This "Can I Just Tell You?" segment was written and voiced by NPR's Tony Cox.
Some thoughts about school and the struggles black kids face. Lots of folks with lots of experience have lots of opinions about what to do to better educate young African-American males. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates recently offered yet another glimpse into the issue, suggesting in a piece for the website The Root that the need is dire, which of course it is.
But for many of us in education — and to my mind that includes parents, family and friends — the problem is more than knowing what's needed. It's knowing how to get it done and make it work, how to get young African-American men not only interested but engaged in learning, and enjoying rather than dreading the journey. That requires a lot of commitment from them and from us, and there are no shortcuts.
Besides my work here at NPR, I am a tenured professor in broadcast journalism at California State University, Los Angeles. I primarily teach writing, and it troubles me to no end to see young black men struggle in my classes because they can't or don't see the value of an education and the effort required to obtain one. Records show black male students badly lagging in their graduation rates from colleges and universities. When we see them on campus, they often dress differently, speak differently, have different expectations, and in the classroom can sometimes be difficult to reach.
I get that life for them is tough, sometimes in ways that I don't fully appreciate, even though I grew up in the '60s in South Central Los Angeles. My challenges for survival back then are different in many ways from the hardships these young men face today.
That said — can I just tell you? Education was a very useful weapon in my struggle for survival, and I'm convinced it still is. Maybe more so now.
So how do we convince these young men that the sacrifice is worth it? What do we do? I've scratched my head searching for answers and then asked myself: What have you tried that's worked? A couple of things, actually, which come from my decade of teaching and remembering those who taught me.
The first thing is to not give up on these young men — no easy task when you're fighting with someone you're trying to help. Persistence is required of teachers because learning isn't like a light switch that you flip on and off. Success is more gradual, and it takes time to realize its effect and impact.
Secondly, recognize that each black male is different and deal with each individual accordingly. A hard push works for one, while a pat on the back or a kind word works better for another. You need to have more than one teaching "move" you can go to.
It's important to not forget history, because that history puts in context the ongoing sociological and financial disadvantages that many black boys (and girls) face from the outset in pursuit of an education.
That means teachers must fight for things like accurate and unbiased class materials and textbooks; encourage participation whenever possible; be firm and fair when assessing their skills; promote programs that offer opportunities outside the classroom through internships, scholarships, part-time jobs and community organizations; and be honest when talking to these young men, many of whom have already experienced enough of adult life to know a con when they see or hear one. They read teachers more closely than they read textbooks.
I know it's not that simple, but sometimes it's the small steps that have made the most difference in my relationship with students. Learning how to talk to my black male students — and how to listen to them without prejudgment — is a lesson that I had to learn in order to do my job better. All of which leads me to one last, important point.
Don't try this unless you're fully committed to making a difference. Because like my dad used to always tell me, "Half an effort is worse than no effort at all."