Part i: lessons from my classroom
Who I am
My experiences as a community college instructor
Part ii: my research
African-american community college student classroom experiences
Setting the stage: diop community college
Meet the participants
Student Narratives’ Significant Themes
Identifying and Applying CPE Themes
Summary and Conclusion
Connection to the Literature
Recommendations for Practice
Recommendations for Further Research
Definition of Terms
I dedicate this book to the memory of my sister, Semone (Sim Slim) Erskine, who passed away from Leukemia in 2016. She taught me the meaning of strength and perseverance. I love you so very much and miss you with all my heart. She was the wind beneath my wings. I also dedicate this book to my loving parents, Akim Anthony Erskine and Veronica Agnes Erskine, for inculcating me with the hunger for higher education. Finally, I owe so much to my three heartbeats, my beloved children, Shawn Bandale Akeem Meusa, Jr., Tumaini A. Meusa, and Imani S. Meusa. They taught me the importance of never giving up.
To my students who inspire me to work harder at my craft, I thank you. Thank you to my Doctoral Committee, Dr. Benjamin Welsh, Dr. Uttam Gaulee, and Dr. Winona Taylor for keeping me focused on making sure student stories were told objectively and with transparency. Thank you to Dr. Carolyn Anderson, Interim Chair and Associate Professor of the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University for providing the right kind of institutional support. Thank you to Dr. Glenda Prime, the Chair of the Advanced Studies and Leadership Policy Department at Morgan State University, for believing in me–this Guyanese girl is so grateful to you. I would like to thank my editor, Josephine Debrah, for her attention to detail and dedication toward weeding through the manuscript so that it was understood as it was intended. Thank you to Dr. Nakia Lemon for reading through the manuscript and providing her deep analysis of this book’s purpose. I thank my dear friend, Randy Emerson Hall for giving me that third eye perspective. Thank you to Dwayne Ross who provided the guidance and push to finally finish this book. Finally, I thank the Creator for being that single set of footprints in the sand that carried me during my trials and testings.
I wrote “White Teachers: Black Students” to highlight the ways that Black college students can be taught by all teachers, but White teachers, specifically. Because White teachers dominate the teaching staff in education at all levels, it is imperative to provide rambunctious conversations about how to effectively teach Black college students, especially when they are not graduating at the rate of their White counterparts. “White Teachers: Black Students” provides a vision and recommendations for changing the way that Black college students have traditionally been taught. Creating a dialogue for a cultural shift in how Black students learn in the college classroom can contribute toward a heightened level of sensitivity for teaching and learning that reflects a more diverse and inclusive society. This book is about reimagining how Black students can learn in the classroom, through culturally responsive pedagogy, and not hand—me—down teaching pedagogy. Updating classroom techniques for teaching and learning will not only impact a student’s ability to live the American dream and find a job but also revolutionize their innate capacity for engaging in critical thinking in ways that positively impact how they exercise conscious control over their everyday lives.
After many years since writing my dissertation, I decided to write this book during the height of the novel COVID-19 pandemic, an extraordinary time in U.S. history. The stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, the Presidential election, and the brutal public lynching, while handcuffed, of 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, on May 25, 2020 by Minneapolis, Minnesota, White police officer Derek Chauvin over Floyd’s alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store, further ignited the Black Lives Matter movement and overdue discussions about how the classroom can be used to mitigate dangerous ideas about the worth of Black people. At this time, there is a seismic rejection of the way Black students have been traditionally taught and evaluated, often through memorization, which is the lowest level of human thinking. In these instances, students are often taught in authoritarian classrooms where they learn to memorize without applying theories and ideas to their daily lives. Traditionally, they are also not taught in ways that help them to understand and value their own knowledge as a means of producing new knowledge—knowledge building—self-expression, and subsequently—their own humanization. To deepen their own understanding of themselves, Black students will benefit from classrooms that are transformative. Students need classrooms where there are no borders on intellectualism and where the status quo can be challenged. When issues concerning miseducation, race and white supremacy racism can be debated as normal practice in the classroom, as teachers, we can recreate the world!
There is a denunciation of the old ways of teaching and a clarion call for culturally specific curriculums. A revolution of old mindsets—a cultural shift—regarding how to teach Black students is more than a notion. In fact, if Black people are going to deal with the legacy of enslavement that African Americans endured for over four hundred years in this country, mis-education at all levels of schooling, and continue to survive and live through white supremacy racism, implicit bias, racial prejudice and discrimination, White fragility, and the unconscious habits of White privilege, they must learn the right answers, within a cultural lens. This shall happen only when the teachers, whether White or Black, engage in culturally responsive caring for them and their unique lived experiences, as Black people. When students are taught by reflective teachers who care for and honor them, it is usually those teachers that have high performance expectations. As a result, students rise to the occasion by producing high levels of emotional intelligence, academic achievement, and completion. Black students must be taught in ways that addresses course information within the context of their culture—their Blackness. Without a change in how Black students are taught, how are they to emancipate their minds from mental enslavement that often renders them ineffective when it comes to fighting for social justice reforms, and building power, economics, and culture in their own communities, in order to change their condition?
For Black Lives to truly Matter, it can begin in the classroom, the cultural incubator for creating bright, bold, and courageous minds. It is in the classroom that white supremacy racism can be eliminated. It is in the classroom that students, of all backgrounds, learn about and form racial and ethnic identities. The classroom is where students are taught how to be, how to think, how to imagine, how to dream, and how to see the world—through culture. To do so, teachers have the capacity to be the couriers of the truth—the liberators of the mind—and the facilitators of change—regardless of the ethnic identities of the students who are in the room. When we sugar coat the truth with “official knowledge” during unanticipated complications in the classroom, we fail to liberate and empower the minds of those who only want to be educated.
Teachers have the power to authentically and bravely challenge their fears and fight the status quo in terms of setting the tone for open and reflective discussions about race in the classroom. Students must be given the freedom and a safe space—in the classroom, to ask questions, challenge mediocrity, and get straight answers, no matter how uncomfortable the subject. As teachers, when we neglect to do this, we undermine and impede the progress of the cognitive and emotional development among our students. As a teacher of college students, from all ethnic backgrounds, for the last thirteen years, it is my belief that as teachers, we must be about developing students to their highest levels of academic excellence, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness.
