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Project Funded by Spencer Foundation Will Allow Assistant Professor Amato Nocera to Approach Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Through a Historical Lens

Assistant Professor Amato Nocera

As schools across the United States question how they can recruit and retain African American teachers and support historically marginalized students’ sense of belonging and self-worth in schools, NC State College of Education Assistant Professor Amato Nocera says looking to the past can help find answers. 

Nocera said similar questions were not only asked, but answered by Black educators more than 65 years ago, prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“There is a great deal of historical amnesia in our understanding of schooling in America. For example, it has been largely forgotten that thousands of African American teachers lost their jobs in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and that many Black schools, which had been hubs of community building, were shut down in the name of integration,” he said. “It is essential for us to know this history if we want to begin to reimagine what is possible in our public education system.” 

Nocera will explore this history through the “African American Teachers and Pedagogies of Freedom: A Historical Examination of Black Teaching in Professional Networks, 1925-1954” project, which is funded by a $74,986 grant from the Spencer Foundation. 

Using an analysis of the publicly available archival collections of Jane Dabney Shackelford and Julia Davis—African American teachers who spent their careers in segregated Black schools prior to the Brown decision—Nocera will provide an in-depth portrait of “Pedagogies of Freedom,” a concept that encompasses several teaching styles that Black educators adopted to encourage their students’ self-determination during the Jim Crow era. 

Although the deliberately broad theoretical framework reflects the fact that the racial context of mid-century America filtered into nearly every aspect of Black education, Nocera said four specific teaching styles stood out:

  1. An emphasis on Black curricular representation in schools
  2. The inclusion of progressive or child-centered techniques to learning
  3. The pursuit of academic excellence for students
  4. The “fugitive pedagogy,” which is the practice of subtle acts of curricular subversion to disrupt the Eurocentric aspects of the standard curriculum. 

“It is important to note that these aspects of Black education have been documented by an impressive body of historical scholarship,” Nocera said. “‘Pedagogies of Freedom’ is an effort to view these teaching practices holistically, as a larger tradition that defined African American schooling, while also adopting this as a theoretical lens to interpret African American teaching and learning in the first part of the 20th century.” 

Through this project, Nocera plans to examine how “Pedagogies of Freedom” were created and sustained by networks of Black educators as well as what it looked like for these pedagogies to be enacted in classrooms. 

He says understanding this history can potentially provide a context that can shape the way modern-day teachers understand the work of culturally relevant pedagogy. 

In addition to positioning culturally relevant teaching within a much longer historical arc, Nocera says the project speaks to the fact that culturally relevant practices are not the exclusive domain of educational researchers, but are collective products of K-12 teachers. 

“I think the point is not to try to produce a playbook, but to provide a way for teachers to see their work in context,” he said. “During Jim Crow, education networks for Black teachers, such as the American Teachers Association, were hubs of intellectual activity, providing conferences, professional development and publications where teachers shared their work and nurtured distinctive approaches to teaching that met the needs of their students. Ultimately, how teachers can organize and support this type of work in the present moment may prove vital.”