The Ambitions of Ghetto Youth: Too Small
Jun 22, 2010 Teaching 2908 Views
You want to know the hardest thing about motivating students? It's this: Every student out there wants to have one of three jobs. They want to be an actor, a musician, or an athlete. That's it. Three jobs.
I remember talking to a 9th grader one time. We'll call him Adam. Adam was convinced that he would one day play in the NBA. He knew that one day he would be on the court with Lebron James. He was just waiting for the right NBA scout to notice his immense talent.
"What team do you play for right now?" I asked him.
"Oh, I don't really play on a team."
"Do you play for our team here at school?"
"No, I didn't try out."
"Well, where do you play?"
"I play after school sometimes with my brother." Adam brought a basketball to school most days out of the week. He was an Asian-American student and he was about four-foot-eight.
There are a lot of things upsetting about this setting. I guess the first is that these kids think they are going to be millionaires without having to work hard at anything. Here was Adam, who honestly had a big part of him that really believed he would play in the NBA one day. But he had never played organized sports, never trained hard, and had no plans of ever doing either.
Another problem is that the television and every other media outlet out there shows the youth successful people in only three jobs they can understand. Every other job is foreign, odd, and they have no idea what it means. What is an investment banker? Who knows? What does a basketball player do? That's easy - they play.
So that's what they want to do. They want to play like the athletes. They want to dance around on stages singing, and they want to star in movies. In the end, I can't really blame them. I say that because of this:
We don't really show them what their other options are.
I think our schools do a horrible job of doing the one thing we should be good at. We are terribly incompetent at showing kids their options for the future in terms they can understand. It's basic scaffolding. We know that we need to build from the bottom. You start simply, and in a step-by-step process you show them how to get where they want to be. But we aren't doing that in our schools. We are trying to teach them all the complicated stuff without showing them what it's for.
How is writing a literary analysis essay going to help them in the real world? Well, really it's not. Unless they go into maybe one or two jobs, they will never write an analysis of a poem or a novel. How is calculus going to help in the real world? It won't for most of them. The lowest class you can take at my high school is Algebra. I haven't used Algebra or anything more advanced in my adult life, and I can honestly say I never will. Yet I spent four years of my life studying these things.
That's not to say teaching these things is useless. They may not write an essay on poetry when they start working, but they are going to send emails and write proposals. I might not use anything more than fractions and percentages in my life, but my buddy who is now an engineer certainly benefited from taking Calculus in high school. But even back then, he had no idea what he would do with it. He just knew he was really good at math, just like I knew I was pretty good at English. But neither of us knew what we could do with it.
I guess what I'm really getting at is the idea of trade schools, right? I don't know, but I do know we need to get away from the idea of teaching subjects in a vacuum. These kids need to see the practicality in all of it, and right now they don't. They don't see how Algebra is ever going to benefit them. And to tell you the truth, for most kids in a low-income public school, it never will. So essentially, they are right and we are wrong. They say, "I will never use this." And they are right!
Why can't we admit that?
"Why is this especially important to students in low-income neighborhoods?" you might ask. "Don't all kids want to be singers and dancers?" That's easy. Kids from affluent areas see the practicality in everything they're learning. They don't need anyone to preach to them about the benefits of law-school. Their parents both have law-degrees. They see first hand, every day, the things that come with education. Big cars, bigger homes, and even bigger bank accounts. Multiple televisions and computers. Innumerable expensive gadgets bought at a whim. Kids whose parents are well off see exactly what their future is going to be, they like it, anticipate it, and at some point decide they are going to work for it.
But ghetto kids don't see this. The only lawyers they know are representing their father. They don't know any doctors because they don't have health insurance. (Don't believe me? Why does half of my soccer team need to go to the free clinic in order to get the required physical? Yes, even the legal citizens.) Most of these students don't even know anyone who is moderately successful. You have to remember, they are living below the poverty line. Below it! Look up what the annual income is in your state to be considered living in poverty, then take a couple thousand dollars off. That's where they're coming from. So no, when you tell them they can be a lawyer one day, you might as well tell them in Japanese - because they don't even know what that means.
But lets get back to Adam. Adam wants to be rich and famous because that is what he sees every day. What he doesn't see is successful people doing anything else. Adam doesn't know any successful people - period. Everyone in his life is poor and struggling. They work at jobs that aren't glorious, and to honest, aren't the kind of jobs too many people aspire to as kids. Kids don't say, "I want to be a day laborer," or, "I want to be a checker at Safeway." To be fair, they also don't want to be teachers.
I think it would be nice to show them practical ways of using the skills we are trying to teach them. Why not show them how to balance a checkbook, or do their taxes? Why don't we practice email etiquette as part of our grammar lessons? In short, why don't we show them how these skills are going to work in the real world - and if they aren't, maybe we should be teaching something else.
What do I do? Well, I try to keep this in mind when I teach English. I relate poetry to hip-hop music, to show how what we're learning applies to their life. This is a strategy I heard a lot in my AmeriCorps workshops - start your lessons with something from contemporary pop-culture and go from there. If they can't recognize it right off, they never will. I also started doing things like teaching Comma Rules instead of the Parts of Speech. I find it's more helpful for the kids to learn how to properly use commas than recognizing gerunds. (I'm not even sure if I benefit from knowing what a non-count noun is.) I also try to expose them to successful people in the real world. When's the last time you invited a lawyer into your classroom to sit down and talk about law-school? Or if you're a math teacher, how about an engineer? The first thing you do is have them write their salary on the board. Break that into how much they make a month, a week, and a day. That's when kids see the reality in all of it - when you talk money. And try to invite a lawyer or engineer who is from the ghetto, it always makes it better. I've even seen panels done. I once facilitated a discussion with a group of freshmen from high schools all around the Bay Area and some engineers from all disciplines - chemical, mechanical, industrial, electrical, and others. Our students have to meet these people in real life in order to see the job is out there, because they have never met these kinds of people where they're from.
We need to stop teaching subjects in a vacuum. We can save that for college. But in our high schools we need to make things practical, because if our subjects aren't presented in terms the kids can recognize as useful, they won't recognize their value at all.
They know exactly what it is that a basketball player does. He plays. But do they know what it means to work? Not exactly.