Using Black History and Culture to Help Students Succeed

Using Black History and Culture to Help Students Succeed

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy get ready to switch classes on a recent day.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Lori Higgins


There are African words on the wall. Books by African-American authors in the cabinet. Posters of notable African-American scholars on the walls. But much of what makes this an African-centered classroom is what happens when teacher Welia Dawson and her students are breaking down a poem by the English poet Rudyard Kipling.

This poem called “If” — written in the form of advice from a parent to a son — is part of the required school district curriculum. But as her students are talking about how perseverance is a theme in the poem, Dawson relates it back to another poem — this one written by the African American poet Langston Hughes.

“In ‘Mother to Son,’ isn’t she saying the same thing to her son?” Dawson asks the students in her all-male English language arts class at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, before taking the conversation to a deeper and more personal level.

“That’s something that as African American males, you need to realize,” she tells the sixth-graders. “Life for you is not going to be easy. That’s why you have to strive or work even harder to prove to the world what you’re made of. You don’t give up when times get hard.”

Schools like Paul Robeson Malcolm X, with its African-centered approach to education that is built around the notion that black children need to understand their history and culture to succeed academically, made a Detroit a leader and spurred districts in other parts of the country to replicate the approach. The school’s principal, Jeffery Robinson, is among those hoping to see a resurgence of African-centered education in the Detroit school district, something he believes could boost achievement in the struggling district.

“This is an opportunity for Detroit to return to some innovation and some pioneering that it once embarked upon at the onset of African-centered education,” Robinson said earlier this month during the first of a series of six professional development sessions that he hopes will be the start of that resurgence. Robinson has spent much of his 28-year career in African-centered schools — both as a teacher and as a principal.

“African-centered education is part of the positive legacy of DPS,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “It’s important to our reform to preserve and expand the principles of the philosophy because it empowers our students to better understand who they and who they aren’t.”

The professional development sessions are attracting veteran African-centered teachers like Dawson, as well as those who teach in traditional school settings.

Catena Alexander is one of them. Alexander, a special education teacher at Fisher Magnet Lower Academy, came to the first session hoping to learn ways to incorporate some of the practices with her kindergarten students.

She already has a long history with African-centered education. Her youngest daughter attended a charter school that used that approach, before Alexander even became a teacher.

“Their entire approach to education is entirely different,” Alexander said. “It gave my daughter a different sense of pride. It gave her a different sense of self.”

Back when her daughter was attending Nsoroma Institute, a charter school that has since closed, the city of Detroit had well over 20 African-centered schools. The school district alone had 13, but only two remain — Paul Robeson Malcolm X and Garvey Academy.

Robinson said he’s hoping that attendance at the training sessions will demonstrate interest among teachers.

“What we’re trying to do is work with [Vitti] to train teachers in what I truly feel has been missing and is key to turning around our test scores,” Robinson said. “By and large, our children have not seen themselves in the curriculum. The curriculum doesn’t reflect their lived experiences.”

At the district level, Vitti said there’s a need to strengthen the African-centered focus at Garvey “so it can offer another model for school reform as” Paul Robeson Malcolm X does.  Vitti said he hopes that effort will increase enrollment at Garvey.

And the expansion of professional development, he said, is being done “to improve instruction and relationships with students in non African-centered schools throughout the district.”

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A cabinet in Welia Dawson’s classroom at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy is decorated with African words.

During the first of the six trainings sessions, held earlier this month at Robinson’s school, several dozen attendees heard from Chike Akua of the Teacher Transformation Institute. Akua has been working with Paul Robeson Malcolm X staff for years already.

“Our children are brilliant,” Akua told the audience. “But many of them are in schools or school systems where they’re seen as a problem, rather than as people.”

Meanwhile, he said, black youth grow up in a society that has “gangsterized and criminalized young black males,” and “objectified and sexualized young black females.”

“Most of our children have not been exposed to the best of our culture. They’ve been exposed to the worst of our culture.”

He defined African-centered education this way:

“The process of using the best of African culture to examine and analyze information, meet needs and solve problems in African communities.”

