4 ESL Teaching Tips for Black Teachers

by Published

Read this piece and other tales from black travelers in our free downloadable eBook, “Meaningful Traveler Tips & Tales: African American Perspectives

How exactly are you supposed to summarize hundreds of years of culture into a three minute answer to one question? As a 19-year-old teaching English in Prague, I learned the hard way that culture can’t really be explained that simply. Without any real rulebook or good ESL teaching tips for black teachers, I decided to start with the basics – slang.

4 Tips for Teaching Your Black Culture in the ESL Classroom

I was teaching a class of students from a local university, some of whom had already conquered two or three languages. After a few weeks of trying to figure out how much English they knew, I started to realize that they needed help with more advanced topics. Many students were confused by certain words, and they didn’t understand the context behind the words. Unlike me, they didn’t grow up witnessing the effect black culture had on the English language.

What started with trying to explain what “swag” is, turned into a conversation on dance crazes, which turned into a conversation on pop culture, which turned into a conversation on social media. I mean how can you explain “bae” without explaining the prevalence of black twitter and its impact on how we speak? More importantly, how can I teach my students to keep up with the times and quickly learn new, culturally relevant words?

Problem 1: The old “give a man a fish/teach a man to fish” problem. I can easily spit out meanings for words that aren’t clear or were introduced recently, but that wouldn’t help the root issue. The English language moves quick, and to speak English with young people especially you need to understand the culture.

Problem 2: You can’t understand culture without knowing the proper channels. Czech social media is a bit different compared to usage in the U.S., and the difference was effectively killing my students ability to see African american culture for what it is – a little bit goofy, a little too harsh, and extremely hilarious.

Teaching that is freaking hard, and it’s hard enough to teach beginners English already. Here are four strategies for teaching ESL students as a black teacher to make your life a little easier:

1. Test the Waters with Popular Media

Explaining black culture is a big task, and it’s best to start small. Show a viral video or something that may not make sense to someone learning English, and then work on explaining that first. Try to identify what is and isn’t making sense right off the bat.

Lit Walking Dead Season 3 Poster
Start your students off with popular media they’re likely to have seen before.

Rather than feeling lost, your students should feel more like they’re already beginning to understand. Not to mention, seeing one thing should make them interested to see more. Engaging curiosity in ESL lessons is important, because you’ll need to keep people interested until you get to more serious topics.

2. Make Them Laugh

This should be at the top of all tips for ESL teachers’ lists. Black people are hilarious like no one else. There’s something hard hitting and too real about black humor that makes you either laugh hard or cringe.

Laughing schoolchildren in uniform
Laughter is both the best medicine and the best teaching aid.

Humor is actually an easy thing to show in many parts of the world. While the social dynamics may not be clear, the raw nature of humor is much more familiar. From an international perspective, American humor is often softer and deemed more politically correct. I noticed when traveling in certain places (the Czech Republic and France, among others) that the idea of jokes being a little offensive was commonplace.

3. Get Real For a Minute

Now that you’ve gone through viral media and humor, it’s important to discuss the “cut directly-to-the-chase” nature of African American culture. Maybe it was the history of slavery and social inequality in America that did it, but something gave black people to ability to be particularly unrelenting in their speech.

Black woman looking directly at the camera
Be upfront about the realities of black culture and its historical significance.

This kind of information doesn’t change the way you interact with black people, but it helps understand the meaning behind a lot of issues and causes that come out of black culture. Being black is a lifestyle as much as it is a culture; it is a way of thinking as much as it is a point of pride. No ESL lesson on black culture is complete without understanding and teaching black history.

4. Go Deep in Pop Culture

Black culture makes the English language difficult because it’s hard to keep up. The reason it’s so easy for us (black or not) is because we’re exposed to a ridiculous amount of African American culture in our daily lives. It’s impossible to escape. Whether it’s Betty White dabbing at the Superbowl or seeing “Black Lives Matter” put on a new political stage, black culture is pervasive element in our culture and language.

Street art of Black Lives Matter
Now it’s time to dive a little deeper into black culture and movements, like Black Lives Matter.

The problem for ESL learners is a lack of exposure. A great way to help students is by sharing the ways that you hear about new trends and changes in language. Show them interesting accounts or Twitter, or introduce them to the strange world of Vine in your ESL lesson. I once had high school students in France ask me about the use of the word “tho” because they kept coming across it on Twitter. Situations like these are much easier than having to introduce new vernacular without context.

Applying Knowledge

Working with students who were already pretty good with English, I learned that teaching culture takes time even for the best ESL students. Explaining where stereotypes come from isn’t easy, and lessons could easily be derailed by just a few questions about African American culture and traditions.

That being said, I don’t think it was a bad thing. Going abroad helped me learn more about my culture than I could have learned by staying home. I realized that black culture is more than just black people, and it’s more than just music or social media. It’s much more complex and dependent on other cultures. It feeds off of changes in population, and there’s different subcultures within black culture. I’ve been black for 20 years and I still don’t feel like I understand every single aspect of black culture. How can I expect students learning English to get it within a few minutes?

Close up of a young black man looking directly into the camera
Teaching abroad is a transformative experience. In the process of teaching your students about your culture, you might just learn a little more about yourself, too!

My students in Prague took a lot of this information as a way to learn more about American life overall, and it gave me the opportunity to learn more about Czech culture at the same time. All I know is that I wouldn’t trade the challenge of trying to communicate black culture for anything. If you think teaching English abroad as a black person is going to be easy, you’re flat out wrong. That being said, armed with these strategies for teaching ESL students about your black culture, you’re also in for a pretty special experience.

Read this piece and other tales from black travelers in our free downloadable eBook, “Meaningful Traveler Tips & Tales: African American Perspectives