Creating Supportive Learning Environments for African American Learners Using Culture-based Education

Donna Akilah M. Wright
Assistant Professor
City University of New York:
Medgar Evers College


            This article advances the argument that teachers should employ the use of culture-based education variables if they want to structure and sustain optimum learning environments for African American learners. Twenty culture-based education variables (some well documented in the academic literature and some new variables) are presented and connections are made to the occurrence of the variables among people in Africa and in the Diaspora. Guidelines for examining the sociocultural and historical validity of the variables are discussed along with suggestions for classroom application. Seven short classroom narratives are presented to demonstrate the application of culture-based education.

Key words: culture, teacher education, classroom environment, learning climate, African American children/students, culture-based education

             Schools are intensive socialization environments and they reflect adminstrators’ and teachers’ perspectives on how children learn and develop. In order to facilitate smooth daily transitions between the home and school and to avoid cultural mismatches, African American learners’ instructional environments should reflect the children’s culture (Omrod, 2011).  Teachers’ perceptions and attitudes towards students’ home practices and cultural beliefs form the foundation of the classroom’s psychological health and classroom climate.   

            The major focus of this article is fourfold: 1) to present an array of culture-based educational variables useful in establishing an appropriate classroom climate for African American learners;  2) to present for each variable its cultural-historical validity as a culture-based education variable through establishing its occurrence in Africa and in the African Diaspora; 3) to identify each variable as a particular type of cultural capital, in order to clarify its inclusion in promoting psychological health; and 4) to present through narrative specific experiences of applying the culture-based education variable to the classroom.  Culture-based education reflects school practices that affirm a community’s culture by recognizing and validating its spiritual, cultural, social mores, global perspectives, and language, while  promoting awareness of the community’s ancestral and contemporary accomplishments (Demmert & Towner, 2003). The focus on the appropriate culture-based educational learning environments for African American learners, of course, does not discount that the environment in which children learn should have the appropriate basic amenities of being well lit, having sufficient space, instructionally appropriate materials for the teacher and children to initiate opportunities to learn, play and rest/relax (Hale-Benson, 1986; Harms, Cryer, & Clifford, 2003; Parkay & Stanford, 2004).  However, an equally important aspect of the environment is its psychological component, which can immediately censor any instructional practice or physically appropriate environment. 

What are the Culture-based education variables for African American learners that support optimal classroom environments?

            This is not the first time that culture-based education variables for the African American learner have been identified or summarized.  Although this concept has been documented in the literature for nearly five decades, they are not widely consulted when planning education for African American learners. This article provides an update to previous summaries and presents a wider array of culture-based education variables.  Twenty culture-based education variables—included three that have not been documented in literature on African American cultural dimensions-- are presented in Table 1.  Drawing from previous scholarship by Jones (1991; 2004), Hale-Benson (1986) and Hilliard (1998; 2002), summaries of culture-based variables which are relevant to creating the optimal classroom environment for African American learners are included. Some of the variables are better known than others (e.g., communalism, time orientation, orality, and spirituality).  Others are less well known and are not frequently associated with African American Learners (e.g., economic philosophy and literacy, agency, democracy, morality) when Eurocentric lenses are used.

Table 1. Definitions and Summary of Culture-Based Education Variables Beneficial to Promoting a Psychologically Healthy Classroom Climate for African-American Learners      

Culture-Based Education Variables



1.       Economic Philosophy & Literacy

Awareness of practices that affect the quality of life such as product and consumer demand and transfer of wealth; good character is more valuable than material property, which should be shared

Examples have not been documented in literature on African American cultural dimensions.

2.       Questioning

Traditionally in West Africa, if one were to ask an indiscreet question, one would not expect the truth (Egerton, 1938).  The aversion to direct questions may have transferred to the Diaspora.  Direct questioning was not a preferred communication among many African Americans unless there is a close relationship.  Direct questions attempt to get someone to divulge information that was considered personal and that one wishes to keep private.

Examples have not been documented in literature on African American cultural dimensions.

3.       Scaffolding

Process to incrementally push children towards becoming independent learners

Examples have not been documented in literature on African American cultural dimensions.

