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Shhh ... they can hear you!

By Marcus Sean Hall on Dec 9, 2011 01:25 PM

Recently, I witnessed a group of young African-American male onlookers discuss a crime scene in Kensington with a White police officer. I overheard some of the discussion. They were freely discussing the quality and accessibility of the officers’ weapons, as several elementary-age children walked by.

I thought of the students I teach and wondered, how would I react if my students witnessed this interaction, and they began to accept it as a societal norm?

Without making too many judgments, what has caused a shift in our priorities that weapons are a topic for casual conversation, and how can we turn the tide?

Despite the countless research reports released by the Council for Great City Schools, the Schott Foundation, EducationTrust, and others, many educators and school administrators are baffled by what people call the "Black male" problem.

Big city mayors and superintendents such as NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Baltimore Schools CEO Andres Alonso have announced major initiatives aimed at addressing this problem. In Philly, the School Reform Commission convened the African American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce.

I plan to look at the efforts in New York City and other cities in-depth in future posts, but first I want to have a different conversation.

I challenge all leaders, in and outside the classroom to think — at what point does our target population begin to internalize this perceived helplessness? We spout out achievement gap facts that focus on graduation, literacy, and proficiency rates, but here is a newsflash — they can hear you!

Lack of job opportunity, dilapidated and dysfunctional schools, mounting incarceration rates, drug-infested streets, education nation tirades, insufficient parental support, and increased awareness of an achievement gap are all topics of regular discussion. But guess what? They can hear you! 

But let’s look at this from the eyes of a student. If you perceive I have a “problem” and my trusted sources confirm this suspicion, then I must deem it as truth and accept my inability to change it, although the exact “problem” is never truly identified in the first place.

Perhaps it is time we change our perception.

Simple, right? Of course not. As I teach my students, occasionally some get frustrated and simply say, "I don't care." My response: "That is exactly what they are betting giving up." To those onlookers – how are you contributing to our own demise? Let's have a real conversation.

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Comments (7)

Submitted by Austin Wakefield (not verified) on December 9, 2011 3:05 pm

I had to read this three times to understand your point and determine whether I should be irate about your assumptions of guns within our culture (there has been no shift imo, guns have been a casual artifact of our society since its founding), but in fact guns have nothing to do with what your talking about. So about that...

What are you suggesting here? That leaders in education stifle their own discourse because that very discourse is damaging to the vulnerable population at the heart of the discussion. Are experts supposed to eschew facts for bromides to make people feel better about themselves? How are ideas to be shared, vetted and challenged publicly if they cannot be voiced?

You object to the negative descriptions of the reality facing many in the public school system as damaging to self esteem. Are you debating these things in your classroom? That would be inappropriate, it seems to me. A teacher in a classroom needs to work with the students he or she has, meeting their individual needs, empowering them, helping them find a path to success within their community and their own life. A teacher student relationship should not be shaped by a macro view of the system with its requisite stereotypes and generalizations. A teacher who cannot distinguish between a data driven stereotype and the diversity of reality in his or her classroom needs to get more engaged with teaching or find another profession.

This country's public education system has problems! Only passionate vocal engagement with these issues will affect change. Frankly, I don't buy that public school students are keyed into the national conversation about education, taking cues from that dialogue in the formation of their self identity.
Educators are aware of the public discussion. So who has the perception challenges? Teachers in the classroom need to focus on teaching, on the individual students in front of them, judging them on their own merits, and ignore the challenges, negative stereotypes, and excuses that fall from a maddening, adult conversation.

Perhaps we are making the same argument, but your appeal to censorship set me off.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on December 9, 2011 4:20 pm

Not sure this helps clarify things, but I neglected to paste the concluding paragraph when I initially composed this post: 

"Simple, right? Of course not. As I teach my students, occasionally some get frustrated and simply say, "I don't care." My response: "that is exactly what they are betting giving up." To those onlookers – how are you contributing to our own demise? Let's have a real conversation."

Also, I didn't take this post so suggest censorship so much as to imagine being in a student's shoes. Thanks for your thoughtful response--look forward to learning more about Marcus' perspective, too.

Submitted by Austin Wakefield (not verified) on December 9, 2011 4:02 pm

'Simple, right? Of course not. As I teach my students, occasionally some get frustrated and simply say, "I don't care." My response: "that is exactly what they are betting giving up." To those onlookers – how are you contributing to our own demise? Let's have a real conversation."'

Who are "they" and what are "they" doing in your classroom? "They" have nothing to say about your student. "They" have never met him or her or you. Your student is right not to care what "they" think of him or her. And worse you just let the student know that "their" definition of him is more valid, in your eyes, than who he or she is as an individual. You just told a white kid he can't jump. You just assigned him or her to the stereotype. "They" didn't. You just reinforced his or her negative self esteem. "They" didn't. You just told you student you expect him or her to fail. "They" didn't. You're up to date on all the latest research and conventional wisdom about failing public schools and all of the barriers and challenges urban kids face and you brought all that negativity into your classroom.

