From the Field

Q&A: Kaya Henderson on Teaching Black History During the Culture Wars

Since the late 2010s, a wave of state laws has reshaped how schools can teach about race and racism in U.S. history. This legislative push has been coupled with a surge in book bans on a range of controversial topics, including books about race and racism or featuring Black characters. According to a recent RAND survey, two-thirds of U.S. teachers have chosen to limit their instruction about political and social issues of all kinds in the classroom. 

But people like Kaya Henderson are finding creative workarounds. Henderson, a FutureEd senior fellow, is the CEO of Reconstruction, a curriculum and technology company that offers supplemental materials in African American history and culture. She began her career teaching middle school Spanish with Teach for America, where she rose to the position of executive director for TFA’s Washington, D.C. program. During her tenure as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, the system saw the greatest growth of any urban district on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) over multiple years.

FutureEd Editorial Director Maureen Kelleher recently spoke with Henderson about the origins of Reconstruction and how current political dynamics are affecting the response to curriculum focused on Black history and culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you launch the company?

We launched Reconstruction for a few reasons. First of all, it came directly out of  my work at DC Public Schools, where we instituted a district-wide curriculum. One of the key priorities for us was to make sure that our students saw themselves and their community in the things that they were learning. That was new. What we saw as a result was kids deeply engaging in the content of their academic work. We saw academic progress soaring. We saw confidence soaring, leadership soaring, agency, all of these things. Quite frankly, I could not put enough culturally-relevant content into the curriculum because we only have seven and a half hours and 180 days.

I had thought for a long time about the fact that I grew up in a pretty diverse community where my Jewish friends went to Hebrew school. My Chinese friends went to Chinese school. My Sikh friends went to Sikh camp. And these other cultures that didn’t wait for school to teach their kids their history and their culture, but actually took it upon themselves to do it, reminded me of our African-American traditions around citizenship schools right after the Civil War, freedom schools in the ’60s, and Sunday school and how our churches often teach Black history and Black culture.

I thought, “What would it look like to take this offline, out of school, stop trying to fit it into the school box, and think about what it might look like to create supplemental classes that kids could take?” We ended up starting this in the middle of the pandemic, and there was a real hunger for academics online when schools were closed.

So we developed a number of hardcore classes, you know, reading, writing, arithmetic, science and social studies classes, but also cultural classes like Cooking for the Soul, where kids learn the history of five soul food dishes and then learn to cook those dishes with a chef from New Orleans. Or games of the culture like spades and dominoes, or the history of step, which is a dance that originates with South African gumboot dancing and draws a thread all the way through to historically Black colleges and universities.

Oftentimes, when we think about African-American history, we think about enslavement, civil rights, and Obama. It was really important for us to help our young people understand that there was a super-incredible period of history called Reconstruction, which is the least-taught period in American history.

In the 12 years immediately after the Emancipation, the African-American community thrived in the United States. We owned more than 20 percent of the farmland—owned, not sharecropped or rented. We created our own businesses, banks, and insurance companies in communities all over the country. We founded 37 historically black colleges and universities. We founded over 5,000 community schools. Yet and still, we’re told that we’re a culture that doesn’t value education.

You know, more than 500,000 black men voted in the presidential election which elected Ulysses S. Grant president, and he only won with 300,000 votes. People tell us that our vote doesn’t count; it always has counted. We wanted our young people to have a touchpoint where they understand that we’ve experienced success, not just in Africa, but we’ve experienced success here.

We wanted to anchor the teaching of history—Reconstruction, and beyond—in Black excellence, in Black joy. Not in Black trauma, not in a deficit-based perspective, but to really pull through the values that make us proud as a people and have made us successful, frankly, against the odds. And we wanted to teach that to our young people. So that’s why we founded Reconstruction.

As you mentioned, you launched during the pandemic, when there was tremendous demand for quality educational content online. I’m curious how your customer base, your target audience, has developed since your launch.  Who are you reaching and how do you get to them? 

It’s interesting. We thought when we started that our customers would be parents and families; that like Hebrew school, families would elect to take Reconstruction classes.

It ended up, straight out the gate, being schools. I think part of that is because I went to a number of my superintendent friends, having formerly been a superintendent, and said, “How do I get this opportunity out to parents in your districts?” And they said, “We’ll pay for our kids to get on Reconstruction.” Because, one, they were looking for academic content online because many of their teachers weren’t able to provide it straight away.

But they were also looking for enrichment and things to engage young people. If you remember, young people were deeply dissatisfied with online learning. When we started, we weren’t even sure that kids would be willing to take classes online. And when we were teaching spades or dominoes or Black Shakespeare or whatever, kids really just glommed onto this. We watched kids get into these Zoom rooms that look just like their regular classrooms, right, but engage at a completely different level because we create a space of belonging, because the content is different, because we try to make it feel not like school, and we saw kids really be into it.

I think over time, a couple of things have happened. One is people just are tired of being online, and we are back outside. So we have tremendous, tremendous pressure from our clients to teach our classes in person.

We are experimenting. We’re a super-small shop, right? So the thought of going to a bunch of different places and running programs is a lot for us. But part of the way that we have dealt with that is to begin to license our curriculum for teachers to teach in districts.