As a Black woman who is a divorced mother of three adult children, I have suffered from post-traumatic slave syndrome while working for White corporations and stereotype threat while attending White schools, all due to white supremacy racism, which began in the classroom. I learned nothing about my African ancestry or our contributions to the world until I enrolled in college at eighteen years of age and experienced an unengaging academic passage into adulthood before that time. That is unacceptable! Because of what I experienced, and lack thereof, I was ill equipped to handle much of the system of racism I experienced before and after I completed college. It is my wish that this book will help to change the trajectory of learning for Black students on college campuses all across America because Black Lives Matter.
In part I of “White Teachers, Black Students,” I discuss my teaching strategies—the twists and turns—the diversions—as a teacher of diverse students, which are based on the tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy, according to culturally responsive pedagogy proponents, such as Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. Henrik Clarke, Dr. Paulo Freire, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, and Dr. Geneva Gay. Pedagogy is the method, approach or strategy that teachers use when teaching others. The discussion and exploration of my classroom pedagogy should help the reader to understand what culturally responsive pedagogy looks like in my classroom when juxtaposed with the outcomes of my dissertation.
In part II, this book discusses my 2016 dissertation titled “Culture Matters! African American Students, White Community College Teachers: A Case Study of Cultural Differences and Their Consequences.” The problem this study addressed is the effective and ineffective teaching styles used with Black students that some of the White teachers who taught them employed and how it impacted their learning outcomes, according to the six individual stories told by the African-American students in the study. This book is not a discussion of all White professor teaching styles, which are diverse. Furthermore, there are White and non-White teachers who do not appear to be very culturally responsive in their teaching styles. Thus, this book will first examine my unique expression of culturally responsive pedagogy that I have employed at both the community college and at four-year institutions, and then juxtapose it with my dissertation. The purpose of this book is to demonstrate that culturally responsive pedagogy works for all students. It can also be used in the classroom by any teacher, regardless of their cultural background or ethnic identity. Definitions and the explanation for terms, such as White, and Black verses African American, for example, are found at the back of this book. Enjoy!
Part I: Lessons from my Classroom
Who I Am
I am an African-Guyanese woman who was born in Guyana and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Guyana (once British Guyana) is located in South America. Its culture is similar to its English-speaking neighbors, such as Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad. I was raised by working-class, immigrant, Guyanese parents. They left Guyana for the United States in the 1960s to pursue better jobs and educational opportunities for my siblings and me. With an ancestry that reaches Africa, Scotland, and East India, I have multicultural roots. I was raised within an African centered and American culture; however, I resonate with my African heritage the most.
Because of my immigrant status and being raised in the United States, I have a unique identity. My cultural lens reflects a distinctive human experience that does not fit precisely within a Guyanese, African American, or African self-concept. Concerning my cultural lens, in the Guyanese culture, there is greater emphasis on respecting one’s elders and the extended family. Parents pride themselves on being able to say that their child is pursuing higher education or graduated from college. Cooking meals from scratch, playing Caribbean music, going to church, and dancing were very important activities during my upbringing; and I partook in many family gatherings and celebrations. I was taught the importance of forgiveness and to love family members even when they upset me. More value was placed on family helping each other during financial distress, rather than on individual wealth. I was raised to believe in God and to be a Christian.
At the same time, when I look at the American values that were inculcated in me through television and film and Western schooling, I learned to be competitive. I learned to compete with classmates for good grades, rather than to pursue an education. When I was a teenager, I was taught to frown upon my Guyanese dialect. Due to my Western education, from Kindergarten through high school, I learned absolutely nothing about my African history, other than that Africans were enslaved. I thought the Guyanese form of English was inferior to American English. As I deliberately took college courses that exposed me to my African roots, I learned to embrace all forms of Black language expression and history.
I received my formal K-12 education from the public-school system in Brooklyn, New York. I was an excellent student. My grades were so outstanding in elementary school that I skipped a grade. I was a gifted student in junior high school, as well. However, when I reached high school, my performance was average, at best. My grades were admirable in social studies, writing, reading, English, and history, but I struggled in science and math. Feeling uninspired and lacking intellectual stimulation, I digressed. My overall learning experience lacked creativity and a cultural connection. I was not taught in a way that I could feel proud about my heritage nor did I learn anything about African or African-American history. It was not until my sophomore year at City Tech, a community college with a predominantly Black student body, also known as New York City College of Technology, and then my junior year at Howard University, a historically Black university that I was taught by professors with teaching styles that connected to my African roots. Contributing to this dynamic was the absence of a diverse teaching corp. In public school, from K-12, most of my teachers were White, female, and from the middle class. In fact, in the United States, most Black students who attend public school are taught by White teachers.1 According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education,2 “82% of public-school teachers are White.” I did not have my first Black teacher until junior high school. As I grew older, I found myself unable to connect with what I was taught or who I was becoming, and my cultural context called for both in order for me to achieve personal success and academic growth.
Upon graduation from high school, I became a full-time, community college student. I pursued higher education as a first-generation college student and enrolled in a non-credit, developmental Math class at City Tech. A female instructor, whose culture appeared to be White, taught this course. (I say, “appeared to be White,” because all people who appear to be White or the various shades of Black in complexion, do not necessarily culturally identify as White or Black). This teacher was not very friendly and did not appear to care about my background or whether I learned the concepts taught in class. She employed a teacher-centered approach that included the cultivation of a highly individualistic, competitive classroom focused on memorization and grades, rather than learning. She tended to respond to students whose answers were usually correct. She publicly praised high achieving students for their test-taking skills and achievements. Her approach to teaching contradicted my style of learning. I never had a chance to reveal my learning style to the teacher because I did not know there was a name for it, therefore, I could not articulate it at the time.
