For 30 years, desegregation has been a focal point for educational reform that is designed to benefit black children. Yet cities have a declining pool of white children to integrate with black children. A critical issue being raised by black scholars is: How we can create schools that educate black children effectively wherever they are found?
Educators are also realizing that integration alone is not the answer to black children’s needs: Blacks often have different learning styles because of their different cultural backgrounds. The education of white children is generally more successful than that of black children because the schools were designed for whites.
Specialists in advertising, marketing, politics, journalism, and film have long targeted messages to the black community and thereby acknowledged the existence of a distinctive black culture and perspective. Educators should do the same.
Blacks participate in a culture that has its roots in West Africa. This culture gives rise to characteristic modes of child rearing among African-American people and results in distinctive learning and expressive styles. Educators may be able to build bridges between the natural learning styles in the black family and the novel styles of learning introduced in the schools.
Blacks transform every cultural mode they interact with: language, music, religion, art, dance, problem solving, sports, writing. A kind of soulfulness, or spirituality, characterizes black life. Black children are often exposed to an unusually high degree of stimulation from the creative arts. They are surrounded by posters, paintings, and graffiti; phonographs, radios, and tape players; television and films, and creative hairstyles, hats, scarves, and a general orientation toward adornment of the body that grows out of the African heritage.
Black children, seeing successful black preachers, athletes, singers, and dancers, learn at an early age the significance of perfecting performer roles.
In devising educational strategies to complement black culture, we applied the findings of scholars in fields ranging from history and religion to linguistics and art, in a program I founded, “Visions for Children,” in Cleveland.
The program is only two years old, so it’s too early to see significant results, but we hope it will lead to educational gains for black children. The classes emphasize the special characteristics of African-American children and offer a teaching method and curriculum that encourage children to learn the information and skills necessary for upward mobility, career achievement, and, ultimately, financial independence in the American mainstream.
At the same time, the program is designed so that the children feel pride in their own ethnic culture and are able to identify with and contribute to the development of African-American people.
The teaching method emphasizes African-American culture and integrates it in all of its diversity throughout the curriculum. The children learn about Africa and their rich cultural heritage in arts and crafts, folktales and stories, and music. They also learn about heroes in African-American history, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Special characteristics of African-American children should be considered in designing instruction.
They tend to be more active than white children. Classes should provide frequent opportunities for physical release and for activities that can incorporate movement into the learning process.
Since African-American children are often very expressive in music, dance, and drama, and use language with flair, the creative arts should permeate the early-childhood curriculum. For example, Visions for Children has an artist-in-residence program that teaches African dance and drumming.
African-American children often learn to use words with rhetorical flair, even if they sometimes don’t show the vocabulary breadth that is rewarded on standardized tests. Therefore, Visions for Children provides field trips, guest speakers and storytellers, and real-life experiences with objects and concepts they are expected to be familiar with when they enter kindergarten.
Many elementary-school programs overemphasize phonics instruction (letter sounds and word decoding) to the exclusion of higher-order thinking skills that are key to middle-school reading achievement. Visions for Children emphasizes the skills in reasoning and problem solving that underlie the reading and writing process.
African-American children are able to master a wide range of mathematical skills in their everyday lives, such as computing baseball batting averages, but they often have difficulty demonstrating their skills in the classroom. At Visions for Children, we try to incorporate movement--for example, teaching children numbers through playing hopscotch--and we try to draw on real-life experience, such as making change for money.
Customarily, African-American children are evaluated upon entering school on the extent to which they have absorbed Anglo-American culture and on the degree to which they can harmonize that culture with their own. This judgment by teachers of the extent to which they can “act white” often results in low self-esteem and a negative attitude toward learning and school.
To encourage self-motivation and a lifelong love of learning, children’s self-confidence should be fostered through frequent compliments, displays of work, performances, open houses, and regular success experiences.
Disciplinary practices should teach children how to reason. Too often, children are told what not to do, but they are not taught how to determine the proper behavior for themselves. Disciplinary situations are opportunities for teaching. The purpose of discipline is to achieve self-management.
African-American children are raised in families and communities that emphasize feelings and intense interpersonal relationships. Their learning in the family is highly characterized by learning from people rather than objects.
Therefore, a high adult-child ratio, small-group learning, and peer-group tutoring are useful. At Visions for Children, the children are divided into groups named for African ethnic groups and rotate among the teachers. Frequent touching, sitting on laps, holding hands, and hugging are encouraged.
All this is in no way intended to ignore the diversity of styles among African-American children. It is intended as a first step in pointing scholars and educators toward cultural elements in education that may create success for black children.
It is critical that the schools become more sensitive to ethnic and cultural groups that do not conform to the white upper-middle-income model that many schools serve.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 1989 edition of Education Week as Designing Instruction for Black Children