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Lisa Delpit Says Teachers Must Value Students' Cultural Strengths

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Baton Rouge, La.

Dalrymple Boulevard begins just yards from the Mississippi River, meanders northward, and becomes Park Boulevard. It once separated south Baton Rouge's white community from its poorer, black neighborhoods. In Jim Crow days, if you were black, you could not cross the boulevard after 6 p.m. And city police patrolled the area's graceful, tree-lined streets just to make sure you didn't try.

Lisa D. Delpit was born on the wrong side of that dividing line. The Baton Rouge she came to know as a child was a place where her mother could not try on a hat in the department store downtown, where the Delpit children visited the pediatrician through a rear door, and where black children could not go to school with white children.

"I remember some of the black nuns we had would tell us, 'Act your age, not your color,' " Delpit recalls now. "There was such internalization of society's views of black people."

Her father, Thomas Delpit, died at age 47 of kidney failure when he could not get access to a dialysis machine. At the time, the local hospital maintained a separate ward for "colored" patients. Whether the hospital had a dialysis machine at all or whether it just was not in the habit of sharing it with its black patients is unknown. All that's certain is that Thomas Delpit didn't get one, and he left behind, among others, his 7-year-old daughter.

As Lisa grew into a pretty, plump teenager with light skin, freckles, and reddish hair, the lines that prescribed her life began to break down. The world was changing and dragging a reluctant Baton Rouge along with it. So Delpit crossed the boulevard. She became one of a handful of frightened black students to integrate first one and then another Catholic high school in her hometown.

Three decades later, Lisa Delpit--educator, author, and mother--is still crossing lines and challenging the status quo. But it is harder now to tell which side of the lines is the right one and which is wrong.

At 46, Delpit is still freckled and pretty. She no longer feels like a frightened teenager, however. Tall and ample, Delpit has a penchant for dressing in dashiki-style caftans in rich browns, blacks, and golds that flow over her pant legs. Thick, gold bangles adorn her arms, and chunky earrings dangle from her ears. Despite her softly modulated voice, she is, as one colleague puts it, "the kind of person who is larger than life."

Delpit has won accolades for her work on teaching and learning in urban schools and in diverse cultural settings. She has studied education in both Alaska and New Guinea, published a book, and is a sought-after speaker. In 1990, she was the only educator among 15 recipients of a MacArthur "genius" grant--a prestigious award for which winners are mysteriously nominated by anonymous benefactors. Gifted with a flair for prose, she is also that rare phenomenon in education--an academic whose ideas have reverberated beyond the walls of the ivory tower.

But Delpit is best-known for the bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education's most sacred cows.

A decade ago, Delpit started penning a series of eloquent, plain-spoken essays in the Harvard Educational Review that questioned the validity of some popular teaching strategies for African-American students. The essays were spun off into a book, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, that was published last year by The New Press.

The problem, Delpit says in those writings, is not that whole-language reading instruction techniques or the process-writing approach to teaching writing are inherently bad. They work for some students--possibly most. They just do not work for everybody. And often the people they do not work for are children who, like Delpit herself, were born black and disenfranchised. What is more, these strategies might not work for children of any group that has strong, distinctive cultural roots and that stands on society's perimeter peering in.

"Those with good intentions say that they want to create an educational system that would be best for 'my' children, because what's best for 'my' children will be best for everybody's children," Delpit writes in her book. "The difficulty is that all children don't have exactly the same needs."

Although Delpit had originally singled out open classrooms, process writing, and whole language, her words were meant to encompass a wider range of progressive teaching philosophies and cutting-edge reform ideas. She later took on, for example, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an organization that grants national certification to outstanding teachers, for its insensitivity to black educators' teaching styles.

What a lot of the newer educational ideas have in common is a de-emphasis on the rote aspects of schooling--the phonics drills and the sentence diagramming, for example--in favor of promoting critical thinking in children. The reasoning is that the more quickly children are immersed in reading and writing, the sooner they will appreciate the utility of language.