I am an auditory, aural, visual, and tactile learner. I learn best through storytelling and listening to lectures, hearing directions, seeing information through pictures, videos, films, and PowerPoint presentations, storytelling, and touching and doing. I also learn best while working in groups. In fact, most Black students learn this way (Ladson-Billings, 1995). In the Guyanese culture, storytelling is very important as well as understanding the past and its connection to the future. Guyanese people are very friendly and straight forward in how they express themselves. I am the sum of my African roots. This teacher did not seem to recognize my learning style and cultural differences, and we developed no personal connection. More importantly, I could not see the connection between what was taught in the classroom and my daily life experiences.
To be effective in educating ethnically diverse students, instructors must show a willingness to use a multitude of teaching strategies.3 Because this instructor was teaching a Guyanese adult student, it would have been beneficial if she had a discussion with me about the importance of learning math and its connection to my future success in college and my financial health, as it pertained to my personal life and career goals. Having an understanding and sensitivity to how African-American students learn, through the various learning styles mentioned earlier and through culture,4 could have helped me tremendously in the learning process.
The manner in which all students learn is linked to their culture, social setting, and learning style.5 Vygotsky called for a sociocultural psychological method for recognizing that humans learn by using language and other tools that are available to them within a social context. Being sensitive to culture when teaching diverse students, particularly African-American students, is a prerequisite for facilitating positive learning experiences that are engaging and relevant. Teaching strategies must match the culture of certain ethnic groups, or the students will experience higher levels of academic failure. 6 7 8 9 10
A teacher’s so called race is not what determines whether a teacher can effectively teach, regardless of who they are teaching. It is an instructor’s teaching style that determines their effectiveness. Before I discuss teaching style, I’d like to spend some time discussing race. An individual’s culture is often mistakenly identified as “race.” However, race is an artificial social construct that has no scientific basis because there are no biological or genetic markers that define race.11 12 13 14 Race is a psychological phenomenon that has nothing to do with skin color or other physical attributes. Skin color tells people what you look like; it doesn’t tell us who you are. Therefore, it is more accurate to describe individuals by their culture or ethnicity, rather than the color of their skin. The concept of race is an illusion, but culture is not; it is what tells others who you are.
Human beings need culture to think, intellectualize, create meaning of their experiences, and reflect on, and understand the world they live in. Unlike the term “race” that is inaccurately and often used to describe racial phenotypes, culture has much to do with how humans function. Culture is all-encompassing and what makes us human—it is what makes us tick. In other words, 15“we do not really see through our eyes or hear through our ears, but through our beliefs” (p. 46). Culture is a learned system of shared beliefs, principles, concepts, ideas, knowledge, customs, memories, common values, language, traits, behaviors, artifacts, and attitudes that belong to a specific group or society that are transferred from generation to generation.16 17
The function of the human brain is influenced by culture.18 Thus, it is through our cultural lenses that we understand our lived human experiences and make sense of the world. Essentially, culture helps to shape judgement, perception, how we see others and ourselves, and aids in our cognitive development and the learning process.19 The human brain works best when information is presented in a way that creates patterns of meaningful connections.20 The concept of culture is essential for understanding how African-American students learn.
Though I was eager to learn, my developmental math teacher never called on me in class, did not express concern for my failing grades, and did not direct me to college tutoring services that might have helped with my struggle to learn math. Instead, she only called on students who volunteered or did well on tests. Because the instructor never smiled and did not seem caring or approachable, I did not feel encouraged to raise my hand to ask questions. Therefore, I failed test after test and sank deeper and deeper into depression. Soon thereafter, I failed the math class, and I became disengaged and disenchanted with my schooling. As a result, I felt disconnected and unable to develop enthusiasm for math.
The following semester, I re-enrolled in the developmental math class I had previously failed and passed. This second time, I had a male professor whose cultural and linguistic characteristics appeared to be African-American. He allowed us (the class consisted of all Black students) to work in groups, knew us all by name, and talked with enthusiasm about his experiences with math. I believe that my success in his class was due to his approach. I believe his teaching worked for me because his teaching style was student centered, and it involved providing resources for improving our math skills, smiling often, making himself open and approachable to students, and asking us questions about our lives and the importance of having good math skills. His teaching style was also very effective because he taught the course in a way that connected with relevant news stories, Black history, and American politics, making it culturally relevant.
The above mentioned teaching scenarios concerning with first a White teacher and then a Black teacher represent two differing approaches to teaching commonly called teacher centered and learner centered. The teacher-centered approach dictates that the teacher is the expert on knowledge, and this is demonstrated mainly through lecture. According to Weimer,21
“It centers on a teacher who does little more than deliver conclusions to students. It assumes that the teacher has all the knowledge and the students have little or none that the teacher must provide, and the students must take, that the teacher sets all the standards and the students must measure up. Teacher and students gather in the same room at the same time not to experience community but simply to keep the teacher from having to say things more than once.”
Being learner-centered, on the other hand, is about the student and teacher interacting equally.
It also involves the encouragement of group work among students where they learn to collaborate and effectively communicate with each other. The learner-centered approach focuses attention on learning. The learner-centered approach is about learning how students learn and whether they are actually learning and applying what they have learned.22 The best kind of teaching is the combination of both teaching styles,23 which mirrors culturally responsive pedagogy.
Culturally responsive pedagogy helps to connect the teacher’s lectures with student experiences and culture.24 Through my personal experiences, I discovered that culturally responsive pedagogy clearly produced a different learning outcome from my experiences than the more “traditional” teacher-centered pedagogy. Looking back, I now realize the African-American teacher helped me to feel more confident about myself and my ability to learn. Now that I am a college professor, and am well-versed in culturally responsive pedagogy, I recognize the African-American teacher operated a learner-centered classroom that encouraged students to develop knowledge-building and thinking skills which easily led to my success.
My experience with the individualistic White teacher, in contrast, made me feel there was something innately wrong with me and my ability to learn math. The sharp—and painful contrast between the two experiences left me with many unanswered questions: What happens to students who have teachers lacking effective teaching strategies? How can colleges ensure all students have learning experiences that produce successful classroom outcomes?
My Experiences as a Community College Instructor
My early experiences as a community college student in classrooms with White teachers, coupled with my experiences teaching students from all walks of life, sparked my desire to write about how culturally responsive pedagogy affects the learning outcomes of student learning outcomes. At the community college level, the faculty’s sole responsibility is to focus on teaching and learning.25 For the past 12 years, I have taught at the community college as well as at four-year institutions, such as the University of Maryland College Park, University of Maryland University College, Prince Georges Community College, the College of Baltimore County, and Montgomery College.
I primarily teach human communications courses, such as Introduction to Human Communication, Public Speaking, Effective Listening, Gender Communication, Interpersonal Communication, and Speech for English as a Second Language (ESL) to students from ethnically diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The population of students I teach are largely African-Americans, African immigrants, Asian, Hispanic, and Eastern Europeans. I’ve also taught European-American students and students reflecting a variety of religions, including Christian, Muslim, and agnostic, to name a few. Many of my students speak English as a second language and reside in the urban municipalities of Washington, D.C. and Maryland.
Many of these students are typically first-generation college students who have chosen to delay entry into higher education for a variety of reasons. The majority are inclined to attend school part-time, work full-time, are financially independent with dependents themselves, and many are single parents. Many of them are also low-income and recent immigrants, with poor writing, reading, and math skills. In fact, for many of these students, regardless of their cultural background, I am their first instructor of African descent.
Because my classroom tends to be multicultural with students hailing from various countries and regions, such as America, Bolivia, Cameroon, the Caribbean, China, Eastern Europe, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Hungary, Iran, Liberia, Malawi, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Persia, the Philippines, Togo, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, I tend to bring my life to work in order to meet the students where they are. I become an open book and work tirelessly to create interesting lectures and lesson plans that are substantive, meaningful, and facilitate student voice. The way that I teach encourages students to open up and share their thoughts in class.
Student evaluations in my classes have been overwhelmingly positive. Students have personally said to me: “I wish you taught all my classes,” “I wish all my classes were taught this way,” “I love your class,” and “I miss your class.” These comments helped me understand the value of using culturally responsive pedagogy when instructing students with diverse learning styles. They also confirmed my belief that there was a need to understand how best African-American students learn, in particular. I have an interest in how best African-American students learn because African-American students are not doing well in the community college. They have the greatest need when it comes to improving their graduation rates. They are not graduating at the rate of other cultural groups.
My teaching method reflects the core of culturally responsive pedagogy. I utilize many culturally responsive components in my classroom. Rather than solely focusing on grades, I appeal to the intellect, the humanity, the emotions, and the spirituality of my students. This teaching technique possesses major components of Gloria Ladson-Billings’ model of culturally responsive pedagogy that help to facilitate learning26 and appeals to diverse classrooms.27
Communicate High Expectations. With a warm smile, I consistently tell students that I believe they are capable of achieving a high level of excellence when they work hard, prepare and plan for success, ask questions, and meet with me during my office hours for guidance and support, if necessary. I am always positive and never (intentionally) berate or embarrass students in front of their classmates. If a student is not performing well, I will ask to speak with them after class or communicate my concerns by email or phone. I provide them with my personal cell phone number. If we communicate on the telephone, I make sure my voice is smiling. When students feel welcome, they feel free to be vulnerable and to ask any necessary questions they may have regarding completing an assignment or understanding how to improve. I make the syllabus available on the classroom’s Blackboard learning portal, a virtual learning environment and course management system, that students can access any time and any place. The syllabus provides rules for every assignment and a list of college resources, such as the tutoring and writing center. I also provide written directions for each assignment and well-written samples of student work for all students to review on Blackboard. In July, 2020, Claudette Kasozi, a Montgomery College student I taught in 2017, left a heartfelt message on my answering machine, thanking me for the way I taught her. Claudette said, “You are the only professor that I’ve ever had that believed in me. I’m so happy I took your class and got a chance to get to know you. I’ve never met a professor who believed in me. You helped me to find my voice.” Her touching phone call validated all that I believe and that is that when teachers care about students, students try harder and tend to be successful in the classroom and in life, in general. My goal, as a professor, is to touch all my students in a way that will help them understand that they are born to succeed. They all have the capacity to succeed if they would only drop their inhibitions because, essentially, as humans, we are all wired for success.
Actively engage students in learning and cultural sensitivity. To promote student engagement, I empower students to challenge and question me about what they are learning. I encourage them to conduct thorough research from multiple sources and to consult with original material. I take the time to learn about each student’s culture in order to strengthen relationships and build respect for cultural differences. To do this, I have each student deliver a short extemporaneous informative speech about his or her culture that is called ‘Cultural Jamming.’28 I use this technique in all my speech classes. For this speech assignment, students describe their culture and discuss what they love and dislike about it. This presentation is delivered with or without an artifact or a PowerPoint presentation. The activity helps me to learn about their families, values, principles, ideas, attitudes, and beliefs, in a word, culture. It is a learning tool that helps to build relationships between my students and I and serves to create bonds among students in the classroom. This learning instrument helps to build a strong sense of community and connectedness in the classroom where many past students have said they felt like family when I used this method. It facilitates positive rewards that “promotes an atmosphere of cooperation and deep listening,”29 and a community of learning. The activity also promotes mutual respect between the students and their teacher as well as their classmates. When students gain a greater understanding of each other’s backgrounds, culture, and lived experiences, “a foundation for learning and community”30 can emerge. As a result, there is an obvious awareness, both verbally and nonverbally, that everyone is in support of each other. Students enjoy classrooms where there is a family-type environment.31 The family-like atmosphere helps struggling students rebound if they are not quite succeeding and to seek help when necessary.
Teacher as facilitator. As the facilitator, I teach in a way that promotes critical thinking while aiming for students to feel that they have a voice in their learning process.32 I employ a variety of instructional techniques that move students progressively toward a stronger understanding and completion of increasingly challenging material. Each assignment builds the necessary skills to complete new and more challenging assignments. Within an active teaching environment, I provide students with the opportunity to handle new material, solve complex problems, and develop new skills. The first speech they must deliver is a mini-speech that can last 60 seconds to three minutes, called cultural jamming. The next level of increased difficulty is demonstrated in the ‘Who I Am’ speech presentation. This speech is extemporaneous, and it is three to five minutes long. In this assignment, students must talk about their past, present, and future selves. The next two speeches are the informative and persuasive speeches. By the time students get to these speeches, they will have a higher level of self-confidence and knowledge of how to deliver an acceptable speech that meets the speech standards provided in the syllabus and explained during class lectures. By the time the final major assignment is due, the group discussion project, they have the skills necessary for producing successful learning outcomes.
