A United States history class provides many Pine View students with a foundational knowledge of American society — but sometimes, the basics aren’t enough. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer caused many to turn to knowledge from these courses for answers, only to realize that the “foundational” curriculum had a glaring hole. That is when AP United States History teacher Scott Wolfinger decided it was time for some changes.
“I decided I needed to do something different. I wasn’t comfortable going out to protests because of the pandemic, but I’m a history teacher, so teaching history is what I can do,” Wolfinger said. “I thought teaching African American history could make people more aware and more understanding of what has led us to where we are today and led people to be as frustrated as they are.”
During the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year, students ranging from grades 9-12 enrolled in a newly-created class at Pine View: African American History Honors. The course did not have a concrete syllabus for Wolfinger to work with. Thus, one of the first assignments the students received was to research and create a curriculum for the class, essentially tasking the students with determining what they hoped to learn over the course of the semester.
One student, ninth-grader Aliciana Harvey-Lopez, constructed a noteworthy syllabus which reflected her already-vast knowledge of African American history.
“I took the class because I am very interested in my history as an African American, as well as the different things that have been going on in America,” Harvey-Lopez said. “Everything that I know has been from family members, outside organizations, or research that I’ve conducted on my own. This class for me personally was more of developing the course and sharing my information among my peers.”
“I think Aliciana didn’t realize that she knew so much about African American history. She was a constant resource for me,” Wolfinger said.
In fact, he used her syllabus as a guide, in coordination with discussions from class, to ensure the course met state standards. These group conversations, which focused on affording all students the opportunity to share their perspectives, defined the class’s format throughout the semester. Students who took the class said they greatly enjoyed this form of learning.
“It was definitely focused on discussion, which is something I honestly liked,” tenth-grader and African American History student Will Hartvigsen said. “There were a lot of opinions we were able to share and ideas we were able to put together that I don’t think you could get from just looking at the textbook.”
Wolfinger, who had planned on using a discussion-based format for the class even before the school year began, had similar thoughts.
“The class almost felt like a study group or a club where we got together, and we would collaborate. We would pick a topic or a time period, they would go learn about it and we’d come back, and everyone got a chance to teach the rest of the class. I learned right along with them,” he said.
The content of the course started in Africa, with the people and kingdoms that existed before the slave trade. According to students in the class, it was a notable topic that they hadn’t previously given much consideration.
“Learning about Africa before slavery was really interesting. That is something I had never been taught about in other history classes,” twelfth-grader Bethel Schandorf-Lartey said.
“What most people think they know about Africa is that it’s poor, there’s malnutrition, all those types of things. What most people don’t know is that Africa had the richest kingdoms… They had gold and different nuts and different animals. Most people don’t realize that Africa was developed and had extreme wealth,” Harvey-Lopez said.
From there, the class went on to discuss “the Middle Passage and Triangular Trade, the African Diaspora, significant turning points and trends in the development of African American culture and institutions, enslavement and emancipation, the Abolition, Black Nationalist, and Civil Rights movements, significant historical figures and events in African-American history, and contemporary African American affairs,” to quote Harvey-Lopez’s syllabus.
Along with the focus on discussion, Wolfinger said that the class sought to reveal perspectives that other history classes often ignore.
“With a traditional history class, you’re looking at the leaders and the acts that were passed and the major events that happened, but we chose to look from the perspective of common people, people who were involved in the struggles that we were reading and learning about,” Wolfinger said.
Hartvigsen sited an example of this emphasis on perspective: “We looked at the perspective of the news during coverage of the Central Park Five events compared to the accounts by people who were actually part of the event.”
According to Harvey-Lopez, these conversations are extremely important.
“African American history is not seen from a certain point of view that a certain party or a certain race is good or bad,” she said. “The truth is told by the facts. It’s such a delicate subject because people like to shy away from information about different events and violence that has happened; it’s traumatic and it’s hard to talk about.”
Both Schandorf-Lartey and Harvey-Lopez also pointed out the number of African Americans in the class: “Going into this class, I have never seen so many African Americans at Pine View before. That was my first time having that many African Americans in a class,” Harvey-Lopez said. “Many African Americans might not know their own history because it’s just not taught.”
Ultimately, the students agreed that learning about African American history is important for every student and creates an understanding of how all these events have led up to the moment we are in today. Each of them echoed a similar sentiment: African American history is American history.
“Every part of American history is related to African American history, and this class really made that clear,” Schandorf-Lartey said. “It really impacts your perspective on current events when you truly have an understanding of why they are happening. I am really glad they made this class.”
After working all semester with Wolfinger to develop the course, Harvey-Lopez doesn’t just hope that more people take the class, although she does want to see that.
“This class is not for a certain group of people. This class is for everyone,” she said.
Harvey-Lopez also hopes to make this a full-year rather than semester course.
“I wish we could have covered a lot more things; it was really hard and limiting, the amount of time that we had. U.S. History is a full-year class, and everything that has happened in U.S. history, African Americans have been a part of in some shape or form,” she said.
Luckily, some news came to Wolfinger at the end of the semester. The College Board emailed him and other African American history teachers in the country saying that they were looking to create an AP African American History course and asked for any syllabi that teachers had been using. Wolfinger sent them the syllabus Harvey-Lopez created.
“They want to look at all of them and then take what they want to form the course,” Wolfinger said. “I wrote them and said that I had my students do this as an assignment, this is from one of my students, this was the best one, and they said ‘Thank you.’ So I think hers is going to be integrated in with the rest. That’s pretty cool.”
At the end of first semester, Wolfinger finished the class with a final assignment to discuss actions students wanted to take as a result of knowledge gained from the course. The class discussed getting involved in local organizations and starting social justice clubs. However, taking action is just one way the students see this class affecting them in the future.
“Next year, I’m planning on taking APUSH [AP US History], so it’ll be interesting to go through the history of the U.S. and compare it to what I learned this year,” Hartvigsen said.
“The things I learned in this class, I think will change the way I contextualize all the issues we are facing now and in the future,” Schandorf-Lartey said.
“I really enjoyed it. It was sad saying bye to everyone on the last day. I wish I could stay for longer and keep developing this course,” Harvey-Lopez said.
As for next year, Wolfinger plans to teach the course again.
“Teaching African American History Honors this year was one of the highlights of my career. It was so much fun, and I absolutely plan on teaching it in the future,” he said. “If enough students sign up, I’ll be there to teach it without a doubt.”