(Re)searching and (re)connecting black students to themselves

In my last few posts, I’ve been bemoaning what I perceive as a loss of the love of learning within the African American community. Specifically, I’m concerned about the widespread despondency and lack of motivation among too many of our youth about education as evidenced by high dropout and low achievement rates.

That’s why I was highly delighted by the latest feature at Public School Insights (love their byline: What is working in public schools). Claus von Zastrow interviews noted African American historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who offers a unique and compelling curriculum idea to entice African American students into real engagement with history and science. Gates has just completed the second part of a tremendously successful PBS documentary in which he uses genealogical research and DNA science to trace the personal histories of leading African Americans with surprising results: A famous actor learns his slave ancestors were owned by a Native American tribe, and what’s this about Tina Turner’s connection to the Pygmies?!

Here’s Zastrow’s summary of the proposal Gates describes in the interview:

Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an “ancestry-based curriculum” in K-12 schools. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, African American students–many of whom know little about their ancestors–are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

The plan includes students getting their mouths swabbed to collect DNA.

It’s a compelling and challenging idea. As Gates points out, “your favorite topic is yourself.” Generally, students love when what they’re learning makes a real connection with their own lives; their own families. My mind is swimming with how many cross-curricular learning opportunities such a learning project could spawn in the hands of competent teachers, excited students, and enthusiastic parents. Endless possibilities for collaboration, enrichment, development of reading and writing skills, technology integration. This could be an idea the other Gates will find appealing as well.

Certainly, a project as broad as the one he proposes is full of logistical and political hurdles, not the least of which is whether decision-makers at school and district level would be willing to let go of remediation-locked test-preparation which has become standard fare in the schools where most African American students are concentrated and allow such a rich and potentially rewarding curriculum to be implemented. Such a curriculum fully utilized has powerful potential to raise student achievement as well as teacher morale.

On a personal level, this is the kind of learning that could reconnect Black communities with our schools, and more importantly with our own historical expectations about the value of education and the responsibilities of the educated.