Anchor curriculum in the everyday lives of your students. I teach students in ways they can connect the content to their daily lives. The ‘Who I Am’ speech helps students connect their prior knowledge and content knowledge in the creation of new knowledge. This speech is, perhaps, the most cathartic and transformative of all the speech assignments they will have to deliver. With this speech, students can talk about issues that matter to them. With this speech, they have an opportunity to acknowledge their feelings about major life events and how the past effects who they are today and the future. This speech can be very personal, in a very public forum. Students have described witnessing murder, experiencing self-hatred, being victims of date rape, giving birth to a child, finding love, the joy of learning, suffering from incest, feeling self-empowered, being a new immigrant in America, and not having the benefit of growing up with a father because he is imprisoned for life. This assignment gives them an opportunity to engage in autobiographical reflective thinking. They get a chance to paint a picture, in essence, create a visual narrative of who they are and the road(s) that led them to who they are now and the future. Often, students mentioned to me their sense of empowerment and heightened self-confidence after they have delivered this speech, which validated their own unique lived experiences.
Reshaping the curriculum and student-controlled discourse. Reshaping the curriculum involves a redesign to adjust to the various background of students, such as age, lived experiences, level of knowledge, skills, and cultures represented in the classroom. If I have a classroom consisting of Generation X students (born in the early -1960s to the late 1970s) and millennials (students born between
1980 and 1994), for example, I will introduce topics for discussion in the classroom that provide mass appeal to students in a classroom and/or Blackboard forum I call the “Issue Bin.” The “Issue Bin,” often, but not always, delves into cultural differences, as it pertains to interpersonal, intrapersonal, and public communication. We also discuss various aspects of human rights to freedom and social justice, as it applies to television, media, and its role in perpetuating negative stereotypes and perceptions of marginalized and oppressed groups. Topics also have been about white supremacy racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, job discrimination, colorblindness, school wounds, global warming, love, Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and sexual agency. The “Issue Bin” provides students with an opportunity to have a voice. When students do not feel they have a voice, they feel as if they are not worthy of being heard. This activity is essential for validating student voice in the form of their ideas, emotions, confusions, ignorance, and prejudices. The most powerful outcome of this activity is that it produces knowledge building and new understandings. This knowledge building activity includes learning different definitions and different pathways that help students to see complicated issues from various perspectives and ensures all voices are heard. For learning to occur, students must be allowed to express their minds. They also discuss current affairs within the context of human communication. The experience enables them to find their voice. I’ve experienced students who just want dating advice or how to pick a romantic partner. In addition, if a student does not participate, they have permission not to speak. Many students participate inwardly because they are shy or unsure of themselves. In that case, I ask them to deliver their comments on Blackboard. This, in turn, creates self-esteem building opportunities for students to value their inner voice. When students want to continue the discussion after the classroom session ends, the topic is available on Blackboard for further deliberation. It is my belief and experience that discussions about these relevant issues lead to open and honest dialogue among students that lead to a greater acceptance of diversity. I have seen students flourish during “Issue Bin” sessions. Those who were shy at the beginning of the semester are no longer shy by the end. The “Issue Bin” is a wonderful learning experience because these kinds of conversations contribute towards over-all student persistence and student self-efficacy. My classroom provides a non-judgement zone and safe environment for those who wish to partake in these conversations. My past and current learning institutions where I have been employed have always encouraged professors to create classroom environments that are inclusive and safe.
Share control of the classroom, small group instruction, and academically-related discourse.
Small group instruction and academically-related discourse provides students with an opportunity to work in student-controlled learning groups. It teaches students how to work effectively in groups while building their interpersonal communication skills and gaining content knowledge. I disperse students to groups that are appointed a subject area within a chapter in the assigned course textbook that they must teach the class. In the group presentation of chapters, students have an opportunity to gain content knowledge, think quickly, deeply, analytically, and feel a sense of completion and empowerment. When student groups deliver chapter presentations, they gain the necessary skills to perform effectively in the final group project presentation, which is the final exam of the course. After this activity, I have seen students who were once very shy and unsure of themselves transform into articulate and confident individuals.
