Education Opinion

Actively. Publicly. Loudly.

By Jessica Shyu — April 20, 2009 2 min read
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I swear. I am a nice person. I say “please” and “thank you.” I recycle. I chew with my mouth closed. And I am respectful to everyone, especially my elders.

But apparently when anyone, even someone many decades my senior, yells out to me across the Caribou Coffee Shop that kids in the inner-city can’t possibly learn, I have to yell back. Politely. Firmly. Loudly. So everyone in the shop can hear me when I say: “All children can learn. They just need to be taught better and more by their teachers, and better and more by everyone else around them.”

My debate partner argued back. Equally firmly. Equally loudly: “No. You’re wrong. You’re holding our community down, making the kids in Anacostia learn the same standards and reading. Our kids can’t learn that stuff. We need to give them vocational classes so they have something to do after graduation.”

It’s important to realize that I don’t entirely disagree. It’d be wonderful if more vocational classes were available to kids who wanted to focus on carpentry or graphic design. And for the record, I don’t advocate fighting as a way to advance our ideas about closing the achievement gap. But...

“Of course the kids in Anacostia can learn that stuff! It may take longer to learn after so many years of poor teaching, but they can! We have high school teachers there whose entire classes have already increased by more than two reading grade levels this year! Two grade levels is the difference between reading to their kids at night or perpetuating the reading gap for another generation! Vocational classes are great-- as long as kids have a choice and don’t go for it because they haven’t been taught to read and they’re 15!”

And so we go on. Loudly. Obnoxiously. In the middle of the day while everyone around us desperately tries to read or work. After about 10 minutes of yelling, I put my headphones on, switch tables and refuse to respond. I’m late with a project and I’m starting to worry that I’m confusing and angering the man more than motivating him and others.

But after a half hour when tempers cooled, I saw the old man come toward my table. I brace for another round of heated discussion. Instead, he came by with the business card of his new educational nonprofit focused on student mentoring. He still didn’t fully agree with my ideas, he said, but he could see my point and saw we were ultimately arguing for and angry over the same things. We’re both angry that kids in DC aren’t learning anywhere near enough and that everyone in the community is responsible for doing a whole lot about it. And with that, we accomplished what’s probably one of the hardest first steps to take—talking about how to close the achievement gap. Actively. Publicly. Loudly.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.