Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom

3.8 32
by Lisa Delpit
     
 

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Winner of an American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award and Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Book Award, and voted one of Teacher Magazine’s “great books,” Other People’s Children has sold over 150,000 copies since its original hardcover publication. This anniversary paperback edition features aSee more details below

Overview


Winner of an American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award and Choice Magazine’s Outstanding Academic Book Award, and voted one of Teacher Magazine’s “great books,” Other People’s Children has sold over 150,000 copies since its original hardcover publication. This anniversary paperback edition features a new introduction by Delpit as well as new framing essays by Herbert Kohl and Charles Payne.

In a radical analysis of contemporary classrooms, MacArthur Award–winning author Lisa Delpit develops ideas about ways teachers can be better “cultural transmitters” in the classroom, where prejudice, stereotypes, and cultural assumptions breed ineffective education. Delpit suggests that many academic problems attributed to children of color are actually the result of miscommunication, as primarily white teachers and “other people’s children” struggle with the imbalance of power and the dynamics plaguing our system.

A new classic among educators, Other People’s Children is a must-read for teachers, administrators, and parents striving to improve the quality of America’s education system.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A godsend . . . honest and fair, yet visionary and firm."
Quarterly Black Review

"Phenomonal. . . . [This book] overcomes fear and speaks of truths, truths that otherwise have no voice."
The San Francisco Review of Books

"Here, finally, is multiculturalism with a human face."
Teacher Magazine

"Provides an important, yet typically avoided, discussion of how power imbalances in the larger U.S. society reverberate in classrooms."
Harvard Educational Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781595580740
Publisher:
New Press, The
Publication date:
08/28/2006
Edition description:
Revised Edition
Pages:
223
Sales rank:
112,945
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt


Introduction

SCENE I

Carolyn is a young Irish-American kindergarten teacher
who has been teaching for five years. The school at
which she has taught has been a predominantly white,
middle-class school in a quiet neighborhood in New England.
However, because of recent redistricting, the school population
now includes children from a housing project not far
away. These children are almost exclusively poor and black.
Thus, Carolyn and the other teachers in the school are newly
faced with a population of children with whom they are completely
unfamiliar.

I am working on a research project with Carolyn. She has
asked me to observe a little boy named Anthony, a five-year-old
black child from “the projects,” whom she has defined as a
child with behavioral, learning, and language problems. She
wants to use the results of my observations to “get him help.”

In my observations of Anthony in the classroom, I have
noticed that he gets almost no positive feedback during the
course of a day, and instead receives a tremendous number of
negative comments. I have taken Anthony out into the hallway
several times to talk and play privately so as to get a better
assessment of his actual abilities. The following dialogue is
taken from a transcript of my conference with Carolyn about
my observations. I am attempting to point out some of
Anthony’s positive points to Carolyn:

L: Anthony told me that he liked school and that his favorite
thing in his class was group time.
C: That’s amazing, since he can’t sit still in it. He just says
anything sometimes. In the morning he’s OK; after nap
he’s impossible.

*
• *

L: He’s really talking more, it seems!
C: He’s probably never allowed to talk at home. He needs
communicative experience. I was thinking of referring him
to a speech therapist. He probably never even got to use
scissors at home.

*
• *

L: He told me about his cousin he plays with after school. It
seems he really does have things to talk about.
C: It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think he even knows what
family means. Some of these kids don’t know who their
cousins are and who their brothers and sisters are.

SCENE II

Charles is a three-year-old African-American boy who likes a
little white girl in my daughter’s nursery school class. Like
most three-year-olds, his affection is expressed as much with
hugs as with hits. One morning I notice that Charles has been
hovering around Kelly, his special friend. He grabs her from
behind and tries to give her a bear hug. When she protests,
the teacher tells him to stop. A short time later he returns to
her table to try to kiss her on the cheek. She protests again and
the teacher puts him in “time-out.” I comment to the teacher
with a smile that Charles certainly seems to have a little crush
on Kelly. She frowns and replies that his behavior is “way out
of line.” She continues with disgust in her voice, “Sometimes
what he does just looks like lust.”

SCENE III

One evening I receive a telephone call from Terrence’s mother,
who is near tears. A single parent, she has struggled to put her
academically talented fourteen-year-old African-American
son in a predominantly white private school. As an involved
parent, she has spoken to each of his teachers several times
during the first few months of school, all of whom assured her
that Terrence was doing “just fine.” When the first quarter’s
report cards were issued, she observed with dismay a report
filled with Cs and Ds. She immediately went to talk to his
teachers. When asked how they could have said he was doing
fine when his grades were so low, each of them gave her some
version of the same answer: “Why are you so upset? For him,
Cs are great. You shouldn’t try to push him so much.”

As I lived through each of these scenarios, a familiar sense of
dread closed in around me: my throat constricted, my eyes
burned, I found it hard to breathe. I have faced this fog too
many times in my career in education. It is a deadly fog
formed when the cold mist of bias and ignorance meets the
warm vital reality of children of color in many of our schools.
It is the result of coming face-to-face with the teachers, the
psychologists, the school administrators who look at “other
people’s children” and see damaged and dangerous caricatures
of the vulnerable and impressionable beings before them.

But we cannot blame the schools alone. We live in a society
that nurtures and maintains stereotypes: we are all bombarded
daily, for instance, with the portrayal of the young black male
as monster. When we see a group of young black men, we lock
our car doors, cross to the other side of the street, or clutch our
handbags. We are constantly told of the one out of four black
men who is involved with the prison system – but what about
the three out of four who are not? During a major storm this
past winter, a group of young black men in my neighborhood
spent the day freeing cars that were stuck in the ice. When do
we see their lives portrayed on the six o’clock news?