Culturally mediated instruction. Culturally mediated instruction involves using culturally mediated cognition that is culturally appropriate for learning the course content. I use humor, emotion, passion, dance, demonstration, and multimedia, such as music, videos, film, and pictures, as part of my lectures. The bottom line is that even though students want to learn, they also want to be entertained.33 For example, I deliver a demonstrative and entertaining ‘Who I Am’ speech about my own life before the student ‘Who I Am’ presentations are scheduled to begin. My demonstrative presentation helps to instruct students on how to deliver their own ‘Who I Am’ speech. This speech should have four sections that are categorized as introduction, body, conclusion, and clincher. The clincher is delivered at the end of the speech. The purpose of a clincher is to provide a sense of closure, hammer home the thesis statement, and leave the audience thinking. Part of my speech includes humor, but also sadness. I speak about the loss of my younger sister, Semone (Sim Slim) Erskine. I discuss the Leukemia that took her life in 2016 at the age of 44, leaving her four children motherless. I talk about the pain it caused my family and how much we miss her. In my narrative, I talk about how we, as sisters, were very close. We loved to listen and dance to Afro-Caribbean music. Nearing the end of the presentation, the classroom projector shows a visual of my sister and I engaged in the last dance we had together before she became ill. In this picture, she is healthy and vibrant. This visually stirring portrait of two loving sisters engrossed in a dance serves as the backdrop for the clincher. The visual clincher is a heartfelt solo dance I perform to an Afro-Caribbean song called “Diana” by Nigerian musician, Tekno. Dance often expresses a feeling or experience in ways that words cannot. I use a fusion of carefully choreographed and interpretive Afro-Caribbean and modern dance moves and hand gestures for storytelling. The combination of words the students hear in the song coupled with my visual narrative conveys an emotional story of love and tragic loss. At the end of one presentation that was delivered in the spring of 2019, I decided to shake things up a little bit. This time, I danced a duet with a student. She pretended as if she was my sister Semone who was dancing with me. At the end of our duet, she performed part of the clincher, where she dances out of the classroom and through its open doors, which represents my sister’s transition. When she is no longer visible, I bend down on one knee and cover my face with my hands and pretend to sob. As a result, many students were crying, and I cried too. I have found it beneficial for me to be willing to show my emotions when interacting with students.34 Intellect works in concert with feeling, so if I hope to open my student’s minds, I must open their emotions as well.”35 “This activity shows students my willingness to be vulnerable. If I am not willing to be vulnerable with my students, I am not able to teach them. When students learn to trust themselves, they become vulnerable as well. Sure, there are risks involved with me being vulnerable, but it is worth it. It demonstrates how much I trust students, and they, in turn, trust me—this is where true learning begins.36 37
Show you care. I smile often and encourage and compliment students on their work. I am willing to bend a little if students have an emergency that affects the timely submission of graded assignments by allowing students to have more time to complete assignments they might be struggling with. With the life changing pandemic, Covid-19, I had to do this frequently. I look directly at students when I speak to them and learn their names or nicknames. I also provide written constructive feedback and announce my availability for discussions with students at the end or before class. In addition, I allow students to freely express themselves to demonstrate their knowledge on any topic. I do not demean students when they have not met assignment expectations. Instead, I am straightforward and encourage them to do better, work with them after class, and provide support and encouragement. The relationships I develop with students help to motivate and inspire them to succeed academically. Students prefer teachers who display caring bonds and attitudes toward them. When they know I care, they tend to want to work harder; and ultimately, they are very successful
As a community college graduate, I know what it is like to enter college underprepared and to struggle academically. I am particularly sensitive to students who demonstrate poor self-efficacy and need encouragement. For a short while, this was my experience. However, what helped with my eventual success was that I learned best from African-American teachers who found creative ways to help me succeed. This does not mean that White or European-American teachers cannot effectively teach Black students or that I have not had positive learning experiences with White teachers because I have. It means that when teachers can harness the culture of the students they teach, they tend to be more effective.38 39 My early experience as a struggling community college student informed my present position as an educator and researcher. These experiences are the lens with which I interpret the results of a study I conducted in 2016.40 My qualitative study examined the lived experiences of African-American community college students in classrooms with White teachers. I decided to focus on White teachers as a sort of fixed variable because they dominate the teaching staff at the community college.
Part II: My Research
Community college student learning outcomes “clearly highlight a pattern within ‘some’ community colleges where they have not integrated culture into classroom pedagogy at a meaningful level.”41 The community college tends to employ traditional modes of pedagogy that do not reflect the needs of diverse learners.42 43 44 45 White teacher pedagogical practices are directly linked to the Eurocentric lens through which many White teachers see themselves and the world.46 As it stands, there seems to be a mismatch between many White teachers’ pedagogical styles and their African-American students’ learning styles.47 48 49
Many White teachers tend to teach through the lens of Whiteness frameworks where they see the world through Western European values, attitudes, and beliefs that are associated with their middle-class backgrounds and experiences.50 This is a problem for African- American students, who usually do better in classrooms where teachers express an appreciation for cultures that are different from their own.51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58
Research59 60 61 62 63 64 indicates that White faculty members’ teaching strategies may be undermining African- American student performance and contributing to the low college completion rate of African-American community college students.65 The issue revealed the importance of exploring these questions: Is there a possible connection between African-American student graduation rates and the predominance of White faculty who teach them? Is there a connection between the mismatch of teaching and learning styles and poor African-American community college graduation rates? Why are African- American students experiencing poor graduation rates? The intent of my study was to answer these questions and to explore the experiences of African-American students with White teachers in a community college setting.
Cheikh Anta Diop66 argued, “People live their culture—the roots of their culture are inseparable from their linguistic structure and historical past.” Thus, it is through our cultural lenses that we understand our experiences and make sense of the world. Essentially, culture helps to shape judgment, perception, and how we see ourselves and others.67 68 69 It also aids in our cognitive and intellectual development.70 This study’s conceptual framework provided two lenses, the Continuum of Pedagogical Experiences (CPE) and Cross’ Negriscence Identity Model (CNIM) that established the basis for understanding, describing, explaining, evaluating, and clarifying how culture shaped African-American student classroom experiences with White teachers. For this study, I used the six stages of the CPE71 as a framework to organize and categorize the observed pedagogical experiences African-American students had with White teachers . It was used to describe whether a student perceived a White teacher’s pedagogical practices as Eurocentric or culturally responsive, as seen through the eyes of African-American students.
Continuum of Pedagogical Experiences. The first concept undergirding this research study is CPE.71 I created the CPE to organize and categorize the perceived pedagogical experiences African-American students had with White teachers. The CPE uses the combination of Bennett’s73 74 Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) and Olson’s (2009) School Wounds as its framework.
The original purpose of the DMIS was to explain how people experience and react to cultural differences.75 The DMIS outlined “statements about behavior and attitudes at each stage that are indicative of a particular condition of the underlying worldview.76
DMIS provided the framework for the CPE in creating the cognitive lenses through which to interpret White teachers’ perceived pedagogical practices, actions, and outlook towards cultural difference, as experienced by the African-American students in this study. CPE provided an explanation for classroom practices that resembled Eurocentric or culturally responsive stages of growth, or the extent to which cultural differences were recognized and accepted from teachers. Each stage describes a particular individual within a particular point of development, according to a consistent level of cultural difference.77 At the broadest level, the DMIS continuum is essentially a binary with Ethnocentrism on one end and Ethnorelativism on the other. Ethnocentrism is the unconscious belief that one’s own culture is the absolute norm or standard with which to judge or measure other cultures. In the Ethnocentric category, an individual has a rigid or constricted personality. With Ethnocentrism, individuals embrace and respect cultures that are different from their own, while still maintaining a healthy appreciation of their own culture. Beneath the two major divisions are three smaller ones, forming a total of six stages of denial to integration. All six stages of growth, arranged from the most Ethnocentric to the most Ethnorelative, are as follows: “1. Denial, 2. Defense, 3. Minimization, 4. Acceptance, 5. Adaptation, and 6. Integration”78
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Figure 1. Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.
