The Danger of a Single Story

I want you to watch this video. It’s almost 20 minutes long, and I realize that it might be nearly impossible to carve out that much time in your day. But I want you to try. I want you to turn off the television, put the kids to bed, clear off your desk and really process the words of Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer who both challenged and inspired me with her words.

She made me think about my husband and the caller who has made it his mission over the past several months to leave nasty, hateful messages on his voicemail at work. Every week he calls. Sometimes twice a week, leaving no name or phone number where he can be reached. This man has a single story of Issac J. Bailey, the columnist. He does not know the Ike that I know. The gentleman. The father. My best friend.

She made me think of the woman who shared with me her ideas about the young scholars in Freedom Readers. She used words like “undisciplined”, “nonreaders”, “survival mode”. She does not know the 2-year-old that sat on my lap and listened to a fairy tale more intently than my own children ever did at that age. She completely overlooked the smiles, the hugs, the pictures they make for me and gifts they give me almost every time I show up.

She made me think of Augusta Mann, the genius behind our student affirmation, “I Stand Tall”. She’s devoted her life to ameliorating what she calls ” a problem that need not be” by traveling the country to share teaching strategies that Touch the Spirit. She made me think of the line from “I Stand Tall” that reads, My family, my community, my country—The world is waiting for my leadership.”

She made me think of the group of grandmothers and grandfathers at the North Santee Community Center who allowed me to spend time with them this week as they shared their stories. We talked about how they had to beat  rice stalks with a mortar and pestle in order to have that same rice for dinner. We talked about the incredible technology our ancestors brought to this country, without which local plantations would not have been successful. We talked about Africa, and it felt strange to say the name. It bounced off the walls and echoed through the room in a way that was almost eerie.

She made me think of the current state of education in this country and its apartheid-like tracking of students into separate classes, one set designed for future maids and janitors and another designed for future executives and professionals.

This week at Freedom Readers we consider the world. We attempt to help our young scholars think beyond the borders of Conway, SC and consider their place in the larger scheme of things. Our message to them, my message to you, is that each of us is born for a reason. You continue to breathe in and out for a purpose, one that was determined before the day you were born. None of us knows how much longer we’ll have the opportunity to walk this earth. So use this moment to embrace your destiny. You may not have this chance again.

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Freedom Readers Bring Puppets to Life by Roz Gentry

Linda the Librarian, assisted by Roz, made her debut at Freedom Readers on July 12 with help from two furry rabbits, a floppy-eared dog, a warm, cuddly lamb, a scary wolf, and a long-beaked toucan, all brought to life by very creative students. 

Linda the Librarian, a funny looking woman with wild hair and glasses, told the animals that they were to keep quiet – meaning no laughing or giggling ever – no food or drinks allowed, and there would definitely be no bathroom breaks.  The rabbits were told not to hop, the dog had to keep his tail from wagging, the lamb couldn’t “baa” or he might end up as a lamb chop for dinner, and the wolf was not to lick his lips around the rabbits or lamb.  As for the toucan, who has a reaaaaallllly long beak, he was to keep it zipped at all times.  Finally, Linda the Librarian, insisted that everyone had to wear white gloves in order to touch the books.

Sound like a fun place to go?  NO WAY!  So Linda the Librarian gave out the final rule:  Ignore these silly rules, have fun, and READ!

 

Where did Linda the Librarian come from?  The creative hands of my real sister Linda!  Linda made and performed with more than 100 puppets during her career.  She held a masters degree in theatre as well as a masters degree in library science and was a children’s librarian for many years.  She was sooooo funny, talented and full of life.  But she also had a bad heart that couldn’t be repaired, and eight years ago she died a week after receiving a heart/lung transplant.  I inherited many of her puppets but I’m not sure how to bring them to life like Linda did.  In fact, they’ve stayed in a big storage box most of the time until I became part of Freedom Readers.  I brought them in thinking they might help some of the more shy readers.  I was very excited to see the smiles on the children’s faces.  The fact that I didn’t know how to work Linda the Librarian didn’t really seem to matter.  Puppets just make everyone smile!  Linda would have been so excited, too ….. and glad that her “children” had a chance to come to life, if just for a short time.

