O Pioneer!

Professor Carol Lee has broken new ground with her African-centered approach to teaching black schoolchildren.

by Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

From the outside, Betty Shabazz International Charter School looks ordinary, an unassuming red brick building with sturdy doors on a quiet street on Chicago's South Side.

Go inside the K-8 school, though, and you enter a world that is far from ordinary.

You feel the presence of African culture as Betty Shabazz's nearly 300 schoolchildren gather for morning assembly while a small group of students bang a rhythmic welcome on African drums.

You see the importance of African and African American heroes in the pictures of leaders such as Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that adorn the walls.

And you hear the sounds of Africa when Northwestern professor Carol Lee enters a classroom and the students spring to their feet as they call out "Habari gani, Mama Safisha!" in a Swahili greeting.

For Lee, a co-founder and board president of Betty Shabazz, the warm African spirit and culture that permeate the school provide the environment that she believes is necessary for African American children from low-income families to learn.

An innovative educator who has spent a lifetime devoted to the development of African-centered education, Lee says that the preponderance of recent research in cognition shows that students learn best when they can connect what they're learning with what they already know.

While educational researchers have historically looked at the backgrounds of poor black children and found deficits, Lee, professor of African American studies and learning sciences, and some of her colleagues have found strength and resilience. According to her research, students' daily experiences in their homes and communities provide valuable material that teachers can draw on to help them learn. The soft-spoken Lee has used her decades of classroom and community teaching as the basis for a theory of learning she calls cultural modeling.

"Cultural modeling tries to help students make the connections between things they know and value and the demands of doing academic work in all subject matters," Lee says, explaining that schools often pay insufficient attention to students' everyday experiences that relate to race, ethnicity and class. In her most recent book, Culture, Literacy and Learning: Taking Bloom in the Midst of the Whirlwind (Teachers College Press, 2007), Lee writes about how students' love of hip hop music and use of African American Vernacular English can help them formulate sophisticated interpretations of literary texts that include an understanding of satire, irony and symbolism.

Lee's fascination with education started early. Growing up on Chicago's South and West Sides, she used to write and correct her imaginary students' papers. "I always wanted to be a teacher," she says.

After graduating from Chicago's Crane High School, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned a degree in secondary education with a focus on teaching high school English in 1966.

As a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s, she met her future husband, Don L. Lee (he later changed his name to Haki Madhubuti), while working on her master's dissertation about the Black Arts Movement. In 1974 the couple founded the New Concept Development Center (now the New Concept School) on the city's South Side. The independent school, for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, used an African-centered curriculum, one that Lee and the other teachers had to generate from scratch.

"We were in the midst of the Black Power movement, and culture was paramount to how I thought about everything," Lee says. "When we started the school, we had a curricular orientation, but we didn't have commercial materials we could buy. So we did an in-depth series of self-studies."

It was a heady time, says Lee, rich with the possibility of change and community empowerment. Lee and her colleagues studied everything from educational practices in Tanzania and even China to how to apply the theories of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget to black children. But a common purpose united the teachers' search: to define a way to effectively teach from an African-centered perspective.

In all, Lee worked at New Concept as both director and teacher for 15 years — a period that she says was a critical one for her. "That whole set of experiences was the cauldron for who I am and the whole focus of my research and the community work I continue to do," Lee says.

After earning her doctorate in education from the University of Chicago in 1991, Lee joined Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy as an assistant professor. She became a full professor in 2006.

Lee's work has garnered her many honors, including being named an elected fellow of the National Academy of Education. In March she was elected president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.

"It is the most important professional association of people in education, and Carol Lee is going to run it," notes Charles M. Payne, a University of Chicago professor and former Northwestern colleague. "I don't know anyone who has a more sophisticated understanding of culturally relevant practices than she does. She's always been deeply engaged with schools at the same time that she has been doing research on educational processes."

Lee's Northwestern colleagues give her similar accolades.

"Through her multiple roles as teacher, leader and researcher, Carol Lee continues to have a stunning impact on education at multiple levels — K-12 as well as higher education — in Chicago and across the nation," says Penelope Peterson, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy.

Throughout her academic career Lee has always kept her foot in the community. In 1998 she helped found the Betty Shabazz school, named for the late widow of Malcolm X, as a continuation of New Concept.

The school's African-centered approach is already paying dividends. In 2007, 76 percent of Betty Shabazz students met or exceeded state standards, 32 percent higher than five years earlier, according to school records.

The students' success pleases Lee, but she maintains that the method of having students make connections between their own lives and the material they study is one in which all students should participate.

"We are in an increasingly interdependent world in which communications, technology and forms of economic production inevitably entail the need for the ability to cross borders," she says. "This is precisely the kind of education that all kids need."

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein (GJ03) is a reporter for the Chicago Reporter and lives in Evanston. His brother, Jon Lowenstein, is a Chicago-based photographer.

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