“The work of changing the world is truly in our hands.”
That is how Dr. Lisa Delpit concluded her PBL World 2022 keynote address, which illuminated “the divine work of teaching,” echoing words from Dr. Asa Hilliard.
To explore that divine work, Dr. Delpit honed in on an interesting dichotomy between Western culture and Black, Brown, and Indigenous cultures. Western cultures are quick to focus on the “what” (e.g. What do you want to be when you grow up?) This is in contrast to a focus on the “who” (e.g. Who do you want to be (now and in the future?).
By focusing on the “who,” we are tasked with creating spaces that make our children feel welcome. Dr. Delpit offers three strategies for ensuring every child feels welcome in our schools and classrooms:
- Build relationships and create a sense of belonging.
- Identify and appreciate children’s brilliance and their special gifts, and help them realize and develop their own brilliance and gifts.
- Connect content to who they are and to what they care about.
Overall, Dr. Delpit emphasized the importance of culturally-informed pedagogy, drawing a parallel to PBLWorks’ 4 Equity Levers, and the power Gold Standard PBL has to honor children’s individual gifts and their natural ability to express agency in their learning.
PBLWorks invites you to view Dr. Delpit’s keynote speech and/or read the transcript below.
View Dr. Lisa Delpit's PBL World 2022 Keynote Address
Read the transcript of Dr. Lisa Delpit's PBL World 2022 Keynote Address
I'm honored to speak to you today in part because my own identity is as a teacher of young children, and also because as one who spent many hours in classrooms, I know how difficult the task is.
I know that over the past two years you've struggled to keep moving forward, while it seems that everything in the world has conspired to make movement impossible. I know that you have cried, shouted in frustration, and stayed up nights during the pandemic trying to solve the problems that continue to surface in our classrooms.
It's been difficult, if not impossible, to find answers in the places we usually look. My goal here today is to seek other solutions. I want to share with you some of the wisdom I'm learning to embrace that exists beyond our modern perceptions of the world. The wisdom of our ancestors and the wisdom still embraced by many traditional communities.
When I spent time working in Alaska, I was astounded by some of the differences between Native American ways of thinking about the world and typical Western notions I was most familiar with. For example, when a baby comes, people in the Western world say, “What did she have? How much does it weigh? How's the baby doing?” Native Athabascans say, "Who came? Who came? What spirit joined the world? Whose spirit may have returned? What gifts do they bring with them?”
When Indigenous people talk about spirit, they're basically referring to the life force in everything, Sobonfu Somé, a woman philosopher of Burkina Faso, Africa, whose life and writings have been devoted to sharing her community's ways of knowing and being with other cultures, says in her book, The Spirit of Intimacy.
"Each of us is seen as a spirit who has taken the form of a human in order to carry out a purpose."
Sobonfu talks about our purpose as an earthly manifestation of the gifts we embody in our entire being. She refers to our gifts as the medicine we bring to the world; the healing that only a particular individual can give to their community. Each of us, each of you, is a specific piece of our community's puzzle that only we can provide. Your role on earth is to discover that piece and to put it into place. Each child we encounter is also a piece of the world's puzzle, and our role is to help each student find that puzzle piece, hone its edges to perfection, and discover how it can be put to use in the world.
Asa Hilliard's book, Sba: The Reawakening of the African Mind, includes a discussion of the tenets of traditional African education involving pedagogical systems that emerged thousands of years ago. Many of the ancient beliefs and practices still exist on the African continent and in many places in the African diaspora.
Traditional African thought holds that the cosmos is divine and that humans, as part of the cosmos, also are divine. The goal of education is to assist individuals in their quest for divinity or perfection. The role of the teacher is to appeal to the intellect, the humanity, and the spirit to assist the student in developing the divine and honing his or her gifts. Thus, the work of the teacher is divine work.
Divine work is always challenging, but these past two years have left us questioning whether we can even show up, much less show up and recognize our own divinity. In the past two years, everyone, perhaps particularly people of African descent, have been devastated by innumerable events. Please understand in your hearts, that Black children and the Black community are in deep, deep pain and it shows up whether the children or community members talk about it or not. The Black community, along with the rest of the world, cannot forget that it saw not only a Black man being slowly and methodically murdered on television by a police officer. These murders, of course, continue, and we also witnessed a large element of our population criticizing those who demonstrated against the horrific act. Indeed, some of those demonstrators were even killed. As we ponder our school's futures, can we begin to think about a new start for the next school year? One that honors our gifts and divine purpose as well as those of our students?