The Ethnocentric stages of DMIS consist of three categories— Denial, Defense, and Minimization. In a 1949 study on Ethnocentric patients, it was found that these specific patients were resistant to any kind of change. They tended to stereotype others and to engage in conventionalized thinking, and have undifferentiated egos, narrow range of experience, and emotionally and intellectually weak interpersonal relationships expressed in terms of dominance-submission.”79 Bennet’s description of Ethnocentric individuals correlated with Levinson’s description of Ethnocentric individuals.
The first category within Ethnocentrism is Denial. For this study, an example of an experience with a White teacher that can be categorized as being at the Denial stage is reflective of individuals who come from areas where they are intentionally isolated and or separate themselves within homogenous groups.80 They tend to be individuals who see others as inhuman, less intelligent, or culturally deviant. These individuals also consciously seek out environments that support and protect their worldview.81
The concept of School Wounds 82 is a lense situated within the Denial stage of the CPE. School Wounds is a term that describes treatment of students that makes them feel inferior, ashamed, and marginalized. Therefore, they are often “reluctant or anxious” when learning. Olson contended that School Wounds can be described as students feeling disconnected from learning if there is no pleasure in it.”83 School wounds are often produced in educational environments where students feel a heightened sense of shame because they are different.
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School Wounds contain seven categories that describe how students might be feeling if they are wounded. This concept helped me to analyze and provide an assessment and understanding of whether or not students have experienced or been impacted by school wounds at the Denial stage of CPE, and, if so, how.
The Defense stage is the second category of the DMIS. In the Defense stage, one’s culture is considered the only way to live-the only good culture-and as a result, the person exudes great hostility toward cultures that are different. These individuals tend to engage in excessive negative stereotyping and to feel their culture is threatened by difference.91 An example of a White teacher at the Defense stage would be an individual who negatively evaluates other cultures that are different. At this stage, the White teacher also demonstrates cultural superiority by only discussing positive aspects of White culture. For example, the White teacher may say things like “Why don’t these people speak my language?” or “My culture should be the model for the rest of the world.” As an undergraduate student, at Brooklyn College, I enrolled an English 101 course with a White professor. In this course, the students were very diverse. Students were White, Black, and Hispanic. However, the only books he assigned us to read were European-centered. For example, we read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, the “Sound and the Fury,” by William Faulkner, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. One day, at the beginning of the semester, I asked to meet with him during his office hours. On this day, I mentioned that the books that we were assigned to read lacked diverse stories and authors. I suggested, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Assata Shakur,” by Assata Shakur and “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe. He politely thanked me and ignored my suggestion for the remainder of the semester. I don’t know if this professor had to have the books approved by the department in advance or whether he had the ultimate control on what we would read, however, his inability to include diverse voices in the literature we, as student, could read, could be described as an example of a professor at the Defense stage of DMIS because our worldview, as Black people, was denied expression as a valid and acceptable lens with which to describe other ways of being in the world.
Midway through the continuum is Minimization, in which elements of an individual’s own cultural worldview are considered the standard for all human existence. According to Bennett, M.,92 Minimization is characterized as when differences are minimized, and all cultures are considered the same. Minimization is dangerous because it fails to see the uniqueness of various cultural groups, and as a result, that culture is not respected.
Minimization can also be described as colorblindness because it correlates with some White teachers, for example, who do not have substantive experiences, direct knowledge about, or have minimal shared interactions with the diverse students they teach.93 During these instances, it is possible that these individuals may be unaware of holding stereotypical or prejudicial outlooks and implicit biases toward the diverse students they teach, which is a form of colorblindness. 94 95 96 97 Colorblindness is employed by those who wish to minimize or not see themselves as recognizing race.98 Colorblindness influences the instructional practices employed by White teachers who teach African-American students:99
1. Colorblindness impacts the way White instructors see cultural distinctions among African-American students.
2. Colorblindness impacts the manner with which White instructors recognize the varied learning styles of diverse students.
3. Colorblindness renders the African-American student invisible to White teachers.
The second category within DMIS that contains the final three stages is called Ethnorelativism, which was used to explain classroom practices that resonated with culturally responsive teaching. Ethnorelativism believes that no one culture is superior to another.100 Individuals at the Ethnorelativism stage search for substantive ways to adapt to difference.101 These individuals value the different cultural contexts in which distinctive cultural groups live and function. These stages are called Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration.
Acceptance establishes the fourth stage within the second category of the intercultural continuum. This stage portrays some level of respect for differences and a tolerance for behaviors, values, attitudes, and beliefs different from one’s own. At this stage, the White teacher, for example, may see “culture as offering alternative viable solutions to the organization of human existence.”102 They may also understand the differences in language, mannerism, communication styles and social behavior, such as values, beliefs, and attitudes.103 At the Acceptance stage, it does not mean that individuals agree with alternative values but that those alternative realities and cultural worldviews exist. For example, a White teacher may not agree with the religion of a student whose culture approves polygamy, for example, but they will understand and respect that this way of life exists and that it is valid and acceptable for that student’s cultural group.
The fifth stage in the continuum is Adaptation, in which individuals show respect and empathy toward others and adapt personal behaviors according to the cultural context of a given situation. This is the point in the skill stage where the individual is in the “process of developing intercultural sensitivity.”104 The Adaption stage is the point at which the individual experiences cultural competence and sensitivity. These individuals also demonstrate an ability to adapt to situations where they can effectively engage in interpersonal communication with individuals from different cultures. At the adaptation stage, a teacher is able to see the world through the eyes of the learner. At this stage, a teacher who is teaching a political science course to diverse learners that consist of African-Americans, for example, may lead discussions with students regarding the context and intersectionality of the recent stories of the killings of unarmed Black men and women, such as Ahmaud Arbery, Jonathan Ferrell, George Floyd, Eric Gardner, Sean Bell, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, and Breonna Taylor by American law enforcement and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Doing this demonstrates respect and empathy toward African Americans, a group that has been historically marginalized by political systems of oppression, such as white supremacy racism.
