I’m reading Paul Tough’s book “Whatever It Takes,” which documents Geoffrey Canada’s amazing work building the Harlem Children’s Zone.
When I first heard of this book I avoided it, probably because the title suggested to me that the way to tackle poverty is just work really hard, sacrifice for the cause, and, you know, just do whatever it takes!
It turns out, the book is much more nuanced than that.
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I’ve been asking myself a question lately. Every kid, in every school, is moving along a certain life trajectory. Kids from privileged families across the country are making their ways towards private colleges. Meanwhile students dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage, all too often, are facing an uphill battle.
Are we, as teachers in schools, having an impact on those life trajectories? Or, are we merely bearing witness to what is already going to happen anyway?
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A big part of Geoffrey Canada’s work with Harlem Children’s Zone is something called Baby College. A team of staff members canvasses the neighborhood to recruit new parents into a program that educates them on the latest research on things like positive discipline, nutrition, and brain development. The book describes in great detail the ways in which parents grapple with these ideas and how some struggle to change long held beliefs about how to raise a child.
But the specific facts about specific parenting strategies are not the point, according to the author. He writes,
“In the end, the real goal of Baby College was not to impart information. It was to change the parents’ whole vision of themselves as parents, to encourage them to accept the idea that their child’s education and intellectual development began at birth, if not before, and that they, as parents, had a crucial role to play in that development. If they got that . . . the details would be more likely to work themselves out.”
What he’s talking about is changing the trajectory of their lives as parents.
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In school, we focus on imparting information: reading, writing, arithmetic, and all the rest. It’s very important. But it’s not enough. What we typically fail to do is challenge students to create a vision for themselves. (After all, we measure success by standardized test scores, not the quality of their lives at age 25.) Just like kids from privileged families grow up with the assumption that they will inherit a similar station in life as adults, my experience has been that kids dealing with socioeconomic disadvantage do the same: it’s really hard to imagine a life different from the one in which you were raised. Hard, but not impossible.
Once young people have a vision for a new life trajectory, the details on how to make it happen are more likely to work themselves out.
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