Richmond Public Schools will offer a new elective course next year that provides an unvarnished view of Richmond history, delving into aspects that have gone mostly untold.
RPS officials are hoping the course can connect students to a more immediate history that Virginia standards and broader courses don’t leave much time for.
Ma’Asehyahu Isra-Ul, the district’s specialist for history and social science instruction, is leading the district’s efforts at the behest of Superintendent Jason Kamras. Isra-Ul said the REAL Richmond course will counter false narratives around the slave trade and Southern history that have yet to be fully dispersed, even though textbooks containing the fabrications were phased out decades ago.
“It’s built upon the goal of a more accurate and thorough account of Richmond and the students’ comprehension of their city,” Isra-Ul said. “Not only will students get an emphasis on some of the marginalized parts of Richmond history, but the methods will be a big part of what differentiates this course from a standard history class.”
Local history institutions, social justice activists and scholars from VCU and University of Richmond collaborated with RPS personnel to develop the curriculum and the group decided on a backward design method that will start with the present and work back to give students a greater understanding of the context of what’s happening now.
Isra-Ul said debates around Confederate monuments, the African burial ground and even where interstates were built all affect students’ day-to-day lives and are anchored in the past.
He said he thinks starting with what students see and tracing their roots back in history will hook them with relevance and context.
Shawn Utsey, chairman of African American studies at VCU, said he thinks the course has potential to be an effective teaching tool as long as the district is careful in designing the curriculum.
Discrepancies in current textbooks that can skew the information being presented to students have been highlighted recently. Utsey said RPS officials must choose topics and instructors wisely to avoid echoing the same perspective students already get in standard history classes.
However, if the district gets it right, it could help fill gaps in the traditional curriculum set by the state.
“There are lots of opportunities and historical sites here and it’s logical to utilize them and capitalize on that. You can create a culture of wanting to engage people with the history and I think they will buy into that,” Utsey said.
He said that for the long term, he’d like to see the kinds of things proposed for the course become standards at a state level, but the class is a good starting point.
“Why not just add that to history and put it in the SOLs? That’s how you validate and legitimize a history,” Utsey said.
The course will go beyond new subject matter as well, Isra-Ul said, with regular trips around the city and new technology for students to use, including 360-degree cameras for augmented and virtual-reality projects. Isra-Ul said he expects at least two teachers will offer the course and around 50 students to take it during its pilot program in the first year.
Sarah Waltman-King, a history teacher at John Marshall High School, said she signed up to teach the course because it dives deep into something meaningful for her and her students.
She said she hopes students will gain a richer understanding of the city’s past by actively engaging with it.
“One thing that’s frustrating is people think history is just something that happened but it’s actually happening to us every day,” Waltman-King said. “The content is literally in the neighborhoods they live, goes back hundreds of years and is still impacting them today.”
Teachers who volunteered for the class will have in-depth workshops this summer to review the material, visit many of the sites that will be focal points in the course and get hands-on experience with the new technology to prepare.
Isra-Ul said he hopes everyone who takes the course can bring something new for future students to use and build a comprehensive record of previously marginalized groups.
“All of that is a part of the historical soup that has allowed for this course to be cooked up,” Isra-Ul said. “I think Richmond history will focus on all marginalized history and the marginalization of content that has taken place throughout history.”