Finally, within the Integration phase of the continuum, one maintains one’s own culture while adapting to certain aspects of other cultures. This is the most fluid stage of the continuum. Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. People at the Integration stage “often are dealing with issues related to their own cultural marginality.”105 An example of a White teacher at the Integration stage would be an individual who embraces their culture and the culture of others. Accepting the culture of others and with no biases, suggests that an individual respects the uniqueness of any distinctive cultural group that is different from their own.
The Ethnocentric stages within the CPE scale were used to interpret African-American student experiences with White teacher classroom practices that may be categorized as expressing traditional teaching practices, or the “banking system.” Conversely, the continuum’s Ethnorelativistic stages were used to adequately interpret and categorize students’ pedagogical experiences as reflecting culturally responsive classroom practices. Culturally responsive classrooms reflect student-centered instruction that advocates for cultural competence, socio-political consciousness, and academic excellence.106 These classrooms use the culture of the student as a vehicle in which to effectively teach them.
The CPE scale was beneficial for interpreting, categorizing, describing , and understanding African-American community college students’ perceived experiences with White teachers for this study. Bennett’s DMIS and Olson’s school wounds concept served as the framework for the CPE. It helps me to understand and interpret African-American students’ perceived experiences with White teachers’ classroom teaching practices and attach meaning to them. Because the CPE scale helped categorize and interpret African-American students’ perceived experiences with White teachers’ classroom practices for this study, it was the most appropriate method by which to try to understand African-American participant pedagogical experiences in White classrooms.
Cross’ Nigrescence Identity Model. The second lens used for this study was Cross’ Nigrescence Identity Model (CNIM). Cross (1991) developed the CNIM to better understand how racism shapes the identity of people of African descent (See Table 2). CNIM provided the lens through which to understand African-American students’ perceptions of themselves. This model provided a generalized understanding of the participants’ cultural identification and helped me to understand and describe participants’ experiences with White teachers. This lens helped describe where African-American students were within the CNIM continuum in order to understand how they perceived their experiences with teaching practices that may have been perceived as Ethnocentric or Ethnorelativistic, according to the CPE.
The CNIM107 provided various pathways for understanding the stages a participant goes through to “become Black.” The model shows how culture shapes study participants’ attitudes about how they see themselves as people of African descent. The CNIM encompasses four stages of awareness within adults: Pre-encounter, Encounter, Immersion-emersion, and Internalization. In the Pre-encounter stage, individuals assimilate into mainstream culture. They absorb many beliefs and values of the dominant White culture. Individuals who have internalized racism tend to become anti-Black. These individuals tend to see society as colorless or are colorblind.
Between Pre-encounter and Internalization is the second stage of CNIM,108 called the Encounter stage. Within the encounter stage, an event takes place that causes individuals to question their Black identity. The third stage is the Immersion-emersion stage. In the Immersion-emersion stage, individuals find that all things Black are good, and they become entrenched in Black culture and Black issues. People in this stage make a conscious decision to develop a Black identity. In the next and final stage, called Internalization, students experience different levels of resolutions of dissonance regarding their Black identity as Black Nationalist, bicultural, or multicultural.
Black nationalists believe Blackness should be used as a political and social platform to ignite change.109 Black nationalists appreciate Black empowerment and maintain a heightened awareness of Black history and culture. Those who identify themselves as bicultural accept the fact that they are both African and American. An individual who is in the multicultural phase of CNIM expresses an acceptance of the self as a Black person and an appreciation for diverse cultural backgrounds. These individuals maintain their African identity while integrating with mainstream culture. Black nationalists and those who see themselves as bicultural and multicultural have healthy Black identities.110
A positive racial identity helps individuals to have a positive and confident outlook on their ability to achieve goals.111 Therefore, when Black students have a positive attitude towards academic success, it is a critical component for achieving academic and personal development success (See Table 2).
Cross Negrescence Identity Models
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This conceptual framework also consisted of the CPE, which is manifested as Ethnocentric and Ethnorelativistic epistemologies (See Table 3). The Denial stage of the CPE is combined with the concept of School Wounds. An additional lens for this study included the CNIM. This multi-pronged conceptual approach provided the appropriate lens for interpreting African-American students’ descriptions of classroom experiences with White teachers. It provided a basis for understanding students’ level of cultural development to better understand and describe their classroom experiences.
Erskine-Meusa's Continuum of Pedagogical Experiences (CPE)
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African-American Community College Student Classroom Experiences
Education researchers and practitioners have explored the efficacy of culturally responsive teaching as identifying and nurturing African-American students' unique cultural strengths in order to promote their academic achievement and sense of self-worth112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 The research most often identifies culturally embedded classroom practices, culturally mediated instruction, and culturally responsive pedagogy as holistic and successful methods for teaching African-American students125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 CRP is used to describe student-centered instruction that advocates for student-centered learning.136 When culture is used as a teaching strategy, it helps to prevent the discontinuity that occurs when the culture of the student and the teacher are “not synchronized” or culturally embedded.137
The ideas behind CRP were first championed by Shor,138 a professor of composition and rhetoric at the Community College of Staten Island. His theoretical work centers on the need for faculty to teach students to confront issues regarding the status quo and to develop critical thinking skills that can help emancipate them from mental subordination.139 Shor140 valued learning through dialogue, which allows teachers and students to mutually investigate their daily lives. As a result, students become active change agents because the mutual dialogue helps them to become inspired learners, skilled workers, and critical thinkers.141 Bottom of Form
Ladson-Billings142 defined CRP as teaching and empowering students through their culture rather than inserting culture into a pedagogy of opposition. Ladson-Billings143 held that CRP is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically.” The criteria shaping this method of instruction are that students must experience academic success, develop and/or maintain cultural competence, and develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the social order. Ladson-Billings144 noted that educators must find the courage and transparency to divest themselves of any potential biases that may thwart the use of CRP and be well prepared for it to work efficiently and effectively in their classrooms.