Keffrelyn Brown is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in the department of curriculum & instruction with a primary appointment in the cultural studies in education area. Her scholarly interests focus on understanding how pre-service and in-service teachers acquire, understand and use sociocultural knowledge to address the teaching of underserved student populations. She is also interested in the educational experiences of and knowledge produced and circulated about African American (students). Her work has been published in Educational Researcher, as well as in several education handbooks and encyclopedias. Keffrelyn is an affiliate faculty member with the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.
In my university sociocultural foundations course I ask students—many of whom plan on becoming K-12 teachers—to list words they have heard used to talk about Black students. Every semester I consistently hear terms like: loud, lazy, gangster, troublemaker and at-risk and each time I am floored by the words shared. Neither these terms nor their connoted meanings correspond with words or perspectives used to describe students viewed as having the potential to learn. I am also saddened by the taken-for-granted way students approach this task. This is evident in the rapid, yet apathetic, nonchalant manner in which students come up with and offer these words. They do not question the negative nature of the terms, nor the consistency of the terms offered. It is not until we discuss the activity that students think about the implications this way of talking about Black K-12 students might have on their education.
Each semester I am responsible for helping prospective teacher candidates develop a body of sociocultural knowledge that will help them work effectively with all students. By sociocultural knowledge I refer to the social, cultural, economic, political and historical knowledge that informs how societies and schools operate. To do this, I help students recognize how key sociocultural factors including race, class and gender organize how people and societies understand and interact with one another.[i] These processes necessarily frame the practice of schooling.
Nowhere are these processes more evident than when considering the material challenges that Black students encounter in schools (e.g., lower achievement and school completion levels; disproportionately high rates of suspension and placement in special education).[ii] Many pre-service and in-service teachers do not believe they can effectively teach all students[iii] and in both popular and academic circles, the Black student (along with students who come from low income backgrounds and students whose first language is not English) is often positioned as different, deficient, and in need of special treatment. Schools and teachers often approach these conditions in two ways:
I propose that if schools and teachers are to do a better job of meeting the needs of Black students, they, along with the larger lay public, we must radically shift the ways in which we talk about these students. I argue that we must closely attend to the language we use when describing Black students, even when moving from a place of well-intentioned desire to change. Below I offer three specific recommendations for reforming how we talk about and approach Black students in schools and classrooms.
[ii] Noguera, P. A. (2009). The trouble with Black boys: and other reflections on race, equity and the future of public education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
[iii] Pollock, M., Deckman, S., Mira, M. & Shalaby, C. (2010). But what can I do?: Three necessary tensions in teaching teachers about race. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 211-224.
[iv] Sleeter, C. E. (2008). Preparing White teachers for diverse students. In M. Cochran-Smith, S. Feiman-Nemser, D. J. McIntyre & Kelly E. Demers (Eds.), Handbook of Research on teacher education. (Third Edition). (559-582). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group and the Association of Teacher Educators.
[v] Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.
[vi] Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
[vii] Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American students. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.