Paving the Way

Natalie Rieland
September 01, 1998

"How do you get a poem to make sense to a person who is only going to school so that he or she can go to basketball practice after school?"

This is a question Jasmone Brockington, an English education major, asks herself. She is trying to find ways to make the standard highschool curriculum more interesting and accessible to African-American students. She presents her ideas in a thesis: "Paving the Way: A Cultural Program to Strengthen the Self Confidence of African-American Students."

Brockington believes in "multiple intelligence," the idea that students have many ways of learning. In her experience, students learn better when they can relate what they are being taught to something in their own lives. She thinks African-American high school students would find learning more interesting if they were studying their own culture as well as European civilizations.

"In high school, I didn't even know that there was black history before blacks came over from Africa," she says. That changed once she got to college. But that's too late for some students.

teenagers pose under basketball basket

"Learning should show the variations between cultures," she says. "Maybe then black students will know that there are opportunities for them to become something other than a comedian or an athlete."

For some students, future career plans aren't a major concern; they're worried about putting food on the table. Brockington shows how the African-American family dynamic is changing, noting the high percentage of single parents. She examines the effect this has on a student's motivation to learn. Some students are the main provider for their family and their job may seem more important than learning poetry or literature. "So how do you make Shakespeare important to a kid that maybe hasn't even eaten all day?" Brockington asks. "You need to adapt the curriculum to suit the students' needs."

It's not just the curriculum that needs to be changed, says Brockington. Basic problems in the learning environment exist. The public high school she attended in Philadelphia (where on her first day a student launched a flaming trash can through her classroom window) had only five computers. "I thought that was normal," she says, "until I saw schools that had entire computer labs." She suggests that the lack of facilities like computer labs in inner-city public schools, which serve predominantly black students, cause the students to lose interest in learning, putting them at a disadvantage to those who attend better equipped schools. "Before Brown vs. Education, schools were separate but unequal," Brockington says, "and they are still separate but unequal today."

Curriculum may be standard and the learning environment unbalanced, but the way a teacher chooses to instruct her students doesn't have to be. Brockington plans to create an interactive learning environment for her students so they can work together continuously, instead of sitting in the same seats every day, zoning out. "It's been my experience that students don't like to be lectured to. I don' t like to be lectured to," she says. Brockington has already started developing lesson plans of her own, including the creation of a mock country, one with its own language. Her students will play the roles of immigrants, forced to use the mock country's language and dialect as they attempt to make it in America. The purpose of the exercise is for students to experience what it feels like to be discriminated against because they speak differently and have different cultures. Perhaps through her lessons, Brockington's students will recognize the difficulties people from other countries encounter in foreign lands, and will begin to see that these same factors may contribute to their own learning.

When she becomes a certified teacher, Brockington hopes to be placed in a Philadelphia public school. "I've gone to that type of school and I' ve played basketball in those neighborhoods," she says. "So I know what they're dealing with."

Jasmone Brockington graduated in May 1998 with a B. S. in education, with honors in African-American Studies, from the College of Education, the College of the Liberal Arts, and the Schreyer Honors College. She was named the Most Outstanding Student in African-American Studies in Spring 1998, and she won the 1997 James Rambeau Honors Thesis Research Grant in the Humanities. Her thesis adviser is Deborah F. Atwater, Ph.D., head of the African-American Studies Dept., 215 Grange Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814.863.4243; dfa1@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 10, 2014