I want to reflect on some of the elements that I believe are needed in order to promote and ensure academic achievement for African-American children in U.S. schools and classrooms. In writing this post, I am bringing in my experiences of teaching at an African-centered charter school in Chicago this past year. Let me first say, this was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Although I was the teacher, I was really a STUDENT there and I say that because I learned so much about how schools can exist in terms of teaching Black children.
So, I want to reflect on my experiences there in order to provide an answer to the question: How can schools create a culture of academic achievement that optimizes student learning for African-American children?
- Have a teaching/administrative staff who authentically care for the well-being of students in a holistic fashion. There is a lot of research that supports this idea of critical care, love, and hope within the schooling contexts (suggested resources at the bottom). We need teachers who understand that in order to begin teaching students, an authentic relationship of trust, love, and genuine rapport needs to be established first. A role model who comes to mind with this concept is Ms. Marva Collins. I am a huge fan of her teaching style and if you have not heard of her, I encourage you to read her work. Ms. Collins started her own school in her home in Chicago in the 1980s, the Westside College Preparatory school, in which she infused tough love/discipline with the mastery of academic concepts, such as the Latin language, phonics, pre-Algebra & Calculus, Black history, Shakespeare, and college-level vocabulary.
Ms. Marva Collins truly believed that every child has the potential to become masters of their own minds and she was determined to bring that genius of out of every child. She genuinely cared about each of her children and their lives are proof of that care. You can watch an excerpt of 60 Minutes here, where you can listen to some of her former students, their experiences with Ms. Collins, and the impact her pedagogical style had on their personal and professional lives.
2. An equitable distribution of funds and economic resources. This is MAJOR. We can have all of the caring individuals in the school all we want, but if the schools do not have the dollars or other economic resources, then that creates a disadvantage for the children in those schools. It is important that policymakers realize that the so-called ‘achievement gap’ primarily exists because of a historical and institutional legacy of poverty. Although this achievement gap, or educational debt, is rooted within historical and structural systems of racial inequality, exclusion, and oppression, this educational debt primarily exists because of poverty. To that end, schools and classrooms need monetary funds and economic resources to support student learning for African American children.
3. Create an educational environment that supports the cultural pride of African American students. This factor cannot and should not be undermined nor overlooked. This is crucial to the academic achievement levels of Black students in U.S. schools. When African American students have a strong sense of their cultural identities, histories, and backgrounds, they are more likely to achieve Academic success.
This includes, but not limited to a variety of elements, such as:
-1) the use of cultural, ‘native tongue’ languages as acceptable and meaningful. Places where African American students can use Ebonics or Swahili is significant in that can utilize the cultural epistemologies and knowledges that are already embedded within African American oratorical and linguistic systems;
-2) curriculum that is infused with an accurate and truthful history of the experiences of African-Americans in America, including our histories on the Continent–Africa–prior to enslavement. To teach African-American history without a discussion of who we were prior to the African Holocaust, or the Atlantic slave trade, provides a narrative that African Americans did not have a history or an identity prior to enslavement….as if we didn’t exist prior to Europeans’ desire of our bodies and labor for slavery purposes. Of course, we did have a history and multiple identities and purposes in all African countries and this needs to be taught as well in this curriculum;
-3) students can also be taught about how to adorn their bodies in ways that represent cultural pride. So, at the school where I was a teacher, it was encouraged, and at times, mandated, that teachers, students, and staff adorn our bodies with African clothing. It was also common for many girls at the school to wear their hair in its natural state. This was such a beautiful sight to see so many young African American girls wear their hair in Afros, locs, twists, and other natural hairstyles.
-4) a diet that reflects the values and traditions of African-American nutrition. Now, I want to be very specific and clear here–this diet can and must contain foods that are nutritionally whole. At this school, where I worked, we had ladies in the kitchen who prepared HOMEMADE meals everyday, that were vegetarian and, if necessary, vegan. As part of the culture of this school, meat was never served at the school. The founders of the school believed that African American children should have access to nutritionally sound diets, so they ensured that children were not eating meats, processed foods, or foods high with sugar and salt. And on Thursdays, were “soul food Thursdays” and maaaaan, this food was so good! And it was so tasty, that you did not even think about the fact that you were not eating meat.
So, in sum, I want us to consider the various ways that we can improve our classrooms, schools, and educational environments for the success of Black children. These are just some ideas that I have–I will do another blog where I explicate some additional ideas.
I also want to suggest some academic researchers who, for decades, have provided rich scholarship on the curriculum, instructional practices, and theoretical frameworks for ensuring academic achievement for African American students in U.S. schools. Their books, academic journal articles, lectures, and scholarly presentations are replete with excellent ideas. If you just do a google search on their names or YouTube some of their lectures, you will see their work. I also want to give a huge salute to each of these educators, whose work have impacted my own thinking and teaching practices very deeply.
(In no particular order–just names as they came to my mind)
Maisha Winn/Maisha Fisher
Debra Ren-Etta Sullivan
Carol Lee & Haki Madhubuti (Mama Safisha & Babi Haki)
Molefi K. Asante