How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.
Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.
Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.
“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.
“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.
Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.
We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Why did you become a teacher?
My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.
What does your classroom look like?
I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.
This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.
A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.
How do you get your class’ attention if students are talking or off task?
I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.
For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first. Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with, know, and understand.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”