Teaching African American Students Through Parallel Inquiry

Teaching African American students starts with you. Through critical and parallel inquiry, you can help African American students find their own answers.

Ed note: This post has been updated from a post in January of 2013. We recently revised it–edited some for clarity, added a revised conclusion–and reshared it, primarily due to our desire to contribute to the dialogue about race and learning that we all can be too hesitant to have.

School is made for people but it is strangely inaccessible for so many of them.

By design, it is a place of practice and self-improvement. This necessitates just-out-of-reach goals and the subsequent constant struggle.

But this isn’t just a pedagogical thing—it’s first and foremost human. The human element of teaching is hard to discuss because you come off sounding like a hippie that wants to stand on your desk and burn (already bubbled) scantrons in a rebellious and colorful effigy.

Teaching is incredibly personal, if for no other reason than it starts with “I’ve watched you and see your deficiencies and I want to help you.”

There is a lot of vulnerability in that, like having someone clean your house, do your taxes, or wash your clothes. That vulnerability extends from academic performance to value systems, ethics, recreational trends, and communication patterns—what anthropologists call ‘culture.’

So it makes sense then that the African American Male may not always feel entirely at home at school. According to a 2011 study by the Center for American Progress, 83% of the teachers in the United States are white, while only 56% of the students are. In West Virginia, 98% of the teachers are white. In Louisiana, 46% of the student population is African American, but only 19% of the teachers.

None of this means that African American students ‘require’ African American teachers. It is simply a matter of observation and confrontation and opportunity—having divergent races—that sometimes diverge culturally as well—work together to heal their mutual vulnerability–one to reach, one to be reached.

This naturally creates some differences.

The Absurdity Of Race

I grew up in a racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhood.

It was rough, but not overwhelming. My car was broken into a lot, I’d sometimes find strangers sleeping in my front yard, and the local basketball courts would have the nets stolen as soon as they were put up. I got in a lot of fights and saw some things that made me uncomfortable then and continue to today.

But I also was close to my father, and so I’d read him my undoubtedly awful poetry, and we camped and played chess and flew airplanes. And it was in that mature and healthy mind-state that I discovered hip-hop–and powerful African Americans as role models—in my case largely male.

Tupac Shakur, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Russell Simmons, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Chuck D, Rakim, Jimi Hendrix, and dozens of other African American males were–and are–deeply influential on me as a person.

When I watched “White Men Can’t Jump,” I wanted to be Wesley Snipes, not Woody Harrelson. (Which is itself a related issue–the African American male athlete and entertainer rather than African American educator, artist, academic, and professional as role model, which can confuse charisma and likability with leadership and character, and introduce the concept of ‘broken and flawed’ personas as martyrs worth emulating, another conversation entirely.)

But back to Muhammad Ali and Rakim–confusing the comfort of spectacle with a parallel experience is nuts. Saying that because I grew up poor and listened to hip-hop makes me ‘get’ what it means to be an African American would be both incorrect and racist, just as an African American can’t ‘get white people’ by watching ‘Friends’ or ‘American’s Funniest Home Videos.’

What does it mean to ‘act white’? I’m not sure I know. To ‘talk white’? That’s a problem, too. How about to ‘act black’? Certainly, there are trends, but what is ‘white music’ or ‘black music’? ‘Black’ food? What would ‘African American instructional strategies’ look like?

Does this make anyone else uncomfortable?

Pop Culture And Race In The Classroom

I worry that the ease in which Hollywood and comedians characterize race (e.g., ‘black parenting styles’ vs white) might lead us as educators to do the same. I’ve struggled to say anything substantive beyond my personal experience in part because that’s how we make sense of things. Our memories are both a matter of sequence and our schema. I’m also not sure America’s really ready to confront the terms and scale and shifty visibility of its own racism, and we’re all complicit in that.

One strategy for teaching all students? Agitate them cognitively so that they tend to first study themselves, not others. Help them see who they are. Their identity. Their worldview. Their self-image. Their value system. The tone of their interactions with others. Their goals. Their arc. Their self-knowledge.

