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Toni Cade Bambara’s Pedagogical Practices for Learner-Centered Communities

This post was written by Contributing Author Sonia Adams, a PhD candidate at St. John’s University who organized an event in TLH’s Spring 2021 series on active learning.

Toni Cade Bambara has greatly impacted my work as an educator and curriculum developer. I admire her commitment to literacy education, creativity, multiculturalism, and social justice. During my undergraduate studies in English, I was fortunate to take literature classes and seminars that exposed me to writers of color from the United States and abroad. However, I noticed a trajectory within many of the required, standardized, and special topic English courses, which privileged White male authors and texts. The western literary canon perpetuates an aesthetic that Bambara referred to as the “Anglo-Saxon tradition” that limited entryway for women and ethnic writers to enter the English curriculum (Bambara, “Summer 1968 SEEK Report). Although there were some gains made in late 1960s and early 1970s in making the curriculum more inclusive, there were some women and ethnic authors who served as ‘minority representatives. In other words, their writings were deemed the standard for the racial, gender, and/or cultural group which they derived from. Bambara foresaw the implications of white patriarchal privileging and minority representation and sought to challenge them as an English Professor, writer, editor, and activist. 

In developing the TLH workshop, “Toni Cade Bambara’s Transformative Praxis for Learner-Centered Communities”, I wanted to establish a critical dialogue between CUNY campuses and the general public on current topics synonymous with ideas and values evoked in Bambara’s instructional work. I also wanted to show how Bambara’s lived experiences in community activism, higher education, and cultural work informed her pedagogical practices for creating and navigating learner-centered communities. Bringing this workshop into fruition encompassed the following criteria: creating an organizing principle, centering Bambara’s transformative praxis for learner-centered communities, and establishing critical dialogue through modes of multimodal learning.  

Organizing Principle: 

The principle for organizing the workshop is centered on engaged dialogue and a shared interest in building and sustaining community. In the registration evite for workshop, I emphasized the importance of following this principle: 

“Facilitator Sonia Adams has designed this workshop for CUNY campuses to collaborate with public service workers, organization leaders, and members of local communities to foster a trajectory of transformative learning. This learning propels one to seek a deeper awareness of self and society.” 

Transformative learning takes place when community members discuss issues that are relevant to their lives and collaborate on ideas for posing recommendations and/or solutions. 

I decided to begin the workshop by presenting the following writing prompt to the participants: 

“What do you consider to be a learner-centered community? What values and/or customs should be practiced within a learner-centered community” (Adams, “Toni Cade Bambara’s Transformative Praxis” slide 2)? 

The workshop participants are encouraged to offer their perspective on what encompasses an ideal learner-centered community. This writing prompt purports personal reflection on past and/or present learning experiences and a level of autonomy in making intervention(s) within the education system.  

Bambara’s Transformative Praxis for Learner-Centered Communities: 

Bambara evoked a Transformative Praxis for establishing and sustaining learner-centered communities within and apart from academic institutions. During my research in Bambara’s archived papers and published writings,  I came to the realization that she employed diverse pedagogical practices for centering learner-centered communities through conference panels, prisons, work groups, creative arts groups, community centers, public author events, academic service learning projects, and education support programs.  

During Bambara’s tenure as an English Instructor at City College’s Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program (SEEK), she collaborated with her students to design their summer English class by preparing the required course reading list with core themes and formal assignments “that would fulfill their needs” and interests (Bambara, “Summer 1968 SEEK Report” 1). Many of the students in the SEEK Program derive from low-income and ethnically diverse backgrounds. Bambara deemed it imperative that the SEEK students read and write about texts that explored issues of colonialism, race relations, class disparities, grassroots activism, racism, and sexism that directly impacted their lives. Bambara created a learner-centered community within the classroom space where ongoing collaboration, critical dialogue, and critical reading and generative writing processes would flourish.  

Bambara’s expanded on her Transformative Praxis through encouraging her students at City and Livingston Colleges to create work groups to produce position papers and adapt western nursery rhymes for publication. In Bambara’s first publication, The Black Woman: An Anthology, some of her students published position papers like “Ebony Minds, Black Voices” by Adele Jones and Group and “Poor Black Women’s Study Papers by Poor Black Women of Mount Vernon” by Pat Robinson and Group. In Bambara’s second anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, she assigned some of her students to offer a retelling of Eurocentric nursery through a contemporary Black culturally relevant context. Bambara and Geneva Powell created the tale “The Three Little Panthers”, which is a retelling of “The Three Little Pigs” and Wayne Figueroa’s tale “Little Black Riding Hood” is an adaption of “Little Red Riding Hood”. Bambara and her students evoked African American Vernacular Expression (AAVE), an urban community setting, and Black cultural references and imagery as strategies for writing against fixed literary aesthetics and genre conventions synonymous with white western literary texts. In addition to the adapted tales in Tales and Stories for Black Folks, Bambara also included short stories by established African American writers like Alice Walker and Ernest J. Gaines. Her work in organizing student work groups and creative writing projects align to what schools today refer to as academic service-learning projects. The projects that Bambara assigned to her students were geared towards dismantling the literary canon standards and reforming standardized English curriculum at City College and beyond. 