And he outlined 13 essential elements of African-centered education, including placing Africa, African people, and African points of view “at the center of all things studied. In other words, it makes what we learn relevant and responsive to our needs.”

Akua said putting African points of view at the center is important because “most of what we learn in standard American curriculum … places us at the margins or in the periphery.”

Dawson, the teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X, has taught in traditional school programs and African-centered programs. She prefers the latter because the approach promotes close connections between students and teachers.

PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Teacher Welia Dawson gets a hug from a student near the end of a recent class lesson. Dawson said the African-centered approach at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy helps build better connections with students.

Teachers are referred to as “Mama” or “Baba” — African terms for mother and father. And like some mothers, Dawson is a tough disciplinarian in the classroom. But it’s also clear she knows her students well. As she was providing directions for an upcoming assignment with the girls in her English language arts class, she noticed one girl looked upset.

“The look on her face, her eyes, I knew something wasn’t quite right,” Dawson said. So she stopped in her tracks, and addressed the issue. The girl eventually left the classroom to see a counselor, but came back minutes later with a different attitude — beaming brightly later in the class when she was the first student to figure out the answer to a question that had stumped the rest of the girls in her class.

“You are given an opportunity to be more than a teacher,” Dawson said. “You are given the opportunity to let children see you as a person. You get to know them, you get to know their family. Any teacher can do that. But that’s what’s practiced at our school. That’s what’s expected at our school.”

When Dawson was talking to the boys about perseverance, she kept hammering home the importance of perseverance. She then related it back to a speech they had recently read in class, in which the speaker urged them to question how they would be remembered, to be the best they can be, and to not accept being average.

“For African American males, that’s a motto you need to get up in the morning saying to yourself,” Dawson said.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Education in Color

child in classroomRaising one half-African son and one of mixed European descent posed both ordinary and unique parenting challenges for my husband and me. What was best for one child was not necessarily best for the other. Often, competing concerns led to less than ideal decisions. This is true for all parents, but it is uniquely so for white parents raising children of a different race.

Education presented a particular challenge.

Our boys, Gabriel and Michael, began elementary school in my affluent hometown, which had a school system described by our regional newspaper as the closest thing to private school available in local public education. If they had grown up there, they would have benefited from a great program of academics, but little ethnic diversity. Gabriel would have had to face puberty and touchy dating issues without the benefit of African American role models to help him navigate the landmines. In kindergarten, he was already facing juvenile bigotry from a peer or two. If we raised him in one of the few racially diverse communities in our area, he might fit in better, but would attend schools with less impressive educational outcomes. And, besides, there really was no guarantee that he and Mike would be accepted by their peers. Their cultural DNA was solidly middle-class, white and suburban. Michael’s sensitive temperament also made it unlikely that he would prosper in a high-stress environment.

My husband and I sought the Lord and weighed the issues carefully. After much prayer, investigation and discussion, we moved our family to a community that is diverse on multiple planes: economic, ethnic, racial, and religious. When we lived there it was equal parts white, black, and brown; Christian and Jewish; wealthy, middle class, working class, and impoverished. The schools could provide a decent education we navigated them well.

There was a stellar band program, for example, that began in elementary school and sometimes ended with performances at New York Yankees playoff games. There were also magnet schools that ensured integration and nurtured children’s unique potential. Conversely there were more discipline problems and less support for average students than for those who excelled or lagged behind. Michael was an average student.

In New Jersey, education funding is dependent on property taxes. High property values lead to superior resources. In our new hometown, resources were scarce. Creative financing sometimes closed the gap. For example, when students were classified with educational challenges, the school system received extra funding. Thus, many more students were “classified” than might be elsewhere. Creative funding came at a price, though. Such students were labeled early and taught separately in the same classroom as other students and teachers facing multiple sources of distraction.

I’ve often thought that if my husband had been black, we would have raised our sons in my hometown. It was small and idyllic. Both boys would have received a stellar academic foundation and Gabe would have had a role model at home to help him deal with identity issues. As it was, my husband and I were clueless about basics like what to do about his “ashy skin” or where to get him a decent hair cut. Living in a diverse community solved a lot of everyday problems and allowed us to develop socially and biblically responsible attitudes about race that we might not have otherwise developed. Still, there were costs.

