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A look into how AP African-American Studies is taught at a Cambridge school

Sophomore Riley Ferrell, 16, listened to teacher Rachel Williams-Giordano during the AP African-American Studies course piloted at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — There was no sugar coating in the students’ discussion of slavery as they read first-hand accounts of the horrors endured by an enslaved woman.

This ugly and brutal chapter in US history went on for hundreds of years. Why, their teacher asked, was it allowed to persist?

“When it’s embedded in your education and your religion … it’s hard to get out and escape that,” said sophomore Riley Ferrell.

The recent discussion was part of the AP African-American studies class at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, one of about 60 schools across the country piloting the course that has been embroiled in national controversy.


In the last few months, the College Board, which oversees Advanced Placement courses and the college entrance exams SAT and ACT, has come under scrutiny for a new version of the course framework that some fear could dilute candid discussions like those now taking place in Cambridge.

The new 234-page curriculum framework cut lessons on reparations, the Black Lives Matter movement, and intersectionality — a concept that explains how discrimination can be different based on a person’s overlapping identities. However, teachers are responsible for creating their own lesson plans based on the framework and can incorporate other sources and topics, including those removed from the official framework, as they see fit.

Two high schools in Massachusetts — Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School — are participating in the yearlong pilot. Educators currently teaching the pilot course have the choice whether to continue with the original framework or adopt the new one; both the Cambridge and Martha’s Vineyard teachers have continued teaching the original. Next year, all educators must use the revised version.

The updated framework was announced after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to ban the course. The organization’s shift prompted some academics and civil rights advocates to accuse it of kowtowing to political pressures from groups of parents and conservative groups that aim to shape or eliminate what schools teach about race. The College Board denied the changes were influenced by DeSantis and stated the organization immediately should have denounced the “slander” from Florida’s Education Department. The failure to do so, the board said, “betrayed Black scholars everywhere.”


“We are at the beginning stages of introducing what will be the most rigorous, cohesive, and widely available immersion that high school students have ever had in African-American Studies,” Jerome White, a spokesperson for the College Board, said in a statement to the Globe.

While much attention has been paid to the fallout in Florida, teachers piloting the class in Massachusetts — where state interference with the topics teachers cover, or the textbooks they use, is not as pervasive — said the framework revisions will have little impact on how they teach the course.

For example, Rachel Williams-Giordano, who is teaching the course in Cambridge this school year, has introduced Black author bell hooks, even though hooks is not required reading in either framework. Williams-Giordano will also continue to teach her students about Black Lives Matter, she said, because it is “impossible” to teach about the civil rights movement without talking about BLM.

“Have a little bit more faith in me, have a little bit more faith in my colleagues to know that we’re going to do our due diligence to ensure our students are given the true, accurate history of the United States,” said Williams-Giordano.


Rachel Williams-Giordano, who teaches AP African-American studies in Cambridge, held "From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation" by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Williams-Giordano said she reached out to the publisher of the book and asked for free copies for her class.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The pilot course framework is broken into four units. The course begins with students learning about the African diaspora, including early African societies and kingdoms, followed by units that dive into topics including slave resistance strategies and freedom, then a look into the Black Panther Party and diversity within Black communities. The framework serves as a blueprint for the content students are required to know for the AP exam, which gives students college credit for the course if they score a minimum of a 3 (some colleges only take a score of 4 or 5); a mandatory research project counts for 20 percent of the AP exam score.

Students in Williams-Giordano’s class said these in-depth topics have been missing in their education and provides them an environment within which to critically think about US history.

Ferrell, 16, said learning about Africa pre-colonization made her feel stronger about her identity as a Black student, adding that this is a significant part of US history that is not taught enough in classrooms but should be because it “sets the foundation for everything.”

“We wouldn’t have history without African Americans, we are built on enslavement and learning about that is crucial,” she said.

During the discussion on slavery, several students in the class made connections between the treatment of slaves and present-day experiences of Black people in America, including how some doctors do not believe Black patients when it comes to pain.


Others also nodded in agreement when junior Agustina Leon Perdomo shared her thoughts on why it’s difficult to move on from the past.

Agustina Leon Perdomo, a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, contributed to the discussion about why it is important to not ignore what has happened in the past during her AP African American studies class.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“We can’t ignore history as long as it’s affecting systems presently,” Leon Perdomo, 16, said. “We can’t start anew because the country never started anew, we just built on the institution of slavery. It may look different now, but it still is oppressing marginalized communities.”

The pilot for AP African-American studies, which debuted this school year in Cambridge and at Martha’s Vineyard, is expected to expand this fall to 800 schools around the country, including 10 in Boston Public Schools and 10 others across the state. The course will officially launch in 2024, and by spring of 2025 students will be able to take the AP exam for the course.

John Thornton, professor of history and African-American studies at Boston University who consulted in the development of the AP course, said students are being asked through the class to critically think about how the past and present were constructed.

Contemporary issues like intersectionality — which was pared down in the official framework — should be included in the course curriculum, he said.

“The misunderstanding that we have in Florida is that somehow this course is going to be an indoctrination and Critical Race Theory is going to make white kids feel bad ... but that has to be there for it to be a serious course,” Thornton said.


Thornton said he believes that as the course expands, it could push other history teachers throughout the state, whether in AP courses or not, to incorporate more lessons about people of African descent.

Martha’s Vineyard teacher Ena Thulin said the students in her AP African-American studies class have exhibited a pendulum of emotions — somber, anger, elation — as they process subject matters they have not been exposed to before.

The course allows Black students the opportunity to see themselves more in history rather than through a lens that rarely reflects them, Thulin said.

“The biggest value is recognizing that the history that they’ve been taught is incomplete,” Thulin said.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.