Engaging Disengaged African American Students

As a student of African American studies, I often engage in the study of pedagogical theory, and I imagine ways in which to create spaces and opportunities for African American (AA) students to take part in meaningful educational experiences. As of now, my students and I are just getting by in the dissection, analysis, and evaluation of real time and present-day socio-cultural education.

In other words, students are missing out on what teacher educator Gloria Lanson-Billings terms culturally relevant teaching – “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes.” We’re learning, nonetheless. The issue though is more about what we are learning. The work that we are doing is not as transformative and liberatory as it should and could be.

Yes, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a set of standards to be addressed by all states; however, the implementation of the CCSS has not changed state and local curricula. I must admit that I am proud of how many of my students are engaging in possible non-affirmative material that I have presented per the curriculum of the local school district.  It is a disservice, however, to not engage AA students in the most necessary study of African American life and literature, their own culture.

In the pursuit of raising our students’ intellectual levels and student achievement, my colleague and I are on a very necessary quest for the creation of transformative and culturally relevant curricular materials for AA students especially in the public school settings.  Although our work is supported by the foremost authorities on the subject of culturally relevant pedagogy, much of our work is also grounded in our own experiential pedagogies.

For we recognize, we witness that when students read about themselves, they are inclined to run toward education rather than away from it. For example, we see publishing companies such as Townsend Press create literature not just for reading but also curricular materials that centers AA students. Middle school students devour novels published by Townsend Press and then beg for more. We see that when we teach high school students from the frame of hip hop, they fall in love poetry and its power; they are anxious to jump in and go deep, and they do not cower from it. Students are transformed when required to engage with materials that are somehow reflective of them or their experiences. Students become liberated as literature certainly has that type of power.

There is now a gamut of research which supports this unsurprising phenomenon, yet the curricula still is not here, nor is the current curricula reflective. The criticality of relevant and engaging curricula is important seeing how statistics as recent as 2013 from the Children’s Defense Fund Fact Sheet show that “89 percent of Black fourth graders could not read at grade level and 87 percent could not compute”.

How much clearer can it be that we must transform how and what we teach and learn after the tardy bell?

Follow LeMar Clifford on Twitter @lcliff06