Roz Gentry

Acting White

“The Take Away” is an engaging news show aired on NPR. I began listening to it a while back when my youngest was in preschool.  I had the rare opportunity to listen to it this morning and found the hosts’ discussion about education and culture stimulating. In light of Freedom Readers’ current work with African American children in low wealth communities, I thought our readers would find host Celeste Headlee’s blog interesting. If anyone has read Stuart Hall’s Acting White I’d love to know what you think of it.

What is ‘Acting White’?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 – 08:39 AM

By Celeste Headlee: The Takeaway 

Celeste Headlee (Marco Antonio) 

In this new book, “Acting White,” Stuart Buck has the guts to take on an issue that has marred Bill Cosby’s reputation and strained relations between Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson. Buck is a white guy who adopted two brown kids, one from Haiti, and in his thoughtful, exhaustively researched book, I hear clearly the voice of a loving father. 

This is not just a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas, not just a graduate from Harvard Law School. Buck’s children are 6 and 11. He sends them off to school everyday, as all parents do, knowing that he has no control over what may happen to them in the classroom or the playground. He can’t protect them from what other children say to them, or change the way they are seen by teachers. And Buck is concerned; that’s clear. He’s worried that there are forces working against his kids, forces beyond his control that will make the tough job of achieving in the classroom even tougher. 

Follow the link below to read the full article:

http://www.thetakeaway.org/blogs/takeaway/2010/jul/14/what-acting-white/

Race, Culture, and Education

            I have experienced moments of extreme self-doubt. I found myself in situations where I am surrounded by smiling, welcoming white faces, and though I have returned the smiles, I have felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I’ve wondered if I am good enough, worthy enough, pretty enough. I’ve questioned my right to wear my hair kinky. I’ve hated my clothes and my shoes and compared them to my white friends’ and wondered if she thought less of me because I wore no brand name labels. I’ve tried to find my self-worth in material possessions and have hidden behind big words and ideas written by well-known scholars. I’ve chosen the safety of solitude over the risk of rejection.

            I live with a foot in two worlds. I am a prime example of what W.E.B. Dubois calls “double consciousness”.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. …

_____________________

Excerpted from the chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in his book The Souls of Black Folk.

Maybe you can identify. Perhaps you are a black person and you’ve had similar experiences and doubts. Maybe you are a white person who knows what it’s like to be poor or over weight or….you fill in the blank. Everybody has some cross to bear.

But I’ll take this particular opportunity to shine a light on the issues of race, culture, class, and education. And self-perception.

All of these issues were raised at the Freedom Readers Volunteer Reunion held July 10 at Christ Community Church.

The topic was timely, coming on the heels of our youth-led community tours where we spent time talking with public housing residents and observing our surroundings. Author and columnist Issac J. Bailey led us in a discussion of race and made a clear distinction between the concepts of race and racism. He asked us to focus exclusively on race, the color of people’s skin, and leave Racism for another discussion.

He went on to site studies that show that white parents avoid talking to their children about race and tend to refuse to answer questions about the topic. He talked about the negative images of African American portrayed in the media and how unreliable sources like movies, music videos, and television sitcoms become our children’s primary teachers on this issue when we fail to address it.

He told us that white children begin to accept the stereotypes they see. But most surprisingly to some in the audience, black children begin to buy in as well. After years of being constantly barraged with negative images, African Americans begin to believe that there is something wrong, dirty, ugly, and generally inferior about being born with black skin and kinky hair.

We spent a few minutes discussing comments that have been found to be unhelpful like, “We are all the same in God’s sight” and “I don’t see color”. Such comments, he said, make absolutely no sense to children who have eyes and enough sense to know that there is something different about people with black skin and people with white skin. And to say that you don’t see that sounds a bit insane.

Personally, I do not want to live in a color blind world. There’s nothing wrong with looking at me and noticing that I have black skin. However, problems arise when people take the liberty of making assumption about me because of what they think they know about all people with black skin. Let me speak for myself.

And I wish I would have followed my own advice on the countless occasions that I have misjudged someone because of their looks or thier accent or their address.

After he’d finished, we sat for a moment with these ideas and then began to share our thoughts on how all of this impacts education and our practice as Freedom Readers tutors.

