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Challenging Assumptions About Educating 'Those Children'

Dear Deborah,

Thanks for the updates from Belgium. I knew things must be hard there given the prolonged recession, but I am glad to hear that people are thinking broadly about how to address the roots of the economic crisis which lie in the unsustainable development path we are presently on, a path premised on an insatiable consumption of our natural resources and control of the world's wealth by the 1 percent.

I'm actually on my way to Barbados this weekend for a conference on youth development. Barbados is an interesting place to study education and youth development because many of its social indicators—adult literacy, life expectancy, health, etc.—rival those of wealthy nations. This is quite significant because Barbados is a relatively poor nation, largely dependent on tourism for its economic survival. In many ways, Barbados has made a greater commitment to social equity than the United States even though it does not have the resources to support a social-welfare system for its people. I also like to point out to people that Barbados is also a place where children don't believe that race determines academic ability or that because many children are poor they can't learn. That's probably because their teachers don't accept such ideas.

Unlike the United States, black children in Barbados (and more than 95 percent of the people there are black) are not bombarded by stereotypes that lead them to believe the only chance they have of succeeding in life is as an athlete or rap star. Race is not an obstacle to their aspirations, and the children literally think they can be anything they want.

Traveling outside of the United States has provided me with a good vantage point to reflect on what we're doing wrong in American schools. In this country, we increasingly rely upon fear as a motivator. We use it to threaten children by telling them that if they don't pass an exam, don't have high enough grades, and don't join a wide variety of clubs (even if they have no real interest in them), they won't get into the best colleges. There are also many urban schools—traditional public schools, charter schools, and some private schools—that believe the only way to achieve academic success is to impose white middle-class values on their children and mold them so that they are compliant and obedient to authority figures. David Whitman calls this strategy the "new paternalism" and some advocates of the "no excuses" approach claim that it is the only way to teach "urban" children.

I think they are wrong, though I don't necessarily object to all no-excuses schools. Given the chaos and dysfunction that reigns in many urban public schools, it's hard to argue against schools where children are at least learning in a safe and orderly environment. However, I reject the notion that fear and pressure are the most effective ways to motivate children to achieve.

I also oppose the notion that children should be made to choose between individual success or maintaining ties to the communities and people who have shaped their lives and identities. I think schools should serve as assets to communities and that families can provide what Luis Moll calls the "funds of knowledge" to reinforce the importance of learning. Without this kind of support and engagement from communities and families, many children will reject schooling because they reject the choice that has been forced upon them.

What would happen if instead of relying upon fear and stripping children of their culture we utilized hope and community as resources for learning? I saw this taking place at a school I visited in a township on the Eastern Cape in South Africa last year. The school is called Sapphire Rhodes, and although the pedagogical approach I observed was fairly didactic and old fashioned (teacher talks in front, students lined up in rows passively listening), in the classroom I visited with 48 children, I saw students who were busy writing a letter to South African President Jacob Zuma, asking for help in dealing with the AIDS crisis in their community.

As the students wrote they talked loudly among themselves about what kind of help was most needed. Some said that home visits by nurses would help because many of those afflicted were too sick to walk to the hospital for treatment. A girl proclaimed quite passionately that what people needed was good food so that they would have the strength to benefit from the medicines being made available. Two boys argued with great conviction that new hospitals should be built because the one they relied upon was over an hour a way and too difficult for families to visit their loved ones. One boy suggested that it was important for televisions to be installed in every room so that people wouldn't be bored. As the students worked, the teacher and two parent volunteers moved among the children looking at their papers, pointing out their errors in grammar and spelling, and answering questions that were posed to them.

While none of what I've described in this classroom may seem remarkable, as I tell you more about the context and the challenges facing this community I think you will appreciate why what they are doing is in fact extraordinary. Not only is the community surrounding Sapphire Rhodes extremely poor (it has an unemployment rate of over 80 percent), it is also sick; approximately 40 percent of the adults in it are HIV-positive. Despite these conditions more than 80 parents volunteer at the school each day in roles as classroom aides, health workers, carpenters, gardeners, custodians, and cooks. Remarkably, no one gets paid to do this work, not even the parents who volunteer to clean the homes and cook for other parents who are too sick from HIV to take care of themselves.

Over and over when I asked the parents why they volunteer, they said: "Because this is our school. Our children are here." When I asked Bruce Damons, the principal, how he managed to recruit so many parents to help him, he said: "I work for them, and I told them I can't make this school work without their support."

This is a school that thrives on hope, a school where children seemed happy, rambunctious, and playful. A school that uses hope to motivate children. What I witnessed at this school was not naive optimism. Remember, the children were writing about how to address AIDS in their community. Hope and compassion are being used to combat the formidable problems they face, and it seems to be working.

Deborah, these are the critical ingredients I see lacking in so many of the urban schools (as well as many rural and suburban schools) I visit today. How do we get more people to recognize that we can't wait for the politicians to save us or policy to allow us to do what needs to be done? The people at Sapphire Rhodes primary school are saving themselves. I think we must find ways to do the same sort of thing here.

Warmly,
Pedro

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