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Teaching Opinion

Four Ways to Support African American Students Through the COVID-19 Emergency

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 27, 2020 8 min read
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(This is the second post in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

The question is:

What can schools do to specifically support African American students during the school closure crisis?

Part One in this series featured contributions from Antoine Germany and Larry Walker.

Today Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., shares his reflections.

I’ll be adding it to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Emphasizing connection

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. He is the author of Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy (2019):

Let’s first give some thought to the question: Why would we ask such a thing? Is it even advisable to disaggregate our concerns according to racial/ethnic identity at such a time as this?

The very good reasons for asking the question seek to identify aspects of experience that are common amongst a student group (African American in this case) that is generally less likely to achieve relative to other student groups. COVID-19 doesn’t target any group as much as it amplifies the inequities in social determinants of health outcomes that render the African American community more susceptible to the negative outcomes of any crisis. African American students are not only statistically more likely to know someone who has died or been hospitalized with COVID-19-related illness, but given the social and economic realities, they are also more likely to have firsthand experience through their family life with housing and employment hardships in this pandemic. If schools are able to serve the students most vulnerable to underperformance in this school closure crisis, they are more likely able to better develop the policies and practices to support the engagement and learning outcomes for everyone.

The not-so-good reasons to ask this question are the ones that lead us in the direction of checklisting and stereotyping. The experiences and perspectives within the African American community are as expansive as any racial/ethnic group. Further, we’re wise to avoid the binary paradigms that pit People of Color against each other in the effort to secure the services and opportunities deserving of all. If the asking of this question is intended to uncover some quick and easy fix, it’s dangerous and has the potential to make the situation even worse. African Americans are experiencing the same coronavirus challenges as many other Americans, we’re just doing it against the backdrop of the nation’s long and violent traditions of subjugating the value of black lives.

Investigate the Need

Schools should be looking into the ways in which their African American students are experiencing risk from their perspective. Risk is a function of a cross-current of circumstances affecting some groups and individuals differently and disproportionately relative to others. Risk exponentially enhances the impact of other risk, so that one risk factor in the presence of another is far more impactful than the mere presence of one (seemingly) isolated risk. Investigation of need guards against the indiscriminate application of what we may think are protective factors to risk circumstances that we don’t understand well, thus preventing us from wasting time and resources with ineffective supports, or worse, deficitizing our students out of frustration when the poorly conceived protective factors miss the mark.

The most significant task at hand during the school closure crisis is keeping students connected to the space, community, and concept of school. What does an emphasis on connection look like in instruction? Here are some suggestions that can be translated into multiple age groups and content areas:

1. Have students make recordings of themselves explaining their thinking and understandings.

The more opportunities that African American students have to organize their conceptual understandings around their own language, references, and contexts, the more engaged they’ll be and the better they will retain what they are learning. Students can make recordings in video or audio format and upload in teacher-monitored applications to be viewed and discussed with other classmates. Think of it like a digital turn-and-talk. Or, for a more summative assessment, students can record their explanations of their understandings in TedTalk fashion.

This is also an effective way to learn more about your students’ “funds of knowledge.” Assign problem scenarios for your students to consider and explain their problem-solving rationale. Study students’ responses for how they are able to use their tools and background knowledge to come up with creative solutions. This means that thinking should be centered in our planning and not rote, mechanical memorization of information. Give students the opportunities to translate their insights and exercise critical-thinking skills by playing with BIG ideas so that they are able to solve problems with the content.

2. Share your story.

One way of connecting students in instruction is through the use of “story.” The African American community has a strong storytelling cultural tradition. Compose a digital diary to let your students into your life and document your inner dialogue for navigating your pandemic concerns. Though you need not divulge all the details of your own quarantine story, it’s important that your students hear from YOU ... the part of you that is vulnerable and relatable. The goal in your storytelling is to highlight the common experiences and elements you and your students share. Does your pet comfort you? Are you reading a book or taking on a new hobby? Do you have a special friend or family member that’s on your mind? These are all episodes and anecdotes that can be used to demonstrate that you, too, are a human being decidedly not immune to the challenges of the moment.

Discuss your strategies for dealing with your anxieties in productive and healthy ways. If you tell a good story, students view your sharing as authentic, and you will be more trustworthy to them. If your students trust you, you become a model for how they cope with their own concerns. (I experience this as therapeutic myself, and it has the added benefit of giving me a space for improving my own videography and screen-presentation skills.)

3. Invite students to share their art, music, and other creative content.

Dedicate time for students to be able to show and perform their creative skill sets. Think of it as a space in which we’re able to learn more about the often-hidden talents of our students. The demonstrations of talent can be performed in themed talent shows. Use themes drawn from the big ideas in your curriculum as opportunities for students to creatively perform, embody, and adapt their emerging understandings of key themes in the curriculum.

4. Give extra credit/incentives for students providing thoughtful feedback on your teaching.

Many teachers are experiencing a steep distance-learning curve. As you try out new techniques, ask your students for thoughtful feedback. Offer incentives for students to assess the quality of the learning opportunities. It’s best to think in terms of specific touch points. Ask students: Where were you confused about what to do? What was most fun? What was most boring? Ask students to be specific about the moments and feelings in the answering of these questions. Share students’ feedback with your class(es) to show that it’s being taken seriously and then make adjustments. We want our students to think of this time as a partnership in which they have agency to contribute to improvements.

Active Participation, NOT Passive Consumption

When schools serve African American students well, they provide safe spaces and meaningful opportunities to think in rigorous ways while also being able to draw from their social and cultural fluencies. Now, more than ever, African American students need schools that provide instruction that prepares them to participate in the post coronavirus economy. This means moving away from passive consumption to active participation—though this was also true before the current pandemic.

Thanks to Adeyemi for his contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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