Sobonfu Somé reflects on traditional African thought about children entering our earthly world. She says, "Birth is the arrival of somebody from another place. The person arriving must be welcomed, must be made to feel that she has arrived in a place where there are human beings who will receive her gifts. And upon a child's arrival, the village community provides rituals and ceremonies to let the newly born spirit know that she and her gifts are welcome.”
What would our childrens' return to school look like if we transpose that thought into not being born into a community, but entering a building for a new school year? What would happen if we started the school year with this thought in mind? Each new school year is the arrival of somebody from another place. The person arriving must be welcomed, must be made to feel that she has arrived in a place where there are human beings who will receive her gifts.
So I want to talk today about three ways that we can value and welcome children who have faced a very difficult two years into a place that may have not previously made them feel welcomed and valued. These thoughts will hopefully allow us teachers to rethink our work as well, not just as the purveyors of knowledge, but as those whose divine work helps develop the divine in our children.
What must we do? So these are the three I'm going to talk about: 1) We need to build relationships/create a sense of belonging, 2) Identify and appreciate children's brilliance and their special gifts, and help them realize and develop their own brilliance and gifts, and 3) we need to connect content to who they are and what they care about.
Relationships and belonging research studies, along with our very existence on earth, show that belongingness is not only something humans crave, but is also a major element of anyone committing to an environment. A major indicator, actually, if children complete or drop out of school.
Nilda Flores-Gonzalez said the difference between those who dropped out and those who stayed in school from her research project was a sense of belonging that started actually from elementary school. She talked about school kids versus street kids. It depends on where you get your sense of affirmation and belonging and have relationships. If those are in school, then you become a school kid. If those are in the street, then you become a street kid. High school dropouts, therefore, actually begin in Kindergarten.
This means that we have to take time to know the students, to build a relationship to let them know that we see them. Teachers often say they don't have time for relationship building, but I often tell them if you haven't built relationships, how's the learning going for you? My guess is not too well. "Do you have time not to build relationships?" is the question I would ask.
Geneva Gay says that Black children don't just learn from a teacher, but for a teacher. She reminds us of the kids who are going home or coming in in the morning saying, "I did your homework Ms. Taylor. I did your homework." So even when we don't have time, we all eat lunch. We can have a few children join us, one or two, during lunch. We can talk to them at recess, rather than just doing recess duty, see it as a time to get to know one or two children.
Of course, children, in writing, we can have kids respond to prompts that will help you know who they are and what they love. I've suggested sending notes to parents at the beginning of the school year: What is your child good at? What does he or she know already? What interest does he or she have? What are you most concerned about? What do you want me to know about your child? If your parents don't respond to notes, then this is what you talk about in a phone call or in a meeting before you tell the parents about the child. This will not only improve your relationship with the child, but will also ensure that you develop a relationship with parents.
[It is] also important to ensure that there are teachers in your school who look like the students, and if you can't find teachers who look like the students, then I would say you haven't looked very hard. But if you don't find them yet, let's put it that way, then you also need to make sure that you bring in visitors who look like the children. And not only is it important to have people who look like the children in the schools, but it's also important to give them voice. One of the biggest concerns I've heard from Black and Brown teachers is that they're there, but nobody listens to them. Okay, I appreciate the “amen.” And I know how true it is and how painful it is when you are there for children who look like you, and everyone else thinks they know better than you do about what needs to happen for them.
So the second issue is to identify and appreciate children's brilliance and their special gifts, and help them become aware of them as well. Pierre Ernie, a philosopher, tells us in Childhood and Cosmos that "the search in most African societies is to determine who, not what, a child is." Like the difference between Native Alaskan and Western thought about newborns, we in schools keep looking to the “what.” Is a child remedial? Is a child a slow learner? Is a child ADHD? Is a child behavior disordered? Is a child learning disabled? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. We spend little time seeking to learn who the child is and what gifts they bring.
This notion of teaching exacerbates looking at the “what” in a society that already views people of African descent as less than. Jennifer Eberhardt's recent book, Biased, is full of examples in all areas of our existence that detail how the stories steeped in our subconscious have affected U. S. citizens. I'll give you just a couple of examples.
People who were house hunting were recruited from Craigslist for a research study. Different groups were shown identical houses and a picture of either a Black family or a white family all posed similarly and wearing similar clothing. Those who were shown the Black family, and told they were the sellers, valued the identical house $22,000 less. They predicted more work would need to be done to prepare the house for resale. They predicted the neighborhood would have limited amenities, inferior city schools, and be comprised of less well-maintained houses.
In a second study, most of us are familiar and have heard that job applicants with Black sounding names [like] Tyrone, Jamal, [and] Keisha are 50% less likely to get a call back than those with white sounding names [like] Jeffrey, Brad, or Emily.
Related to current concerns regarding violence toward Black people, Eberhardt reports several other research studies showing that research participants deemed the movements of Black individuals more violent than those of white individuals. In a staged altercation, 75% of participants who witnessed a Black person shoving a white person saw the behavior as violent, while when they witnessed a white person shoving a Black person, only 17% considered it violent.
Beverly Tatum, the author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? says that "If we live in Los Angeles, we're smog breathers. We don't mean to breathe smog, we don't intend to breathe smog, we don't decide we're going to go out and breathe smog today, we just breathe smog because it's all around us." She said, "If we live in the United States, we're racism breathers. We're not conscious of it, we don't intend for ourselves to do it, it just is so much in everything surrounding us that this comes to us into our subconscious."
We are constantly bombarded by descriptors that feed racist stereotypes into our already saturated brains. Because these beliefs affect all citizens, it can't help but affect educators and students. Whatever beliefs we hold subconsciously about the children we teach inevitably becomes a part of the children's psyche as well.
We often say all children can learn. I believe that all children do learn. They learn exactly what we think of them.
The book before the last one I wrote is called Multiplication is for White People. And that came from a child who said to a tutor who was trying to tutor her in multiplication, "I don't know why you're trying to teach me any of this, Ms. L. Black people don't multiply, Black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.” Do you think anybody ever said those words to that child? No, nobody said that, but this child has internalized the beliefs of the larger society, so that she believed that Black people are less than. A student teacher once told me a while ago, a Black student teacher, she said she didn't know what to say when a young, Black 8th-grader came up to her and said, "So, Ms. Summers, they made us the slaves because we're dumb right?"
So whether they say it to us or not, our children are integrating and imbibing all of the notions that exist in this society. And whether we realize it or not, it's all in us as well. And it doesn't matter what color we are, frankly, because the air is totally around us. Black people and Brown people often fight it off, or are aware of it so they are able to fight it off a bit more. But it still comes into all of us, these notions.
So the question I want to ask now is what would the belief systems of our country look like if we were inundated with different stories that were not based on a litany of presumed deficiencies, but on information expressing the true genius of people of color? Information typically not brought into our country's cultural storybook. Let me share with you a few examples you probably never heard about. This is the classic reference for what I'm going to talk about next.
In 1956, French researcher Marcelle Geber, under a research grant from the United Nations Children's Fund, traveled to Africa in order to study the effects of malnutrition on infant child development. She concentrated on Kenya and Uganda, where she made a momentous discovery. So if she's now studying the effects of malnutrition on infant and child development, what is she expecting to find in terms of development? Yeah, that it's going to be lower because of the malnutrition.
Despite the expectation that malnutrition would cause lower rates of infant development, the developmental rate of Ugandan native infants was so much higher than the established norm, that they were able to outperform European children twice or three times their age. She found, in her words, "the most precocious and advanced infants ever observed anywhere in the world."
She saw four-day-old infants who smiled continuously. She published photographs of a 48-hours-old child bolt upright only supported by his forearms, head in perfect balance, and eyes focused. At six to seven weeks, understand that, weeks, all the children crawled skillfully and sat up by themselves.
The Ugandan infants were months ahead of children of European descent on any intelligence scale utilized as well. Based on the Gesell Test for early intelligence developed at Yale, Geber showed infants between six and seven months a toy, then walked across the room and put the toy into a tall toy box. The African children would leap up, run across the room, reach into the basket, and retrieve the toy. Six to seven months, they're walking.
Besides the extraordinary sensory motor skill of walking and retrieval, the tests showed that object permanency had occurred in the child's developing mind, the first great shift of logical processing, which would not occur in European babies until much much later. These are very hard to see because they're from a 1940s document, but this one is the African infant five months old sitting up and doing a form board, which is like a puzzle. A European child wasn't expected to do that until 11 months old. Here's a child who's seven months walking to the box looking for the toy, which a European child norm wasn't until 15 months. And here's an African infant 11 months climbing steps alone versus 15 months for a European child.
Moving on to more recent studies conducted in this country... by the way, you won't find many published studies of this phenomenon because no one studies it or if anyone studies it, I don't know whether they don't study it or whether they can't get it published, but those that have gotten published are pretty compelling.
