Keffrelyn Borwn-PhotoKeffrelyn 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:

  • The first approach places blame for the negative schooling conditions faced by Black students on the student, family, community or racial/cultural group in which the student is a member.  This approach draws from a deficiency model that does not recognize nor acknowledge the resources and assets that students, families and communities possess.[iv] This approach also serves as a scapegoat, taking the responsibility off schools and teachers to teach all students, including Black students, well.
  • The second approach locates the problem of effective teaching and schooling squarely on the shoulders of the teacher and school, arguing the need to provide Black students with special targeted teaching. This position is based on an assumption that Black students are culturally different from the dominant mainstream culture which characterizes the values and approaches to teaching found in most K-12 schools.  These differences lead Black students to experience academic difficulties because of cultural mismatch.[v] As a result teachers often presume to need specialized, targeted teaching strategies to engage the Black student.  While premised on a culturally sound argument, this approach leads some to essentialize the Black student by assuming that all Black students are the same; that they come to school possessing the same experiences, prior knowledge and orientations to learning.  This view allows schools and teachers to ignore the differences, strengths and challenges individual students hold.  Holding this perspective also does not require that one understand an important principle: The primary reason to attend to cultural differences is the fact that schools and teachers draw from curriculum and teaching practices that generally align with the dominant, mainstream way of knowing and approaching the world. Bringing awareness to the fact that not all people understand and approach the world in the same way, as well as the troublesome history of leaving out or misrepresenting the intellectual contributions of people of color is another important reason why schools and teachers must expand the kinds of knowledge and experiences offered to all students, not just students of color.

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.

  • Strategy One: Attend closely to the language used to talk about Black students.  This requires both tuning into the way Black students get talked about in education settings (e.g., schools, university programs, professional development workshops, federal and state policy, popular media, informal conversations) and the subsequent strategies offered to work with Black students.  Identifying the ways Black students are discussed as different and deficient and the contradictions that exist in talk about students is key.  An illustration of this is found in the example of positioning underachieving Black students as “at-risk” or troubled while simultaneously positioning underachieving White students as gifted, yet “unengaged” by schools and teachers.
  • Strategy Two: Understand and acknowledge how social practices (often based on domination and inequitable practices) have and continue to construct how people are grouped — in this case, racially — read and dealt with in school settings. Prior experiences, desires, ways of viewing the self, world and others, and orientations to learning are not the same for all members of a racial/cultural group.  Recognizing the ways in which certain patterns of similarity may exist is different from presuming that all members of any group are the exact same.  While schools and teachers would do well to get to know their students by building rapport with them and their families, as well as getting to know the communities from which their students come, at no time should assumptions or generalizations be made about their background, nature or characteristics.
  • Strategy Three: Shift focus from identifying what students “lack”, either academically and or in their home or community environments to acknowledging what students know and bring with them to school. Making this change allows one to approach students not as objects, but as human beings full of potential and ability to learn and achieve.  It also makes it possible for schools and teachers to operate partners in students’ academic lives and not as knowledgeable authorities that need to put knowledge into students[vi] as opposed to drawing or “mining” [vii] valued knowledge out of students in order to help them connect to new knowledge.


[i] Brown, K. D. & Kraehe, A. M. (2010).  The complexities of teaching the complex: Examining how future educators construct understandings of sociocultural knowledge and schooling.  Educational Studies, 46(1), 91-115.

[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.

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4 Responses to “Elevating Sociocultural Knowledge: Dismantling How We Talk about and Approach the K-12 Black Student by Keffrelyn Brown”

  1. Jeni on 6/2/10 7:47 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful work. I am interested in the preparation of teachers for inclusive settings and I conceptualize inclusive settings as places of belonging for students from culturally (defined very broadly and heterogeneously so includes ability, race, ethnicity, religion, SES, sexual orientation, and so on) and linguistically diverse backgrounds rather than just including kids with disabilities in the general education classroom. Therefore, this blog was very interesting for me and I found it specific, helpful, and valuable for my work. Thank you very much!

  2. Greg on 6/3/10 6:03 PM US/Eastern

    I am interested in hearing some more on what the dicussions sound like in the class when you “question the negative nature of the terms . . . 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.” I would love to engage folks in a dicussion such as this. Any insight you can shed on how to best do that would be very helpful.

  3. Keffrelyn on 6/4/10 8:17 AM US/Eastern

    The focus of our discussion is on bringing awareness to the fact that so many disparaging terms are associated with the identity of Black students. This activity illustrates for the students and serves as clear example of the way problematic discourses get “normalized” and taken for granted when talking about Black students. This fact alone is surprising for many of the students. It causes them to take notice of the way society and the people that make it up talk about/construct people.

  4. Laura on 6/6/10 6:09 PM US/Eastern

    I appreciate your comments and would like to see more dialogue in school settings about this. I believe that as educators we must encourage preservice teachers to explore their own biases, prejudices, and assumptions to become the teacher that teaches students of color.

    All of our students have suffered enough from being labeled as problems, at risk, and unproductive. It’s time to see students for who they are and bring out the best in all of our students no matter who they are or where they come from.

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