BLC Travel Grant Report

A few weeks ago, I attended my first-ever African Language Teachers Association (ALTA) conference in Chicago. In my past profession as a journalist, I had attended numerous conferences, but mostly as a speaker, trainer, or chair of a panel. But I went to the ALTA conference mostly as a student, which made it one of the most intriguing and enriching conventions I have ever attended.

I arrived in Chicago a day earlier because I wanted to attend a half-day professional development workshop named, “Standards-based Curricular Design and Lesson Planning for LCTLs.” Dr. Hong Gang Jin of Hamilton College, and Dr. Antonia Schleicher of Indiana University, both renowned experts in LCTL teacher preparation, taught the workshop. In addition to the excellent presenters, I enjoyed very much working in small groups with other foreign language teachers – not just those who teach Swahili, but other less commonly taught languages (LCTLs).

Once the conference began on Friday, there were so many great sessions I wanted to attend, but because many ran concurrently, it became very challenging to decide. I did, however, attend at least ten sessions over the course of two days. Many of them were in English, but there were two sessions that were entirely in Swahili, the language I teach. I felt like I was back in 1991, the year I graduated from a Kenyan high school. That was how long it had been since I sat in a classroom and listened to dozens of people in one room discussing and presenting entirely in Swahili. It was quite an inspiring moment. Before I left the room, I was already thinking about what I would present in Swahili at next year’s conference. (I’ve got the proposal written and ready to send as soon as ALTA sends a call for papers email).

I also presented in English. My presentation, “Understanding African-American Students to Improve African Language Programs” was more of a discussion than a paper. I came up with topic after talking with a lot of African language teachers and realizing that some or them openly spoke about how they preferred students who were not African Americans.

I realized that one challenge African-born teachers face in the classroom is establishing rapport with African-American students. This is largely because both teacher and student know very little about each other. What we know is mainly based on stereotypes we see in mass media. In American high schools, it’s African-American students – not Whites, Asians, or Latinos – who often ridicule and bully their African-born peers, calling them names like “ashy” and “bushman.” On the other hand, many African-born parents would rather have their children have friends from other races, instead of African Americans, whom they often describe as “lazy.”

These perceptions many Africans have of African Americans are “confirmed” when, within a few months of arriving, most of us can find jobs and start college. This results in us being the single most educated group in America, with the prevalence of college degrees among African immigrants being almost twice that of the general American population, according to the U.S. Census. What this success does to our relationship to African Americans is that it makes us begin to question what is wrong with them. How can they who are citizens of the land of opportunity not take advantage of the opportunities that exist? Unable to find answers, we turn to the “lazy” label.

It is very easy for a teacher born and raised in Africa to bring this attitude into the classroom. In fact, I might have been guilty of this myself, if I hadn’t spent most of my adult life in America, attended American colleges, and studied the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Those few classes took everything I thought I knew about African Americans – which was mostly based on TV shows – and turned it upside down. I no longer saw African Americans as being “free” to do what is necessary to get their children prepared to take advantages of opportunities to better their lives.

Because of the tension between our two communities, some African-American students can also come to class assuming that an African-born teacher is going to regard them as inferior to other students, and therefore ignore them. Making my students know that I acknowledge this conflict between us, and that I have made a lifelong commitment to learning their history, has helped me establish a great relationship with them, which has helped me retain them in my class. That is what I was trying to ask my fellow teachers to do.

There were some objections from some teachers, mostly concerning the amount of time and energy it takes to reach out to students. But in general, most teachers agreed that we need to do more to understand our students in order to keep them in our classrooms.