Education A different history
BRIDGEPORT — A month into a semester-long course on African American Studies, Damian Charriez was compelled to Google the name Mansa Musa.
“He was so rich he gave gold away,” Charriez, a Bridgeport Military Academy junior, shared at the end of class.
Charriez admits he would never have felt compelled to find out more about the 14th century African king, who was said to be the richest person ever, were it not for the course.
That’s the spark that developers of the new course — part of a new graduation requirement for city high schools — were hoping for.
Starting with this year’s freshman class, the district’s 21,000 students — half of whom are Latino and 35 percent black — must take a semester of African American Studies, Latin American Studies or Perspectives on Race to graduate.
Such requirements are rare. Students in Philadelphia are required to take African American history to graduate. In Los Angeles, students must take an ethnic studies class.
Out of the gate, there are 199 students enrolled in the courses, which so far are offered at Bridgeport Military Academy, Central High School and Bassick High.
Fairchild Wheeler, which runs on a block schedule, is planning to pick up one or more of the courses in November, and Harding High is scheduled to do so in the spring semester.
William A. Morton, a project director for the courses, said that eventually the courses will be paired up in sophomore year with a half-year state civics requirement.
“I would call it popular,” said Principal Joseph Raiola at Bassick, where all three courses are currently offered.
Finding their voice
The Perspectives on Race course examines current issues and dynamics of select minority groups in the United States. It not only looks at race but religion, according to the course description.
Ed Feldheim, who is teaching the class at Bassick, said it’s fun to teach.
“There a some points we agreed to hit upon, but mostly we are talking about issues (students) are all aware of,” Feldheim said.
The only thing students need to bring to the equation is an opinion.
“Right now we are laying the groundwork,” said Feldheim.
In one class, the last of the day, 22 students were asked to weigh in on the Colin Kaepernick controversy. They read articles and watched clips of the NFL quarterback who sparked a national controversy by kneeling during the National Anthem.
Asked to write whether athletes can make a difference with such a protest or if there were better ways for Kaepernick to get his point across, the class took pencil to paper for 10 minutes.
Many argued in writing that nothing has really changed, and that all Kaepernick succeeded in doing was losing his job. Others said his stance was a wake-up call.
Verbalizing their thoughts was another matter. No hands were raised the first time around.
“Who has the answer?” Feldheim coaxed. “Has anything changed in America in last two years? Is this class an improvement? This class wasn’t here last year.”
One student finally responded that she thinks things have gotten worse.
“Why?” Feldheim pressed.
“It’s becoming more normalized,” the student said. “People are numb to it.”
The class includes students of African American and Hispanic backgrounds. So far, no one in the class has challenged the teacher’s race.
“No one has said, ‘You think that because you are a white guy,’ ” Feldheim said. Still, he said, “My race matters; how could it not factor in?”
There is a textbook that goes along with the class that Feldheim said he will use as needed. The final project will be a paper.
Rohanna Edwards, a Bridgeport Military Academy senior, said she never had a class that focused on Africa itself.
“So I like that,” Edwards said. “I’m learning a lot. I never knew about the sub-Saharan slave trade or the rulers of West Africa.”
Before the books were chosen or course curriculum written last summer, there was debate about the jumping-off point for the district’s half-year class on African American Studies.
Some argued it should start centuries before slavery.
The book settled upon, “From Slavery to Freedom,” by John Hope Franklin, gives some of that back story. In Frank Genova’s class at BMA, the book is a starting point.
There are also articles, videos and reenactments of what it felt like to be shackled to the hull of a ship for seven weeks.
“You,” Genova said, directing to a student from his desk to a brown tarp he had laid across the classroom floor. “Now you, and you’re next.”
“Oh, this is the ship,” one of the participants said as twine was wrapped across his ankles.
“That’s the skinniest chain I ever saw,” another student said.
“How long were they held in this position?” Genova asked.
“Seven weeks,” students responded in unison.
“How many voyages during slave trade?” continued the teacher.
“Twenty-thousand,” students said.
“Over how long a period,” he asked.
Students knew that answer too: 315 years.
Genova concludes the exercise by saying he had hoped at least one of the called-upon students would have objected to participating.
“You could have said no,” he said. “Slaves didn’t have a choice.”
During the same class, the 25 students discussed a clause taken out of the Declaration of Independence that might have abolished slavery, as well as New England’s hypocrisy in condemning slavery while still building and manning the ships that kept the trade going.
“The topic caught my attention,” Charriez said of the course. Of Puerto Rican dissent, he said he plans to take the Latin American course when it is offered in the spring.
“To be honest, I had a hole in my schedule,” said Deant Mosley, a BMA junior, explaining why he took the course. That said, he said, he finds it interesting.
Catherine Rodriguez, another BMA cadet, said what she is learning is changing the way she views America.
Genova, in his 33rd year of teaching, said his goal is to give students a taste of the subject matter.
“I hope that they learn,” he said.
“We are,” Rodriguez said.