In the mid-1960s, William Frankenberg, a professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine, and fellow researcher, Josiah Dodds, were intrigued to find that Black children as young as six months develop significantly more quickly than white infants. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, the researchers crunched the numbers of thousands more Black and white babies, in their words, "there were no items that the white children were doing earlier than the Black children in the first year of life." Even by age four, Blacks had an edge in 15 categories while whites bested Blacks in only three.
More recently in her 2006 dissertation, Phyllis Rippeyoung looked at scores of African American and white infants on the Bayley Scale of Infant Development. When she looked at the race of the mother and incorporated a number of socio-economic and demographic controls, she found that Black infants got higher cognitive skill scores and considerably higher motor skill scores. In other words, she found that if Black and white babies were born with the same degree of good health and parents interacted with the babies to the same degree, Black babies would surpass white babies on all aspects of the Bayley Scale. So I'm telling you about this so that you know there is no achievement gap at birth, at least not one that favors white children.
The Black and white patterns tend to begin to reverse themselves at about age five. What else happens at about age five? What might we American citizens of all colors think about the capacity of African American children if this data were in the national consciousness? What might be our subconscious go-to when we looked at a classroom of African American children? What might African American children think about themselves?
I will talk a little later about ways to foster children's belief in themselves, but first you must challenge each other about the beliefs we might hold subconsciously about the children we teach, which inevitably becomes a part of the children's psyche as well. Most often, we're not conscious of these beliefs that are embedded in our subconscious.
In a research example, a Yale study showed teachers a video of preschool children and asked them which children were likely to be behavioral problems. Researchers then tracked teachers' eye movements and found the teachers looked most consistently at Black children, especially boys, assuming very likely, subconsciously, that they would be the ones most likely to misbehave.
This kind of over-scrutiny leads to teachers seeing more misbehavior among Black children than among white children exhibiting the same behavior because they're looking more at the Black children expecting that behavior. This is likely one of the causes of a 300% greater likelihood that Black children will be suspended from preschool than their white preschool classmates. This pattern worsens, of course, with older African American K-12 students. Nationally, African American students are suspended about four times more than white students. They are also generally greatly underrepresented in nearly every type of advanced academic program. How much of this is due to our subconscious beliefs that we're not even aware of?
Another problem that occurs when teachers subconsciously question their Black student's ability is that they fail to teach to a high standard. Students realize when they are being taught down to. Many may play the game of accepting low expectations because they believe they cannot do more rigorous work, or they accept the lack of challenge, so they don't have to put in any effort. Either way, they're being cheated out of an education.
Those Black children who talk about the teachers that they admire the most will say things like, "oh Ms. Ellis, she mean, but she makes you work. She makes you learn." And that's what the kids are really expecting you to do. African American students must know that you believe they can do difficult work, and you must provide the assistance that they need to do it. Otherwise, they will start to believe that multiplication is for white people.
One way of ensuring that the world sees Black children, and they see themselves, as brilliant and academically competent, is giving the students a greater sense of agency in their own learning. In order to be smart and capable, they have to believe they are smart and capable. In order to believe that they are smart and capable, they have to do the things that smart and capable people do.
What if the students, instead of solely being the recipients of knowledge, became the producers, the researchers, the data analyzers, the synthesizers, the presenters of knowledge? Would that not change the story both for the teachers and the students and for the communities to whom they present their knowledge? This is where Project Based Learning obviously has the capacity to shine.
The final way I want to talk about to welcome Black students to school is to provide content that is connected to who they are and what they care about. So this is something that I've been thinking about, and I'll sometimes ask teachers to look at the curricular content, and in each of those blocks, put what they can put to make sure that this is culturally affirming instruction.
So it needs to be connected to students' cultural and intellectual legacy, connected to students' lived experiences, of value outside the classroom, and connected to the students community. It doesn't necessarily have to do all four of those things in any lesson, but within each lesson, at least one, preferably more, of these elements needs to be in place.
To talk a minute about the students' cultural and intellectual legacy, Black history, literature, art, music, the historical brilliance of Africa, the world's first libraries and universities in Mali and Timbuktu, the Civil Rights Movement and the special place of young people within it. The problem is most teachers are not aware of much of this information because our own education has not taught it to us. Our college education has been very culturally deprived, so in some schools, what I've seen people doing is to have teachers, over the summer, research and write up an aspect of Black culture that can connect to their particular subject area. Teachers then share what they found at curriculum meetings during the school year. Other schools have teachers work in small grade-level groups to devise culturally connected curriculum.
