Teachers who work with students from a different culture—especially white teachers working with black or Latino students—may seek to grow in their cultural competence, their ability to both appreciate their own culture and be fluent in their students’ culture. One way to work toward that goal to do life in the community where you teach by engaging with people in traditionally non-white spaces. (Becoming culturally competent is in some ways easier for teachers from black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities, because the white majority culture in the U.S. is unavoidable.)
Engaging with people in local shops, farmers markets, or restaurants can help you become familiar with a culture that is not your own, but if you’re white and have black students, there’s no better place to visit than the black church. I don’t assume that all black people are Christian, because they’re not. And I’m aware that the black church is not monolithic. However, the black church is a cultural staple in the African American community that can provide valuable insights into how you can engage black students.
Attending a church service in a black church is an experience that offers empowerment, therapy, fellowship, and information. Your classroom can work in a similar way: Students should expect that each time they’re with you they will learn and be empowered.
I’d advise that you visit a black church service, with respect for the culture and procedures, to really appreciate how such services engage people. However, here are some tips from the black church that you can use to engage not only black students but all students. These tips can be implemented both in person and remotely, and adapted to your style and circumstances.
Student Engagement Lessons in the Black Church Experience
Make students feel welcome when they walk in: Black congregants do their best to make the church an inviting space. You’ll find smiling greeters, helpful ushers, and beautiful aesthetics throughout a black church. Visitors are welcomed, and everyone is encouraged to participate in the service, whether they’re serving in some capacity or sitting in the pews.
Your classroom should likewise be an inviting space, with a smiling greeter—that’s you!—who helpfully ushers students into a clean and aesthetically pleasing space, meaning your classroom should look like a place kids want to be. Lastly, make sure that students know that they are all encouraged to participate in the lesson, whether they’re actively listening, taking notes, asking a question, or giving an answer.
Have lots of moving parts to your lesson: A black church service isn’t just a song, a sermon, and a benediction—there’s so much more to it than that. There is Scripture reading, selections from the choir, collecting tithes and offerings, church and community announcements, greeting those around you, the sermon, and more. There’s a lot going on to hold a person’s attention.
A lesson can work in the same way. It shouldn’t be all lecture, all note taking, all discussion—even if they like to talk—or all class activity. Instead, try to provide a nice mix of elements to keep students on their toes—or even bring them to their feet—so that they remain engaged, feel that time is never slow in your room, and have multiple opportunities to learn or internalize the lesson within a single period.
Incorporate your students both as part of the lesson and to carry out classroom procedures: In the black church, young people are very much a part of what goes on. Young people, particularly young adults, take part in the service as ushers, members of the choir, Scripture readers, prayer readers, or members of the audiovisual team, a.k.a. the media ministry. Those young people must pay attention because they’re involved in the service.
Are your students involved in your lesson? Do they have an active role as you teach? Let students hand out or collect papers, packets, and writing materials—that’s making them a part of your procedures. But also let them take part in the delivery of the lesson when possible. For example, assign overnight reading on a lesson and have students report out during the class period, or have them teach a slide that contains information from the overnight reading.
Give students a reason to talk back to you: During a typical sermon in a black church, the pastor or preacher is speaking with the expectation that the audience will respond in the affirmative when he or she is speaking to either their experience or a truth rooted in the faith and/or doctrine. Congregants will offer an “amen,” “preach, preacha,” “take your time,” or “make it plain.” You’ll even hear applause during the more poignant points of a sermon and see folks stand in jubilation as the preacher reaches his or her crescendo. Quiet is not a part of that experience. In fact, when it gets quiet, you may hear the preacher say, “Can I get a witness?”
That’s call-and-response, and it’s a strategy you can use in the classroom. Call-and-response is African in its origins, but it should be used not only with black students but with all students to reinforce learning and gauge understanding. Have your students collectively call out answers or say what the main idea of yesterday’s lesson was. You can also create cues or signals to prompt desired responses to questions.
If you want to try this, it’s important to explain the procedure for call-and-response as well as facilitate the right atmosphere for it. The procedure differs depending on the age group—you may not get an amen the way a preacher does, but you can allow structured interruptions when students can call out. For example, if you deliver a PowerPoint presentation to middle school students, you can have students yell “hold up” at the end of a slide if they have a question.
For this to work, you must create the right atmosphere. That starts on the first day of school with a discussion of rules of classroom engagement. One of those rules could be: “You can only say ‘hold up’ when I say ‘next slide’ during a PowerPoint presentation to ask a question about the slide we just finished.”
Establishing the right atmosphere and appropriate procedures creates an opportunity for your students and you to deepen your communication—the foundation of learning.