Because we’re supplemental, people use us in their summer school programs. They use us in their after-school programs. They use us for electives and enrichment. And so it is fairly easy for us to share our lesson plans, our unit plans, and to train other people how to teach lessons the way we do.

We run programs year-round in Jackson, Mississippi, in person. We’ve learned a lot from that, and that’s been really incredible to be able to see and touch kids and teachers in a way that we don’t usually. So one change is more demand for in-person engagement. The second thing that has changed since we started is the culture wars.

Right. What are you seeing, and how is it affecting your business?

We see hostility towards the teaching of accurate history and culture. We see states banning conversations about race and diversity. We see legislation that forbids teachers—under penalty of losing their jobs and their licenses—from teaching complex and complicated pieces of our history and culture.

On the one hand, it means that we can’t operate in some schools, right? We can’t operate in schools in Florida without endangering people’s jobs and livelihoods. And that’s not what we want to do at all.

But because we have a flexible format, it also means that in churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or community-based organizations, we actually can operate. So we see demand coming from community-based organizations in places where you can’t teach our curriculum in schools. Now it’s just very clear that it is important for us to teach our own history, our own culture. So they’re finding other ways to do that.

I think on the other hand, there are lots of places where there is still deep commitment to teaching accurate history, to exposing kids to the kind of content that we have. And so I’m not fighting to be in places that don’t want me. I just go with the coalition of the willing. There are lots of areas around the country that still want to engage in this type of learning. So we find those people.

I think the other piece that has insulated us a little bit is we are in the supplemental space. I’m not fighting with school board members about what should be in the core, right?

When we first started Reconstruction, before the culture wars started, my business partner said to me, “Oh, my God, this content is so good. It has to be taught during the school day.”

And I said, “No way. There will always be a school board member who thinks that this is not important, this is not what kids should be learning. I don’t want to fight those fights. Nobody really cares about what happens in after-school or summer school as long as kids are engaged and learning. So let’s stay in the supplemental space.”

People ask me, “Are people attacking you? Do you get death threats?” Nobody is paying attention to Reconstruction because we’re positioned in a way that doesn’t force anybody to learn this.

If you don’t want to learn this, go do your thing. That’s great. But many people do, and not just African American families. Yes, we serve schools and school districts with heavy populations of African Americans. But we serve all kinds of folks who have said to us, “This has helped us open up a conversation about our Mexican heritage,” or “This has helped me be able to tell kids our stories about our Lebanese heritage.”

While the culture wars have been heating up and playing out in school boards, a lot of the same school districts now have ESAs and ways that parents have direct control over money that they want to spend on their children’s education. Has any of that come back to Reconstruction? Are folks coming to get it?

Not yet, but I think it will. We’re looking into the ESA markets. They aren’t places where we’ve usually worked before. We’re beginning to market in those places. But I would expect that parents will use their ESA dollars to leverage opportunities like Reconstruction.

Let’s talk a little bit more about what makes Reconstruction’s curriculum and learning experience different. For example, tell me about your Black Shakespeare class. 

Black Shakespeare is an awesome class. We created that curriculum in partnership with the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington, D.C. It actually won the American Shakespeare Association’s Public Award. We’re super-proud of that.

One of the super-cool things about Reconstruction is we can dream up anything that we want. I have a former colleague who runs the education program at the Folger, and I called her up and said, “We should have a Black Shakespeare class.”

She said, “What is that?”

And I said, “I don’t know. But it seems to me that if we can get African-American kids to understand that Shakespeare is relevant for us, if we can give them a positive black encounter with Shakespeare before they get to school, maybe he won’t be some crusty old white dude who doesn’t speak the language that kids speak. Maybe they will be able to engage in a different way.”

So they took that on with us as a partner, and we co-created these five classes which look at Othello and the Merchant of Venice and Titus Andronicus and a couple more. For example, in Othello, one of the threads explored is: who are the people who have played Othello? Othello is a Moor, he is an African. And when we look at the history of actors who have played Othello, it is everything from white actors to Black actors. And what does that mean? And you know what does blackface mean and all of these kinds of things?

You can’t do that in school, right? We don’t have the time. But academicians at colleges and universities who studied Shakespeare and race collaborated with my curriculum team and together, they came up with these five classes that are our Black Shakespeare series.

Reconstruction offers supplemental classes. They’re not formally graded. What are you hoping that students take away from the classes?

There’s not a formal evaluation, but the student’s going to walk out differently at the end than they were in the beginning. We want kids to feel like they learned something and had a good time. And our student satisfaction scores are like a 4.7 out of 5. And we see kids asking to take more Reconstruction classes. So that feels very good, right? We want kids to really enjoy and to learn.

We also want kids to have a different perspective about themselves and about African American culture. We want young people to think critically and to question when you know they hear things that don’t make sense to them based on stuff that they’ve learned. We hope that it incites intellectualism and continued pursuit of learning. We want our young people to also feel a sense of agency and responsibility. We want them to feel like, “Oh, yeah, it is up to us to be the ones to make the changes in our community.” Because historically, that’s what has happened.