Equity & Diversity

Scholar Finds Gold in Special Brand of Urban Humor

By Debra Viadero — February 14, 2006 6 min read
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Whether they’ve heard them on television or on a city playground, many Americans are familiar with “your mama” jokes. “Your mama is so skinny she could do the hula hoop in a Cheerio,” goes one such playful gibe. Or, “Your mama is so dumb she thinks a quarterback is a refund.”

For many African-Americans, such wordplay is a form of “signifiying”—a way of talking that employs insults and colorful, figurative language in the service of humor. To Northwestern University researcher Carol D. Lee, though, “signifying” is more than a good playground joke. It’s a bridge that teachers can use to help disadvantaged black students decipher the complex literary works they encounter in the classroom.

Chicago-based scholar Carol D. Lee sees "signifying" as an instructional touchstone to build literacy skills.

Intellectually, signifying is a complicated undertaking, says Ms. Lee, who has taught in Chicago schools for almost 40 years. To be adept at it, one has to think quickly and understand how to use symbolism, irony, innuendo, hyperbole, and other literary devices.

Yet students who are masters at signifying outside of school may struggle to recognize the same techniques in the writings of William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. Ms. Lee’s idea was to bring the playground practice into the classroom so that students could use it as a “scaffold” to help build their understanding of mainstream texts.

“It’s realizing, for them, that responding to literature is playful, and this is a game that they already know how to play and one that they value,” said Ms. Lee, an associate professor of learning sciences and African-American studies at Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill.

Ulterior Motives

Ms. Lee began testing her idea in the early 1990s in Chicago-area high schools and got good results. She found that students in classrooms that incorporated examples of signifying improved their reading-comprehension skills more than students in the same school taught by more-traditional means.

Since then, she has developed similar curriculum models using rap lyrics, rap videos, and film clips. Ms. Lee calls her approach a “cultural-modeling framework,” a theory that traces its roots to basic principles of cognitive science stressing the importance of “prior knowledge” in acquiring new knowledge.

Members of the Azania Drum Ensemble hold hands during morning assembly at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which research Carol D. Lee helped found. Ms. Lee has drawn on her experiences at the Chicago school for her research on using features of urban African-American culture to bolster classroom learning.

Ms. Lee’s research continues to attract attention now, as the federal No Child Left Behind Act turns up the pressure on schools to erase the achievement gaps that separate most African-American students from their higher-achieving white and Asian-American peers.

“A lot of people who are trying to do culturally compatible work will find stuff that kids are interested in and just focus on that,” said Roland G. Tharp, a senior scientist at the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence at the University of California, Berkeley. “Critics think that’s just teaching stuff that kids already know.

“But Lee’s not teaching rap to teach rap,” he said. “What ultimately distinguishes her work is that she is using this as a route toward high-level academic goals.”

What’s more, other scholars have noted, Ms. Lee has developed curricula and conducted research studies to back up her theory.

Comic Potential

Since the early 1990s, Northwestern University researcher Carol D. Lee has published more than a dozen books and articles describing her efforts to use the distinctive brand of African-American humor known as signifying, as well as rap lyrics and other forms of communication in the black community, to improve students’ language arts skills. Those publications include:

Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications of an African-American Discourse Genre, a 1993 book published by the National Council of Teachers of English as part of the Urbana, Ill.-based organization’s research report series.

• “Is October Brown Chinese?: A Cultural Modeling Activity System for Underachieving Students,” published in the spring 2001 issue of the American Educational Research Journal.

• “A Culturally Based Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching African-American High School Students Skills in Literary Interpretation,” published in 1995 in the October-December issue of Reading Research Quarterly.

• “Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation,” published in November 1995 in the Journal of Black Psychology.

• “Literacy in the Academic Disciplines and the Needs of Struggling Adolescents,” published in 2004 in the winter/spring issue of Voices in Urban Education.

The Role of Culture in Academic Learning, a book due to be published this coming fall by the New York City-based Teachers College Press.

