Afro Contemporary Art Class at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School:

A Flexible and Responsive Pedagogical Approach
to Teaching Cultural Content to Young People

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

The Afro Contemporary Art Class (ACAC) is an artist project that I teach at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in North East Portland. The mission of the ACAC is to help young people of African descent to learn more about the histories and contemporary contexts that shape their lives, culture, and social realities. These ideas are explored through the study of contemporary artists and creatives as a conduit to—and a lens for—thinking through a range of experiences related to the African diaspora. The investigations begin with presenting an artist’s work to the class, teasing out the underlying contexts in the work, and then learning about the people, events, and outcomes surrounding those contexts. Then we engage in discussion, the reproduction of artworks, and embodiment of activities related to the various courses of study.

I attended the first session of the Afro Contemporary Art Class armed to the teeth and ready to teach. Much to my surprise, and matching a range of my initial expectations, the level at which I had prepared myself greatly exceeded what could be dispensed and or absorbed by those in the class. Also matching my expectation, the class, its participants, and the deploying content were all benefited by being sensitive to the room. And, that while beneficial, the amount of preparation I had projected for myself, became more about and for myself, than it was for the participants in the class. I found that while the content is heavy, significant, and nuanced, that the young folks’ inquiries were never what I had anticipated, and being responsive to their experience became complementary to their way of learning and the unfurling of my own personal discovery of the black experience. In essence, the search was the lesson, for all of us.

I had prepared a syllabus of questions as a way of exploring what I didn’t know, or what I was curious to learn, by teaching the class.

The following is a short excerpt from an interview with Paige Thomas, the primary staff helping to facilitate ACAC programming at MLK Jr. school, followed by the original syllabus of questions I had created along with some questions added by the students on our first day.



So that brings me to the next question. I approached this class with a syllabus of questions with the inquiries I was reflecting on as I got ready to teach the class. This was the only syllabus for the class, there was no, first we’ll do this next we’ll do that. And I’m curious, again, leveraging your awareness of approaching a class with a syllabus or even the very strict guidelines of a primary school teacher. What are your thoughts about this?


So you know that our school we’re a International Baccalaureate at Dr. King school, so one of the founding principles of an international baccalaureate education, it’s inquiry based learning, right? So it’s really guided by and shaped by kids. So you might have some overarching questions, but really you want kids to develop those questions andpursue the things that they’re interested in so that they are the agents of their own learning, and that they are invested in their own learning. They are the ones that are directing what that is. And that gives power to the kids, which especially for our kids [at King] that maybe don’t always see themselves represented in any kind of school culture. And like you were saying many who don’t necessarily fit into that traditional mold of school. That structure is perfect for them, which is why we wanted to have this opportunity for our students so that they have another way to experience learning and to make them feel like they were the agents in their own learning and that they had a lot of voice and choice and power in how they get to how they get to engage in their academics. While also having it be a different experience than perhaps what they have in other parts of their day. So I think that structure is really powerful. 


Yeah, it’s interesting given that King school is an IB school. Are there ways that you see that this class was distinctly different? Because if you’re saying I leveraged an inquiry based method which I would never have claimed knowingly, but that the school is also already doing that. 


Yeah, you know, in classrooms we can let kids ask questions, but we also are mandated by state and national standards to make sure we get through a prescribed amount of curriculum or some prescribed standards. So I think that the way that you had inquiry, it was much more open ended and it was much more responsive to kids needs and to kids experiences.


Afro Contemporary Art Class Syllabus of Questions

By Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

Why is it important to study Black history?

What is Black history?

How does one separate or manage the trauma from learning the complexities of Afro history?

Can Afro history be taught by examining the work of contemporary artists?

Is it possible to learn Afro history guided by the inquiries of young people?

How much is too much to learn for a young person?

What proportion of good to challenging content is appropriate?

When does African history become African American history?

What parts of Afro history are important to include to help a young person understand contemporary contexts?

Who are the most important people in Afro culture to include?

Is Afrofuturism a part of Afro history?

What does Afro history include? 

Which history is more important, Local or Global?

Is it important to include Afro histories from all continents?

What is Black Thought?

What is a black identity?

What is Black Activism?

What is gender in the black community? Is it different that it is in a non-black context?

Where does the mixed race experience fit into Black History?

Is learning the history of your own family constitute as Black History?

What are the differences between Black History, African American History, and African History?

Afro Contemporary Art Class Syllabus of Questions

By the students

Why do artists do things?

Isn’t it important to include EVERYONE in the study of Afro history?

Can one tell when they’re mixed?

Does it hurt when people of African Descent get culturally significant piercings?

Are Michael’s piercings culturally significant?

Does Michael’s tattoos represent African History?

Does Michael’s shirt represent this class? What we’re learning about?

Was Dread Scott named after Dred Scott?

Why was Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated?

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