Whenever I hear someone use the word “real” to define anything, I’m reminded of Marge Piercy’s poem For the Young Who Want To. In it, she writes:
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
I know that this is a poem about remaining true to one’s art- I read it for the first time on the call board in the University of Missouri’s Theatre Department during my undergraduate days. My perspective has shifted a bit since then, and now I see it through the lens of my current work as a school change agent. And since today is a Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform, sponsored by AASA and ASCD, I’m spending a big chunk of today pondering those words. Real Reform. I can’t help wondering if real reform is reform that really…reforms things. Changes things. With purpose and integrity and with kids at its center. More of what Ted Sizer and Deb Meier and Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Kozol would call “reform” and less of the Test Is Best dogma that has become the center of our national edu-nightmare.
Here’s a crazy idea:
Let’s create schools that are small enough for kids to be known well and then teach them both the content and the process skills they need to be good human beings and citizens of the world. Let’s have them demonstrate what they know it real contexts so that we really know what they know. Let’s view them as people first and students second. And, while we’re at it, lets assume that their parents are doing the best they can and not judge them for our perceptions of their shortcomings.
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“And, while we’re at it, lets assume that their parents are doing the best they can and not judge them for our perceptions of their shortcomings.”
While I understand the idea of not judging the shortcomings of those who have them, the impact of those shortcomings is quite real for the children affected, just exactly as it was for their parents. The shortcomings I refer to are those inflicted by the cycle of poverty, a generational problem that is excruciatingly real. Our perceptions of the nature of this issue are well informed, and we should not be shy when being truthful in addressing them.
I agree- but I don’t think we get anywhere by telling parents living in poverty, in inequitable situations, that the whole situation would improve if they’d Just Try Harder. I think we also end up making judgments that quality parenting = parenting that reflects the values and norms of the dominant culture, thereby assuming that anything that looks different must be wrong simply because it’s different. Of course we have to address the unholy trinity of poverty, insufficient health care and poor early childhood education- but we can’t blame the kids (or their families) for not availing themselves of opportunities not available to them.
I don’t think that my comments could reasonably be interpreted to mean that we should tell “them” to just try harder, or that good parenting only = values of a dominant culture, or that I blame them for not having the opportunities that others do. Don’t make me into a straw man, it’s not helpful. Many people in the poor communities that I have lived in and talked to over the years value education, they just have no holistic idea or capability of how to make it happen for themselves, let alone how to make it happen amidst neighbors who don’t share that position. They need our help in a way that acknowledges their values, which have far more in common with those of the “dominant” culture than not. It is not wrong to attack the self defeating behaviors that have arisen in those places (as well as in the dominant culture)especially when those behaviors are well known and identified by the communities themselves. To attack those behaviors is to support the values of those communities. The best attack starts with strengthening the community via education, jobs and services. This can dis-empower and marginalize the self defeating behaviors/players well before they are directly addressed. Again, please don’t make me into a straw man.