Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lisa Delpit's “Multiplication Is for White People”

Lisa Delpit, a MacArthur “genius” award winner, wrote an article on “Other People’s Children” for Harvard Magazine that was the single most requested reprint in the magazine’s history. Expanded into a comprehensive book, Other People’s Children has now sold a quarter-million copies. Delpit is dedicated to providing first-rate education to communities in both the United States and abroad. A co-editor of The Real Ebonics Debate, Quality Education as a Constitutional Right, and The Skin That We Speak (The New Press), she is the Felton G. Clark Professor of Education at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Delpit applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, "Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, and reported the following:
In a book primarily about improving educational outcomes for children of color, this chapter focuses on children assigned to special education classrooms:
Lita Sanford’s special education classroom at Oakhurst Elementary I Dacatur, Georgia, was frequently mistaken for the “gifted” class by short-term visitors, as children used computers to solve complex problems and created science reports with soundtracks and scanned-in photographs.
But this chapter really does reflect the theme of the book – when the larger society marginalizes some children, expectations of the adults who teach them and of children about themselves become warped. Thus, the title of the book: an African American middle-schooler complained to her tutor, “Why you trying to teach me multiplication, Ms. L? Black people don’t multiply, black people just add and subtract, white people multiply!”

Where did this child ever get this idea? Beverly Tatum writes in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, about residents of Los Angeles being “smog breathers”: They don’t want to breathe smog, they’re not even aware that they are breathing smog, but , living in L.A., they are smog breathers. Likewise, those of us who live in the United States are “racism breathers.” We don’t intend to breathe in racism, we’re not even aware that we’re breathing in racism. It just happens, and it influences everything we do. It doesn’t even matter what color we are; beliefs about black inferiority are so deep-set in our society that they burrow into our subconscious without our consent.

As we seek to address attitudes that lead to low expectations, there is now ample research evidence – as detailed in other chapters -- that creating remedial curricula or aiming solely for passing scores on the already lowered expectations of state mandated tests is not the answer.

As in Sanford’s classroom, the classrooms housing children of color should not be lifeless, non-thinking dungeons designed to hammer in decontextualized “basic skills,” but exciting, meaningful, connected educational environments that could be mistaken for “gifted” classrooms. Instead of seeking solely to identify what children can’t do, we can identify and build on what they can do:
What we call “the arts” provides a model to ensure that all children can learn without being labeled. Many accomplished African American adults can recall from their childhood the people who offered experiences that allowed them to be in touch with the magic they carried inside them, educators who “deliver the human being to himself,” as actress Phylicia Rashad writes in a forthcoming book on arts and education. When we see a child through the lens of the arts, we have the potential to see the child not only as he or she is but as he or she could be. Just as Rashad’s teachers recognized something in her they were led to “groom” we can see a child’s strengths rather than his or her challenges.

Suddenly the little boy who can’t sit still, jumping and tumbling around the classroom, can, with a new set of lenses, become a potential dancer. The girl whose school papers are covered in scribbles becomes an artist. The boys who annoy their teachers by constantly tapping on their desks with pencils become drummers.
Despite at least two decades of educational reform, we will continue to fall short of the mark until we focus on issues more central to the human beings who dwell inside school walls. Educators must come to understand the effects of societal racism in the lowered expectations of students of color and not only create rigorous, exciting, creative curricula that celebrate the cultural and intellectual legacies of the students they teach, but they must also provide the social supports to allow students to believe in their own brilliant potential.
Learn more about "Multiplication Is for White People" at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue