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Teaching African American Literature – The Elective Series Continues

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Today on the show, we’ll find out what happened when an administrator attended a student’s genius hour project presentation about a new elective she wanted to see proposed Teaching African American Literature.

Spoiler alert, magic.

We’re continuing our elective series today, and I’m delighted to tell you we’re hearing from passionate veteran teacher Bethany Yuninger. She’ll be sharing her African American Literature Elective, and wait til you hear the story of how this elective came to be – it’s incredible!

You can listen in to this episode below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Meet our Guest, Bethany Yuninger

Bethany sees building positive relationships with students as the core of her career as a veteran teacher in Pennsylvania. Her strong belief, that she can influence the future by sharing her talents with her students to help them achieve their full potential, and ultimately make the world a better place, fuels her. Perhaps it’s a belief that you share!

Introducing Bethany’s Elective: Teaching African American Literature

Let’s start from the beginning, before the elective existed.

Bethany and her colleagues had wanted to develop a multicultural literature course for years, but it had never gained any traction in their district.

Then one year, Bethany assigned an Informed Citizen Project to her students that left them a great deal of choice, genius hour-style. As a part of the project, she asked her students to look around their world, identify a problem, research it, and ultimately offer a solution.

One of Bethany’s 10th graders felt concerned about the othering of people of color in the United States, so she decided to center her presentation around questioning why the school didn’t offer an African American Studies course. At that time, the school curriculum had a mandate for students to take a course that addressed oppression, but a Holocaust Studies course was the main offering. Bethany’s student felt that the school and its students were missing an important course, and she wanted to help.

When it came time for students to present their passion projects, Bethany invited local administrators to attend (yes for authentic audience!). The district curriculum coordinator sat in the audience for the presentation on African American Studies. He was so impressed he began putting the formal wheels in motion that would eventually help make this elective course idea a reality.

Of course it took time, but Bethany was eventually given the go ahead to build the course. Though her student graduated before the finalized course was approved by the board, she now returns to speak to Bethany’s classes and tell her story of how the class was created. She is living proof that if students care about something they can create change and make a positive impact on the world.

So cool, right?

Goals of the African American Literature Elective Course

The elective course was created based on the student’s vision, but Bethany also had a goal to fill in any curriculum gaps that existed in the school’s current offerings.

After Bethany explored online course outlines and spoke extensively with students and faculty to see what they’d hope for from an African American Literature course, she structured the course.

She wanted to make sure students knew the big names of African American Literature – the authors who have helped shape its evolution – and she wanted to celebrate the genius and beauty of their writing. To put it simply, the goal of the course was both the celebration of and exposure to the great writers of African American Literature.

quotation card: "To put it simply, the goal of the course was both the celebration of and the exposure to African American Literature."

Choosing Key Texts for Teaching African American Literature

When developing the curriculum, Bethany was told she would be able to have a class text. She proposed The Hate U Give, and although she was given a verbal “yes” to that text, she hasn’t yet been given an official written approval to use the text in the course at this point.

Angie Thomas feature image

Instead, she was approved to use The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (3rd edition), so she moved forward with that. Her top priority was to get the course up and running and to ensure that it would continue to be offered.

Though The Hate U Give was her first choice, she didn’t let the complications of having it approved stop her from finding contemporary high-interest texts to engage her students alongside her core canonical choices. She knew she wanted to start off the first unit with a strong hook, so she developed a poetry unit based on music and song lyrics to kick off the class, letting students contribute (school appropriate) lyrics they loved. They dove into music with the lens of poetry analysis, and examined the social and cultural concepts that were revealed through the work, which ultimately led them to look at the connections throughout the eras of history that were laid out in The Norton Anthology. By giving students a personal connection through their music, the class started on a positive note and it made the Norton feel more accessible to the students.

Embedding a Passion Project in African American Literature

Echoing its origins, the course has a passion project embedded. Bethany has seen her students come up with amazing, impactful results.

It all starts with the opening poetry unit, when students share songs they love and also choose an independent reading title to dive into moving forward. As the course moves on, Bethany gives her students the first five minutes of class to listen to one of their chosen songs and discuss the books they’ve chosen. By reflecting on the connections between their music, their books, and their own lives, students identify an area where they’d like to work on a project.

One student had read a work of Zora Neale Hurston in which she had interviewed the last living man who could remember having lived in Africa. Hurston had recorded his part of the interview in the dialect he used. Fascinated, the student saw how important the process of sharing personal stories could be. She took that idea and went to local assisted living facilities to ask the program directors if she might be able to interview some of their residents.

Eventually, she was able to interview the residents about their experiences growing up, and record their responses as much as possible with the language and expressions they used. She compiled the responses into a living history book she shared with their families.

In Bethany’s elective, when students do things they didn’t believe they would be able to do, magic happens. She’s able to provide a different opportunity for students to discover and learn alongside her be empowering them with choice over some of their texts and voice in creating a project that makes a real impact.

Take a Look at the Syllabus

Bethany has generously shared her course syllabus to help provide you with a more specific look at the course. You can see all the details in the images below.

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