But Delpit says the trouble is that poor, minority children do not come to school with the same basic academic skills and familiarity with standard English that white, middle-class children bring with them.

It's not that standard English is a better way to talk, to Delpit's way of thinking. Black dialect is often the better rhetorical choice. But it is a passport to a better future for many children. It's what poor, minority children need to know to prosper in a society dominated by the rhythms, grammar, and conventions of white, middle-class life.

Black teachers intuitively know that, Delpit says. "Progressive white teachers seem to say to their black students, 'Let me help you find your voice. I promise not to criticize one note as you search for your own song,' " she writes in the first of her essays. "But the black teachers say, 'I've heard your song loud and clear. Now, I want you to harmonize with the rest of the world.' "

"If minority people are to effect the change that will allow them to truly progress, we must insist on 'skills' within the context of creative thinking," she adds.

Delpit might have put it best in a speech to Head Start workers. "If you teach less and you do it slower, do you get ahead? No."

But it's also more complicated than just teaching more and covering more basic skills, Delpit goes on to say in her writings. You also have to recognize, acknowledge, and value the cultural strengths a child brings to school. Teachers who say, "I don't see color in my classroom," are doing the opposite, according to Delpit. "What does it say to our children if we cannot discuss a visible aspect of them? It says there's something wrong with them," she says.

If you really want to know how best to teach urban children, Delpit maintains, then you must ask them and their parents. You also must ask the teachers who know them best because they come from the same cultural groups.

"We must keep the perspective that people are experts in their own lives," she writes. "There are certainly aspects of the outside world of which they may not be aware, but they can be the only authentic chroniclers of their own experience."

Put in the context of all of Delpit's work, her message seems simple enough. But the academics and educators who had pioneered the teaching strategies she targeted were more often than not white liberals who thought that they had been doing the right thing all along. Delpit was accusing people who had worked hard in the service of racial equity of ignoring the voices of their black colleagues and of harming their minority students. Her criticism had stung.

Delpit says many progressive educators were incensed. Some critics called her a pawn of the far right. Others questioned her motives in blasting well-intentioned reform strategies.

"One woman said to me in an accusing way, 'I have been working in civil rights all my life, and when I read your stuff, it makes me rethink everything I've ever done,' " Delpit recalls. "I said, 'Well, you know, that's good.' "

Black educators and students, on the other hand, mailed dozens of supportive letters to Delpit. "When you're talking to white people, they still want it to be their way," writes one African-American teacher from an urban school. "You can try to talk to them and give them examples, but they're so headstrong, they think they know what's best for everybody, for everybody's children. So, I shut them out. I go back to my own little cubby, my classroom, and I try to teach the way I know will work, no matter what those folk say. And when I get black kids, I just try to undo the damage they did."

The refrain was a common one: Black teachers, thinking that no one else shared their views, had stilled their own voices. They had just quietly gone on teaching the best way they knew how.

Delpit, however, had spoken out.

"Teaching is like telling a story. But you have to look at people while you're telling the story and you can't tell the same story to everyone." Lisa Delpit is talking, dispensing some advice that she once received to the eight doctoral students in "Readings in Urban Educational Excellence," a four-hour class she teaches at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Delpit teaches only rarely, and these students hang on her words. They are a mixture of young and old and black and white. There are students who, like Delpit, attended all-girls high schools; students who went to integrated schools; and students who went to private, whites-only schools in which textbook pictures of famous black people were pasted over with pictures of famous white figures.

Over the course of the semester, these students have watched the documentary "Hoop Dreams" and explored writings on urban education by Herbert Kohl, Vivian Gussin Paley, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Delpit herself.

Of Delpit's work, one student, a teacher who once taught in the Atlanta public schools, calls it "eye-opening."

"It's like 'Oh, I should've had a V-8.' I should've done this," says Pamela Hoage.

But these students are hardly representative of the nation's predominantly white teaching force. As student Lee Daily puts it, "Many of the people I teach with would not take this class. It's much too radical."