Michael was in third grade when his teacher seated him between the three most disruptive students in her class. She told me she was using him as a buffer because she knew he wouldn’t be drawn into their behavior. I was finishing college at the time, and as I pondered the fact that I was pursuing higher education while my child was struggling for an elementary one, I decided that I could not continue allowing him to flounder in a sub-standard situation. The only private schools nearby were either too expensive or sectarian, so my husband and I made the monumental decision to home-school him –something we had never before envisioned. Gabriel was excelling in the “Gifted and Talented” magnet program at the time. Within two weeks of beginning to home-school Michael, Gabe asked to be home-schooled as well. We agreed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the “Gifted” education was brimming with creativity but lean on basics.

I home-schooled Gabe and Mike through eighth grade and then they returned to public school. Culture shock from being out of sync with current fads may have been more of a challenge than any race discomfort either of them had previously faced. It was short lived though. The summer before Gabriel’s senior year and Michael’s sophomore year, we decided to go on a grand adventure and moved to Southern California. The boys bounced through a couple schools until we finally settled on a public school that was similar in ethnic and economic make-up to their diverse hometown.

One would have thought from our earlier experiences that we would have had the good sense to intentionally seek out racially diverse secondary and higher education. But, instead we slipped back into a white suburban lifestyle without really trying or noticing. Perhaps we assumed the job of diversity training and identity building was done. Perhaps it was done to such a degree that our children no longer meshed with their suburban peers. With the move, I was eager to make up for lost academic ground. When it came to college, my husband and I shared the concerns of many Christian parents that our sons’ education stretch and reinforce their faith rather than chip away at it.

Gabriel, who was a member of the National Honor Society, chose a competitive Christian college in the Midwest. Without giving much thought to the fact that Christian colleges tend to have low minority enrollment, we sent him halfway across the country. For the first time since kindergarten, he faced overt racism both among the student body and in the surrounding community. What bothered him more than fried chicken jokes and his inability to find an off-campus job was the apathy of his Christian peers when it came to systemic racial injustice. Because of his history of educational upheaval, he chose to slug it out there for four years. And I do mean slug it out. He struggled academically and socially, but was also a provocative campus voice regarding race issues.

I wish we had understood Gabriel’s continued need for an educational environment that was as supportive of his unique humanity as it was of his academic potential and Christian faith. By the time he graduated in 2007, we did understand and were making plans to move from Orange County, California, to Long Beach, a more diverse community. Gabe died tragically before we could make that move. I wrote about his death and my family’s ongoing journey through grief in a recent issue of Christianity Today.

It’s a cliché to say that hindsight is 20/20, so instead of outlining what I would do differently if I had it to do over again, I offer this advice to parents whose children are a different race from them:

1. Do not underestimate your child’s need to connect with and affirm their identity, especially as he or she begins to approach adulthood.

2. Recognize that part of your child’s inner struggle very well may be your lack of awareness. They may lash out at you and/or romanticize their absent heritage. They love those who’ve loved and nurtured them, but need room to grow into their unique selves. Their perspective on life will be fundamentally different from yours — as it is for all children, but especially for them. This is something to encourage and celebrate.

3. I do not suggest that every family raising a child of a different race pick up roots and move to an integrated community or join an integrated church (obviously, this will not be possible for everyone). Despite the negatives, for us, having done so was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.

4. What I do suggest, however, is that you take your child’s racial identity (and difference) seriously and that you become a lifelong learner yourself.

Throughout his life, Gabriel was educating us simply by his experience in and of the world. That we did not see our own convictions about diversity through to the end of our parenting responsibility is something I regret. It was only after my Gabriel died and I was reflecting back on his funeral that I realized the only racially integrated element it included was the presence of his eulogists and friends. In the midst of our shock and grief, we didn’t think of Gabe as an African American man, but as a son. He was both.