Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Empowering First-Year African American Students: Exploring Culturally-Responsive Learning Enhancements

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Empowering First-Year African American Students: Exploring Culturally-Responsive Learning Enhancements

Article excerpt


The Stretch Composition Program has been fully implemented, piloted, or proposed on at least 17 of the 23 California State University campuses. At California State University, Northridge (CSUN), Stretch Composition courses are taught as Approaches to University Writing. Currently, there are three levels of courses in Stretch at CSUN; students scoring in the lower and mid-range range of the English Placement Test "stretch" their composition requirement over the course of two semesters during their first year. Operating on the asset model of education, Stretch "[recognizes] that students bring all kinds of talents and interests and abilities" into the classroom and receive credit for each of their courses at the outset of their program ("Stretch All Videos," 2013). The Stretch Program also allows for students to follow the same cohort, if desired, through both semesters for continuity with fellow students and the professor. Stretch Students are more successful, it is argued, because they have "more time to write, revise, and discuss writing" (California State University).

At CSUN, Stretch Composition is taught in six departments: Africana Studies, Asian American Studies, Central American Studies, Chicana/o Studies, English, and Queer Studies. Students have the opportunity to choose a department whose worldview, professors, literature, and environment are more suitable to their own cultural and intellectual preferences. Thus, both the discipline's content and technical aspects of writing are important aspects of each course. Each of the Stretch courses must follow the same structure of assignments in their curriculum, modifying the assignments to its discipline's objectives, perspectives, and learning outcomes. For example, in the first two of the three levels of Stretch, the fall semester's courses cover the three progressions in the first semester; exercises within the progression are designed to scaffold the culminating writing assignment at the end of each progression. Building on the progressions, the second semester's projects all start with critical reading, collaborative work, sometimes outside research, and culminate in group presentations, projects, and individual essays. The cohort that is the subject of this study is the fall and spring 113A-113B Approaches to University Writing class in the Department of Africana Studies during the 2016-2017 academic year. The students in the fall 2016 semester's course were 80% African American; in the spring 2017 course, 76% of students were African American. While this project describes the course design and materials for the 2016-2017 academic year, the analysis of student production and surveys responses was conducted solely for the spring 2017 semester as students reached the end of their Stretch Composition program.

Theoretical Framework: Ethos, the Black Aesthetic, and Student Agency

The key aspect operating at the core of both the design of this course and students' responses to it is ethos. Ethos, from an African-centered perspective, is the "commonness of spirit" that a people share from generations of common experiences, a common "historical circumstance" and a "shared cultural history" from Africa (Ani, 2004, pp. 2-3).

Ethos impacts the way in which people receive information, respond to it, and feel it in their spiritual senses. It tends to explain why people of African descent share a response or react in similar ways to life events and circumstances. Similarly, ethos is, in part, "the emotional substance of a cultural group...their collective 'emotional tone'" (Ani, 2004, p. 2). Thus, the graphic assignments, the course outlines, the images, the videos, and the visual texts for this academic year-long program were all selected and created with that collective spirit in mind. The selections--through the lens of the Black aesthetic - were meant to evoke a commonality, a sense of belonging, a sense of agency, affirmation of culture - even an awakening of sorts, in my students. …

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