Waiting For Culturally Relevant Education, Not Superman
As a recent documentary film suggests, many parents and educators have been “Waiting for Superman” to fix our broken public education system. He simply isn’t coming. Imhotep, however, has landed in Philly.
A public charter high school that graduated its first class in 2000, Imhotep is hard to miss if you live in Philadelphia. It’s based in a $10 million educational complex. It produces championship athletic teams. The student population of 558 is overwhelmingly black. No Imhotep student is left behind — they all go onto college. And every day, there’s an Imhotep wardrobe riot going on as many teachers and students don colorful African clothing.
For all its success in using “culturally relevant teaching,” the school hasn’t emitted so much as a dull bleep on the radar screens of education cognoscenti seeking replicable school reforms, leaving one to question whether the school is just “too African” for America.
However, culturally relevant teaching as practiced there might be worth another look as a method capable of reaching the nation’s students.
Named for the legendary ancient Egyptian genius from the third dynasty who is credited with inventing papyrus, designing pyramids and founding medicine, Imhotep is the kind of school where the principles of Kwanzaa are called upon every day, where self-determination is an article of faith, and where students learn to “take responsibility for yourself, your brothers and your sisters.”
“When I started Imhotep, I did a graphic that put the student in the middle and made sure everything was designed to meet the needs of the child, not the teachers’ or the administration’s or the institution’s,” said CEO and founder Christine Wiggins, who is called Mama Wiggins. “And I continually try to do that.”
This meant designing a curriculum that “centers” Imhotep students by valuing Africa as the birthplace of humanity and learning. Mama Higgins and her staff of 60 call the students “Nubians” and approach teaching as if academics originated in the motherland.
“Developmentally, children need to know they are descendants of great thinkers,” Wiggins said. “When you never show them anybody that looks like them and that hasn’t achieved anything, then they don’t believe that they can achieve anything.”
She added: “It’s not advantageous to put a child in the classroom and give him a textbook where the only pictures of people that look like him are people on their knees in chains and being whipped. We’re going to show them images of their great African fathers and mothers as leaders in math and science, so everything that I do is centered around that basic premise.”
Detractors see the African mash-up of academics as fraudulent, saying you don’t have to see yourself in a curriculum; you just have to learn, or you’ll suffer the consequences.
But the Imhotep formula appears to get results: for nine years straight, 100% of Imhotep students have gotten into college, Wiggins said, adding, “The average in the country is running about 30%.” Her students win entrance to between 5 and 20 colleges, giving them a wide choice of colleges to attend.
Incoming Imhotep students are not filtered. “The children who come to us are the ones who have not been ‘saved’ in traditional schools,” she said. “I do a dance if I get a child in grade nine who is reading on a sixth grade level. Usually they are reading on a fourth and fifth grade level.”
The Imhotep ethic, forged in hard work, is enough to give Geoffrey Canada, who was praised by President Obama and others for creating the successful 97-block education lab in central Harlem, goose bumps. Imhotep offers an advanced placement program, senior internships requiring students to work in a business, government or community based organization. It also organizes small student learning communities and puts students through cultural rites of passage.
In addition, Imhotep has college partnerships with Arcadia University, Community College, Cornell University, Drexel University, Florida A&M, Howard University, Cheyney University, Lincoln University and Temple University.
Mama Wiggins’s approach to education is rooted in research conducted by another Philadelphian: Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of “The Dreamkeepers” and a leader in educating African-American children.
In the late 1980s, Ladson-Billings grew frustrated with the paucity of information on black education. “The thing that was bugging me was everything I read said nobody could teach these kids,” she said. “When I was doing literature searches, I would put in the descriptors ‘African American education’ or ‘black education,’ and I would get back in a few clicks, ‘See culturally deprived,’ ‘See culturally deficient,’ ‘See disadvantaged,’ ‘See at risk.’ So what became clear to me is that there was no language of excellence regarding African American education at all. I knew that couldn’t make sense as an African American who had done okay.”
She set out to find “exceptional teachers.” She found eight in California and studied their teaching methods for three years, drawing conclusions as to why they were successful. Culturally relevant teaching was borne of this research.
“These are teachers who focused on the kids’ learning, focused on their developing their cultural competence, and the third piece that they helped kids develop is what I call socio-political consciousness. In other words, they’re able to answer what I call the ‘So what?’ question. And kids ask this all the time.
“Most teachers have terrible answers to that question. They say, ‘You’re going to need this [knowledge] next year. [Exceptional teachers] try to have kids understand that it’s not enough for you to be smart or culturally competent; you also have to be able to ask critical questions about the society – why it is that things are organized this way, what do we do with inequity.”
