in which Tutu explains what life was like growing up in apartheid South Africa.

“‘We were told that people with darker skin were not quite as wonderful as people with lighter skin,’” Pierce read, before turning to the students. “So, after reading what I just said, does this picture have a different meaning?” Pierce flipped to a page with an illustration of a white, boy giving a young, black Tutu a piece of candy as a peace offering. “Why did the redheaded boy have to look around before giving him candy?”

“Because he was a different color than him,” one student offered.

“Right,” Pierce explained. “During this time, it was apartheid, and the government had rules about how dark-skinned people weren’t as good as light-skinned people.”

Pierce started at Obama in 2009, where he spent several years teaching the second grade until administrators approached him to help solve the issue of poor attendance during enrichment classes. They told him to find curriculum that was engaging, which to Pierce meant curriculum that students could relate to as a predominantly black student body. But when he looked for African-American Studies curriculum in elementary schools elsewhere, he discovered that models were nearly impossible to find.

“Most of it is high-school geared,” he explained. “You’re lucky to find some middle-school stuff.”

With no example to go off of, he used a few key units as a starting framework, and designed the curriculum all on his own.

Chris Pierce holding up a student-made sign
MinnPost photo by Sarah Brandt
Chris Pierce holding up a student-made sign setting goals for the classroom community.

The first year, he started with Africa. Rather than focusing on a history tainted by the legacy of slavery, he taught of a history rich with kingdoms and prosperity. Every year, he designed lessons in a similar way – repealing biases and reshaping impressions.

This year, he plans to bring the lessons home to Minnesota. He plans to teach about the contributions of Minnesota leaders like Sharon Sayles Belton, the first African-American and the first woman to serve as mayor of Minneapolis, and Rev. Robert Hickman, the founder of St. Paul’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, the oldest black church in the state.

“We’re going to look at all these people and tie it into the lesson that ‘Hey, these are things you can do as well,’” Pierce said.

Improved attendance and academic performance

Obama Elementary saw attendance improve firsthand after incorporating the African-American studies class into its curriculum, but the benefits of these courses are grounded in research elsewhere as well.

A 2010 research review by the National Education Association concluded that “as students of color proceed through the school system, research finds that the overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many such students to disengage from academic learning.”

On the other hand, a 2016 study from Stanford University found that students who did participate in ethnic studies courses in San Francisco high schools increased their attendance by 21 percent and improved their academic performance by 1.4 GPA points on average.

Though this research is focused on the benefits of ethnic studies at the high school level, Pierce thinks it is “extremely important” that students take his class from a young age, often as early as age 5. “The earlier you’re exposed to it, the more you can put puzzle pieces together to understand that it’s not a separate history.”

At the University of Minnesota, Keith Mayes is an associate professor of African-American and African studies, and he helped design the curriculum for the Minneapolis Public Schools ethnic studies program. Mayes said that ethnic studies courses are important regardless of age, and that a student’s age will be reflected in the depth of the content taught.

“People might think race or oppression are maybe too weighty for elementary school level, but there are ways you can teach those,” Mayes said. “But you couldn’t teach the same kind of course I’m teaching in college to a second-grade level. Those courses would be much different.”

Not just for black students

At Obama Elementary, many second-graders take African-American Studies as a way to learn history that is relevant to themselves. But in Mayes’ view, ethnic studies courses are not just for people of color.

“People have an assumption that African-American history is for black students,” he said. “No, African-American history is for white students, Asian-American students – for anyone.”

Similarly, Mary Bussman, an equity consultant for Equity Alliance MN, says that though ethnic studies courses are a great way to bring people together around a specific topic, “the danger” with them is that sometimes it’s only the students from that cultural or racial group who take the courses. “People from other cultural or racial groups will look and say ‘well that’s their history – I don’t need to learn that.’”

Mary Bussman
Mary Bussman

In fact, Bussman points out, some districts in Minnesota will include ethnic studies classes in their course catalogs only to have them go unfilled, forcing schools to cancel the offering in the end. Some districts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District, solve this by making ethnic studies part of graduation requirements. But another solution, according to Bussman, is to teach ethnic studies not as distinct, stand-alone courses, but instead as topics integrated into a school’s regular course load.

“We need to retrain our social studies teachers to know multiple perspectives, and rewrite our history books to have those multiple perspectives,” she said. “That’s the vision we need to go to in the state of Minnesota.”

Some teachers already incorporate racial and cultural topics into their regular curriculum, in a strategy known as “culturally-relevant teaching.” Thus, though Pierce knew of no other elementary schools in the state that teach a distinct African-American studies course like his, some schools may deal with topics of race and culture in their own ways.

Even so, Mayes said the recent expansion of K-12 ethnic studies courses in Minneapolis, St. Paul and elsewhere is not reflective of any large-scale trends to develop the courses.

“In 2019, we will be coming up on one of the most historical anniversaries in the United States – 400 years since the first African-Americans came here in 1619,” Mayes said. “For us to be talking about including African-American history in social studies 400 years out, to be honest with you, that’s a sad narrative in this country.”

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