SOURCE: Education Week

Even so, Ms. Lee concedes that her studies fall short of the “scientifically based research” standard that the federal law stresses. The kind of research that meets that test tends to be based on large experiments in which students are randomly assigned to one group or another. While Ms. Lee also has used control and experimental groups, her studies tend to be smaller and take a more anthropological approach. She often teaches one of the classes herself and writes in detail about the conversations that go on there. Rigorous scientific studies are important, but they don’t go far enough, she contends.

“We need a broader, more sensitive view of the scientific bases for learning, particularly learning in the certain subject matters,” she said, “because learning is much more complex.”

At age 60, Ms. Lee speaks from both experience and scholarship. With her husband, the poet and publisher Haki R. Madhubuti, she helped found a private preschool and three African-centered charter schools in some of Chicago’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods.

One is the nationally known Betty Shabazz International Charter School, a 15-year-old school serving grades K-8 that existed under a different name before becoming a charter school eight years ago. “In many respects, what I’ve done theoretically around cultural modeling has been an outgrowth of what would’ve been some 15 years of practice here,” said Ms. Lee, as she walked the school’s hallways one day last month.

Here, in this building on Chicago’s South Side, Ms. Lee is better known as Mama Safisha—Swahili for “to make clean and correct.” She ran this school from 1988 to 1991, when she left to pursue her doctorate at the University of Chicago. She and her husband still serve on its board of directors, and their pictures adorn the walls.

Theories Tested

Most of Ms. Lee’s research, though, has focused on regular public schools—not schools of choice like Shabazz. One of the earliest of those studies, conducted in 1991, involved six 9thgrade English classrooms in two pseudonymous high schools. Four of the classrooms used a cultural-modeling approach, and two provided more-traditional instruction.

In the experimental classrooms, students began the instructional unit by working with dialogues that exemplified signifying. “Does each speaker mean exactly and literally what each says?” they were asked. “How do you know?”

Students and faculty members assemble at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago, which has influenced Carol D. Lee's research on teaching literature to African-American students.

They also studied expository essays on signifying, derived general principles to describe the practice, and wrote their own dialogues. For the final phase of the unit, students read and interpreted The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

From tests given before and after the unit, Ms. Lee found, the students in classrooms that used signifying improved more than the control-group students did on most literature-comprehension and -interpretation skills. And the students who gained the most were those who had started out the furthest behind, as shown by their pretest scores.

After that study, which was published in 1993, Ms. Lee expanded her approach to include lyrics from rap songs, such as “The Mask” by the Fugees, videos, and short films dripping in symbolism and set in urban environments.

From those kinds of works, students moved to the writings of Shakespeare, John Milton, William Faulkner, Amy Tan, and other authors less familiar to Ms. Lee’s students. At the end of the unit, one such study shows, 60 percent to 90 percent of the students, when given an unfamiliar text, correctly picked out key details or identified implied relationships in the story. That was true, Ms. Lee added, even though all of the students were considered struggling readers because of their scores on other kinds of tests.

“Ninety percent of the kids who come out of these high schools would not buy a Shakespeare play or a Faulkner novel to save their life,” said Ms. Lee, who spent some of her own childhood in a Chicago housing project. “I’m hoping that after four years of these kinds of deep experiences, we might create a lifelong reader who might go into Barnes & Noble and buy a book.”

Beyond Literacy

Ms. Lee also found along the way, however, that succeeding in one academic discipline doesn’t immunize students from the perils of street life. She tells the story of Yetu, who, in 9th grade had been one of the most insightful students in her class. Two years after leaving that class, though, Yetu, by then the father of twins, had been kicked out of school.

So Ms. Lee is drawing again on lessons from the Betty Shabazz school to shape the next phase of her research: a look at the kinds of social-emotional teaching and environments that equip disadvantaged urban black children for adult life.

At Shabazz, for instance, educators try to infuse the ancient Egyptian principles of Ma’at into lessons and assessments. According to the school, those principles are: truth, harmony, justice, balance, propriety, reciprocity, and order. In an effort to build nurturing adult-child relationships, the school also requires students to address teachers as “Mama” and “Baba.”

“None of these kids are going to be in Yetu’s position,” Ms. Lee said. “If you handed them marijuana, they’d hand it back.”

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