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Teacher of Afro-centric arts and culture class aims to boost students’ sense of belonging

To give black students a stronger sense of pride and identity, Kenna Cottman believes educators need to better integrate black history and culture into all of their lessons. 

Kenna Cottman: “Even teaching math can be culturally specific. It’s about referencing blackness whenever you can.”
Courtesy of Kenna Cottman

Kenna Cottman grew up feeling proud of being black, despite living around mostly white families. “I was raised in a very culturally saturated way,” she said. “I was never ashamed to be black.”

Now the south Minneapolis native and former Minneapolis Public Schools teacher is trying to nurture that same kind of pride in her students as they prepare for an intensive month of student-run Black History Month projects.

Cottman left MPS after about five years because she felt that her messages of African pride and identity weren’t reaching the right audiences. So this school year, she began teaching her Afro-centric arts and culture class at Best Academy in north Minneapolis, the African-American-focused charter school geared toward raising up black youth and closing the district’s achievement gap.

The class teaches everything from traditional African dance and music to the civil rights movement, she said, and this month her students are digging deeper. “Carter G. Woodson was a scholar of African and African-American history and he knew that the contributions of Africans and black Americans should be integrated into what we learn about our history,” Cottman said. “But until that’s done, Black History Month is essential.”

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This month her students are working on projects like rap and poetry, Cottman said, but they’re also digging into the history of how African-Americans helped build the United States.

But celebrating Black History Month is just the beginning, she said, and what educators need to do is better integrate black history and black culture into all of their lessons to give their black students a stronger sense of pride and identity, and therefore give them a better chance of academic success. “We have all these schools that are 90 percent black and we don’t want to admit ‘OK, we’re a black school,’” Cottman said.

Black students in Minneapolis often have a hard time connecting personally and culturally with the lessons they’re taught or the history they’re learning, she said, often because much of the school district’s curriculum is geared toward white audiences. (Last year, MPS took some major heat after several books with racist stereotypes appeared in curriculum materials ordered for students.)

Cottman said she deliberately looks for black historical figures or black scholars or black anecdotes to incorporate into her everyday lessons. “Even teaching math can be culturally specific,” she said. “It’s about referencing blackness whenever you can.”

Linda Benford, of the WE WIN Institute, said finding a way to connect with students is one of Cottman’s strongest suits as a teacher. “The children love her,” she said. “Even the ones that are acting up. She always finds a way to bring the best out of them.”

Benford said she’s worked with Cottman for around 10 years in several different afterschool programs. And together, she said, the two of them have worked on teaching their black students a variety of different African traditions and cultures — everything from wedding ceremonies to harvest dances. “When they are learning about their history and culture,” she said. “It gives them a better sense of pride, of who they are and who they can be.”

Eric Mahmoud
Eric Mahmoud

Eric Mahmoud, president and CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools — which runs Best Academy — said they recruited Cottman to teach for the school in part because of her deep connections with the African-American community in Minneapolis, and because he saw her as someone students could look up to.

Mahmoud said that Best Academy’s mission is to tackle the achievement gap and help black students become more successful in and out of school, but part of that success comes from giving their students a greater sense of identity. “Kenna is a great fit,” he said. “To have someone who can help us reach both of those goals is great.”

Cottman said she knows her class at Best Academy doesn’t resolve all those cultural conflicts black students face in Minneapolis’ education system, but she’s at least providing her students with an outlet she doesn’t think they get in traditional school settings. At the end of the day it’s about giving her students a sense of belonging, she said, and a sense of their own culture. “We’re trying to work directly on our own children in a very deliberate way,” she said. “You have to be strong in your culture to be successful.”