4.       Individual Possibility

Belief in human perfectibility

Hilliard, 1998, 2002;

Jones, 1991, 2004;

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

5.       Resilience

Ability to survive against the odds

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Jones, 1991, 2004

Parham, White & Ajamu,2000

6.       Balance and Harmony with Nature

Man is a part of nature and harmonizes with it, not seeking domination over it

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hilliard, 1998,2002;

Jones, 1991,2004;

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000;

7.       Communalism

Collectivism based on an egalitarian mutual obligation

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Boykin 2000, Tyler, Boykin, ,Boetler & Dillihunt, 2005;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Jones, 1991,2004; McInerney, Dowson Van Etten, 2006

Myers, 1988;

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

8.       Empathy

Vicarious sensitivity to the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of others

Akbar, 1975

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hale-Benson, 1986

9.       Morality

Discipline, proverbs, and stories provide guidance in discerning appropriate behavior and mental perspective

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard, 1998, 2002;

10.    Time Orientation

Non-linear time phenomenally driven by people’s activities or events in nature

Akbar, 1975;

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;


Jones, 1991, 2004

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

11.    Non-linear Perspective

Integrated learning- developing and using hands on materials that facilitate learning by doing

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard, 1998, 2002,2007

12.    Orality

Gifted in oral skills such as poetry, song, talking

Hale-Benson, 1986; 

Hilliard  1998, 2002;

Jones, 1991, 2004;

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

13.    Sensitivity to Affect & Emotional Cues

Emotional awareness and intelligence

Akbar, 1975;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

 Jones, 1991, 2004

14.    Symbolism

Practice of using a particular material phenomena to represent an idea, event or thing

Myers, 1988;

 Hilliard, 1998, 2002;

 Jones, 1991, 2004

15.    Maat

Quest for truth & justice

Hilliard, 1998,2002;

Jones, 1991, 2004;

Karenga & Carruthers,1986;  

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

16.    Spirituality

Religious  and metaphysical beliefs and values

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard, 1998, 2002

Jones, 1991, 2004;

Myers, 1988;


17.    Attention to Social & Interpersonal Stimuli

Social interaction and relationships

Akbar, 1975;

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

 Hilliard, 1998, 2002

Jones 1991

18.    Democracy

Dialogic teaching and discussions; In traditional African society, egalitarianism and democracy were chief cultural values. 

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard , 1998, 2002

19.    Intergenerational

Older and younger members of the society ( including elders) interact; respect for elders

Belgrave & Allison, 2006;

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard, 1998, 2002;

Jones, 1991,2004

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

20.    Agency

Actively addressing circumstances to bear responsibility for its outcome

Hale-Benson, 1986;

Hilliard, 1998, 2002;

Jones, 1991, 2004

Parham, White & Ajamu, 2000

Do the identified variables have socio-cultural historical validity?

            Sociocultural, historical validity for the variables can be established once it is determined that a variable was evident in African historiography and was a cultural retention in at least one part of the African Diaspora.  This process establishes that the variable is culturally based in African beliefs and practices. The persistence of a culturally-based variable in the Diaspora, across hardship-filled generations, points to the degree in which it may be useful in assisting African Americans as a group in developing the competencies to function effectively within a society. Evidence of the sociocultural, historical validity of each variable is presented in Table 2.   

Table 2. Sociocultural, Historical Validity of Culture-Based Variables for African American Learners 


Evidence of African Roots 

Evidence of Retention in African Diaspora


Economic Philosophy & Literacy

Trade was inter-tribal (Reader, 1964) . “Esusu” was an economic Nigerian institution wherein fixed contributions of money were made at fixed intervals.  The total amount contributed by the entire group was assigned to each member in rotation (Bascom, 1952; Maynard, 1996).

In the Caribbean trade via the higgler (person who haggles and bargains) was a major force in selling and trading and established an internal marketing system (Sorenson & Olwig, 2002).  “Caribbean Susu” is a club organized for the purpose of assisting members (in money matters) unknown to each other  (Sorenson & Olwig, 2002).


Asking direct questions are considered rude in West Africa (Egerton, 1938).

Conversations between Louisiana African American parents and their older children are not posed for conversation sake or to drill children on questions wherein the answer is known Bransford, Cocking & Brown, 2000).  African American mothers pose questions that ask for analogical comparisons (e.g., “What is it like?”); therefore, questions such as “Did you see Mary’s dog?” may result in a non-linear response.