In the second square, connect to things that are important outside the classroom, having children present learning and research findings to the larger community. One example in Baltimore is that third graders in a school that I worked walked to school near an abandoned strip mall that had become an eyesore. The children were given cameras or phones to take photos of the status of what was going on, and they wrote letters to the owners of the mall and to the city politicians to have it cleaned up, and they did. It got cleaned up. So we get here, now, children learning the power of literacy and of giving them the agency of changing the world.
Connect to students' lived experience. Whatever is happening that is of interest to the students is of value to connect to the curriculum. Time will prevent me from giving examples, but obviously having discussions with students gives the school the opportunity to know what's closest to their hearts. Connect to students’ communities.
The example I'm going to give and what I'm sure you [are] all working on, is an oral history about some aspect of the community. This example deals with many of the aspects that I've been talking about. This is McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The original building was the first Black public high school in the entire region. It has a great history, but recently has been divided into a traditional school and a magnet school.
At the time of this example, the traditional school was predominantly Black and the magnet component was overwhelmingly white. The larger community looked down on the traditional school as a typical "ghetto" school. A group of teachers and a university professor got together to create a research project for an all-Black group of traditional students. They planned to conduct an oral history project of the school in which the students would be researchers. Students were told that they were researchers and doing the work that university graduate students and professors usually did. Any remediation the students needed was done in the context of the bigger picture university research.
They worked with local informants to determine how they needed to proceed. Their primary informant was an 87-year-old community member with whom they met weekly, and she gave them a lot of direction as to who they should talk to, what kind of issues had happened at the school, and as they developed interview questions, they learned how to ask open-ended questions, and they decided together on what questions needed to be asked.
They interviewed former teachers, students, and staff. They read and analyzed archival documents, they transcribed tapes, and if any of you have ever transcribed tapes, you know how difficult that task is. Within transcribing tapes, they had to deal with spelling, word choice, decisions about written grammar, punctuation, capitalization, paragraphing, how to gloss spoken words to written context, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
They developed presentations on findings for the community and professional organizations. They actually went to AERA. My mom had been a teacher at McKinley, and I was able to take her to AERA that year when the children were presenting to the conference. They produced products that were placed in the Louisiana Oral History Library, as well as in community libraries around the city. The project allowed teachers to teach all the skills that would be included in a remedial program, but without any stigma attached. Rather, to do so in the context again of students doing the work of university researchers.
And as you are learning or already know, Project Based Learning, when it's done with the intent to learn who the students are, to make connections with the adults who look like the children, and come from their communities and with the focus on the cultures of the children, can be a model for this kind of teaching and learning.
Teachers frequently ask how they can find the time to teach in this manner. There are many possibilities, but a few ideas are to determine what skills can be embedded in real world experience and used for real purpose. In terms of standards, teaching not one standard at a time, but connected and embedded as most of the tests actually assess them. Collaboration, having students work with each other and the teachers work with, again same grade teachers in your school or colleagues across the city to develop culturally based ideas.
To conclude, if we know what will help Black children, Brown children, all children to succeed in schools and classrooms and we don't do it, then whose interests are we serving? Could looking at our work as divine beyond human foibles make our spirits resistant to the assaults constantly aimed at them? If we realize the divine in our work, could that not help us see light in the midst of tough times? Tough times that, based on recent events, are very likely to continue? Could that not help us look with different eyes at those young beings who admittedly can get on our last nerves as we search for that puzzle piece, that gift that came with them? Could understanding the phenomenal purpose, the sacredness of our work, give us the courage to find ways to teach what the most vulnerable need in the ways they need it even if it's not in the standardized curriculum?
I once did a mini research project to question what Black men, who for all intents and purposes should not have been successful, but who had reached great heights in their careers, saw as the reason for their success. To a person, these men attributed a great part of their success to one or more teachers. These were the men who grew up in abject poverty while the country was still legally segregated. Bill Trent, now a distinguished professor emeritus from a major university, said this about his teachers: "They held visions of us that we could not imagine for ourselves, and they held those visions even when they themselves were denied entry into the larger world. They were determined that despite all odds we would achieve."
Our role as teacher is life changing. We are so much more powerful than we know. We can make all the difference in our students' lives. Our divine work is finding and honing the rough-cut puzzle pieces we are presented with each school year. We can not only change our students, but change ourselves as we learn to recognize and appreciate the importance of our work. The work of changing the world is truly in our hands.