Let’s start with an example.
Have you heard of Charlotte Forten? Charlotte is one of the best examples to showcase how to build cultural relevance and community, even as a new teacher. You see, she had more in common with white abolitionists than she did with her students. Although she and her students were born Black in America, Charlotte was born free and wealthy, and her students were born enslaved.
Charlotte’s grandfather was a successful businessman. He was very generous and purposeful with their family’s wealth, using it to advance the abolitionist movement. Her grandfather’s legacy shaped Charlotte’s future interests. She fell in love with contributing her time, skills, and money to larger causes that would make the world a much better place. It should be no surprise to us that later in life, post the Civil War, she became a teacher.
In 1862, Charlotte moved to St. Helena Island, South Carolina. She became one of the first Black teachers to go south and teach freed slaves. Her students would fill a one-room schoolhouse and would range in all ages and abilities. More significantly, although her students were now free, they were still enslaved in mind and spirit, and their wings were cleaved of hope and destiny.
However, Charlotte understood that two things could be true at the same time. She could feel grief and sorrow for her students’ traumatic and brutal lived experiences, and she could use those same lived experiences as evidence of their greatness, innovation, survival, and bravery.
Charlotte knew there would be NO learning until her students learned to love themselves and trust her. Her mindset was clear. In order to build a strong connection with her students, she needed to engage their hearts and souls, first and completely, before engaging their minds.
Here are 3 ways to build cultural relevance and community, even as a new teacher.
If it worked for Charlotte, it could work for you.
1. Remember your purpose
Of course, Charlotte had big plans for teaching her students new things. However, she wanted to first restore their hope and repair their wings so that they could fly on their own with pride and joy in who they were.
Even as a first-year teacher, Charlotte acknowledged her students’ trauma. She recognized that they needed safe, secure, and supportive learning spaces. Charlotte understood that “safety” was not found in a place. Safety would be found in a classroom culture with feelings of warmth, nurture, and protection between her and her students. The typical focus on routines and school rules wasn’t on her radar. She began initiating relationships and connecting with her students, without the need for control.
2. Build expert cultural knowledge
Charlotte’s lived values, experiences and perspectives weren’t always in alignment with her students’ culture. She and her students were essentially of different communities, and so Charlotte ran into several problems relating to her students. One being, she didn’t actually understand her students’ communication style—at all. Her students spoke Gullah, an English-based creole dialect spoken primarily by African Americans living on the seaboard of South Carolina.
However, Charlotte made it her responsibility to build expert cultural knowledge about her students’ language, rituals, spiritual hymns, and customs. She would actively work to earn her students’ trust. She demonstrated their value, respect, and worthiness through having patience and high expectations for her own learning and for their learning.
3. Commit to excellence
Charlotte viewed her students’ trauma and challenging behavior differently. Instead, she saw their leadership potential. She had a strong point of view about the importance of teaching through culturally affirming learning experience that would remind her students of their ancestral greatness. Charlotte introduced her students complex literature and hymns that built their spirits.
She captured this moment in her diary, dated November 13, 1862:
Talked to the children a little while today about the noble Toussaint (L’Ouverture). They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their own color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition (of a noble sort), and high purpose.
Charlotte wanted her students to see themselves as more than broken, enslaved beings. She intentionally referred to her students as inventors, creators, deed owners, leaders, and business people. She taught her students the importance of not only knowing how to read a deed but also, how to own the deed, making learning purposeful and culturally relevant.
Charlotte was committed to creating a new vision for her students’ future. A vision that would later influence generations and generations of prominent Black leaders, doctors, lawyers, and scientists. She believed in them! She cleared pathways for her students to witness their own amazing capabilities for doing hard things! Charlotte was willing to prove to her students that she had their backs, no matter what came their way.
For your Black History Month bulletin board, feature Charlotte Forten! Tell your colleagues about her culturally connected classrooms and reference Charlotte as evidence of what worked— she serves as one of our culturally competent examples within American History.