Book Review II: The Dreamkeepers
Today I was a 7th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am fairly certain I was working with a different group of 7th graders than I have been, because the students today were considerably different from those I have come to know extremely well. Some of the classes were incredibly rambunctious and even disrespectful, while the others were really awesome. Rather than write about my experiences today (which included a boy and girl making out right in front of me after school–like, right right in front of me), I’ve decided to share my second book review.
As mentioned earlier, I have decided to take time during my prep periods/plan time each day to read through the vocational literature I have acquired over the years. After completing these books, I will provide a review here. The reviews will mostly focus on my impressions of the overall text and how I feel it relates to my personal philosophy. In addition to wanting to share what I think about the books that I was required to read in my classes (as well as those books that have ended up in my hands through various means), I am also interested in seeing how my own ideas have changed over time.
The first book I selected to read was The Dreamkeepers by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D. (However, my review of Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie’s Setting Limits in the Classroom was posted first due to its coinciding with some experiences I had while teaching that day.) The subtitle of this book is Successful Teachers of African American Children. From the beginning, the book is set out to be an expanded writing based on Ladson-Billings research over the course of three years in a majority African American community school district in northern California. The purpose of the study was to identify what methodologies have been most successful in helping African American students to achieve academic success. The book was of interest to me because there is a sizable African American population the Champaign school district (about 40%). I am well aware of the challenges facing the African American community, particularly in terms of high poverty, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, low mortality, and low high school graduation rates, among many, many other challenges. So I decided to read Dr. Ladson-Billings book to see what methods would help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my students who are so often in difficult situations.
On the one hand, the book is full of amazing teaching strategies. The main focus is on what Ladson-Billings terms culturally relevant teaching. I love the principles of this pedagogy and find that it fits in quite well with my own philosophical leanings. To be brief, culturally relevant teaching “is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” The thing that struck me the most as I read through the book was that these teaching strategies are appropriate for every classroom setting, which led me to a key question that was never answered: What teaching strategies will specifically help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my African American students?” Throughout the book, Ladson-Billings focuses on African American students and their teachers, yet there is nothing in the book that is actually specific to teaching African American students. I could go through the entire book and remove every reference to race and still have an excellent resource for successful pedagogy. If the point of the research was to emphasise that minority students will best benefit from receiving high quality education, then I am at a loss as to why this was never explicitly stated. More importantly, there was nothing to indicate that high quality education for minority students is somehow different from high quality education for majority students. So what is the point of the book?
I really don’t know. It annoys me to have to say that, because I truly enjoyed reading about successful teaching strategies. I truly believe that all students will benefit from the application of culturally relevant teaching. In the end, I would recommend this book to all, but I with the warning that you may have to sift through a lot of chaff to find the kernels of wisdom.
(I have four pages of notes from the book and most of them are critical of Dr. Ladson-Billings approach to her own research. If you are not interested in reading all of them, you can probably stop here.)
So here are my notes, in the order in which I wrote them:
…The over-representation of African American males in suspension and dropout rates…”
This is a quote from the introduction to the text. But there is absolutely no attempt to contextualise or explain the reason for this over-representation. I feel like the implication is that schools simply don’t care about their minority students and so they (the students) end up suspended or dropout and the blame falls entirely on the schools. Seven pages in, I couldn’t help but feel that Ladson-Billings had done her research in an effort to prove that middle-class communities are white and racist, while inner-city/urban communities are black and oppressed by the majority. I resent the notion that middle-class is a synonym for white and urban is a synonym for black. Even if the majority ethnic groups are found in those locations, there are still African Americans in the middle-class and whites living in inner-city communities.
There was an interesting note on p. 11 that there are many African American students who purposely fail in school because they have come to equate success with being white and therefore have come to believe that the only way to preserve their culture is to not do anything that is considered white. The best way to help African American students to succeed is to give them examples of members of their culture who have been successful without losing their culture. That alone will help improve conditions far more than anything else.
…The public schools have yet to demonstrate a sustained effort to provide quality education for African Americans.”
My biggest question about this quote is this: what about the schools that have demonstrated such sustained efforts, but are struggling to deal with students who actively work against such efforts? (Recall that we just discussed that students have been known to fail on purpose.) If there is no attempt to overcome students’ apathy towards education, then the quality education will be wasted. As the old cliché says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a student to education, but you can’t make him think.
There is also a strain of thought throughout the text that indicates that public school teachers treat African American students differently (although what is meant by this is never really explained). There are several anecdotes given, although they may have been simply hypotheticals. A criticism of this entire concept is that the book purports to be an account on successful teaching of African American students that is somehow different from successful teaching of non-African American students, but we aren’t supposed to teach them differently. It is a bit contradictory, I think.
Lest you think that all of my notes are negative, I will point out that many of them focused on the strengths of culturally relevant teaching. I don’t have any desire to outline the fullness of this methodology. I love the idea of embracing students’ backgrounds and implementing them into my teaching. I believe that my students are all capable of success, academically, socially, and otherwise. Having crossed the thousand-word mark quite a while ago, I will close with this kernel of truth found near the end of the book: Instruction and learning should never be used as punishment.
This was a great book to read about strong pedagogy, but it failed to present a believable thesis on what makes one successful when specifically teaching African American students. However, it is definitely worth reading up on culturally relevant teaching and understanding how it can be applied to the classroom, regardless of the ethnic make-up of that class.