RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The students in Megan Williams’ eighth-grade classroom at John F. Kennedy Middle are making history even as they learn it.
This year, the Riviera Beach middle school became one of the first in the state to offer an African and African-American history class to its students.
The course, district and school staff said, is not only part of an effort to teach students about this history. It’s also being offered in hopes of better engaging the school’s population by teaching them things relevant to their own lives.
“The population here at John F. Kennedy is primarily African-American, and the children here have historically struggled in terms of academics,” Williams said. “If the children feel connected to academics in some sort of way, they’ll want to learn more. Once they understand how they play into the creation of a lot of the world’s achievements, it will cultivate more of an interest in learning.”
The district has offered the African and African-American history course as an elective at several high schools for the past four years, but this is the first time the district is offering it to middle schoolers, district staff said. The eighth-graders taking it will receive a full high school course credit upon completion.
The first half of the class starts with African history, then shifts in the second semester to African-American history. The class is still planning guest speakers and field trips to such places as the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale.
“Cousin, tell me where we left off last week,” teacher Williams asked of one of her students during class on Tuesday.
“That everyone originated in Africa,” the boy said.
“Wait, I’m confused. We ALL originated in Africa?” Williams said, feigning shock. “So you and I are 332nd cousins, or something like that?”
The young teens giggled at the thought. Then Williams was quickly launching into the “Noah’s Ark” or “Out of Africa” theory and pointing to maps and walking about the room, and the students were entranced.
“It’s good to learn about history,” Niah Barton, 13, who is in Williams’ class, said later. “It’s good to know where you came from, because it helps you know what kind of person you are. . It was interesting learning about how everyone originated in Africa.”
School board vice-chairwoman Debra Robinson has long pushed for schools to do more to integrate African and African-American history into the curriculum, and she applauded JFK Middle for adding this class.
“The principal (Corey Brooks) is really pushing to increase the rigor and relevance of the curriculum at Kennedy,” Robinson said.
A state law passed in 1994 requires that all teachers in every subject include African and African-American history in their lessons, but critics say few county students know more than the country’s history with slavery.
“We need to make sure we do whatever it is we need to do to get children to actively engage in their own education,” Robinson said. “Part of that is to change their self-image. If you believe your history started with slavery, why would you work hard to try to become an orthopedic surgeon?”
Robinson said the elective classes in high school, and now this class at JFK Middle, are steps in the right direction. But she said she still believes classes are not including African and African-American history the way the law demands.
“We do lay the foundation in elementary school and as they go through the grades,” said Shantey Kemp, an African and African-American Studies resource teacher for the district who has been helping with the class at JFK Middle.
She said she’s seen students “light up” as they learn there’s more to African-American history than just slavery.
“If students do not see themselves in their education, they phase out of their education,” Kemp said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.