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August 28, 2020

A sea change for Black students in Halifax

When Karen Hudson returns to school this September, it’s going to be as part of a special group of students. The graduating class of 2021 at Auburn Drive High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Karen has been principal since 2014, is not only going back for the first time since COVID-19 shuttered schools, but it includes a cohort of 22 students who have taken part in a groundbreaking Africentric curriculum since Grade 9.
The brainchild of Hudson and former math teacher, Preman Edwards, the program addresses a specific gap that Hudson noticed shortly after she arrived. “When I walked the hallways and saw that almost all the students in the lower-level courses looked like me, of Black ancestry, it really made me wonder,” Karen said. And beyond wondering, it made her look at the data.
Auburn Drive High School has about 850 students and approximately 15 percent identify as Black. The school – located in a multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic catchment area – has a broad demographic mix. Yet in the upper-level courses, particularly math, there was no representation of Black students.

A new way forward for Black students

Hudson and Edwards started to talk about how they could alter the path their Black students seemed to be following. “Back in 2016, we asked ourselves how we could change the landscape and even the purpose of schooling for these students so that they could see themselves belonging and push themselves to achieve in the higher-level courses,” Hudson said.

In front, L to R: Vice-Principal Greg White, Principal Karen Hudson and Vice-Principal LeeAnne Amaral with the students of the first Africentric cohort at Auburn Drive High School.

From the outset, Hudson knew it would be an uphill climb but she also knew the time was right. That year, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) recommitted its focus on equity for African Nova Scotian students. Along with the external push, Hudson knew she had a moral mandate as an educator to make sure that her school was serving all its students the way it should.
“There is an African proverb we use sometimes: when the music changes so does the dance,” Hudson said. “We realized we couldn’t keep doing the same thing and expect to get a different result. We had to change the data. How do we include students who've been left out, who've been marginalized? How do they become part of the conversation? The work that we're doing is not meeting their needs, so we have to change what we're doing,” Hudson explained.

The initial step was to get support from her supervisor for the program she wanted to introduce, an Africentric curriculum that would encourage Black students to strive for the academic excellence she knew they were capable of, even if they didn’t believe it themselves.
Most of the research and evidence of best practice came from the U.S. and while Hudson knew the pedagogy and the curriculum needed to be spot on, she also knew she had to take a change management approach. Her supervisor was supportive but was concerned about the community. “He said, not everybody is going to buy in and some are going to think that what you're doing is separate, even divisive,” she remembers.

The why was clear. The how mattered.

Hudson’s biggest concern wasn’t what to do, but how to do it. She knew she’d have to build internal support. At the time, Hudson, Edwards (from Sri Lanka), and one other teacher of African descent were the sole people of colour on a staff of about 50.
“I did a little testing early in 2017 just to see how teachers might react to having a group of Black students all together in one class,” she said. The implication of what Hudson was worried about is clear and based on her lived experience: she needed to find a way to break down the fear and the barriers to change inherent in a racist system.
“I started to think about which teachers could be part of this team. We brought in another math teacher. Then we brought in the Canadian history teacher, and then English. We were focused on math, but we know that literacy is very important in terms of numeracy. Then we wanted to bridge to art to round out the STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art and math] skills.”
Hudson was also looking closely at the systemic bias in diagnostic testing and learning styles that put students, especially Black students, at a disadvantage. She included the resource teacher on the team.

Tackling the issue of representation 

She was excited about the team’s commitment but also concerned: “We put together a great team, and they were all in, but representation was a big issue. How can you truly know and teach these kids if your lived experience is not the same?”
Some of the problem-solving stemmed from the research on what was working in other jurisdictions. “The research talks a lot about scaffolding instruction, learnability, instructional design, the critical consciousness, the pedagogy, all those important things,” she said. “But it also emphasizes talking to people and building networks to introduce the curriculum. So I took the full team to Toronto to make connections with other educators who were running similar programs,” Hudson explained.

These connections led to creative solutions to address the representation issue. “We developed relationships with people in the U.S. We Skype people in to classrooms to co-teach. The students have a positive relationship with the teacher in front of them and they also see their identities and their experience reflected in the teacher who's Skyping in,” Hudson said. This summer, although it had to be scaled back because of COVID-19, they introduced African Nova Scotian youth mentors to the program.

Learning to teach differently

It’s been a learning experience for Auburn Drive’s teachers, too. “They see people who are bought in to this perspective, into this way of changing the lens and looking at equity,” Hudson said. “It’s made a difference in how they think about teaching. One teacher said to me, ‘I’ve been teaching for 30 years and this is the first time I feel like I’m teaching differently. I learned more about myself and about teaching because of working with these students, allowing them to lead their own learning and create their own ways of doing the work.’”
The result is a sea change, the magnitude of which can’t be overstated. It is a purposeful change to adapt teaching and the learning environment to the ways of knowing and being of Black students. As a result, it is a change to some long-held beliefs, attitudes and values of teachers, students and the community.
For Hudson, it is no less than change at a spiritual level. “Our approach is built upon the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. We tend to forget about spirituality in our education system. We like to pretend it doesn't exist, but it’s important to many students, this idea that there is a higher power. We had the faith, the teachers had the faith, the belief, the aspiration to invest in our students, to value students differently,” Hudson said.

The Kwanzaa principles that ground the Africentric curriculum lean heavily into collective, self-directed learning. After the first year, the students involved approached Hudson and asked her to keep them together as they moved through their next years. “They saw themselves as a kind of family,” Hudson said. “They valued the communal experience of learning together. They'd be in class, on the floor, doing the work in groups. That's what works for them. The conversation is sometimes a bit heightened but they are together talking about math, bringing in these concepts and symbols that are meaningful to them.”
Hudson recounts a powerful example of this expression of student-led learning. Early on, she introduced the image of the sankofa bird, a common West African symbol that represents the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future.
Sankofa, translated from Ghana’s Twi language, means “go back and get it” and is typically pictured as a bird with its feet facing forward and its head, with an egg in its beak, turned back.Hudson wanted the students to embrace the symbol and make it their own. “They needed to know that to go forward you must examine your past, get rid of that collective hurt, understand it did exist but learn how to move forward and change it,” Hudson explained.
“Students in the first cohort drew the sankofa bird as a puzzle. Each puzzle piece had math puzzles within it. Using the drawing and the sankofa bird’s symbolism, the students talked about the values that were important parts of their past and their identity: loyalty, family, community and resilience. These were their four tenets. These four linked directly to the puzzle and the mathematical concepts contained in it: division, addition, subtraction and multiplication.”

Connecting Black history, culture and identity with curriculum

The sankofa bird puzzle – a symbol within a symbol – illustrates for Hudson, as it did for the students, that their history, culture and identity are all connected. “I want them to look at what has been their math biography, what has been their math history, their math experience. We were trying to debunk the myth that people of African descent cannot do math. To do that, we have to look at the past, change the language, bring in the stories, understand the narrative so that we can move forward,” said Hudson.

In case it sounds a little esoteric, these cultural, historical and sociological concepts translate directly into the program’s lesson plans and activities. “We looked at social inequalities in Grade 11 using African flags. They used their art skills to draw African maps and explored angles and measurements. We created a lesson, unfortunately disrupted due to COVID-19, to teach statistics by analyzing the recent Wortley report on street checks produced by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. With the Grade 10s we do factoring using the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Hudson explained. These practical lessons connect students’ Black history and identity with the curriculum.

Success stems from doing the work

Hudson and her students are going back to classrooms that are fundamentally changed since they left them in March 2020. Not only has COVID-19 upended traditional learning but a summer of social justice protests and the mainstreaming of conversations about racism put a spotlight on the need for the kind of Africentric curriculum that Hudson, her staff and her students have been engaged with for years.
“I know there are some people who are not there yet,” Hudson reflected. “But hopefully through the summer there has been more awareness created and people have become more knowledgeable about what they need to do to challenge these systemic barriers and the power structures that maintain them. For teachers, students, schools and communities, I hope that will create the space for us to do more of this kind of work.”
Now, Hudson has the data to prove that this work has worked. “This year the first cohort of 22 students will graduate from higher-level math courses. And, for the first time, we have seven African Nova Scotian students taking AP Canadian history. We made a breakthrough. It is encouraging for these students and for those who will follow them. It may not be that they go on to university, that wasn’t really the goal. The goal was always for Black students to see themselves as capable and brilliant and able to work at that higher level. To challenge themselves and see themselves as limitless.”
Editor’s note: We learned that Preman Edwards, former math teacher at Auburn Drive High School and co-developer of the Africentric curriculum with principal Karen Hudson, passed away in August 2020 as this article was being developed. We wish to acknowledge his tremendous impact and the legacy he leaves on the lives of the students, staff and educators he worked with over the years. Rest in power, Mr. Edwards.
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