Magazine Feature

Lessons From Home

Education reformer Lisa Delpit encourages teachers to discover who their students are outside the classroom.

Lisa D. Delpit was among the first wave of Black students to integrate White high schools in Louisiana -- an experience that influenced her interests in ethnographic research, teaching and learning in multicultural societies, and the dynamics of inequality in public schools. She has studied these issues in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the U.S.

In addition to teaching pre-service and in-service teachers, Delpit has assisted in national school reform efforts and the creation of urban leadership programs for educators. In 1990, she earned a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on school-community relations and cross-cultural communication. In 1993, Delpit received the award for Outstanding Contribution to Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The author of Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, she currently holds the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Educational Leadership at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she is establishing the Center for Urban Educational Excellence.

Teaching Tolerance Associate Director Glenda Valentine interviewed Delpit in Atlanta.


In your book, Other People's Children, you discuss the "culture of power" that implicitly categorizes students into academic "haves" and "have-nots". What does this culture look like in the classroom?

Sometimes the power issues have to do with how well what children learn at home matches what is presented to them in the classroom. For example, I taught a 6-year-old who couldn't do worksheets on money. It would have been very easy for this child to be put into a special ed classroom -- and I was almost ready to do that as a new teacher -- because he could not do these worksheets.

It wasn't until I learned about his home situation, visited his home and saw what he was capable of doing -- he had to take care of his younger sister who had cerebral palsy, and he had to do the family laundry -- that I realized this was a child who was extremely competent. He could "do" money because he could get all the change needed to do the laundry, he just couldn't do a worksheet on money. He had advanced skills in critical and creative thinking but didn't have what we call "basic skills."

In reality, what many teachers call "basic skills" are only those skills that middle-class children gain in the first five years of life from their homes. We need to appreciate the skills all kids bring in and give them opportunities to express those skills and teach them the ones that they don't bring in.

Students who are middle-class tend to have an advantage because their home background often matches that of most teachers. Teachers need to spend some time helping these children learn to solve problems that, in many instances, they can't solve because they've been so dependent on their parents. For kids who come from other families, the focus may need to be on so-called basic skills. In any case, problem-solving and skill-building need to be taught by the teacher without the assumption that a child is deficient if he or she doesn't come in with what we consider basic skills.


Language is among the basic skills you refer to. How can teachers begin to value students' home language while teaching them the verbal skills needed to negotiate the larger society?

Most children of color have a receptive knowledge of "standard English." I usually use the term "edited English." Some people call it "paycheck English." It's just a matter of giving children the opportunity to practice speaking it so that they are accustomed to having a different role from what they have at home.

What some teachers have done is to let students make dictionaries with certain words that they feel adults -- or White people, or whoever -- wouldn't know. The students provide definitions or translations of what the word would mean in "standard English"; for example, to dis, which means "put down, disrespect, ignore," or da bomb, meaning "something great."

For very young kids, there is the opportunity for role-play. The approach should not be "we're going to change your language" in any way, but, using puppets for instance, the teacher can ask the child if he or she can make the puppet talk like a particular superhero on television. Many "superheroes" and other cartoon characters speak almost hyper-correct standard English. For older children, I've seen teachers have kids simulate newscasts where they are to take on the role of one of the local or national newscasters.


Bridging between standard and alternative forms of English is a complex task. What lessons does the Ebonics controversy offer?

Carrie Secret, a wonderful teacher in Oakland, has a unique approach to Ebonics. She has children listen to the recorded sermons of very dynamic ministers, discuss their meanings, and talk about the complex vocabulary in them. Then the children create performances of the sermons.

One of those sermons is on eagles and chickens. Somehow two eagle eggs are put in a chicken coop. The eggs hatch, and all the chickens tease the eagles, saying they are the ugliest chickens they've ever seen. Although the eagles are capable of flying, they don't fly because -- living among chickens -- they never learn that they can. Finally, an adult eagle flies into the coop and tells the young eagles that they are not chickens, they are eagles and -- the eagles find they can fly!

The story is a metaphor for African Americans being taken out of their homeland and then told that they are poor examples of someone else. The children do an amazing performance of that sermon with each student dramatically reciting a portion of the speech. Carrie never tells students that their language is wrong or incorrect. She says, "That's how it's said in Ebonics. Now can you translate it into English?"