Occurred through daily activities while identifying medical plants, constructing objects, or performing a dance (Omolewa, 2007).

Scaffolding has been shown to help African American children move from topic-chaining narrative style to linear form of writing (Lee, 1991).

Individual Possibilities

Acceptance of the notion of human perfectibility by nature.  It is education that develops the mind to be more perfect (Hilliard, 1998, 2002.)

Teachers of African American children who believe these learners can achieve have greater success with pedagogical innovations (Hilliard, 1998, 2002; Moses-Snipes& Snipes, 2005).


Religious experience of having an intimate relationship with God and the idea that there is meaning in circumstances was used to fight and endure a brutal history (McClain, 1994/1995).

Religious experience and intimate relationship with God led to African Americans’ psychological stabilization despite hardship.  Children learned by watching elders how to pray despite what was endured (Haight, 1998).

Balance and Harmony with Nature

*       Central inquiry was into the nature of the human being and the function of nature  (Akbar, 2004).  Plants and animals were consistently observed (Hilliard, 1998, 2002). There was a dynamic interdependence of person, community, nature and spirit (Grills, 2004)   Society’s doctors had the task of transforming and maintaining balance with nature ( Butt-Thompson, 1969; Egerton, 1938)

African Americans retained nature-centrism.  George Washington Carver observed and talked to plants asking them to reveal their secrets (Hilliard, 1998, 2002). Throughout Diaspora, there is a belief that nature is transformable through spiritual activity whether the rituals of Santiera in Cuba, Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic or Kumina in Jamaica (Gonzalez-Wippler, 1973; Ryman, 1984)


Based on an egalitarian mutual obligation (Deacon, 2002).  Many African languages do not have a term for I and me reflecting corporate moral responsibility (Grills, 2004).

African American children from low socioeconomic backgrounds preferred learning contexts requiring sharing knowledge and materials reflecting their high levels of communal home/cultural experiences (Ellison, Boykin, Penn-Towns, & Stokes, 2000).


Proverbs conveyed the importance of kindness in social relationships (Omolewa, 2007).

Preschool African American children were more likely to engage in pro-social behavior than White children and were not dependent on experiencing closeness with the teacher (Spivak& Howes, 2011).


Strong ethical and moral sense was learned through proverbs (e.g., not to steal, commit adultery, use foul language or violence) (Omolewa, 2007).

African Americans morality was taught through moral animal tales ( Nobles, 2004).

Time Orientation

Time is elastic, interpreted by events in nature, a social phenomenon involving self in relation to others, and is orchestrated through the present dimension (Akbar, 2004, Mbiti, 1969; Nobles, 2004).

African Americans have the idea is not to be on time, but in time with God (Smitherman, 1977).  In Trinidad, there is a present time orientation: “any time is Trinidad time” (Jones, 1991, 2004).

Non-linear Perspective & Integrated Learning

Learners applied information to relevant contexts.  If young people learned to build a home they simultaneously learned about the types of soil on which the home should be built, the grass types that were best used, and the wood types that were most resistant to ants. (Omolewa, 2007).

African Americans respond to things of the whole picture as opposed to its subdivisions. For instance, dance is not taught by analyzing each step, but rather through understanding the total experience and purpose of the dance (Hale-Benson, 1986).


Betang (a stage) was used for all transactions related to public affairs in Mandingo towns including performances by the griot.  Poetry, song and music were co-mingled in Africa   (Park, 1800). 

Inclusion of chants, raps and songs is a characteristic feature of successful African American schools (Russo, 2006).

Sensitivity to Affect and Emotional Cues

Use of non-verbal cues such as hissing as an unequivocal mark of applause to more complex forms of symbolism  (Ritchie, 1879).

Sensitivity to affect and emotional cues is important for African-Americans to understand given the need to survive oppressive and discriminatory conditions and to subtly communicate in a non-threatening manner (Taylor & Clark, 2004). African-Americans were able to perceive the facial expressions of Whites.  Whites  were not equally accurate as African Americans in perceiving African American facial expressions (Gitter, Black, & Mostofsky, 1972);  (Nowicki, Glanville, & Demertzis, 1998).[G5]


Representations are widely used to convey meaning whether in Adinkra or Korhogo fabric using color and motifs, (Polakoff, 1980; Willis, 1998), gold weights to convey proverbs (Arthur & Rowe, 2001), or in nonverbal behavior such as hissing to denote applause (Ritchie, 1879).

