Empowering First-Year African American Students: Exploring Culturally-Responsive Learning Enhancements.

Author:Lo, Sheba


The Stretch Composition Program has been fully implemented, piloted, or proposed on at least 17 of the 23 California State University campuses. At California State University, Northridge (CSUN), Stretch Composition courses are taught as Approaches to University Writing. Currently, there are three levels of courses in Stretch at CSUN; students scoring in the lower and mid-range range of the English Placement Test "stretch" their composition requirement over the course of two semesters during their first year. Operating on the asset model of education, Stretch "[recognizes] that students bring all kinds of talents and interests and abilities" into the classroom and receive credit for each of their courses at the outset of their program ("Stretch All Videos," 2013). The Stretch Program also allows for students to follow the same cohort, if desired, through both semesters for continuity with fellow students and the professor. Stretch Students are more successful, it is argued, because they have "more time to write, revise, and discuss writing" (California State University).

At CSUN, Stretch Composition is taught in six departments: Africana Studies, Asian American Studies, Central American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, English, and Queer Studies. Students have the opportunity to choose a department whose worldview, professors, literature, and environment are more suitable to their own cultural and intellectual preferences. Thus, both the discipline's content and technical aspects of writing are important aspects of each course. Each of the Stretch courses must follow the same structure of assignments in their curriculum, modifying the assignments to its discipline's objectives, perspectives, and learning outcomes. For example, in the first two of the three levels of Stretch, the fall semester's courses cover the three progressions in the first semester; exercises within the progression are designed to scaffold the culminating writing assignment at the end of each progression. Building on the progressions, the second semester's projects all start with critical reading, collaborative work, sometimes outside research, and culminate in group presentations, projects, and individual essays. The cohort that is the subject of this study is the fall and spring 113A-113B Approaches to University Writing class in the Department of Africana Studies during the 2016-2017 academic year. The students in the fall 2016 semester's course were 80% African American; in the spring 2017 course, 76% of students were African American. While this project describes the course design and materials for the 2016-2017 academic year, the analysis of student production and surveys responses was conducted solely for the spring 2017 semester as students reached the end of their Stretch Composition program.

Theoretical Framework: Ethos, the Black Aesthetic, and Student Agency

The key aspect operating at the core of both the design of this course and students' responses to it is ethos. Ethos, from an African-centered perspective, is the "commonness of spirit" that a people share from generations of common experiences, a common "historical circumstance" and a "shared cultural history" from Africa (Ani, 2004, pp. 2-3).

Ethos impacts the way in which people receive information, respond to it, and feel it in their spiritual senses. It tends to explain why people of African descent share a response or react in similar ways to life events and circumstances. Similarly, ethos is, in part, "the emotional substance of a cultural group...their collective 'emotional tone'" (Ani, 2004, p. 2). Thus, the graphic assignments, the course outlines, the images, the videos, and the visual texts for this academic year-long program were all selected and created with that collective spirit in mind. The selections--through the lens of the Black aesthetic - were meant to evoke a commonality, a sense of belonging, a sense of agency, affirmation of culture - even an awakening of sorts, in my students. The red, gold, black and green colors are all part of the Pan African color scheme, often recognized by students as their own cultural property. Black faces on instructional videos, uplifting messages, and imagery that represents the forces of resistance to White Supremacy and illustrate possibilities for freedom were fashioned to speak to the current Black Lives Matter climate of our country. I purposefully chose films that modeled action and agency of Black youth in a brutally oppressive society to awaken that cultural spirit of resistance, resilience, and hope for the future. In this way, ethics and aesthetics are inextricable, according to Larry Neal, who points out that they hold a space in the cultural expression and action in the social struggles of Black people (1989). Similarly, Julian Mayfield argues, "[m]y Black Aesthetic is Bobby Seale, bound and gagged and straining at his leash in a Chicago courtroom" (1971, p. 27). Thus, in a program fashioned within the framework of the Black aesthetic, students are able to make connections to the materials, their lives, and their future.

The use of the Black aesthetic was essential to the design of the course materials as the course is housed in the Department of Africana Studies, which centers the global Black experience. Students of African descent also constituted the majority of students. Utilizing Black Consciousness was a deliberate attempt to frame the Black experience in positive imagery and concepts for first-year incoming freshman students. Since so much of what needs to be explored in the discipline is a global examination of the oppressive structures of White Supremacy, including Black people's responses to it, I wanted to emphasize the foundational ideas that underpin the examination of the global Black experience during the first semester. Those foundational ideas, according to Steve Biko, are to eliminate the idea of Black inferiority, reframing the ideas of Blackness in positivity, strength, and pride. (Biko, 2002). It is within this paradigm - the Black aesthetic - that the course was designed.

First Semester Course Design: 113A

Course Materials

The 113B course materials consisted of a written course outline and a complementary eText containing all of the readings, but also background information, additional links, reflection questions for films and readings, and certainly graphics to complement each of the progressions. The eText's introductory page provided an explanation of the choice of the theme, relating it to the discipline and to the experiences of people of African descent in the United States.

While the eText explains that Steve Biko is the "father of Black Consciousness," it also defines Black Consciousness as a global experience and notes that "all materials in the course will be examined from an African-centered perspective" (Lo, 2016a). This explanation is followed by a graphic syllabus that delineates each of the three progressions, each with a graphic that represents the focus of the progression. Defining Black Consciousness's image is a raised Black fist, Interacting with Representations of Blackness is represented by the South African flag, and Space Traders and Black America's icon is a rocket ship. Each of the assignments for the progressions is detailed in its corresponding section. There are also sections that summarize attendance policies, describe the weight percentages for the course assignments, and suggestions for course success. Hyperlinks give explanations to aspects of the course such as a detailed explanation of a flipped course. The graphic syllabus utilizes black text over three of the Pan African colors--red, yellow, and green as its base color scheme.

Course Structure and Content

Progression One, or reading and responding to texts in the Stretch curriculum, provided theoretical foundation for the course through the unit Defining Black Consciousness. Students read "The Definition of Black Consciousness" by Steve Biko (2002). Cry Freedom (1999) offered the visual context to the brutality of apartheid and the development of an intellectual such as Biko. Prior to watching the film, students read Roger Ebert's review of the problematic nature of the film. I also provided an explanation for using it in class, along with an offer for supplemental materials that centralize Steve Biko. Two additional articles by Biko were read by students, followed by some conceptual ideas by Marimba Ani (1997). Within this unit, were hip hop videos that discussed the global African experience (Gelongal Video, 2010), and instructional videos on technical aspects of writing with embedded quizzes created by the professor. These topics included critical reading and summary writing, letter writing, writing as a process, outlining, thesis statements, topic sentences, introductions, and conclusions. The instructional videos included both lecture-type videos narrated by the professor and animated videos with a computer-generated voice. All videos were captioned for accessibility. Students write a letter to one of the authors of the texts to reflect on their critical reading and start summarizing ideas in an academic environment. The final visual literature of the unit was the film, The Language You Cry In (1998), a film that connects Mary Moran, a Gullah woman, and her family to their ancestral village in Sierra Leone through a song she learned from her mother. The family travels to meet their family in Sierra Leone and reconnects with their African culture and ancestry. Students write a summary of the film to practice critical "reading" of the text. The culminating essay for Progression One asks students to consider the contemporary importance of Black Consciousness to people of African descent.

Progression Two's purpose is to engage students with visual rhetoric. It begins with a critical reading of Black symbols, followed by a word picture descriptive assignment, then asks...

To continue reading