Here at Georgia State, Delpit holds the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Educational Leadership. The post requires her to be half traditional academic chair and half in-the-trenches school reformer. Warm and a savvy diplomat, Delpit may be especially good at the latter.

As part of the job, she is launching the Center on Urban Educational Excellence. Later this year, when it is up and running, the center will work hand-in-hand with educators in the predominantly black Atlanta school system on school-improvement projects. She's also working with the district to set in motion an Urban Writing Project, an incarnation of the National Writing Project, which Delpit lambasted in her 1980s essays. Despite her misgivings about the National Writing Project, Delpit says she believes in its basic approach.

"Sure, there's been controversy," says Samuel Dietz, the dean of the university's education school. "We've had people in the community or on the faculty say, 'Hey, wait a minute' when she came on, and that's a good thing, I think. But she's been good at building relationships with Atlanta public schools . . . and if we don't have an involvement with Atlanta public schools, then we're not the kind of institution that we want to be."

Delpit has a pristine white corner office here, kitty-cornered from Asa Hilliard III, another controversial black educator. Delpit, Hilliard, and their other black colleagues in the educational policy studies department make up one quarter of all the tenure-track, black faculty on campus.

Delpit also has a student assistant, a set of Rachael Van Der Zee prints, and a thick stack of telephone messages imploring her to speak at this meeting and that. It's a long way from Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge, set in the deepest of the deep South is, after all, where Delpit learned how to cross lines. Years before Delpit was a nervous newcomer among the white students at St. Anthony's High School and St. Joseph's Academy for Girls, her mother, Edmae Butler, was breaking her own color barriers.

Butler returned to college before Lisa, the youngest of her three children, was born. By 1954, she had become the first African-American woman to earn a graduate degree at Louisiana State University. Equipped with her degree in education, Butler later taught mathematics at both all-black and integrated high schools around Baton Rouge. And she was, by many accounts, the kind of teacher Delpit praises in her writings.

"She was not only able to demystify the subject, but she could make you believe that just because she had mastered it, so could you," says Hedi Butler, Butler's step-daughter and a former student.

By the time Lisa reached high school, her older brother, Joseph, was crossing lines, too. He jumped feet first into the civil-rights movement when it rolled into Baton Rouge. And his leadership there propelled him to a seat on the city council--even though the safe money at the time was on the other guy. He was Baton Rouge's first black elected official since Reconstruction.

Years later, Delpit traded his city council post for a seat in the statehouse. He went on to become the statehouse's first black speaker pro tem before retiring from political life four years ago.

"It's amazing for black kids growing up in a white society that there was nothing that made us think we were less than anybody else," Delpit's sister, Billie Cunningham, a state education administrator, recalls.

Before all that, however, the family operated a fried-chicken restaurant near the corner of Lettsworth Street and what was then known as East Boulevard. Called Delpit's Chicken Shack, the eatery was a social center for the black community. Entertainers Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway stopped there when they were in town as did athletes Sugar Ray Robinson and Jesse Owens. The NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality held organizing meetings in the Chicken Shack's flock-papered private rooms.

Over the years, the business prospered, growing to include four restaurants, two nursing homes, and a proprietary school. But Joseph Delpit, who runs the enterprise now, has steadfastly maintained its headquarters in the old family restaurant. When he was speaker pro tem, he kept his political offices in the same building, requiring local political candidates to cross into his turf if they wanted his support.

Now, the gold-toned, refurbished Chicken Shack Inc. building is the only modern-looking structure on a street of houses built in the style known throughout the South as "shotgun shacks." The neighborhood houses, narrow weather-blistered boxes squatting on cinder-block legs, look much as they did when the Delpit children were growing up. A battered, plaid couch occupies half a sagging front porch of one house. In the lot alongside it, a hodgepodge of wire fencing and corrugated tin keeps a German shepherd at bay.

The original Chicken Shack was also built out of a shotgun shack--the Delpits lived in the back. By the time Lisa was born, the family had built a larger, two-story home right next door.

