I am all over the place on Lisa Delpit’s latest book on educating “poor black children,” probably because Delpit is a little all over the place. She makes a plethora of excellent points, but in a fashion that is overly wordy (I know, pot calling the kettle black here; wait, I didn’t mean it that way!), puzzlingly organized, and admittedly angry (“I am left in my more cynical moments with the thought that poor black children have become the vehicle by which rich white people give money to their friends.”). I found myself craving ease, warmth, and humor. Of course, I also found myself nodding along with frequency and learning a great deal about a subject of serious urgency. After giving my mixed feelings extensive thought, I decided that much of the problem is that Delpit’s book isn’t a well-reasoned opening salvo, it’s a passionate refutation. She responds to those who say African American students disproportionately fail in school because they just aren’t as smart as children of other races and come from “a culture of poverty” (and that those who succeed do so only because of unmeritocratic affirmative action). No wonder she’s pissed.
Of course African American students are just as “gifted and brilliant” as everyone else (as Delpit ably demonstrates). But even educators who accept racial equality expect less of poor and minority students because of their supposed cultural deficiency. Delpit spends the bulk of the book tackling this point. Essentially, she says that “poor black children . . . [have] a culture of richness” that gives them not fewer, but different skills (“a maturity in problem solving, an ability to do what is needed in difficult situations, [and] an understanding of real-world problems” but not necessarily the ability to refer to a canoe as “canoe” rather than “boat”). But the schools as currently structured (and the high-stakes tests) do not recognize these strengths or the deficits of middle-class culture (since “[o]ne’s own culture is to humans as water is to a fish – we are completely unaware of our culture until we are taken out of it”). Along with this external expectation gap comes an internal expectation gap of sorts, in the form of poor African American children’s “‘disidentification’ with school” and “stereotype threat” (i.e., the detrimental anxiety that comes with being in a position to confirm a negative stereotype).
The problem with lowered expectations for academic achievement is that they are self-fulfilling prophecies. Delpit proffers as the key to raising the expectations of both educators and students “a consciously devised, continuous program that develops [academic skills] in the context of real experiences, provides rigorous instruction, [and] connects new information to the [interests and] cultural frameworks that children bring to school,” with a side of character education (including “ritually express[ed] expectations for hard work and academic, social, physical, and moral excellence”), discussion of “African Americans’ intellectual legacy [and] position in a racialized society,” and confirmation that “it is [certain] skills, and not intelligence, that the[se students] lack.” When all is said and done, students should “feel welcomed into the school environment” and challenged (“You cannot value students as intellectual beings without being willing to challenge them, and if they don’t feel valued, they will resist being challenged.”).
Delpit also sprinkles throughout the book plain ol’ good teaching ideas that apply to all but are much more important for children who are, in a cruel twist of fate, both educationally disengaged and “school dependent” (“while children from more privileged backgrounds can manage to perform well . . . in spite of poor teachers, children who are not a part of the mainstream are dependent upon schools to teach them whatever they need to know to be successful”). She asks, “[w]hat if we developed a history curriculum that ushered in each era with a focus on a love affair.” If you’ve ever taught teenagers, you know this idea is pure genius. I’ll also drink to (1) the importance of “[w]arm demanders” as teachers (those who “expect a great deal of their students . . . and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured [yet caring and accepting] environment”), (2) the idea of special education for all kids where “‘special’ [means] . . . specifically designed to discover the strengths and accommodate the needs of each child,” and (3) the “creat[ion of] alternative reasons for [academic] success other than ‘getting a good job.’” Finally, as a former English teacher in a school with a 98% African American and majority free-lunch-qualified student population who was roundly criticized for setting aside class time for reading (and minimizing homework) in order to render participatory discussion possible, I feel downright vindicated by Delpit’s take on reading and homework (“The consensus of researchers and practitioners is that spending time reading, discussing, and writing about text in class allows students to become crucially literate. Too often teachers assign readings for homework, while at the same time complaining that low-performing students don’t do homework!”).
All of the strategies discussed above can be employed by quality educators of any race. Delpit, however, goes further criticizing the Teach for America program as “‘providing low-income schools with tourists rather than teachers’” and failing to provide the mostly white teachers it sends into mostly minority schools with the “humility [and] tutelage of people who look like the children they want to teach [necessary to] learn to connect with the children they want to reach.” Here I am of two minds, yes, the kids I taught and others like them would have been better off if I’d stayed for more than a year, but no, they would not have been better off without me, stuck spending a crucial year with rotating subs, the alcoholic veteran teacher who could no longer stand up straight (let alone put together rational sentences), the man who read the newspaper all day at the head of a state-of-the-art chemistry lab, and the other very real alternatives to my teaching. Also, while I agree that “[a] lack of knowledge and understanding of students’ out-of-school experiences severely limit[s] a teacher,” Delpit overlooks a primary source of a teacher’s cultural education: her students. A white upper-class teacher can make a basic connection with students without a common cultural language, and quickly deepen it by listening and learning. I think mentorship is a fabulous idea, but I don’t believe that it’s so essential that Teach for America teachers can’t contribute in a positive way without it.
I also am not sure about the following claim: “One consistent but often ignored aspect of African American learning styles has to do with whether teaching begins with the big picture and works down to the details, or whether it begins with subskills and works up to the global. Traditional teaching favors the latter – first you learn the pieces, then you put them together to form the whole. African Americans tend toward the former. Students often want the big ideas, the big story, first. They want the ‘back story’ of whatever is being studied . . . .” Really? I guess I just need to invite Delpit and her folders of research over to dinner to convince me there’s race at play here. I always contextualized first and then got down to the details. I was under the impression that orienting learning in the big picture was just good teaching. Do African Americans really learn differently, or do kids who “identify” with school just have a greater tolerance for poor teaching?
Delpit’s book clearly brings something to the table (well, the library shelf) including valuable ruminations on “microaggressions” and the minority experience of higher education (“Invisibility inside the classroom, hypervisibility outside the classroom.”). But it’s not a page-turner, and it’s not a feel good call to action. If you’re an education policy wonk or a teacher who works with poor minority students, read it. If you’re not, there are more enjoyable ways to study these issues (like Pedro Noguera’s clearer, more inspirational writing).