MacArthur "genius" award recipient and educational scholar Lisa Delpit is perhaps most famous for her book Other People’s Children, which focused on the cultural struggle that goes on in many urban classrooms when white, middle-class teachers fail to acknowledge the unique experiences of their students and instead try to force their own beliefs and cultural norms. I have found her writing to be eye-opening and it has certainly impacted my work in the classroom (as a white, middle-class man teaching in a high-poverty, black school).
As I was reading her recent work, Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children, her “Three Steps toward Sanity” struck me as a simple and straightforward (at least to educators) roadmap for improving educational opportunities for urban students. These steps have nothing to do with funding, school structure, politics, administration, charters, vouchers, or any other foolishness. They are the backbone of successful education systems for which she’s suggests a renewed focus.
1. Believe in the Children
“I believe the first step [to educating children that school systems have typically failed] is to become convinced of these children’s inherent intellectual capability, humanity, physical ability, and spiritual character. Unfortunately, our nation’s educational enterprise continues to be obsessed with the notion of intellectual capacity” (Delpit 30).
It is nearly impossible to argue with this first step to building strong schools and it seems so simple. Almost every school and organization that claims to serve an educational purpose has some variation of “we believe all children can learn” in its mission statement. However, saying “I believe all children can learn” is not the same as “believing in children”, at least not in my opinion.
When schools say “We believe all children can learn”, there is an implication that comes at the end of the statement. What typically goes unsaid is something like “in spite of their skin color or parents or neighborhood”. This implication leads to the same type of deficit mindset as the “achievement gap” language (as Gloria Ladson-Billings argues). Whether implicitly or explicitly, it sets a certain group of children apart from others and serves to reinforce stereotypes.
Students don’t need that teacher who comes in on their high horse saying, “I’m going to tell you that you have potential because no one has ever told you that before”. In making such a statement (as is often espoused by organizations such as TFA and StudentsFirst), teachers have already passed judgement on their students and their communities. Students need a teacher who truly believes in the innate abilities that all children possess, not against the odds or in spite of who they are, but simply by virtue of being human.
2. “Fight Foolishness”
Citing a phrase from Professor Emeh, Delpit suggests that to educate children who we (as a society) have previously failed, we as teachers, schools, and society must “fight foolishness”.
“We have to cease attempting to build ‘teacher-proof’ schools with scripted low-level instruction and instead seek to develop (and retain) perceptive, thinking teachers who challenge their students with high-quality, interactive, and thoughtful instruction” (Delpit 34).
I cannot agree more with Delpit’s second directive. In schools, particularly urban schools, there are mountains of “foolishness” that influence what the teachers teach and, coincidentally, what the students experience. This foolishness takes the form of everything from scripted curricula and prescriptive programs to zero tolerance policies and complex school-wide reward/ punishment systems. While some of these initiatives find success in some schools, they cannot be seen as a panacea in all impoverished populations.
Delpit stresses, “Successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students’ lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for critical thinking and problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom” (37). If ever there was a concise definition of what great teaching should be, that’s it. As I retool and revisit my syllabi for the coming school year, I will keep this sentence in mind, ensuring that my goals, particularly in working with my specific population (over-aged, under-credited), are in line with supporting my students’ all-around growth and development.
3. Learn who our children are and discover the legacies they bring
“If we are truly to educate poor African American children, we must learn who the children are and not focus on what we assume them to be - at risk, learning disabled, unmotivated, defiant, behavior disoriented, etc. This means developing relationships with our students and understanding their political, cultural, and intellectual legacy” (38).
Delpit’s final directive speaks directly to the human side of teaching and education. It builds off of the discussion of fighting foolishness, as the foolishness in schools often does little to acknowledge who students are. Throughout my undergraduate, student teaching, graduate, and independent work, I have read a variety of articles and texts suggesting how best to teach specific kinds of students. However, each one of these texts reduces students to labels or tropes.
Books often offer tips like:
- “When you have a disruptive student, give them a job in the classroom”
- “In teaching at-risk students, use hip hop to make the lessons more interesting”.
While these tips are successful in SOME classes with SOME students, it is unfair and unrealistic to suggest that all at-risk (a term that I find troubling to begin with) students, for example, will succeed with the simple inclusion of hip hop. Instead, just as Delpit suggests, it is essential for teachers to build relationships and understand where their students are coming from.
I had a very telling experience with this in my first year of teaching when a student said something about how crazy the white people in the KKK were, then turned to me and said, “No offense”. Before I could reply (and explain that I don't identify with the KKK and therefore don't take offense to suggests that their actions are crazy), another student jumped in and said, “Don’t worry, Teacher Man isn’t white, he’s Italian”.
The rest of the class agreed and was ready to move on. I wasn’t. The interaction was confusion to me and I asked why they thought I wasn’t white. They explained that I didn’t do the things that white people did. They explained that I listened to them, understood their references and experiences, joked with them, and respected them. My students (who are almost all black) had a specific definition of “White Male” and I didn’t fit, therefore I must not be white. Looking back, it was pretty sound reasoning.
I offer this story to say that it is crucial that teachers in all settings, but especially in urban classrooms where their experiences may be very different from their students, work to understand the issues, experiences, and challenges students face. Though there are many cultural differences between the population that I serve and myself, that doesn’t stop me from trying to understand their individual experiences and tailoring my instruction to fit those legacies. .
I know that I will keep these three steps in mind as I head back in to school tomorrow. We have two weeks of teacher prep and I’ll be sure to share these with my colleagues as we prepare for the coming year.