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New NHS Class Expanding History Using Local Reference Points



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In just one semester, Newtown High School's new African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino History course has created more than just a class. As multiple students and the teacher reflected recently, everyone participating has bonded.

NHS Social Studies teacher Rachel Torres reported that she has been "thoroughly enjoying" teaching the course's first group of students.

"They all wanted to be there and they are just so invested in the course," said Torres.

The course fulfills a state mandate and was presented by the Newtown Board of Education between late April and early May. It is a full-year elective for juniors and seniors at NHS.

As this is the first year Torres is teaching the course, she said she feels fortunate to have a compassionate, inquisitive group of young people attending the class.

Torres shared that the first unit covered by the course was slavery. She teaches it through a "slavery in Connecticut" lens using examples collected from Newtown Historical Society information, including content gathered and published by former Town Historian Dan Cruson.

Learning through that local lens, Torres said, helps students understand a new perspective. They recognize the names of buildings that were named after mentioned enslavers, for instance.

As part of the lesson, Torres has the students create a memorial and an obituary for an enslaved person in the state.

"It was so rewarding to see the efforts they put into it," Torres said.

Torres explained before the course was mandated for high schools across the state for the 2022-23 school year, some schools piloted the program last school year. Teachers who taught it last year are now part of an advisory board and teachers who are teaching it this school year attend continual training events.

In order to offer the class this year, Torres also worked over the summer ahead of the school year. And seeing how the students are responding to the course has been rewarding for Torres.

"It's intense, but I am really enjoying it," said Torres.

Visiting Amistad

Along with learning in school, the class also went on a field trip to visit the Amistad in Mystic Seaport.

"I love the course because for me it represents American history that is inclusive," Torres said.

The first semester focused on African American/Black history, the second semester will focus on Puerto Rican/Latino history. Torres plans to incorporate a local lens to the second semester lessons too.

Torres said she has been pleased with how the students have reacted to the course so far and she is grateful for parental support that has been offered.

"My biggest takeaway from this class so far," student Katie Fiorini said, "has been how much is left out when the schools teach us about the history of people of color. It was a harsh wake-up call that there is so much more than what we read in textbooks."

Student Gabriel Appiah described learning a seemingly abbreviated African American/Black history before taking this course.

"There are so many more things that African Americans have done, so many more people involved in our progression, way worse horrors that they've experienced, and only having the knowledge I had undermines all of that," said Gabriel. "It sums it up in such a vague umbrella and this class helps those who truly want to understand the covered history."

"I think one of my biggest takeaways is ultimately getting to learn parts of history that tend to be overlooked or not usually taught about in an everyday history class," said student Giselle Martinez. "It's really opened up my eyes to the little we know about our country's history. We tend to forget the amount of fight, grit, and determination that was put fourth from the generations before that now provide us with a life of more opportunity. I love how I get to be a part of a class that recognizes this and appreciates our history as a whole."

Students also reflected on what they most want people not taking the course to know.

"What I have learned in this class that I want most people to know about would be the danger of a single story," said student Cyrena Arokium. "In today's world, many people believe single stories due to stereotypes that have been ingrained in them. Many are impacted because they're either uneducated, don't know the full story, or live elsewhere, which can have an impact on what they know.

"To include the power of how they’re told, who tells them, when they’re told, and how many stories are told can influence a person's belief. So it is important to look beyond the single story and know that all stories should hold the truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly. As well as understanding not just ourselves but others and using these stories to empower and humanize each other," she added.

Cyrena noted that her response called on information learned from watching "The Danger of a Single Story" TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Analyzing Master Narrative

Student Mario Morena said he has learned the importance of learning more about history and researching more about certain people and their contributions.

"We learned that there is a master narrative that often rewrites history to make important figures look a certain way," Mario said. "One example we spent time on is how Rosa Parks was made to seem a quiet soft-spoken lady who only refused to give up her seat, but in reality she took a major part in multiple protests and boycotts along with joining multiple activist organizations that helped local Black communities."

Katie said other high school students should consider taking the course, and Cyrena said the class is filled with important stories and voices.

Student Emily Burgos said, "It is an amazing course, where we all learn something new and our class has really come together as friends and as a family. Ms Torres is like our mom and we are all a huge community of people interested in these topics. It is a safe place to express discrimination and think about how and why this is happening and what we can do to fix it."

Torres said she is hoping that even more students sign up to take the course next school year, so many students that she will be able to offer multiple sessions.

Education Editor Eliza Van can be reached at eliza@thebee.com.

Students in NHS’s African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino History visit the Amistad at Mystic Seaport during the first semester.
Students in NHS’s African American/Black and Puerto Rican/Latino History attend a showing of The Woman King movie as a fun extra outing, not as an official field trip, in the first semester.
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