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Course Highlight: African America Studies at IHS

During the Fall 2021 semester, Ithaca High School ELA teacher Michael Reiff and then student-teacher Steven D’Alterio introduced a new senior elective, called African America Studies (AAS), in “hopes to toss sand in the gears of conformity.”

Guided largely by foundational texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework, Reiff and D’Alterio sought to design a course that would empower students to--

  • deconstruct the language, histories, and narratives that surround us – which are often obscured, falsified, and whitewashed - and better understand why our individual and shared lives are the way they are;
  • reconstruct a different understanding of our country’s past, present, and future with varied pathways toward expressing their knowledge and learning and also dreaming of and shaping our future; and
  • weconstruct” a community we can all better exist within. 

AAS is divided into three units: Interrogation, Investigation + Imaginings, and Expression and Advocation. During the first unit, students explored, discussed, and drew personal connections to readings from a variety of provocative thinkers. Students were provided agency throughout the course and chose many of the texts, text types, and other media they studied, focusing on thinkers who have often been and continue to be left out of curricula, like bell hooks and James Baldwin.

In the second unit, the class considered speculative and afrofuturistic visions of our past, present, and future, with lessons anchored by Nnedi Okorafor’s novella, Binti. The students also collaborated with Cornell reading partners to more deeply investigate certain ideological concepts of their choosing, such as rebellion. For one month, the class engaged with the Cornell students in small (two- or three-person) in-depth discussions about these concepts, and the discussions were recorded, transcribed into text, and transformed into discourse documents.

The last unit of AAS provided students with real opportunities to express their learning and advocate for change. Students developed knowledge on key issues of our time - like gentrification, community cultural wealth, and pedagogical changes – and shared their learning by teaching classes and speaking with those in power and through other avenues of expression and/or advocacy.

African America Studies will be taught again next year as a semester-long elective, and Reiff and D’Alterio are continually developing the course in both depth of content and duration.