Back to My Roots: Utilizing Hair to Build Student-Led Learning in the Classroom

Back to My Roots: Utilizing Hair to Build Student-Led Learning in the Classroom

Patricia O'Brien-Richardson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4360-3.ch014
(Individual Chapters)
No Current Special Offers


This chapter explores the use of hair, a common yet complex object, as an entry point to student-led practice. As students bring their personal, past, and present experiences into the classroom in a safe, supported space on a topic everyone can relate to, so they are able to engage in complex, opposing viewpoints. Students are supported by the educator who serves as a facilitator, and various outside guests from diverse backgrounds established in their careers via Zoom, a technological, virtual space who also share their experiences with hair in their career environment. In this setting, students are led by their own hair stories, collaboratively discuss and debate viewpoints, and are supported by professionals in their own workspaces. Combined, this multi-level layer of culturally based learning is both student-led, technologically supported, and provides opportunities to achieve both hard and soft skills, all through the lens of a single, unifying artifact, hair.
Chapter Preview


While educators spend their summers exploring topics of interest to their students, pouring time over remaking their syllabi and making efforts to include subjects and skill sets they believe their students should master by the end of the upcoming year, innovative educators are doing the complete opposite. Twenty-first century educators know they are not the “keepers of knowledge” in the classroom. They recognize how learning occurs, and by whom; the true experts in the room, the students themselves. Student-led learning begins with the student at the center, is led by the students’ own intrinsic exploration, and is paved by their inquiry and experiences.

Students today live in a diverse, rapidly changing world where their success in college and career demands more knowledge, skill, and experience than they can achieve in a classroom setting from one “expert in the room”. There must be several, connection-making experts, collaboratively working to problem solve with various, often opposing viewpoints, building respect and empathy in an environment reflective of the world we live in today.

At a time where science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are central to the education platform and increasingly complex, students are seeing less and less of themselves, their history, their culture, and their unique experiences in the classroom. Yet, the demand for emotional intelligence, social networking, and collaborative skills, that are often built upon these personal, historical, and cultural experiences are ever increasing creating a paradigm shift in classroom pedagogy. The traditional, homogenous teacher-led instruction is becoming a more diverse, learner-centered practice. How can students achieve technical skill sets, empathetic character traits, and personal work habits in our current world of education?

This chapter explores the use of hair, a common yet complex object, as an entry point to student-led practice. As students bring their whole self into the classroom in a safe, supported space they are able to engage in complex, often opposing worldviews. In the student-led classroom, the educator serves as a facilitator alongside outside guests from diverse backgrounds who also share their experiences with hair in the workplace via Zoom, a virtual communications platform. In this setting, students share their own hair stories which like most personal narratives, accompany vulnerability, openness, and trust.

This chapter explores how hair was used in higher education classes as a starting point for discussions and debate on often complex and opposing topics, and as a unifying platform to unpack perspectives on worldviews. Using the site of two diverse university classrooms, we explored a framework for culturally-based student-led learning to build 21st century skills as students engage in global themes of social justice, culture, technology, and politics through the lens of hair. By the end of this chapter, educators will be able to:

  • 1.

    Understand how culture informs and improves classroom communities

  • 2.

    Apply cultural artifacts, such as hair, to classroom curriculum in order to build student-led learning, unity, and inclusion among students

  • 3.

    Create a safe, democratic, equalized classroom space, where students focus more on what they have in common than what sets them apart



We live in an age where toxic, offensive, hate-speech is spewed from everyday people to leaders of nations, and where widespread racism, gender-based crimes, and xenophobia are ubiquitous. Violence against demographic groups are on the rise. The most recent data on violence against various groups reflect this sentiment. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 60% of bias-motivated incidents were based on race, ethnicity, and ancestry bias, with 47% motivated by anti-Black or African-American bias, and 20% from anti-White bias. Latinos continued to experience an increase of racially motivated incidents which has increased to 48% over the past five years. Sixty percent of sexual orientation bias were classified as anti-gay (male), and 25% were prompted by anti-lesbian, bisexual, or transgender bias (Treisman, 2019; U.S. Department of Justice, 2018).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Noise: Refers to the toxic, divisive, social violence of the world which spill over into our classrooms sending a message to our students that all is not right, and act as agents of detractors and obstacles to learning.

Good Noise: Classroom “noise” which may sound noisy and chaotic, but is composed of intellectually stimulating and enriching debates and discussions.

Zoom: A computer technology company which provides videotelephony and online chat services through a cloud-based peer-to-peer software platform and is used for teleconferencing, telecommuting, distance education, and social relations.

Teacher-Led Instruction: Traditional method of teaching consisting of the teacher directing students to learn through memorization and recitation techniques. Assessments typically resembled teachers listening to students’ vocabulary, and an oral exam. Customs and standards are determined by the teachers’ communication of the knowledge often through talk and chalk who enforces class behavior.

Student-Led Learning: Learning with the student at the center, led by their own intrinsic exploration, and is paved by student inquiry and experiences.

21st Century Learning: Focuses on individual student’s needs rather than seeing the class homogenously. It is activity based, with an emphasis on questioning, explaining, demonstration, and collaboration techniques. It embraces technology, uses skill-based methods, and allows students to manifest their own progress.

Culturally Based Learning and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Learning which views the inclusion of culture as a major entry point of unity and learning.

21st Century Skills: Refers to language that is formally complex and typically used in academic context that typically takes longer to acquire and is essential in facilitating academic achievement.

Hair Narratives: Also referred to as hair stories or storytelling told orally, or via reflective journaling.

Safe Spaces: An environment which encourages participation in the honest sharing of ideas, where students can freely express their feelings particularly towards challenging topics such as oppression, race, cultural competence, race, bias, and power dynamics. This is the period during which new learners of English are unwilling or unable to communicate orally using the English language.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: