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UCHS AP Students Publish Projects on Racism and St. Louis History

Sneed's AP students Spring 2020 group photo

While schools were closed due to COVID-19, Christina Sneed’s University City High School AP English Language and Composition class got to work on final projects that grappled with racism across the region and across generations. The projects included published student articles in a regional journalism newsmagazine.

UCHS AP Class Partners with Gateway Journalism Review to Publish Projects on Racism and St. Louis History

By Richard H. Weiss

COVID-19 slowed many educational programs nationwide and even brought some to halt. But the students in Christina Sneed’s AP English Language and Composition class at University City High School kept their foot on the accelerator.

The diverse class of 22 students ended the 2019-20 school year with a variety of different projects. Some of them included thought-provoking essays focusing on the New York Times’ 1619 project; a podcast on how white privilege works in Clayton and University City; and a video on colorism and hairstyles.

Several student essays can be found in a special edition of the Gateway Journalism Review (PDF of Spring 2020 issue pp71-79 with UCHS student work); the video is on YouTube; and the podcast will soon be available through the usual streaming channels. The professional-quality work is not just for teachers and peers, but a wider audience that includes young, old and in-between, people of various ethnicities and faiths, those who enjoy a great deal of privilege, and people who live in marginalized communities. Overall, the student work addresses fact and fantasy when it comes to understanding the American Dream in the context of race. 

Sneed said she wanted to help her students understand how language and rhetoric have been used to shape culture and society. The course was rigorous and not for everyone. Sneed said she started with 33 students last fall – with 11 dropping the course by the end of the first semester. As one of the “survivors,” Zoe Yudovich, put it: the class “kicked our butts. This was one of the hardest classes that I ever had. But what kept me in it was the content. You were never bored.”

Sneed’s second semester included an examination of the 1619 Project, produced by New York Times staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project reassesses slavery, which arrived on the continent 400 years ago, and its impact on American life right up to the present day. Hannah-Jones drew extensive praise for her work, but also criticism from some historians, in part, because it applied a racial lens to the motivations of the Founding Fathers. 

Sneed said she asked her students to provide their own assessments of history:
“How can we learn about what is true from what is not true?” she asked them.
“How do we judge the truth?” 

AP students: 1619 the forgotten year that shaped America The 1619 Project “really challenged everything the kids had been taught up to this point,” Sneed said. “I will tell you they had many uncomfortable conversations with each other, with their parents, with their teachers. They were like, well, why have we never heard about this? Why didn't we know that Abraham Lincoln didn't really want Black people to be free, and wanted to send them overseas? They had so many conflicting emotions, so many questions. So what I told them to pour all of that into their work to create a documentary that would explore their topics of curiosity and interest. They conducted the research, developed surveys, and identified people to interview.” 

Yudovich, though a top student, had never seen herself as either a big reader or a writer. She absorbs information in other ways, and she’d rather talk than write. But she found herself fascinated with the tens of thousands of words that Hannah-Jones and other correspondents produced for the 1619 Project. 

After experiencing some hiccups with her compositions during the first semester, Yudovich found her way to writing with authority when it came to 1619. 

“The American Dream is an ideal that the country embodies,” Yudovich wrote. “Humanity buys into it because it gives us a sense of hope. But it leaves us disappointed. In reality, the dream is not accessible to all people, especially African-Americans who helped create it…” 

“While the Founding Fathers were writing our Constitution, slaves were building their houses. While Thomas Jefferson established America as the land of the free, enslaved African-Americans were constructing the White House.”

Others who produced essays on the topic for the Journalism Review were: Ian Feld, Merrick Hoel, Kelis Petty, John Ruland, Sahra Jamal and Reuben Thomas.

Gateway Journalism Review Publisher William Freivogel said the 1619 Project rallied the students to challenge the reality of the American dream.

“Presenting student voices alongside those of professionals shows that the next generation of students is more aware than past generations that institutional racism exists today and that fundamental changes are needed to make the American Dream a reality,” he said. 

Other students in Sneed’s class took on different projects. For example, Jaiden Smith produced a video documentary on hairstyles and colorism.

Here’s how Smith voiced the introduction: 

“My name is Jaiden Smith, and I am a Black woman, who loves other Black women. We are beautiful. We are intelligent. We are creative. We are outspoken. We can be quiet and mysterious, dainty and poetic, or we can be outspoken and resilient. We can be fighters. We can be lovers. We sing. We dance. We create. We lead. We discover. We overcome. I have to say these things because some black women will go their whole lives without ever hearing it. Instead of being loved and praised, we are criticized for the way we wear our hair to the types of clothes we wear. This documentary will shine a light on the struggles of being a Black woman, and what that looks like in America.”

In the second half of her video, Smith addressed colorism – the way that Americans make distinctions and discriminate based on skin-tone. 

Smith’s work was praised by nearly everyone who has seen it to date. The reception has given her further incentive to pursue a career in journalism. Those seeds were planted long ago. 

“It was almost like I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn't know it already had a name,” she said of journalism. “Before I even knew how to write, I just, like, scribbled stuff in a notebook. I watched a show called Blue’s Clues (a show for preschoolers on Nickelodeon) where a dog carried around a little notebook with a crayon stuck in the binding. I told people I just wanted to write about things and report on things. Then I figured out that the word for that was journalist.”

Cheering on Smith at every turn was Yudovich, one of her best friends. The two met in Brittany Woods Middle School but became closer in high school. They come from very different backgrounds and neighborhoods. Smith went to Pershing Elementary School, which has a nearly all African-American student body. She lives in a working-class neighborhood just north of the school. Yudovich attended Delmar-Harvard Elementary School, then Flynn Park Elementary School, both of which were more ethnically and racially diverse. She lives in a more upscale neighborhood near Midland and Delmar. 

“I learned a little bit about privilege just from being her friend,” Smith said. Since they started Sneed’s class, “We talk about race a lot and we really like to debate each other. Because she's friends with more white students, she always tells me what they think and what they say. And it's interesting to hear. And I tell her how Black people feel about certain things and how we see it.” 

Yudovich was able to apply some of those insights to a podcast she put together with classmate Ian Feld. (The Two Faces of Integration - MP3 Podcast) The two examined the experience of Black students in the School District of Clayton. They noted that while Black students in The School District of University City may not have access to all the resources that their counterparts in the wealthier Clayton district have, they enjoy the advantage of going to school with students and faculty who are far more inclusive and accepting of who they are.

“The perspective is that Clayton students and some faculty don’t know how to interact with minorities,” Feld said. Feld and Yudovich titled their podcast with a question: “Is it Racism or Ignorance.” They concluded that Clayton residents are well-meaning but ignorant in some respects because they lack experience in living, working, and going to school with people of color and other socio-economic groups.

“Kudos to Christina Sneed and her students,” said Arthur Lieber, director of Civitas, an educational nonprofit involved with bringing the discussion about the 1619 project into schools and the community. “They are moving the dialogue further ahead and creating accessible media for a wide variety of students and adults.” 

PDF of Spring 2020 issue pp71-79 with UCHS student work