Lisa's brother and sister were nearly grown then. But they remember their youngest sibling as a bright and bossy child who was adored by her father and who liked to play school with the neighborhood children. She played the teacher.

In those early years, all of the Delpit children went to all-black schools. And the education they got in those schools, most of which were Catholic, was strong on basic skills.

Delpit recalls those years in Other People's Children: "When I was growing up, my mother and my teachers in the pre-integration, poor black Catholic school that I attended corrected every word I uttered in their effort to coerce my black English into sometimes hypercorrect standard English forms acceptable to black nuns in Catholic schools. In elementary school, I diagrammed thousands of sentences, filled in tens of thousands of blanks, and never wrote any text longer than two sentences until I was in the 10th grade of high school." That she came to write standard English so well would later come as a surprise to the progressive-minded college professors who learned of her early education.

When integration belatedly came to Baton Rouge's Catholic schools in the mid- to late-1960s, Lisa became one of four or five black children from "good" families to integrate St. Anthony's High School. "There was great hostility in the school," Delpit recalls of that time. There was the nun, for example, who admonished her pupils to "stop acting like a bunch of niggers" and the coach who decided black girls could not play on the basketball team. "She said, 'If we let black girls play, then nobody else will play them.' "

When that school closed down--partly because of the controversy--Delpit moved on to another previously all-white school, St. Joseph's Academy for Girls. Behind the imposing, sand-colored brick walls of St. Joseph's, Delpit learned another lesson: She knew just as much as--and maybe more than-- her white classmates. It was food for thought.

Those were turbulent years. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had both been gunned down by assassins. But, in the cocoon formed by her family and St. Joseph's wrought-iron gates, Delpit lived apart from the times.

That ended with her unorthodox choice of a college: Antioch. The university was known as a center of radicalism amid the cornfields of Ohio. And, once Delpit got there, she mailed home her pleated skirts and sent for her father's old work shirts.

At Antioch, Delpit was introduced to the progressive teaching strategies she would one day criticize. She learned, as she writes in her book, "that the open classroom was the most 'humanizing' of learning environments, that children should be in control of their own learning, and that all children would read when they were ready."

Delpit was eager to try out all those new ideas when she landed her first teaching job in an inner-city elementary school in Philadelphia. The school maintained a population of 60 percent poor, black children from South Philly and 40 percent white children from Society Hill.

"The black kids went to school there because it was their only neighborhood school," she writes. "The white kids went to school there because their parents had learned the same kinds of things I had learned about education.

"I had an open classroom; I had learning stations; I had children write books and stories to share; I provided games and used weaving to teach math and fine motor skills. I threw out all the desks and added carpets."

But Delpit found, to her surprise, that her methods didn't work for everybody.

"My white students zoomed ahead. They worked hard at the learning stations. They did amazing things with books and writing," she writes. "My black students played the games; they learned how to weave; and they threw the books around the learning stations. They practiced karate moves on the new carpets. Some of them even learned how to read, but none of them as quickly as my white students. I was doing the same thing for all of my students--what was the problem?

"What did those black nuns from my childhood and those black teachers from the school in which I taught understand that my 'education' had hidden from me?"

Later on, when Delpit was working toward her master's and graduate degrees at the Harvard graduate school of education, professors assured her that she had done the right thing for her students in Philadelphia. From Harvard, she also learned that "people write not by being taught 'skills' and grammar but by 'writing in meaningful contexts' "--a philosophical underpinning of the progressive writing pedagogies.

But her indoctrination into progressivism was not complete because it was also at Harvard that Delpit came to know Courtney Cazden, now a professor of education emeritus.

Researchers at the time had noticed a tendency among white children to tell "topic-centered" stories--stories that focused on one event. Black children's stories, in comparison, tended to be more "episodic." In a study that Delpit quotes often, Cazden, who became Delpit's mentor, asked white adults to retell black and white children's narratives on tape, removing all syntax and dialectal markers. On hearing the sanitized tapes, white teachers criticized one black child's narrative, saying things like "terrible story, incoherent."

