For Westerville North High School senior Candice Talmadge, a class on African American studies not only had to cover the history of African Americans in the United States but take a deep dive into topics she rarely encounters in class.
“Racism,” she said. “People don’t want to talk about it.”
This year, Westerville’s high schools launched new courses that approach topics such as Black history and culture and social justice in a way that has never been done before in the district.
At Westerville Central and Westerville South high schools, the new “Race and Equity Studies: The Quest for Justice in the US” class provides students with opportunities to learn about and address various racial, ethnic, and other types of diversity, as well as explore shared identities.
Meanwhile, the “African American History Since 1895” and “African American Literature and Composition” courses at WNHS examine African American history and literature through themes such as African American political power and thought, African American cultural influence on the United States and the world, African American economic development over time, and the identity and lived experiences of African Americans.
These courses provide classroom spaces and curricula to explore topics and discussions that have come up during Black History Month celebration programs, book clubs focused on reading Coretta Scott King Award-Winning books, visits from authors of color and other spaces, including students’ lived experiences, said Jill Williams, the district’s curriculum specialist in social studies and English language arts.
“In addition to the hard work of the teachers, there have been many people that have been working on this for decades,” she said. “Every time students of color speak out, any time a parent comes in to ask about getting more inclusive, diverse books, any time white allies make space to include and celebrate culturally-relevant curriculum in the schools, and our librarians always working to get great books on the shelves, all those pieces add up to creating these classes.”
Over the past five years, the district has provided professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators to better understand the need for a culturally responsive curriculum and culturally relevant pedagogy, said Cynthia DeVese, coordinator of Minority Student Achievement.
“With that comes a sincere interest and willingness to make changes in the curriculum shared and the ways we teach and engage our students to ensure that all students have an exceptional school experience,” she said.
She and Williams have been working with educators across the high schools and district to develop the new courses for more than a year. They were especially aware that those teaching the classes are white, so it was critical to get feedback from parents and students from across the community to ensure all voices were represented and heard.
“It’s beneficial for students to be able to see themselves in the curriculum,” said William Ragland, an assistant principal at WNHS whose undergraduate degree was in African American studies. He worked closely with teachers and district leaders to provide feedback and support for classes as they were being developed. He provides ongoing support for content and tone.
“To have a curriculum that is as dedicated to our African American students is going to be extremely impactful and empowering to them as they continue to go down this journey of learning more about the African American experience in the US,” he said.
The courses at WCHS and WSHS are a semester-long for social studies credit, while those at WNHS are taken in tandem for a year for both English and social studies credit.
At WSHS, social studies teacher Kelley Stocker has only been able to scratch the surface on the Reconstruction era, its shortcomings, and the civil rights movement. With the new Race and Equity Studies class, she’ll be able to dive deeper into those topics as well as conversations about equity with students.
“I am a big believer in the phrases ‘you don't know what you don't know’ and ‘the more you learn the more you realize you don't know,’” she said. “This class is an opportunity for students to have access to some of that knowledge they may not even realize they are missing. I hope it leads to an academic career in which they become thirsty for more knowledge.”
Kyle King has touched on issues of social justice in his history courses for more than 20 years. By exposing students to the voices of people who were directly affected by oppressive systems, they have gained greater awareness, empathy, and understanding.
With the new Race and Equity Studies class at WCHS, he can further explore the systematic nature of oppression and the historical development of these systems including racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, heteronormativity, anti-semitism, and islamophobia. He hopes to activate students’ “critical consciousness” so that they will be able to identify issues of oppression and privilege in their lives and the lives of others.
“I really want my students to understand that the people who do social justice work are regular people just like them,” he said. “They also have all sorts of identities and they did the work because they deeply believed it was the right thing to do and they were willing to risk their lives to make the world a better place.”
At WNHS, the new African American history and literature courses have been the result of years of collaboration between social studies teacher John Sands and English teacher Catherine Stathulis.
When they discovered they were both trying to tackle cultural and racial issues in the school and community through history and literature, they decided in 2017 to teach a unit together with their students. As part of the lesson, students analyzed rap music in America and the messages that were presented in songs. In one exercise, students studied speeches, letters, essays of historical black figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and Barack Obama so they could write a rap in their voice.
“Students were really excited about the project because it was so different; they took these songs they liked and created something really amazing,” Stathulis said. “However, when they started doing the work, they realized how difficult it was. In the end, they realized that challenge really made them think about what they had read and they experienced the music at a deeper level. They were so proud of the work they did.”
Sands and Stathulis were so impressed with their students’ work and how engaged they were in the unit that they decided to collaborate on more lessons the following year. Eventually, the two began thinking of what an African American studies class at WNHS would look like. As a result of their ongoing efforts, Sands is teaching African American History Since 1895 and Stathulis is teaching African American Literature and Composition.
When they received district support to develop these classes, they knew they needed to bring students into the conversation.
“I don’t think my eyes were open to being a Black student in Westerville and it took a lot of conversation with them to see that there are real systemic issues,” Sands said. “We’re two very white teachers talking about experiences we’ve never had. We’re here as a guide to critical thinking, but it’s the experiences of history and experiences of students that really pull all of this together.”
Sands and Stathulis interviewed a wide variety of students from various racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds to determine the topics they wanted to learn and what they needed from the class.
Sands’ history class highlights the ways African Americans have led the US since the end of slavery, rather than focusing on the horrors and deficits imposed by slavery. Stathulis’ literature and composition class allow students to go beyond slavery texts, Harlem Renaissance authors, and Civil Rights writings by diving into the work of African American writers, artists, and thinkers who contributed to shaping not only Black literature and culture but American literature and culture as a whole.
Ultimately, the two want to help deepen students’ understanding of African American history and literature so they are empowered to have honest and informed conversations founded upon fact instead of emotion, particularly during periods of civil and political unrest.
“Right now, everybody can say their opinion but it’s not founded in sources,” Sands said. “We’re giving them the tools, teaching them how to have a discussion, and giving them the context to help guide them in those uncomfortable conversations.”
Talmadge is proud to be among the group of students whose input helped develop the class.
“It felt cool to know that I was one of the students to do something that makes my school better,” she said.
Talmadge, who was in Sands’ Contemporary World Issues class last year, is eager to get started with the new classes and jump into discussions about the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer that has erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death. She wants to talk about their similarities to demonstrations during the civil rights movement.
“This type of class is something that should be taught in all schools,” she said. “To give other cultures a deeper understanding, it should be a requirement for all schools.”