This summer, 11 high school educators spent more than a week on campus learning about Black history and culture with a focus on St. Louis. Three of those educators shared how they plan to use what they learned in the classroom this year.
When a group of secondary educators gathered on campus this summer to learn about the history of Black St. Louis, they came from a wide array of educational environments. Some taught at public schools, others at private single-sex schools. And while there were plenty of Advanced Placement history and English teachers in attendance, others represented the arts, general studies, and students with special needs. After a week of learning from the WashU faculty members as part of the African American Studies Summer Institute, however, one thing many of them agreed on is that they are better prepared to teach their students about local Black culture, studies, and heritage.
The institute organized by Shanti Parikh, chair and professor of African and African American studies, and Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters, was designed to provide teachers with the intellectual and moral support they need to incorporate Black history into their curriculum. They also aimed to provide teachers with resources including collections in the WashU library, a powerful tool to let students hear voices from the past.
The institute also featured several faculty members from the Department of African and African-American Studies: Geoff Ward, Lauren Eldridge Stewart, Sowande Mustakeem, Mungai Mutonya, and Zachary Prottas-Manditch.
Parikh said that institute is central to the mission and history of AFAS as a discipline and as a department at WashU. The field emerged from student activism in the 1960s and demands to incorporate the study of Black history and culture into formal education. She believes that now, this mission is more pressing than ever.
“Today, we see attempts not only to restrict the teaching of slavery, racism, racial inequality, and colonialism’s impact on Indigenous populations, but also restrictions on discussing Black identities and Black creative expression,” she said.
The institute provides a much-needed opportunity for high school teachers to form an intellectual community interested in the field of Black studies. “Collaborating with this group of highly engaged and committed high school teachers allows us to take our research findings beyond the ivory tower and into educational spaces where it has the most impact,” Parikh said.
We spoke with three institute attendees to see how they plan to incorporate knowledge from the summer program into their teaching. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Sommer Harris Nance, dance teacher at Grand Center Arts Academy:
Even though our student body is 80-90% Black, there was no one to plan the Black History Month program last year, so I was drafted. Afterward, I thought about what I could do to strengthen this initiative at our school, which is when I heard about the AFAS Summer Institute.
We are a performing arts school with instruction in visual art, dance, theater, and instrumental and vocal music. Our kids are artists and they are very passionate. History can be a source for their art, and the institute gave me resources for the students to connect to that.
For my Advanced Dance Composition course, which is for aspiring choreographers, I plan to give each student a slave narrative and have them create a dance based off of that. At the institute, we talked about how impactful music has been on African American culture and vice versa, so the students in my class will also be able to select the music for their piece.
My students are very sensitive and very intelligent. My perspective is that if we don’t talk about the hard and dark stuff, then we won’t learn from it. I also want them to be able to take history and use it in a positive way because there is a lot of rich history that is joyful.
Johanna Gillan, special education teacher at Menta Academy:
I work at a school where all of the students come to us temporarily because they are having behavioral difficulties in the classroom at their home school. They each have an IEP — Individualized Education Plan — because they’ve been diagnosed with a disability that causes a learning difference.
My students are almost all Black and some of the things they are diagnosed with — such as impulsivity or an inability to control emotion — could actually stem from generational trauma as a result of racism. But I believe in a strengths-based approach to teaching and I think about my students as whole human beings. As Black young people, one of their greatest strengths is their culture. I applied to participate in the institute to help them learn about the richness of their identities.
One of the most important things I got out of the institute was the exploration of primary sources. It’s not my voice the students should be hearing. I’m searching for ways for the kids to find themselves in the events and history of the area, and primary sources are irrefutable stories of real events. So, I’m going to start by sharing primary sources — beginning with slave narratives — with my students. And, as a non-Black teacher teaching primarily Black students, I now have resources from the institute to guide me, as well as an invitation to check back with the professors.
Going to the institute was like watching “The Wizard of Oz” and stepping through the doorway from black and white into layers of color and music. The professors invited us into so many wellsprings of knowledge and sources. They handed each of us a doorknob and invited us to walk through. Now I’m going to usher my kids through that same doorway by teaching to their strengths.
Erin Simmons, campus minister at Rosati-Kain High School:
I’m a campus minister at a Catholic school so, although I teach one class, most of my role is counseling spiritual wellness. At the institute, it was helpful to learn not just in the classroom, but to see history applied in the places we visited. Now I know where we can take students to show them living history and to experience firsthand how St. Louis was influenced by slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and even incarceration.
A few years ago, we found out that Bishop Rosati, our school’s namesake, was a slave owner who, as Bishop of the diocese, often signed off on the fate of enslaved people. That really struck a nerve with our students. It brought up a lot of curiosity but also a lot of anger. I see my role as helping students look into that history with tenderness and truthfulness, to help us figure out a way to reconcile what happened with who we are now and who we want to be in the future. Part of my plan after the institute is to look into the slaveholding history of Bishop Rosati and to let our students have a hand in giving a voice to those narratives and coming up with a creative way to memorialize them on our campus.
I also hope to take students to Greenwood Cemetery, a Black burial site where Dred Scott’s wife, Harriet Scott, is buried. Greenwood needs help preserving its history and caring for its grounds. This connects to our school values, too. As Catholics, we honor the dead and show works of mercy to forgotten communities.