How is this helpful for anyone? It's not your job as a teacher to solve all of the system's problems. Your job is to teach (hopefully not about negative stereotypes, hopefully not about all the ways a person can fail), as best you can, and it's your student's role to learn, not leap over the achievement gap, just learn.

Submitted by Luke (not verified) on December 10, 2011 9:20 am

I think the point wasn't that we shouldn't talk about the issues, only that we ONLY talk about the issues. From a child's perspective they hear everything wrong with their life/world but never hear solutions.

If you went to the doctor and he told you everything wrong with your health and then sent you on your way, wouldn't you feel hopeless and helpless?

In my opinion, the author intended to say we need more dialogue that includes solutions. Talk about what can lead to change. Much of what the world does now does little to break cycles, in fact, too many times I see cycles being reinforced in schools and government programs.

Children are searching for the answer to "Why should I care?" The answer is "I shouldn't" if there are no solutions to the problems.

Submitted by Nijmie Dzurinko (not verified) on December 10, 2011 6:19 pm

This is an interesting post. I agree with you that the "crisis" mode is really a double edged sword. So how to combat the negative impacts of the barrage of crisis messages directed toward our youth that we receive from every quarter?

Youth in our city have serious challenges. What are the problems from their perspective? What do they like and not like about the education system? What do they think are the real threats? It might not be the same as the crisis mongers. For instance, students are not up in arms about low standardized test scores on high stakes tests, because they don't agree with the tests. That doesn't mean that they don't want to learn and excel. Most have absolutely no control over what or when or how they are forced to "learn".

One way to tackle the various beasts that are undermining our humanity is to reclaim a sense of agency. Young people are not essentially victims though in many ways they are being victimized. They may feel victimized. We can send them lots of messages about their worth, and help them create spaces to actually change their conditions and problem solve. We can value their thoughts, ideas, and experiences, and their culture. Again, what do they think are the solutions? Support their ideas and their efforts to take action in concert with other people. By doing this they build a sense of community and a sense of power. Agency is one antidote to victim-hood.

As another example I don't believe I've ever heard a young person say that simply dressing up in a blazer to go to school will change the quality of the education that's being delivered. These are the kinds of solutions the crisis-mongers come up with.

The problem is not so much talking about the crisis - but *who* is talking about the crisis, how they are talking about it, and what is actually done about it. Lots of well-meaning people are talking about it. Also lots of individualists with deficit frameworks who believe (or say they believe) that helping individual students "escape" is the best we can do - because of course that's how some of us perceive our own life trajectories. Lots of credible advocates and organizers are talking about it. Lots of folks who both have and have not had life experiences that are in any way similar to the youth "in crisis" are talking about it.

Very little space exists (except where it's fought for) for young people themselves to identify what the crisis is, explore the nature of the crisis, identify the root causes of the crisis, frame or re-frame the crisis, and take action on the crisis.

If our schools allowed for this, our communities would be enriched as a result.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on December 12, 2011 11:00 pm


I think we need a balanced approach in addresing the “crisis” of engaging young men of color, in schools. In the near future I plan to do a series of blogs about curricula ideas that may offer solutions as opposed to focusing primarily on the problems. I think a lot of great ideas can come from listening and talking with the young men who are most directly affected by disengaging curricula.  
I have been asked to be a part of new learning community for teachers, Young Men, Writing and Literacy: A Classroom Project, a collaboration between The College Board Advocacy & Policy Center and the National Writing Project (NWP).
The purpose of Young Men, Writing and Literacy: A Classroom Project is to respond directly to the lack of solutions by  focusing on three strategies: (1) explore and expand evidence of classroom- and school-based progress with these student populations; (2) develop ways to measure student success and other changes such as student and teacher attitudes; and (3) communicate the outcomes of the above approaches and practices to national policymakers.
I hope we can generate more interests and discourse through blogging and sharing solutions that honor and engage young men of color in schools and community settings.  

Feel free to visit the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center’s Young Men of Color website, to learn more about both the problem and solution.

Submitted by Marcus S. Hall (not verified) on December 11, 2011 4:51 pm

The suggestion is not to cease all conversations around the issue, but shift the conversation to one that recognizes we are talking about human beings, and very smart human beings, despite what the statistics say. I talk to charter and district school students who constantly ask me 'why do we not have this' or 'why are so far behind.' Recently, a current freshman in college was irate at the fact that he is a freshman and has limited basic math skills. This focus on the achievement gap has been 70% talk, 20% policy, and 10% junk, and ultimately, its the kids who suffer.

With regards to guns, let's focus not on the device but on the conversation. At what point, does the cop and men on the street, stop and realize, are we really having this conversation? When are politicians and local leaders going to recognize the amount of lives wasted while they continue on their rhetoric suffocation.

As a teacher, specifically serving impoverished urban schools, why shouldn't we have these conversations with our students? There is a difference between telling a student there is no hope and telling a student, this is where we are now, and here is where we need to go.

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