She added: “I think most people don’t really understand [culturally relevant teaching]. I think they don’t recognize that it is essentially not an attempt to have kids fit into an already unequal system. It’s really an attempt to help them develop the kind of critical skills that will allow them to challenge the system.”
In light of this, it’s not necessary to teach black-focused academics, she noted: “Putting Ben Banneker in the curriculum is kind of irrelevant,” referring to the black astronomer, mathematicians and surveyor who helped to survey Washington, D.C.
She also said white teachers are perfectly capable of conducting culturally relevant teaching. “What I saw one of the teachers do — and this was one of the white teachers — we were in the middle of the California textbook wars over what the race and ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians,” she said. “This woman said, ‘Let’s see if we can figure this out,” and these kids went to work on this project like nobody’s business, and their conclusion was that ancient Egypt was probably multiracial, but that race didn’t mean then what it means now. Probably what was more relevant was class identity — whether you were in the Pharaoh’s court or a peasant. And this was the sixth grade!”
Predominantly non-black schools must approach the subject of slavery carefully, she said. “We’re not immune to the denigration and the derogation of our culture. We know how it’s portrayed. The [black student] doesn’t want to be the focus and think, Oh God, here she is talking about slavery, so now everybody thinks it’s about me.”
Ladson-Billings firmly believes all students enter classrooms with their culture in tow, and that smart teachers will use culture as a learning tool, not dismiss it outright as one professor attempted to do with her: “I went to a class where the professor said if you didn’t appreciate Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, you were culturally deprived, to which I responded, if you didn’t appreciate James Brown, you were culturally deprived.”
Ladson-Billings notes that African-American students as a whole have lower student assessment scores, but she harbors skepticism of testing. “There was a huge disconnect between what the test constructors ask and what kids’ experiences are,” she said. Actual unused questions from a national assessment test asked whether a student would be willing to have a person of another race as a teacher or a barber. “When I interviewed the kids, they actually had had some experience [with non-black barbers], and their hair got all jacked up,” she said. These kids were bound to fail that question.
As for Afrocentric schools, there’s nothing wrong with them so long as they do right by students. “People get all upset when [someone says] they’re going to [build] something Afrocentric,” she said. “[People] say, ‘Well where are they going to live, in an Afrocentric world?’ Well every major city in this country has a French lyceum where the wealthiest kids go to school.”
Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Gregory Kane counts himself among the detractors of culturally relevant education. He doesn’t believe teachers need to paint pictures of black culture to make academics more digestible. “When I was a lad I did not have to ‘see’ myself in the curriculum,” he wrote in the San Francisco Examiner. “The only picture I needed to see was my mother’s foot being placed firmly up my derriere if I didn’t bring home good grades from school. You’d be amazed at how ‘relevant’ that made everything my teachers taught me.”
He added that culturally relevant teachers could end up teaching “absolute nonsense”: “I actually had someone try to convince me that such a thing as ‘Afrocentric math’ existed. ‘No,’ I insisted. ‘I assure you there is no ‘Afrocentric’ math, nor is there a ‘Eurocentric’ math or an ‘Asian-centric’ math. Math is simply math.”
Molefi Asante strongly disagrees. If there were a godfather of Afrocentricity, it would be Asante, founder of the first doctoral program in African American studies at Temple University.
“Yes, you can teach math [Afrocentrically] by centering the child in historical context,” Asante insists. “If I’m teaching a child about shapes and forms, I am at the very heart of the pyramid, which is African. I can center that child right there, and we can do a whole black thing about shapes and forms. I can talk about curves and lines by talking about how the Africans built the great Zimbabwe.”
“Children,” Asante said, “should not be renters of information; they should be owners of information. They should feel that the curriculum is theirs. This is us. We produced this. Mathematics? Oh yeah, the first mathematicians were Africans, and that’s a fact. They have to feel that sense that this is connected to me.”
A major problem in education today is the educators, Asante said. “When you come out of a school of education, you know how to do time sheets and lesson plans. But in terms of actually dealing with children and grounding them in their cultural experiences and exciting them to go further and deeper and longer in their tradition, it is rare.”
Meanwhile, African American children “sit in the classrooms on the margins,” he said. “They are never given the subject position, and never seen as actors or agents or creators of knowledge. They’re always going to get somebody else’s knowledge.”
He said Afrocentricity works because it engenders self-worth. “What’s working are those Afrocentric schools that have deliberately, consciously decided that the way to educate African American children is to ground them in their cultural experiences so that they like not only themselves, but that they like African culture. The problem with black children is they hate Africa, and if you hate Africa you won’t learn. That is the fundamental dictum that seems to be the problem. They have negative attitudes toward their history, their culture, and their people.”