Schools need a truly multicultural approach

Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section ran a thoughtful article about schools’ failures in educating African-American youth. The author, Tamiko Jordan-Obregon of the Milwaukee Center for Leadership Development, addresses the fact that many African-American youth do not connect with curriculum in our schools.

Jordan-Obregon quotes Carter G. Woodson about the need for schools to be relevant. She correctly describes how many schools focus on what I call “white presidents” history and leave African-American history to only passing mention.

Jordan-Obregon suggests that instead of doing a “deep dive” into Shakespeare’s works, African-American children should study the history and culture of African people.

While I fully agree with these concerns, I also know you cannot simply replace the study of, for example, Shakespeare. The canon that students must know to get into and to be successful in college is too often a Eurocentric constructed curriculum. African-American students must know this canon in order to compete.

What we need is a truly multicultural approach. Teachers must learn and invest in the cultures of other people’s children. They must learn the history and culture of the students they teach and connect whatever they’re teaching to the students’ lives.

For example, in teaching literature, comparisons can be made between August Wilson’s work and Shakespeare’s. But to do this, teachers must be grounded in works by Wilson or James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Langston Hughes and a host of other African-American authors. As with all curriculum, this work must be engaging, lively and critical.

It is the responsibility of educators to give students a foundation in their community’s cultural and historical development. We can do this while also critiquing the dominant culture and those power relationships. History curriculum should be based in a people’s history that explains the complexity of how we got to where we are today.

The wealth of materials available now offer an great opportunity for teachers to connect what students are studying to their own lives, including the use of popular culture. I learned a lot from Adam Bradley’s “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop,” where he offers a dissection of hip-hop lyrics while comparing them to other forms of poetry.

Or take the anthropological study “The Birth of African-American Culture” by Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, which gives a framework for the historical development of African-American culture in the U.S. These connections can and should be made throughout students K-12 education.

While K-12 schools should absolutely provide courses of African-American history and culture (along with other people’s history and culture), they should also bring this curriculum into the established core curriculum. To do this, teachers must be trained in the history and culture of the students they teach.

This, by the way, should be the approach in all schools, even where fewer or no people of color reside.

At this time, what is taught, and whose history, culture and literature dominates K-12 instruction is far from being multicultural, equal or fair.

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