The same applies to teaching African American students but the brain makes meaning through schema and background knowledge and reinforces that meaning through the transfer of knowledge. Put another way, brains learn what they don’t know by using what they do, then they deepen that understanding by using that knowledge. Constructivism leads to communal constructivism.

Most good teachers know this. When I worked in a rural Kentucky middle school, a huge portion of my male students liked to hunt so I used hunting analogies to teach writing, for example. It worked and could be seen as ‘culturally relevant teaching.’ But that’s where many of the comparisons end. You can’t ‘teach white’ and ‘teach black.’ You can teach girls one way and boys another. Brains just don’t work that way and it’s an indictment of education professionals that we even need to say much of this out loud.

So, teaching Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr? Teaching with or through hip-hop? Is this a strategy for teaching African American students? Sure–as long as teaching Dickinson or JFK or through The Dave Matthews Band is a way of ‘teaching whites.’ Is this crazy enough? It may be natural to initially connect through stereotypes and topical thinking, but we understand one another through shared struggle and mutual vulnerability. Inquiry-based learning. Project-based learning. Learn–>Do patterns.

While a very strong argument can be made that African American students may ‘do better’ with African American teachers, that doesn’t seem feasible as a broad, unifying education strategy moving forward. To teach African American students, you don’t necessarily have to deeply understand the nuance and complexity of their experience as an African American or the social pressure—and often crippling and conflicting expectation–of being African American. But you can start by honoring that you don’t know, then promise to use your time with them to try to understand. And most critically, you can do everything you can to help them understand themselves in contexts native to their minds and affections.

Like every other gender, race, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, and religious belief, it’s your job to help African American students find their answers. Just as every family and community and human being have their own stories, there is an African American ‘story’ always at work–a setting for the beliefs and thinking patterns and genius of African Americans. And this is not a story you can simply read or have explained to you.

In fact, assuming you ‘get it’ is likely doing more harm than good. One human being can never know what another human being has experienced any more than one elephant can know what it’s like to be another elephant or one painting in a museum can know what it’s like to be another painting. And self-pity and white guilt aren’t terribly useful, either–certainly less helpful than humility and empathy and curiosity and love.

The above becomes even more complicated because of the legacy of slavery in the United States–a legacy few ‘white people’ can wrap our heads around. The Civil Rights movement was a critical moment in American history but it was not a ‘turning point’ because we’ve never become suitably turned. Within the last century, African Americans have been fire-hosed in the streets–in their own streets in their own communities.

They have returned from wars being told they aren’t welcome back. African Americans have created art and invented entirely new genres of music and been told that when they’re done playing and entertaining, they’re of less value. There’s simply too much to unpack in a series of books or years of curriculum but that’s not as bad as it seems: Learning is about personal and social change through sustained inquiry and transfer of knowledge. As a teacher, you can absolutely, positively help any African American student do that if you realize you don’t know them anymore than they know you.

To reach them, many teachers reach for things they hope are culturally-sensitive and culturally-relevant. For example, there is a treasure trove of hip-hop you can teach with. Using Masta Ace (he’s a hip-hop artist from Brooklyn, New York) to teach tone or Public Enemy to teach about social justice or Big L to teach metaphor or Martin Luther King, Jr. to teach public speaking isn’t going to guarantee you ‘reach’ African Americans in your classroom. By all means, use cultural artifacts that help students make meaning. But how do you know that hip-hop is culturally relevant to them? And who are they?

Which them?

The best advice I can give (if I am qualified to give any) for teaching African Americans is–on the surface–not hugely different than I’d offer for any other student or gender: Use the natural vulnerability of learning to expose the fiber of the student as a human being. Then, use the complexity and diversity of your own experience as a framework to understand theirs.

With this humility and curiosity as a framework for pedagogy, we might consider turning away from ‘teaching content’ to the pursuit of wisdom and communal knowledge-seeking to help African American students solve the urgent challenges and meet the extraordinary opportunities they have in front of them today: One person–and one life–at a time with the urgency of each individual’s context and circumstance as a framework for everything they learn and everything they do.