Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nelson Mandela and Culturally Relevant Teaching

I learned on NPR this morning that Nelson Mandela is celebrating his 91st birthday. I heard this as I was driving to the last ession of my class, "racism in education." Interestingly, I have been working on creating more culturally relevant curriculum for my students - particularly for my students of color - as a direct result of some materials I have been exposed to in this class. My kids of color need more curriculum that makes their people's contribution to our history more meaningful in both local and global contexts. Typically, the education and action that moves me to make progress on my commitment to anti-racist parenting, helps move my commitment to anti-racist teaching. Had I heard about Nelson Mandela's birthday in a prior time in my life, I would have been interested and attentive. Indeed, I do teach a unit about Gandhi to my freshman that engages the non-violent strategies of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. So, yes, I know Mandela's importance and significance, but I would not have thought, "how do I make this relevant (more relevant, importantly, to my students of color) to my work and my parenting?" Frankly, if I am honest, I don't care that much that my white students "get into" Nelson Mandela. I want my black students to really really be proud of this amazing black man and to feel a deeper sense of belonging to the stories we tell in history. I can't force that feeling, but it is the magic of culturally relevant teaching.

If you haven't heard about the new collection of Mandela's favorite African Folktales, produced by Alfre Woodard, check this out: I can't wait to hear the whole CD. And, if you want to know how to honor Mr. Mandela's life long work, check out this youtube video: One NYC campaign involves giving 67 minutes of your time to service, in honor of Mandela's 67 years as an activist. Here is the website:

If you are wondering what I mean by cultural relevance, Tami, on her blog "What Tami Said," delivers an eye popping comment for me, a history teacher, on her young nephew's experience with his history. She explains;

In the spring, my nephew's class at his predominantly white school studied the people, places and cultures of Europe and the Americas. And he says that he noticed this study included very little about the contributions of people of African descent. In the history of America, his ancestors were slaves and, it seems, nothing else. I am proud that my nephew had the presence of mind to recognize this inequity and ask his teacher whether some information about black Americans and the role of Africa in the building of the United States might be forthcoming. I am enraged, however, to know the answer he received from his teacher. The class wouldn't be covering information about black and African peoples, because "The school system doesn't want any trouble."


This classroom exploration and celebration of the rich history of Europe and the brave European men who "discovered, "conquered and colonized America (to the exclusion of any acknowlegdment of the history and contributions of anyone else--particularly people of color) left my nephew feeling rootless and unsure of his place in his own country. After all, to discuss his people is merely to invite "trouble"...Last week, the town where my nephew lives (and I live with my husband and stepson) was named among the top 10 places to raise a family by a major magazine. This isn't the first time our city has earned this tag, and like always, one of the things to be praised is the great school system. Interesting how "greatness" can be relative, depending on who your children are.

Full post here:

For those of us with children of color who are white parents, think about the issues of culturally relevancy for our children. We want it, don't we? (Rhetorical question, folks). We are in a very strong position as part of the dominant culture to really ally and advocate for new materials (indeed, for a multicultural democracy) in our children's schools.

You've got my ear. I've got work to do, blog readers, I 've got work to do!

1 comment:

Mindy and Baldwin said...

Right on, Meghan! I heard the NPR story this morning as I was having my first cup of tea.

I wish you had been one of my teachers, but I find comfort in knowing that you are teaching a new generation of kids who are going to be able to think clearly and understand what an amazing, diverse world we are living in. (and heck, if you can't be my teacher, then maybe we'll end up as in laws when Blueberry and Dew Drop get married! HA!)