Monday, December 3, 2007

"Acting White" and Student Motivation

Eduwonkette has an absolutely dead-on analysis of the NYC Dept. of Education's new cell phone plan and how it relates to the theory of "Acting White." I was going to leave this comment on her own site, but quickly realized that it was turning into a blog post of my own, so here goes:


I agree with you that the battle is not getting kids to believe that education leads to better opportunities.

So here ARE some the issues that need to be addressed:

1.) Promoting a "college culture." At the affluent high school which I attended, everyone had their reach schools and safety schools picked out by spring of their Junior year. At the urban high school where I was a teacher, I had my senior students coming to me in February asking how to apply to college. There is a great lack of information in urban communities about the process of applying to college. This needs to be addressed - not just by a few assemblies for 11th graders, but by teachers, coaches, and other influencers constantly reinforcing the college message. These adults need to talk about college, their experiences, and what it takes to get in. English teachers (which I was), have a special role in this, as they can prepare their older students for the application process by assigning application essays as part of the curriculum. The students get writing practice AND learn about the admissions process - win-win.

2.) Students need to know real people who have gone to and benefited from college.

Sadly, when I surveyed my students, very few of them had friends and relatives who had graduated from 4-year colleges. So although they knew that a college education could give them better "future opportunities," that idea was a very vague concept. Students need to be able to have role models who they can point to and say, "Wow, if he hadn't gone to college, he would never have been so successful." If they have legitimate examples of the types of opportunities that college provides, this can help keep them focused on attending. And these shouldn't be from "phone messages" from the NYC Dept. of Education. They need to be from real people in their own lives. Mentoring, like you said, is essential.

3.) Students need to be able to understand the connection between their work inside school (and their behavior outside school) and their future education.

I wish that I was making this up, but when I was in the classroom, literally dozens of my students with sub-2.0 GPAs and sub 600 scores on the SATs insisted that they were eligible to attend prestigious 4-year colleges. It was not fun to explain to them the actually reality of their situation.

I think that this was caused by two things that plagued my school in particular. Firstly, teachers' bizarre and inconsistent grading were the main cause. There were numerous teachers in the school (this was well known), who would simply give everyone A's, because they didn't want to fail anybody and have to explain it to their parents. There were also teachers who assigned random grades, usually because they weren't actually teaching and had their students watch movies or do irrelevant worksheets nearly every day.

So many of my students never understood or respected the value of a grade, until they met me (or so I like to think). I remember that my first semester, almost half of my students came complaining to me about why they had failed when they had handed in 2 assignments (we had about 30 assignments per quarter). Why didn't they just get an A, since they had shown up to class and done some work?

It took a lot of effort to get them to see the correlation between their academic effort, personal behavior, and their grades. But they eventually got the message - almost all of them, anyways. And what helped is that every week, I posted their grades on the wall (anonymously, of course), so that they could see that, "Hey, I did well on my quiz, so my grade went up!" or "Wow, I missed two homework assignments, so my grade went down."

The other problem within my school was that so much attention was focused on building up kids' self-esteem, giving them second chances, and basically being their cheerleaders that nobody told them, "Hey, you are going to have to really work to get into college." There needed to be a better balance between the "You Can Do It!" mentality and the reality of how the college admission process works. And FYI, I'm not just thinking of the admissions process of highly selective schools - just of schools in general.

These are the three most prominent that I have seen in my career, but I am sure that there are others. What additional tools do you think urban students need to prepare them to do well in school and be admitted to college?

- Anne

1 comment:

Carlos, Bayonne, NJ said...

Something else germane to this issue, I think, is the fact that kids don't have much idea what college is like if they don't have family members with university degrees. It's hard to prepare for something, or enVISION it, if you've never seen it. What is life like as a college student? Lots of kids have no idea. One way out of this trap is to encourage urban colleges to get involved in their local communities through tutoring programs, religious outreach, etc., so at least kids in urban schools can meet people in college. Even better are programs that bring urban kids (the younger the better) to campus for a few hours, so they can really see and appreciate what they're being asked to strive for.