Representations were continued despite enslavement.  Bakongo cultural symbolism was retained in the Carolinas.  Gravesites were adorned in a manner similar to Angolans with objects such as broken lights, lamps, lampshades, or candle sticks to represent that light leads the dead to the spirit world.  Other grave site items found were vases, shells, pitchers and jugs representing water. 


Egypt, Africa was the “mouthpiece” of Maat. Its root is African and governs truth, justice, righteousness, order, harmony, balance, and reciprocity (Hillliard, 2002).  Mandingo women instructed their children in the practice of telling the truth (Park, 1800).

Maat was subsumed into African American spirituality.  It raised the valuation of a people and emphasized the search for truth, social justice, righteousness and harmony despite devaluation and alienation within the Western dominated society (State, Historic, Preservation, & Office, 2011).


God’s omnipresence meant that one’s intentions and motives were divinely monitored.  Belief in a future state of reward or punishment (Park, 1800; Omolewa, 2007).

Black church in America remained an important source of African cultural survival, especially the precedence of the spiritual over the material (Smitherman, 1977).  God was always available to help and was accessed through spontaneous conversation and prayer (Humphrey, Hughes, & Holmes, 2008).

Attention to Social and Interpersonal Stimuli

There were no great differences in individual wealth.  People felt obliged to mutually aid a group larger than the immediate family (Hailey, 1939).

African Americans tend to be socio-centric, performing better on communal tasks and have more communal tasks in their homes (Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Hale-Benson, 1986; Hailey,1939;   Boykin, 2000 ;Tyler, Boykin, Boetler & Dillihunt, 2005).


Egalitarianism and democracy important cultural values.  Secret society heads were elected (Butt-Thompson,1969).  African chiefs were expected to be fair.  If necessary a palaver was held and both sides of the question was debated (Park, 1800).  Every ones’ thoughts counted and none counted more than the other (Fu-Kiau, 2007).

There is a deep sense of justice and a watchful eye for the potential of injustice (Hale-Benson, 1986).


Authority was gently exercised by the elder-grade (Hailey, 1939).  Elders ensured that information was communicated to all generations (Hilliard, 1998, 2002).

In the southern United States and in Jamaica, grandmothers exerted an intergenerational influence.  In the Georgia Sea Islands, grandmothers lived in close proximity to their grandchildren and placed an emphasis on obedience (Bransford, Cocking & Brown, 2000). In Jamaica, grandmothers sometimes raised their grandchildren (Clarke, 1957).


Actively addressing one’s circumstance through the intervention of unseen spirits in human affairs, such as ancestors (Ritchie, 1879).  It was achieved through belonging to secret societies and through the division of labor everyone had a purpose for being (Butt-Thompson, 1969).

Throughout the Diaspora, moral authority was exercised through spiritual/religious expression and justice for African Americans was linked to the life and works of Jesus Christ. This belief propelled African American insurrectionists and leaders Nat Turner and David Walker to action (Harding, 1981).

Are these variables applicable to creating a psychologically healthy classroom environment?

            The culture-based variables discussed in Tables 1 and 2 are funds of knowledge that can be recognized as cultural capital for African American learners.  The term, “capital,” is characteristically associated with economic and material resources that support the advancement of an entire group.  The term, “cultural capital,” reflects a sense of group consciousness and collective identity that serves as a resource for support and advancement of an entire group. It is the funds of knowledge (or resources) that pass from generation to generation.  Culture is the funds of knowledge which serve as the community wealth and is not subsumed under a Black/White binary because it is bound to experiences and not skin color. Failure to recognize the funds of knowledge that children bring to school is part of the racism prevalent in American society and promotes cultural mismatch between children of color and their teachers.

.           Yosso (2005) implicitly queried whether teachers view African American funds of knowledge as cultural capital that counts.  We think that African American’s funds of knowledge can count if educators are able to link culture-based variables to particular types of school capital.  If successful, this would create a learning environment that promotes the psychological health of African American learners.  

            My journey as an educator and co-founder of an early childhood center revealed the utility of using culture-based education variables to create healthy environments for African American learners. The stories that follow highlight this experience and demonstrate (beyond statistics) that culture-based practices are useful in supporting students’ investment in their own learning.  These “shouting” narratives specify the uses of culture-based variables within classroom environments.  “Shouts” are necessary to contribute to overcoming the conviction of viewing cultural capital along the lines of the dominant society’s proclivity towards educating in one way (Franklin, 2002;Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Gillborn, 2006). Each culture-based variable is identified as a particular type of capital and narratives are provided to contextualize the variable’s use in creating an optimum learning climate.  

            The seven stories below demonstrate how culture-based educational variables can be practiced in classrooms. Using Yosso’s (2005) different types of cultural capital (which I provide brief definitions of), the stories show how clusters of culture-based variables play out in classrooms.  For example, three of the culture-based educational variables listed in Table 1 (economic philosophy and literacy, individual possibilities and resilience) are identified as what Yosso (2005) termed as “aspirational capital”.  This type of capital includes the ability to maintain hopes and dreams when faced with real or perceived barriers. Collectively, these three culture-based variables create an environment that encourages the understanding that one’s economic vitality is not dependent on the European/ Western standard.  There must be an expectation to achieve and this expectation is the most important norm to consider.  Furthermore, this expectation is possible because African Americans gathered integrity individually and collectively to seek justice rather than vengeance as they overcame indisputable odds. 

            Five other culture-based variables (balance with nature, communalism, empathy, morality and time orientation) fit with Yosso’s “familial capital.”  Familial capital is cultural knowledge nurtured among families.  The first story captures both aspirational and familial capital demonstrating that many of the cultural based variables overlap.  The second story is a continuation of the first one and accentuates familial capital.

Story One: Culture-Based Variables as Aspirational and Familial Capital

            At the child care center where I worked, the oldest/more advanced children were divided into two groups: Moor or Maat.  One group served as proprietors and the other as consumers. It was Friday which was time to “play store” using real money that parents initially donated as an investment.  The store items were pencils and other school materials.  Profits were reinvested to expand inventory.  Kareem did not have enough money to purchase an item. He told the “proprietor” that he wanted to barter or place the item on layaway.  The proprietor remarked, “You must be stupid man.”  The children knew that calling someone stupid negates individual possibility.  There was an uproar!  You could hear Kareem say loudly, “He cursed at me!”  The children stopped talking to the “proprietor” immediately.  The proprietor was ushered to the corner.  This consequence equaled physically violating a peer.   Kareem’s two friends said to the proprietor as he walked into the corner, “God does not make junk! Black people been through too much to think any one of us is junk!” The familial variables helped to create an atmosphere of harmony and an interpretation by the children and their families that the center was an extension of their family life and not a place marked with undue tension and negative discourse.

            The children learned to make monetary investments, reinvest profits, negotiate and barter.  But, above all, they demonstrated that no one, not even a friend, is allowed to deprecate your individual possibility.  The uproar occurred towards the end of the day. So, we were not sure whether the children would carry the insult of having a friend called stupid into the next week.  So as the next story shows, we had to figure out a way for them to remain resilient.

Story Two: Culture –Based Variables as Familial Capital

            We knew that if we took them to a nature setting (e.g., the park to engage in backyard Science activities), any possible hidden angst would dissipate and balance would be restored.  The children’s desire for nature experiences became part of the center’s reward system.  When the children returned to school that Monday after the early morning activities, they wanted to go to the park.  One child had not completed his work and requested to delay the completion of the project.  He stated, “I do not need until Kwanzaa to complete it--only until after the afternoon snack.” He had finishing touches that needed to be done.  We agreed to his request.  We went to the park and waited in silence for the butterflies to fly near or for the bunny rabbit to appear.  In silence we waited breathing like the wind moves, quietly in harmony with nature. 

