Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why We Must Listen to Young Black Males

Originally posted online at the Huffington Post at by John Thompson
When my father died, only one group offered more heart-felt consolation than black female teenagers. The most emotional condolences came from my black male students and basketball buddies. Almost all of them volunteered their feelings about intense father-yearnings and often said they were watching for insights about the ways that intact families deal with suffering.

In Tracey and Abby Sparrow's "The Voices of Young Black Men," in Phi Delta Kappan, ten black males expressed feelings similar to those that thousands of my students have articulated. The Education Trust's Amy Wilkins, however, also used her family experiences as evidence to condemn the Sparrow's excellent piece.

No other organization has attacked teachers in a way than has upset me more than has the Education Trust. But, if for no other reason than respect for her father, Roger Wilkins, I will do my best to respond constructively. I believe, however, that Wilkins' attack on "The Voices of Young Black Men" illustrates how No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which embodied the Education Trust's faith in standardized testing and distrust of teachers, has caused extreme unintended damage to poor children of color.

The best way for Ms. Wilkins and other accountability hawks to help black males is to start listening to them. Teenagers' wisdom will confirm the social science which shows that kids learn from people who love them and the key to educational success is building trusting relationships.

NCLB has prompted an unflinching focus on the academic weaknesses of our most vulnerable and isolated children. Instead, we need to build on their strengths. As with other kids, among their greatest assets are profound emotional and moral consciousness, and a desire to communicate and contribute. Yes, I suspect the ten young men cited by the Sparrows were generous, perhaps to a fault, when saying their teachers were not to blame for the failure to undo toxic effects of peer pressure, but Deon, for instance, must have been honest in praising his teacher who took him in when he was kicked out of his home.

Rasean also has a point when claiming that it all comes down to his choices, "if I want to be in the streets, its me. If I want to get an education, its me." We need schools where a full diversity of the adult community can remind Rasean, however, that we are with him.

Damon adds, "if the people they (black males) hang out with are bad ... they stop doing good in school." After listening to hundreds of poor children of color describe themselves as "bad," I continue to hear them out and then reply that it pains me when the students I love describe themselves as "bad." Students, who tend to be their own harshest critics, need adults to help them inventory with much more precision the things that they do that are "good." I am haunted, however, by one such conversation where we discussed the student's belated understanding of his or her potential, but my young friend was stabbed to death an hour later.

Jovante offers the best single observation explaining why we need schools that foster profound conversations. The dropout explains, "If I could have been graded on my conversations and understanding, I would have been an excellent student. At first listen, Jovante sounds like he left school because of an inability to delay gratification. Part of his impatience, however, was due to seeing his mom struggle and he could not wait any longer before relieving part of her economic burden.

I have been privileged to participate in hundreds of conversations with black males that were inspired by Roger Wilkins' wisdom, as expressed in PBS documentaries. Whether I was teaching Black History or Government, I tried to use Roger Wilkins, who contributed so much wisdom to that amazing programming, as a virtual co-instructor. Type "Roger Wilkins" into the PBS web site's search engine, and 5570 links appear. But, in my experience, data-driven accountability has driven most of those types of engaging lessons from inner city classrooms. If it is "not on the test," it is not taught anymore. Teachers are under the bubble-in testing gun and pressured to do non-stop test prep, and not allowed to deviate from their paced, teacher-proof pacing mandates and, thus, we cannot attempt lessons that the students love.

And that brings me back to my complaint with Ms. Wilkins and the Education Trust. She cites seven friends and family members as sources, but complains about an article that cited ten voices. Her organization, however, cites a tiny number of schools that "beat the odds" and combined standardized testing with engaging and respectful instruction. They should listen to the vast majority of inner city teachers and our students who recount the humiliations imposed upon us by test-driven accountability. We can explain why education is primarily an affair of "the Heart," not "the Head." Education must be a conversation. Yes, we must debate the things that we see as wrong with our opponents, but we need our primary focus to be building on what is right with our kids.


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