The Key to Academic Success: Culturally Affirming Classrooms

Nov 8, 2023 5:00:00 PM

by Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

My family and I visited the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra during my recent trip to Ghana. At the Mausoleum, I came across the outdoor Black Star exhibit that displays one of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s famous quotes: “I am not African because I was born in Africa, but Africa was born in me.” This quote resonated with me because it’s been the story of my life. As a second-generation Ghanaian immigrant growing up in the United States, I’ve longed to have that strong connection to my Ghanaian heritage. This journey has influenced my efforts as an educator to have a culturally affirming classroom.

For anyone who knows me personally or has followed me for a while, you may already know why this particular quote hits home for me. To be honest, it took me several years to finally understand this quote is, in many ways, the story of my life. Growing up as a second-generation Ghanaian immigrant in the U.S. and eventually living in Ghana during my early teenage years, I always longed for that strong connection to my Ghanaian heritage.

  • I felt guilt and shame for not being able to fluently speak my family’s home language, Twi, which is the primary language spoken by the Akan people of Ghana. Even though my parents only spoke English to me and never really made it a point for my siblings and me to learn how to speak Twi, I still felt largely responsible for my lack of fluency.

  • I felt embarrassed about having an American accent. While my Ghanaian classmates thought it sounded cool, I tried so hard to camouflage it by speaking in a pseudo-Ghanaian accent to assimilate in school and communicate more easily with my teachers and classmates.

  • While in Ghana, I was referred to as an “oburoni” by many folks. Oburoni is a Twi term that describes foreigners (more specifically, white folks) who aren’t from the African continent. While some foreigners may view the term as one of endearment, I personally saw it as a way for homegrown Ghanaians to say that I wasn’t a “real Ghanaian” or wasn’t Ghanaian enough.

Even though these memories still remain fresh in my mind, I’ve learned over the years to celebrate the fullness of my identity despite how others view me. Parenthood and therapy have helped to reframe my perspective about my Ghanaian-American identity.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I need to give myself more grace, given my diasporan upbringing.

  • Speaking broken Twi doesn’t make me less of a Ghanaian (FYI, I’m still taking Twi lessons, y’all!)

  • Even with my limited fluency in Twi, I owe it to my sons to teach them what I know so they can pass it down to their future children.

  • Finally, no matter how Ghanaian my name is or how much kente I wear, or how much Ghanaian food I eat, I will forever be an “oburoni” in certain Ghanaians’ eyes, and that’s okay because, in the end, I know the truth about myself.

Here in the United States, we have students within our schools who are first-, second-, or third-generation immigrants who are seeking that same connection to their culture, language, and overall identity. In recognizing that, we are responsible for creating a nurturing classroom environment where we celebrate the uniqueness of these students’ identities. 

Growing up, many of my peers in elementary school teased me about my Ghanaian heritage, so much so that it discouraged me from showing up authentically in those spaces.

I wish I could go back in time and redo my elementary school years.

I wish I had the courage like Cleveland Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to unapologetically walk into my elementary school building with that cultural pride.

I wish I didn’t unwittingly feed into the toxic messaging from my school peers.

While I was blessed to live in Ghana as a teenager and grew to appreciate the full beauty of my culture during my time there, I wish I felt that appreciation earlier.

This is what pushes me to do what I do as an educator.

My goal is to be intentional about creating inclusive spaces where the cultural and ethnic heritages of students are honored, centered, affirmed, and warmly embraced.  Below are a few ways in which we can go about achieving this goal:

  • Be intentional about pronouncing our students’ names correctly. In an earlier piece, I provided some tips on using index cards to write and practice the phonetic spellings of your students’ names.

  • Have students create “Me” Bags. The “Me’ Bag is a fun way for students to introduce themselves and share artifacts that best represent the essential parts of their identities.

  • Honor the linguistic identities of our students. We must view the linguistic identities of our students from a strengths-based perspective, meaning that we must recognize their native languages and different forms of vernacular as assets of their learning process.

  • Be mindful of the holidays that we do (and don’t) celebrate. In creating inclusive spaces for our students, we must be mindful that our students may not all observe the same holidays or share the same religious faiths. Yet, our school calendars are organized around Christian holidays. If you’re looking for a learning resource on this topic to share with your students, Liz Kleinrock and Chaaya Prabhat recently released a children’s book highlighting the different holidays celebrated worldwide.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

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