So, as a result of living in this society, their teachers make
big assumptions about Anthony, Charles, and Terrence. They
judge their actions, words, intellects, families, and communities
as inadequate at best, as collections of pathologies at
worst. These stories can be justifiably interpreted as examples
of racism. However valid that interpretation may be, it is
insufficient, for it gives us no clue as to how to resolve the
problem. Indeed, these views are not limited to white adults.
In my experience in predominantly black school districts, the
middle-class African-American teachers who do not identify
with the poor African-American students they teach may hold
similarly damaging stereotypes. These adults probably are not
bad people. They do not wish to damage children; indeed,
they likely see themselves as wanting to help. Yet they are
totally unable to perceive those different from themselves
except through their own culturally clouded vision. In my
experience, they are not alone.

We all carry worlds in our heads, and those worlds are
decidedly different. We educators set out to teach, but how
can we reach the worlds of others when we don’t even know
they exist? Indeed, many of us don’t even realize that our own
worlds exist only in our heads and in the cultural institutions
we have built to support them. It is as if we are in the middle
of a great computer-generated virtual reality game, but the
“realities” displayed in various participants’ minds are
entirely different terrains. When one player moves right and
up a hill, the other player perceives him as moving left and
into a river.

What are we really doing to better educate poor children and
children of color? Sporadically we hear of “minorities” scoring
higher in basic skills, but on the same newspaper page we’re
informed of their dismal showing in higher-order thinking
skills. We hear of the occasional school exemplifying urban
excellence, but we are inundated with stories of inner-city mass
failure, student violence, and soaring drop-out rates. We are
heartened by new attempts at school improvement – better
teacher education, higher standards, revised curricula – even
while teachers of color are disappearing from the workforce and
fiscal cutbacks increase class sizes, decimate critical instruc-
tional programs, and make it impossible to repair the buildings
that are literally falling down around our children’s heads.

What should we be doing? The answers, I believe, lie not in
a proliferation of new reform programs but in some basic
understandings of who we are and how we are connected to
and disconnected from one another. I have come to some of
those understandings through my own attempts to understand
my place in this country as an African-American
woman: I am the offspring of a teacher in a colored high school
in pre-integration Louisiana and a man who received his GED
diploma in his fortieth year, only to die of kidney failure at the
age of forty-seven because the “colored ward” was not permitted
to use the dialysis machine. I am the frightened teenager
who was part of the first wave of black students to integrate
hostile white high schools. I am the college student of the
1970s whose political and ethical perspectives were developed
against the backdrop of the struggle for black liberation and
the war in Vietnam. I am the panicked mother of a five-year-old
soon to enter an urban public school system where I can no
longer buffer her from damaging perspectives. I am the
teacher of many diverse students – from African-American
toddlers to Papua New Guinean preschoolers, and from Hispanic
middle-schoolers to European-American college students,
to Native Alaskan teachers.

The essays included in this book chronicle my journey into
understanding other worlds, journeys that involved learning
to see, albeit dimly, through the haze of my own cultural
lenses. In that blurred view, I have come to understand that
power plays a critical role in our society and in our educational
system. The worldviews of those with privileged positions are
taken as the only reality, while the worldviews of those less
powerful are dismissed as inconsequential. Indeed, in the educational
institutions of this country, the possibilities for poor
people and for people of color to define themselves, to determine
the self each should be, involve a power that lies outside
of the self. It is others who determine how they should act,
how they are to be judged. When one “we” gets to determine
standards for all “wes,” then some “wes” are in trouble!

*

The book is divided into three parts. The first contains two
articles originally published in the Harvard Educational Review
which stirred a great deal of controversy because they challenged
aspects of popular approaches to literacy. “Process
writing” and “whole language” advocates believed me to be
attacking their “progressive” and “child-centered” methods of
instruction, while I saw myself as struggling to figure out why
some children of color in classrooms utilizing these methodologies
were not learning to read and write, not acquiring the
“codes of power” necessary for success in this society. These
articles also questioned why teachers and parents of color were
so seldom included in the conversations about what was good
for their children. The third essay in Part 1 describes another
aspect of my thinking, one that has seldom been considered in
critiques of my work: even while teachers provide access to the
“codes of power” represented by acquiring facility in “standard
edited English,” they must also value and make use in
the classroom of the language and culture children bring from
home.

Part 2 tries to find the origins of some of these views in my
experiences and research, particularly through my work in
Papua New Guinea and Alaska, where I learned to see the
world through the eyes of those with very different histories.
It was in those two settings that I first understood the need to
step outside of myself and my beliefs in order to allow the perspectives
of others to filter in. This part also includes a
description of the results of research on the views and attitudes
of teachers of color about their teacher education and
subsequent teaching careers. With the number of students of
color increasing in our public school systems every year, even
as the number of teachers of color drops, I believe it is essential
that we go directly to these seldom-asked teachers to identify
the problems associated with their entering and remaining in
the teaching profession.

Part 3 offers some thoughts on solutions and directions for
our future as educators. I am not immodest enough to believe
that I have the answers to the myriad problems facing educa-
tion, but I do hope that these essays suggest some avenues for
those working to find solutions. One piece is directed specifically
to teachers on teaching literacy to disenfranchised students.
Another presents recommendations to policy makers
for making the assessment of teachers more sensitive to issues
of cultural difference. The last part concludes with a more
general essay on multicultural education, given as the Charles
H. Thompson Lecture at Howard University, which I hope
will interest people concerned with the improvement of education
for those least well served by the public education system
in this country.

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