A number of important ideas were shared, but for me the big deal is being aware of how this work we are doing will ultimately impact our young scholars. When we are successful in supporting students as they improve their grades and move into fulfilling careers, then what? Will we also be prepared to provide the emotional support needed when an individual’s economic situation changes? Who will help the learner understand the “twoness” WEB Dubois talks about? Who will listen?

And as we continue on our journey, how will we reconcile the differences that exist between the families we seek to serve and the tutors who share their expertise? How do we level the playing field and help everyone take his rightful seat at the table? How do we form partnerships that honor and celebrate each participant?

Though we have made great strides, there is still much work to be done. And so much more to learn. Fortunately, I believe that we are ready. We keep showing up, so we must be willing. And I know someone who is more than able.

Books or The Internet: Which One Makes You Smarter?

A column by David Brooks published last week in the New York Times has stopped me in my tracks.  In “The Medium is the Medium”, Brooks first points out that children who have more books in their homes do better in school. Period. That’s even without the tutoring and the support they might receive at a weekly meeting like the ones offered by Freedom Readers in low wealth communities. He goes on to site recent studies which show that students who spend time on computers at home aren’t doing as well academically. Could it be possible that our multi-task oriented, internet babies are losing their ability to focus and think deeply about serious matters? Read Brooks’s perspective and decide for youself.

The Medium Is the Medium

By DAVID BROOKS

Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students’ test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the “summer slide” — the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

Follow this link to read the full column:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/09/opinion/09brooks.html?_r=3&hp

And I encourage you to leave a comment once you’ve read it! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

Darden Community Walk by Lisa Reid

Stacie stands beneath a shade tree and shares her perspective on things.

Venturing on a community walk around Darden Terrace Monday afternoon was one of the most valuable experiences for me as an educator and as a Freedom Readers tutor. It was once again a reminder of the importance of getting to know students outside of the classroom, and young scholars outside of the community center. Stacie was our team’s leader and she melted my heart as I watched her lead us to shaded places where we could escape the heat of the sun as she described landmarks of her community with confidence and pride. She took us to the playground, showed us the areas where she and her friends often play, and introduced us to a few of her friends and family members. Adults and other children within the community seemed very interested in what we were doing and some children tagged along, following us back to the community center.

Upon embarking on the Darden tour, I was not certain from which lens I would view landscapes and encounters. It is very common for people, myself included, to begin to see things outside of our culture or comfort zone through a deficit perspective. I had originally noticed overflowing garbage bins and scattered wrappings and paper throughout the streets as we began our walk, and my thoughts started to go into a deficit direction. I even captured a few pictures with my deficit lens.

However, as we started to hear stories about Stacie’s life and other scholars’ experiences in the community, my lens shifted to an additive perspective as my heart started to open up even more and connect with the community. Nearing the end of our tour, I walked with Stacie and a couple of girls, and I inquired about how they spent their 4th of July. They explained that friends and family grilled out and shot fireworks in the streets of Darden Terrace all night long. Their faces were still lit up from the night before as they recounted their joyful memories. And as they described the events with such animated detail, I came close to imaging myself being there for it and really wishing I could have experienced their sense of community with them. Through this additive lens, I was able to capture smiling faces of family members and friends and shake hands and receive greetings from warm and friendly relatives. On the way back to the community center I looked down at those same scattered wrappings all over the street and I smiled, because I knew the story behind them. They are scattered, but fun-filled memories of friends and families who spent time together within their community to celebrate our national holiday. I felt very comfortable in this community, and I think we can get to more positive places with young scholars or students if we can all get to that place of comfort.

I am grateful that I received yet another reminder of the importance of getting to know students or young scholars, their authentic identities, their worthy backgrounds, the people they know, the people they love, and the special places where they spend time. I would love to see all tutors experience this, especially educators and future educators. I think many deficit perspectives could be left at the classroom door for additive ones after embarking on this community walk experience. Team Stacie’s Darden Terrace walk, I hope, is just the beginning to additional community ventures that could make even greater change! Thank you Freedom Readers and Team Stacie for the experience!

Written by: Lisa Ianni Reid

Lisa Reid prepares to work with her young scholar at the Darden Terrace Community Center.


Taking it to the Streets

Cindy Young snapped this picture of Meshalean with her mom, her grandma, and a host of friends and family.

Sometimes you just know. You get this feeling in the pit of your gut and you know that your work has moved forward. A step closer to the vision as it exists in perfection. A step closer to where you’re supposed to be.

I’ve only experienced that feeling a few times in my life. My wedding day. My first day as a classroom teacher. The first time I opened a book and read a poem I’d written. And I experienced that strange knowing again this week as I walked the streets of the Darden Terrace and Huckabee Heights communities.

Seems like a simple enough concept. Invite the young scholars enrolled in the Freedom Readers Summer Session to show the tutors around their neighborhoods. It reminds me of that popular Bible verse, “And a little child shall lead them…” Like so many aspects of my Freedom Readers journey, this event turned out to be more than I’d expected. It was simple, yes, but also quite significant.

On Monday we set out in two teams lead by youngsters who are quite familiar with the area. I was chosen for Team David. What a joy it was to be shown the lay of the land by a young man who just the week before had expressed extreme angst over the act of public speaking. Inside the confines of the community center he was shy, reluctant, unsure. On the streets of the community he had no problem addressing a group of adults and his peers. He confidently pointed out landmarks and provided thoughtful responses to questions from the group. You could almost visibly see him stepping into leadership, draping it around his shoulders like a heavy purple princely cloak. I wonder if his classroom teacher will ever get to know the prince that emerged right in front of our eyes.

David introduced us to his grandmother who spoke admiringly of her community. He walked us over to a group of ladies who excitedly described the block party they’d hosted the day before- July 4th. Their pride was evident. Their boisterous enthusiasm unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Then another young scholar, a first grader, begged the group to stop next door at his house and meet his mom. She was so gracious, patiently answering our questions as I bounced her four-month-old daughter on my hip.

As we walked from one important spot to another, we attracted the attention of neighborhood children who’d been playfully enjoying the steady cool breezes of that summer afternoon. They wanted to know more about us, find out what made us want to find out about them. Most of them followed us back to the community center, Pied Piper style. What a sight we must have been— old, young, rich, poor, black, white — all parading down the streets together with our composition notebooks in hand, nametags flapping in the wind.

On Wednesday we set out in three large groups. My group’s guide showed us her home and introduced us to neighbors. “It’s quiet over here,” one woman told us. “We look out for each other on this side.”

I loved hearing the story of the Dream Tree, which was planted earlier this year near the back of the playground. “Everyone wrote their dreams on a piece of paper,” one young scholar told his group. The dreams filled the bottom of the hole and the tree was planted on top. Whatever happens, we must not allow this one little tree to die.

There were also moments of reckoning. Monday’s group visited a playground whose protruding nails and broken boards made it unsafe for the children. But still they gathered. It was the only place they could play. One of the young scholars on Wednesday’s tour expressed frustration as he walked by an area covered with trash. In both cases you could hear the twelve year olds testing their own power to change things. You could literally see them step into their leadership.

Freedom Readers’ mission is to improve reading skills in low wealth communities by providing one-on-one literacy tutoring, free books for home libraries, and an inspiring, high-energy learning environment. This week we took a step forward as an organization by taking it to the streets. The tour was the first time some of us had actually seen the communities we serve. Perceptions were changed. Preconceived notions challenged. By so doing, we attempted to show, not tell. Show that we exist to serve. Show that we value the community. Show that we are interested in more than just test scores. We are interested in people.

The experience has left me exited and energized. Questions have been swirling around my head constantly.  What if every one of the teachers who work with these children in local public schools joined us? What if more teachers followed the example of great educators like Jenny Edwards, who responded to a challenging student not with a detention assigned or a discipline referral written, but with a visit to his church and an appearance at his birthday party? What if schools found more ways to allow the youngsters to lead, to read, write, and speak about what matters to them? What if politicians and others who have written these students off and continually blame their dismal performance on standardized tests on their “home life” actually took the time to visit these communities? Would they be too jaded to see the beauty in the faces of the people?

Yes, Freedom Readers took a step forward this week. One small step for Freedom Readers. One giant leap for our community as a whole.