Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Wednesday, Dr. Lisa Delpit, a noted educator and executive director for the Center for Urban Education and Innovation at Florida International University, gave an engaging lecture on “Creative education in Light of No Child Left Behind.”
Delpit’s talked centered around what schools “need to make sure [they] put into place to create success” for all students, of every ethnicity and of every class. She explained that many teachers wait for some ideal program to ride to the rescue of troubled schools, but instead these teachers should be working to implement ten key steps. These ten steps formed the core of the lecture.
One of the major problems Delpit sees with many ‘progressive’ schools today is that they effectively teach less content to poor urban children, where they should instead “understand their brilliance and teach more.” Delpit argued that one of the most important differences between lower and middle class students is that middle class students (who are frequently also the white students) learn basic skills like math, punctuation, and grammar at home, while lower class students (who are frequently African-American) aren’t given these same skills.
Delpit explained that when these children come to school, some respond by teaching lower class students less, to lower standards. But this isn’t the solution. Instead teachers should raise standards, should avoid rote learning like handwriting sheets and test prep, and instead give the lower class students courses of study even more rigorous than those of middle-class students so that they can catch up with their peers.
Delpit defines basic skills as the “linguistic conventions of middle class society: punctuation, grammar, five-paragraph essays, and specialized vocabulary.” The students who do not get these skills from home need to get them from school if they are to have an equal chance to get into colleges, and to compete for the best jobs.
Delpit also stressed the need for critical thinking, the need to demand critical thinking. She explained that many lower class children become used to test prep worksheets, and are comforted by the ditto sheet’s comfortable ease. Teachers cannot accept this, she argued. Instead, teachers must demand change, must tell their students “I know you can do this. I know you can think through this.” This went hand in hand with her argument that teachers must reject the racist societal views of the competence and worthiness of the children and their families.
Delpit explained that many African- American children have “internalized this notion that they are ‘less than’ in terms of intellect and morality.” Delpit recalled one time she was helping teach multiplication to an African-American student, and the little girl turned to her and asked “Mrs. Lisa, why are you doing this? Black people don’t multiply. Black people just add and subtract.” It is necessary that teachers challenge these societal lessons at every turn; kids needs teachers to help them know that they are smart.
Teachers not only have to challenge societal views and impart middle- class skills, but also have to recognize and build on the strengths of the children, argued Delpit. And success at this makes knowledge of children’s out-of-school lives necessary. Delpit used the example of a teacher passing out candy to illustrate how important knowledge of children’s culture is to effectively teaching. She had us imagine a teacher who brought in candy for her class in celebration of some holiday. She started passing it around the room, and it quickly all vanished. Some teachers might decide that the children were greedy and decide never to bring candy again.
However if a teacher realizes that African-American children might be taking the candy to bring it home for their siblings, they can see the vanishing candy as a strength of the culture: Instead of never bringing candy again, teachers can see this strong sense of duty within families and create programs for cross-age tutoring, and make other children responsible for other’s learning.
Ultimately it is vital to know what kids are doing outside of school in order to “understand how to teach them and how to connect to the students.” Delpit also believes that a close connection to the children allows teachers to closely relate class work to a child’s world. If middle school girls are focused on hair, make chemistry lessons based on their hair products, and teach about tessellation through braiding.
Ultimately, Delpit argued that the key to teaching students is respecting their home culture, and teaching students to respect their home culture. She explained that students wonder “how can I share if my cup is empty?” Only a student with a strong foundation in their own culture can feel like they have something to contribute. And most students are not given this foundation.
Delpit used the example of Egypt to illustrate this point: many textbooks picture the ancient Egyptians as a people with olive-complexions, looking very similar to the majority of Egyptians today. However many of the great pharaohs were much darker skinned. Delpit explained that when she shows this to African-American students, they are stunned that the pharaohs look like themselves.