Black teachers, on the other hand, viewed the story more favorably.

"Three of the black adults selected the story as the best of the five they had heard, and all but one judged the child as exceptionally bright, highly verbal, and successful in school," Delpit writes in her book. This and other studies offered more food for thought. They put into words the feelings she had long had about cultural differences.

Delpit further explored her new-found ideas about culture and learning during a fellowship in Papua New Guinea. Occupying the eastern half of the second-largest island in the world, Papua New Guinea offers a natural laboratory for observing the intersection of diverse cultures and languages in learning. Despite the country's relatively small size--it has a land mass four times the size of the six New England states--islanders speak more than 700 indigenous languages. But, because the country is a former colony of Australia, the language of its schools is English.

Delpit spent a year there, evaluating school programs for the local government and conducting research on her own. In one village, the cinder-block box that she stayed in was regularly overrun with rats at night until villagers helped her figure out how to keep them away. In another, she dwelled more comfortably in a bamboo and thatched-roof hut typical of that province.

The Australian researchers whom Delpit was working with in Papua New Guinea were trying to find out what people wanted in their education. "Part of what people wanted was for their children not to lose their culture," Delpit says.

One solution was the Vilis Tokples Pri-skul. As part of that plan, islanders began two years of preschool instruction at age 7, followed by six years of English-language primary school beginning at age 9. The focus of the preschool was teaching children to read, write, and count in their mother tongue. At the same time, they received a basic cultural education in the customs, values, and acceptable behavior of their community.

Delpit says the program succeeded, pleasing both the islanders who feared their ways were disappearing and the government officials who wanted to see student achievement rise.

"It proved that a Third World people, a black people, need not give up their culture and their language to succeed in the Western world," she writes in Other People's Children. It gave Delpit more food for thought.

Delpit's rise to renown, however, was not launched from any of those places. She was teaching prospective teachers at the University of Alaska when she came across a poorly written paper by a young Native Alaskan woman. She covered up the student's name, duplicated the paper, and circulated it among her colleagues to prompt a discussion of the university's responsibilities toward its minority students.

The faculty, she found, was of two minds. The traditionalists spoke of upholding academic standards. They argued that the student should never have been admitted in the first place.

The liberals--the group with whom Delpit had felt most comfortable--chided her for internalizing "the repressive and disempowering forces of the power elite to suggest that something was wrong with a student just because she had another style of writing," Delpit writes.

She argued against both camps.

Frustrated, she wrote a long letter to two progressive colleagues. She published it in the Harvard Educational Review in 1986 under the title "Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator." The flames of controversy were lighted. Both it and a second article, written two years later, are among the 20 most requested reprints in the journal's 54-year history.

"I think it was the idea she was putting forward that maybe some of the ideas that we take for granted as the best word in teaching practice, maybe they're not good for everybody," says Cazden of Harvard. "Maybe they get popular on the basis of how they work for some teachers and some kids. And she said it pretty bluntly so that nobody could mistake her message."

Hilliard, her Georgia State colleague, attributes the attention her articles drew to the realistic portraits she paints of racial insensitivity in schools. "I believe she's one of the most important writers in education today," he says simply.

It also helped that Delpit wrote well. Where academic essays are usually dry and obtuse, hers were sprinkled with human stories and chronicled in clear language.

"School people, parents, and community members can understand what she has to say," says Gloria Ladson-Billings, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor and author who uses Delpit's book in her own class.

But the criticism that followed was also harsh. Ten years later, that criticism has become more of an undercurrent, bubbling just below the surface.

"Whole language isn't just literature, and I think Lisa Delpit knows that," says one such critic, Ken Goodman, who helped pioneer that reading-instruction method. "When we encourage children to use invented spelling, we're encouraging them to develop phonics skills.

"When children proofread what they have written and check spelling, they're working on punctuation," the University of Arizona professor adds. "What makes whole language so appropriate--not only for black kids--is the fact that we start by accepting kids' language." Of Delpit, he says, "I think she set herself up to be used by people who said, 'Look, a black person is saying whole language doesn't work for black kids.' " Delpit denies being used by anyone.

As for the National Writing Project, which has helped foster the process-writing movement in this country, Richard Sterling, the organization's new executive director, says it has taken Delpit's criticisms to heart. The writing project has always fancied itself a democracy in which groups of teachers come together to discuss research on writing, to improve their practice, and to conduct research of their own. In her essays, Delpit accused this group of ignoring its black colleagues. She quoted African-American friends who derisively referred to the organization as "the white people's project."

"When the article first appeared, of course, it caused some upsets among the projects," Sterling says. "We took the work and gave it to the teachers. It found its way into summer institutes all over the country as a debating point."

It also spurred some changes. With Delpit's help, Urban Writing Projects, involving a wider cross-section of teachers from inner-city schools, were formed in 10 cities. "One of the things we've learned is if we are really to understand the kind of mix of populations we have in school, we have to have conversations among as diverse a group of teachers as we can assemble," Sterling says.

There was also a sense among members, however, that the writing project was singled out unfairly. "Good writing teachers will always use as many strategies as are available," Sterling says.

For her part, Delpit says she never meant for her writings to become a wholesale indictment of either instructional method. Hers was--and always has been--a call for teaching skills in the context of critical thinking and for sensitivity to cultural differences. Nor did she mean that all black children must be taught differently, drilled in phonics, or placed in highly structured learning environments like the Catholic schools in which she grew up.

"Culture doesn't help you teach somebody," she says. "Start off with what is, to the best of your knowledge, good teaching. If you run into problems, then culture is one of the explanations that you can look into to solve a problem."

School is out. And Delpit and her daughter, Maya, whirl into their sprawling brick home in Decatur, Ga., like a small hurricane.

Inside the house, there are Fijian bark paintings, whalebone sculptures from Alaska, sacred masks from Papua New Guinea, African-print fabrics--and a three-foot-tall Barbie house.

"Now, what are the four things you have to do?" Delpit asks her 6-year-old.

"Practice my violin?" Maya asks. "Feed the cats? Clean the litter box?"

"'Yes, what else?" her mother asks.

"Umm, did I say feed the cats?" the child asks.

"Yes, what else? It's got something to do with school."

"Homework!" Maya says, delighted to have answered correctly.

Then, Maya clowns on the gray-tiled floor, stands up, and hugs her mother around the waist.

Sometimes, in an effort to draw out reticent students--black students who remind her of herself when she was an unsure neophyte in the white halls of academe--Delpit tells them to "trust in their own stories." That is, after all, what Delpit has done. Were it not for the years of Catholic school drilling, the sense that something was not right in her own classroom, and the studies in Papua New Guinea, Delpit might never have questioned the education philosophies being embraced all around her. "To me, that's what makes something real or not--whether we can identify something in our life that connects with it," she says.

In that way, Maya gives Delpit new fodder and new perspectives for her evolving views on education. Delpit adopted Maya when the child was not yet 2. At the time, Delpit was single and living in Baltimore, where she was a senior research associate at Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research.

A sunny, pigtailed child, Maya couldn't wait to start school this past September. She woke up on the Sunday before school started and was crestfallen to learn that she had to wait one more day. She told her mother that she was going back to bed, hoping that the first day of school would somehow arrive sooner that way.

By the end of the first week, however, Maya no longer wanted to go to school.

It turned out that Maya, who could already read, was being penalized for not coloring her worksheets fast enough. It was the kind of watered-down instruction that Delpit had often railed against for minority students.

The white teacher also put Maya's name on the board for talking in class. And, when Delpit came to visit the classroom, she found Maya's desk turned toward the window. Everyone else was facing front. Delpit moved her daughter to another public school.

"Maya is adopted, and she is, in another way of looking at it, other people's child, and I'm willing to give her the best that I have," Delpit says. She says the same should be true for classroom educators. "When we have kids in our life, they are other people's children, too, and we have to give them the very best that we have."

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