Identifying Bambara’s Critical Pedagogies: 

In “Realizing the Dream of a Black University”, Bambara offers a diverse array of critical pedagogical practices along with a listing of recommended courses that would attract both students and local residents and elders to collaborate on and facilitate. As I examined this document more deeply, I reached the epiphany that some critical pedagogies that educators have created or expounded upon were utilized by Bambara. I would like to offer a brief outline of Bambara’s pedagogies highlighted during the workshop. 

Culturally Relevant & Sustaining Pedagogies 

  • Multiculturalism 
  • Latinx heritage 
  • Pan Africanism 
  • African-American heritage 
  • Vernacular Speeches 
  • African American Vernacular Express (AAVE) 
  • Spanglish 
  • Cultural Aesthetics 
  • Folklore- storytelling 
  • Folk customs & values (ex. Kwanza) 

Feminist Pedagogies 

  • Black Feminism 
  • Multicultural Feminism 

Social Justice Pedagogy 

  • Anti-racism 
  • Anti-sexism 
  • College campus rights 

Learner-Centered Pedagogy 

  • Countering Banking Method of Education (theorist Paulo Freire) 
  • Teacher and Students collaborate on instruction and learning within the classroom.  
  • Academic Service-Learning  
  • Curricular Reform Initiatives  
  • Students publish writings in The Black Woman and Tales and Stories for Black Folks 

Critical Dialogue through Modes of Multimodal Learning: 

For the Group Rap Session of the workshop, I created six discussion prompts where workshop members would be placed into breakout rooms to discuss them. I provided a link to the Google Docs folder that included the PowerPoint presentation with the discussion prompt slides. Each prompt offers commentary on Bambara’s pedagogical principle(s) to contextualize the assigned group topic and open-ended discussion questions. I employed a multimodal approach in preparing the group discussion slides by including public images, YouTube video, newspaper headlines, and excerpts from a social media post, poem, police transcript, news media platforms, and Bambara’s essay “On the Issue of Roles”. I wanted to make the discussion prompts interactive in order to make the reading and discussion processes more interesting. Below is a listing of the group discussion prompts: 

  • Group 1- “Migrant Family in Pursuit of a Better Life” 
  • Group 2- “Racism and its Discontents” 
  • Group 3- “Claiming Children’s Rights” 
  • Group 4- “#IAMNOTAVIRUS Campaign” 
  • Group 5- “Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman” 
  • Group 6- “Gender in the Imaginary” 

Employing the multimodal approach for the Group Rap Session created space for the groups to evoke media literacy skills. In Bambara’s teaching practice, she fostered students’ critical thinking and media literacy skills through uncovering ‘language manipulation’, ‘myths’, ‘brainwashing’, and ‘credibility gaps’. Language manipulation refers to official or formal language used by scholars, critics, journalists, and other people of authority that manipulates facts or conceals truths. Bambara created spaces for sharpening her students’ critical thinking skills in revealing and confronting myths or false narratives that perpetuate stereotypes and other fallacies often found in news reports. Bambara wanted her students to learn that they shouldn’t simply accept official media reports generated to the public. Several of these official version of news reportage of happenings in local inner city communities because they perpetuate credibility gaps that vilify its Black and Brown residents as criminals, delinquents, disadvantaged folks. Bambara charged her students to examine credibility gaps by posing critical questions, checking factual information, and conducting research on issues presented in the media reports. Bambara set the precipice of academic service-learning, media literacy skills, and college success skills that her students in the SEEK Program would build on during their tenure at City College.  

Continued Engagement with Bambara 

TLH Executive Director Christina Katopodis and I created a Google Doc folder with includes the PowerPoint presentation for the workshop, a copy of Tales and Stories for Black Folks and selected short stories, essays, and pedagogical texts by Bambara. In addition, there is a “Toni Cade Bambara Playlist” and a selection short stories by international authors Patricia Grace, Olive Senior, and Andrea Levy. These authors’ stories serve as fascinating companion readings to Bambara’s fiction.  

Click here to access the Google Folder (opens in new window). 

I created a follow-up activity for the workshop entitled Legacy of Voices: A Community Zine. This activity “is a gesture of gratitude for Bambara’s contributions to the world, as an endeavor to create partnerships for community-based education” (Adams, “Legacy of Voices” 1). For the activity, I invited participants to contribute a writing piece inspired by Bambara’s work in empowering students and learning communities. 

I hope that CUNY community and the public will peruse the resources in the Google Doc folder and submit writing to the Legacy of Voices: A Community Zine

Sonia Adams is an educator, writer, curriculum consultant, and PhD candidate at St. John’s University. Her scholarship centers on Contemporary American Multiethnic and Global Literatures, Multiculturalism, and English Instructional Design and Curriculum Development. Sonia is currently at work on her dissertation which examines Black Diasporic Feminist Literature from England, Canada, Australia, and the United States. When Sonia’s not pursing professional endeavors, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, attending cultural events, and reading great works of literature.

Image credit: Carlton Jones

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