Old Ship of Zion

No, I haven’t turned religious; it’s just the title of a great book I just finished. It’s by William F. Pitts, deceased, who did field research in a most fascinating way. He wanted to understand the structure of ritual in Black Baptist churches, so he became a piano player for them in central Texas. Being an old anthro major, I love good field work, esp participative, and this is a good example.

But I want to show how something he points out could be useful for classroom teachers who have children from this religious background in their classrooms, kind of like Ruby Payne does (she’s located in East Texas and so probably has been exposed to this).

In the book, Pitts divides the service into two parts: part one is very formal with formal i.e. Standard English plus biblical language, great attention, quiet except for those praying or singing slow hymns. The second part is the sermon where possession takes place. During this part, behavior of the congregants is much more relaxed, with people commenting on things in a normal speaking voice, children playing with each other, people exiting and reentering, etc. Those of you who have not experienced this must not think of your own church services b/c they are not a guide to the worship style of working-class Af-Am churches.

Now, how would this apply to the classroom? A very young child, seeing an adult at the front of the room lecturing (certain sermon styles are in fact called ’lectures’), may well conclude that it is now OK to fidget, speak out, get up, move around, etc. because that’s what happens in the only other place where there are a lot of people gathered to hear people talk.

If the teacher doesn’t know this world, he may well judge the child as inattentive (which he may well be), undisciplined (hardly), rude (no), and incapable of proper behavior (he needs to see the kid when the deacons are praying). Out of such cultural conflicts and misunderstandings grow the child’s feeling that this place is not for him and that big adult is not for him.

Classes in multiculturalism could teach about these things, but the conservative attack on multiculturalism, if successful, will suppress all appreciation of differentness and insist on the labeling of different behavior as deviant, something that our schools suffered from for a very long time. The idea is for the teacher to learn about the behavior patterns of the child’s home background so as to make a realistic assessment of the child and then teach him school-appropriate behaviors.

But the way things are, by fourth grade the wall is up and hostility prevails.

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