            Once we returned to the classroom, there was the arduous task of placing leg braces on a child whose prescription required them when he rested. To say the least, it was frustrating for this child.  As preparations were made for the children to lie on their cots, there was an unusual amount of quiet chatter and then a few children began to ask superfluous questions and engage in unusual activity, like knocking things over as a “mistake”.  It came time to place the braces on their classmate, but the braces could not be found.  One brave child let it be known,” You can’t keep hurting our brother; it’s not okay.”  We demanded the truth and made the compromise that the child in question would be the first one to get off his cot when it was time for the afternoon snack.  Although the children perpetrated a mischievous event, we knew that balance had been restored. The children were working together in harmony.  We told the children that often one hand washes the other.  But, in this case, “the way that you wanted your brother’s hand to be washed would not help him in the end because the braces were prescribed to help their brother’s legs become stronger”.  The children rested, had their afternoon snack and the child that had not completed his project finished it.  As this anecdote illustrates, the children had observed the informal lessons that had been taught, internalized them, and applied this to an appropriate situation.

Story Three: Culture-Based Variables as Learning Capital

            The two culture-based variables that focus on learning capital are non-linear (integrative learning) and scaffolding.  Through the integration of learning and scaffolding, children at the child care center had no room to experience feelings of failure.  Skills were learned sometimes from peers as young as four-years old scaffolding each other.  If a child did not know something, a friend could remind him/her of the strategies to use.  If a child was not comfortable doing math, an integrated learning task followed to ensure that the child experienced an enjoyable task such as  writing a book about the trials of a family who were shaped like squares.

            When Pea, a child on the second grade level, did not complete writing his math book on the travels and trials of having a square shape in the initially prescribed time, he was not upset he simply told his teacher that he would not need until Kwanza but a couple of days would be fine. He said that he liked writing the story but did not like doing the math. The math portion required that Pea know that shapes are used to make other shapes.  For instance, two triangles when placed together make a square.  So, I asked one of the children to help him with the math.  She turned and stated that she did not like to work with him because he had nothing in his head.  I had to remind her and myself the importance of stressing strategies when scaffolding. Although the strategies were sometimes sung, there needed to be pauses in the song in order to provide the strategies in steps and not all at once.  The children sang the appropriate strategy song together.  Then, they sang the song, stopping at the first step and doing the required procedure and then the next steps until the task was completed.  This process dissuaded resentment from developing between the children telling each other what to do.

Story Four: Culture-Based Variables as Linguistic Capital

            This story will illustrate what Yosso (2005) names as “linguistic capital.” The culture-based variables recognized as linguistic capital are orality, questioning, sensitivity to affective cues, and symbolism. 

            At the child care center, it was important for the children to not be afraid to express their opinions in order to have their needs addressed. Also, they needed to practice asking direct and indirect questions as rudimentary preparation for future schooling.  Therefore, we often used the betang (stage) in the center of the classroom to have the children “perform” the strategies they learned that were put to rhyming poems or rhythmic songs (e.g., how to round off a number) or to practice asking questions to staff we may meet during field trips.  Also, we used the betang to model for the children appropriate responses to affective cues.  At times when order was necessary, we had to raise our hand symbolizing that the respect had to be lifted.

            Fee-Fee was extremely sensitive to affective cues.  She would complain often, “Zee is looking at me with that eye.  Zee doesn’t like me.”  When asked why she felt that way, she would reiterate, “Zee bothering me with his eyes” and begin to cry.  After providing the child almost daily with a personal tear cup to prevent her from wasting her tears, we knew an intervention was necessary.  After we asked her to perform her strategy song or poem on the stage, we requested that she stand there.  Zee was told to come and stare at her. She wanted the tear cup.  We said nothing, but gestured no.  Fee-Fee was told to take the stare, feel the discomfort and smile.  The children in her group were watching and to maintain the respect they had to keep one hand up.  In a relatively short time, she understood, smiled and left the stage.  The children cheered.  We smiled.  Not only did this child learn to overcome an over sensitivity to affective cues, but the children learned they all had to work together to help each other overcome their short- comings.

Story Five: Culture-Based Variables as Navigational Capital

            The culture-based variables that are navigational capital are Maat and spirituality. Navigational capital includes skills associated with maneuvering through social institutions.  These variables guide what children should turn towards and away from in life. From the time a child can engage in a conversation, they should have conversations concerning their purpose in life.  These conversations contributed to the children critically thinking about their actions and aligning their actions to a greater purpose.