The children watch videotapes of their performances and critique each other. As they keep practicing the performance, they identify and remove elements of Ebonics and perform it in standard English.

Carrie's students, in some ways, were at the center of the Ebonics controversy. Her children, from poor African-American families in Oakland, performed well on all measures of assessment. When the Oakland Board of Education members were made aware of her "Ebonics/standard English proficiency" activities, they wanted to institutionalize her approach for all Oakland students, and thus the controversy.


Another aspect of the power issue involves the teacher's personal authority in the classroom. How can White teachers of diverse students assert the authority necessary to teach effectively without perpetuating the "culture of power"?

I want to talk about it culturally rather than racially. There are young Black teachers who were brought up in a nontraditional Black culture who are more mainstream in their upbringing and would have problems similar to some White teachers. And there are White teachers so familiar with the culture of the African-American children they teach that they produce excellent results.

In asserting personal authority, the key is not to look to change who you are. Instead, there are certain areas one can focus on to seek solutions when problems arise. For example, turning a directive into a question -- "Would you like to sit down now?" or "Isn't it time to put the scissors away?" -- is a polite form of speech that is a mainstream, particularly female, structure. Many kids will not respond to that structure because commands are not couched as questions in their home culture. Rather than asking questions, some teachers need to learn to say, "Put the scissors away" and "Sit down now" or "Please sit down now."

This issue is complex, but, in brief, many of the difficulties teachers encounter with children who are different in background from themselves are related to culturally different discourse styles and interactional styles.


What signs of "cultural dissonance" can teachers look for to let them know they're not connecting with certain children?

Oh, I think teachers know! I don't think they have to look very hard! The students let them know when they're not connected. If they're quiet kids, they don't perform. These kids will just turn off to the setting. Many will silence themselves or feel silenced and retreat intellectually and emotionally from what's going on in the classroom. Others act out or resist the teacher. Even with very quiet children, it's not that hard to connect if a teacher starts with the assumption that "these children are brilliant, and it's my job to bring their brilliance to the fore."

That's why it's very important to try and find out what these children's lives look like outside the classroom. How is their intelligence manifested? I have yet to find a child whose intelligence is not manifested in some setting.


How can teachers enlist the help of parents in this discovery process?

Well, I've found that most schools don't really want parent involvement. They want people to sell brownies and go home and be quiet. And I speak as a parent! Schools need to rethink what their needs are regarding family involvement. Everything that we talk about is how to get the parent to the school. We really do have to start thinking about how to get the school to the parent.

I was working with a school where parents didn't come, and I suggested we have a meeting at the housing project community center. We did and parents came. When it was a small group of parents, one would say, "Well, I know that so-and-so is home," and they would go and get that person. If the meeting was focused on how the school could improve what it was doing for African-American kids, then parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles were much more likely to come, as opposed to a meeting where we said, "Come to this, and we'll teach you how to be a better parent."

There are so many ways to involve parents, but they start with asking -- with a phone call. A good place to start is by asking, "How do you want to help your child?" Find out if there is someone else who can stand in for a parent, if necessary -- someone you can or should send packets home to. But don't just send printed matter home. If you want to establish a relationship with African-American parents, you make personal contact, either face-to-face or with a phone call. And that's probably the case in a lot of cultures.


What role do you think teacher education programs should play in preparing teachers for cultural factors in the classroom?

We tend to focus teacher education on the technical. The "how to teach two-digit addition" is necessary but not sufficient. We need to give teachers opportunities to learn to connect to children's families. Or to figure out how to do community organizing and how to create settings that bring people together.

As far as I know, in teacher ed settings, we never give pre-service teachers any experience in presenting children's performances. That is one of the ways you almost always bring parents out. We usually don't bring community people into university classrooms to say to pre-service teachers, "These are the issues we are dealing with in our community, and these are the goals we have for our children."

I believe some of the field-based student teaching shouldn't be in schools but should be in community centers and other settings in which children function outside the classroom. This way, initiate teachers could get a better sense of who the students are.

I think we need to spend more time exploring how we interact with parents, not just telling parents how their children are doing in school but asking questions and finding out who their children are at home.