            Every morning during circle time the children engaged in deep breathing exercises and said the affirmation suggested by one of the parents, “I love myself, I hug myself…the power is in my house.”  They were told that the sun shines and sets every day indicating the natural order of life.  We reminded them that God is purposeful; for, the sun shines for a reason.  We told them that they were born for a reason.  They were asked if a bear can become a frog. Of course they said, “No!” We agreed and added that the bear’s purpose in life was to be true to being a bear.  We asked the youngest child who was able to engage in a conversation, “What was their purpose in life?”  We studied each child and asked the parents and the child what he or she liked to do?  We found their interests and exposed them to it through customized projects.  For example, the child who was identified as having naturalist intelligence caught tadpoles and insects in the park, observed them, represented the observations in pictures and notes.  We told them that their interests were the truth they came to the world to explore.  We had pictures of their elder relatives or ancestors from time to time around the school.  They were explicitly told that those who have left the earth often guide those on earth to their God given purpose, as long as they continue to seek the truth of their interests and to do good things in this world.  After all, God does not make junk! 

              Since we looked for and praised their interests, the children, in turn, praised each other’s interests.  In that we told them every day that they had a purpose, they told each other that they had a purpose. The children modeled the practices they observed and especially emulated the ones that were praised.

Story Six: Culture-Based Variables as Social Capital

            The culture-based variables identified as social capital are attention to social and interpersonal stimuli, democracy and intergenerational.  Social capital consists of networks of people and community resources. It was expected that the children would respect each other, their peer’s parents and elders, and that everyone had the right to have their opinion heard.

            Older children made books for the younger children.  If there was an issue with ability, the books were wordless books.   Elders provided workshops, folk stories, and personal stories and served as volunteer assistants.  We even found out that one of our grandparents was a direct descendant of Harriet Tubman!  Politeness was honorable and a favored proverb was, “Howdy does not break a square,” meaning saying hello and thank you never hurts.  When there were issues among the children, they knew a palaver (dialogue) would be held on the betang (stage) and everyone would have the right to their opinion concerning the matter.  Class activities would be suspended until the matter was rectified and everyone was again moving in harmony. However, they learned to respectfully voice their beliefs and their perspectives and to listen to the beliefs and perspectives of others.  The focus on politeness steered the children away from rude behaviors, such as rolling one’s eyes and towards expressing feelings.  When a grandparent visited, they knew it was special and referred to the elder as ‘X’s grandma.

Story Seven: Culture-Based Variables as Resistant Capital

            The culture-based variable that is resistant capital is agency.  Resistant capital encompasses knowledge and skills fostered through oppositional behavior challenging inequality. It was important to model for the children the best ways to stand up for justice.   Twice a year plays were held around themes related to the interrelationship of people of color.  The children’s families were consulted as to the play’s themes.  Some of the themes were: “How did slavery begin?  What was the relationship between Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey?  What were the first civilizations in the world?  What was the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans? Between Blacks and Latino Americans?” In addition, we sometimes went on hunting excursions to find out what was going on in the community. For example, children were asked to interview the sanitation workers, store owners and the like to find out why there was garbage in the street.  Sometimes a class letter was written to address the situation.         

            The children learned not to be scared to ask a question, and every question asked politely should be answered.  Also, the children learned that through resistance and persistence to overcome odds individuals, families and groups progress.  Above all, they learned if something in their community was not correct even the younger members of the community could do something towards fixing the problem.


            The preceding narratives demonstrated three things.  They demonstrated how to use cultural capital to foster culturally responsive caring in order to build an optimal learning climate.  They also demonstrated that the different forms of cultural capital are not mutually exclusive.  For instance, aspirations are supported in family and social contexts (Yosso, 2005).  Above all, they demonstrated that in the process of creating an optimal learning environment, children develop character using culture-based variables.

            The African American learners do not leave their cultures at the front door of the school building before they enter.  As children walk into his classroom, their cultures are like the metaphorical shadow that follows him (Graybill, 1997).  Therefore, culture-based variables are an untapped treasure which can be useful in promoting an optimum learning environment for many African American learners.  Those who have the charge of creating optimal learning environments need to use the untapped strengths of culture-based education variables and savor the richness that follows.   


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