Category Archives: Interviews

What Works: Vernon Young, Jr. 

This is the first in a series of profiles of young men who successfully navigated adolescence, academia and adversity to become interesting and productive citizens of the world.  Their stories of what worked for them can offer inspiration to our sons as they contemplate their future, and to parents as we try to guide them along the way. GCP contributor Kareema Pinckney brings us Vernon’s story.

 

Professional photographer Vernon Young Jr. is a visual storyteller who uses his photographic skills to capture the most intimate moments of life.

Much of his work depicts his love for people and the human condition.  His passion for photography makes him sensitive to the beauty that is all around, capturing the essence of each subject in every session. He loves his work, and is thrilled to be able to devote so much of his time to pursuing his passion.

Vernon never thought joining the military would be key to his finding his passion and following his dreams.

Twenty-seven year old Vernon is a native of Pittsburgh, PA.   As a child he lived with his two parents and six siblings in a low-income housing development.  He witnessed other family members’ struggle with addiction, friends’ deaths, and felt the stress of limited resources.

It wasn’t until his parents decided to move the family to the South Side of Pittsburgh and regularly attend Lighthouse Church that his life would change forever. Vernon explains:

“I hated moving at first, but I now know it was a greater plan for my life. This move opened my mind and my heart to be influenced in ways that I had only dreamed about. With the clarity that I received from church, I was able to get through some of the more difficult decisions in my life.”
 
Vernon’s first love was football, and he nurtured childhood dreams of pursuing a college scholarship and one day entering the NFL.  However, he ultimately determined that he was more interested in attending college for business rather than pursuing a sports scholarship. But the daunting financial obligations of college convinced the young man to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve in the U.S. military.

Vernon’s belief that the military was his best option didn’t eliminate his skepticism about what he was getting into.  He notes,
“I thought these wealthy congressmen were sending young people to be killed for a war I knew nothing about at the time. I was uneducated about the methods of war, the tactics we used as a country and why we were in war at the time. “

However, it wasn’t until Vernon was exposed to photography in the Air Force that his perspective drastically changed.  “I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer in the Air Force. I was actually selected to be a services apprentice.” In his third week of training  he required emergency surgery, and was switched into the photography unit during his recovery.  He was quite happy about the switch.  “I felt this was a blessing in disguise because I wanted to be a photographer, not a cook.”

Vernon quickly discovered how much he loved photography, and that he had a real talent for it. In 2008, he was selected to Syracuse University’s S.I Newhouse School of Public Communication’s Military Photojournalism program, which is designed to equip military photographers with the tools necessary to document high level missions. 
 
Through his military service Vernon was able to express his love for storytelling through photography. He learned how to look for the emotions in his shots, and take the shots in difficult mixed lighting situations.  Vernon currently serves in the U.S. Air force as a full-time photographer.  He also takes time to use his gift to capture intense heartfelt moments outside of work, which can be seen here.  

Vernon is proud of his decision to join the military.   “If I knew then what I know now, I would do exactly what I did. I’ve gained experience with some of the top professionals in the world, received a college education to further my ability to complete my mission, and am able to spend a lot of time with my family. The military has enabled me to learn, become passionate about my work and improve my overall quality of life.”

Vernon further advises young men that when considering the military or any important decision, to always make sure you have a plan.

“If you go into a situation without a plan, you plan to fail. I would advise a young man to join the military to learn to serve first and then to achieve his personal goals in finances, networking and education. The military has set my priorities straight, while some of my friends never got around to developing a healthy balance in their lives. If one is afraid to join because of war, one must realize there are just as many murders in the U.S. as there are deaths in the war.“

For Vernon, joining the military yielded wonderfully positive results.  Have you and your sons considered this option? Should parents be concerned about preparing our sons to go to war in order to give them an opportunity to advance their education?  Or do you feel that the potential benefits outweigh the risks?   Have any of your sons had great educational experiences through their military service? GCP wants to know!

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Braylon Edwards: NFL player, Educational Philanthropist

Here’s an inspirational story for you, as reported in Yahoo! Sports: Braylon Edwards, who was a Cleveland Browns rookie in 2005, promised back then to give $10,000 in scholarships to 100 Cleveland area eighth-graders if they could graduate high school with over a 2.5 GPA and 15 hours community service. Of the 100 who were afforded the opportunity, 79 met the criteria and have begun their first year of college at schools including Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Harvard, supported by the scholarships from Edwards through his “Advance 100” Program.

Edwards, a University of Michigan graduate (as was his father Stanley Edwards, who also played pro football), developed the Advance 100 program with his mother as a way to give back. According to Edwards, his family felt blessed with his football abilities and wanted to use their good fortune to help out others. Though he didn’t expect so many of the students to fit the criteria (only half of Cleveland public school students graduate high school), Edwards didn’t shy away from his commitment. In fact, he increased it. In addition to providing the $790,000 in scholarship funding, Edwards provided the 79 students with laptops and other supplies to help them out when they arrived on campus. “I’m supposed to give people a chance like I was given a chance,” Edwards said.

After being drafted by the Browns in 2005 and playing more than four seasons with them, Edwards played for the Jets, and then the San Francisco 49ers. At the end of last year, Edwards, who was plagued with injuries this season, was released by the 49ers and is now a free agent.

What an impressive demonstration of reaching back and helping others climb the ladder behind you! Notwithstanding Edward’s widely reported skirmishes with the law over the course of his football career, it would appear that good fortune and great generosity worked together here to change the lives of 79 students. Bravo to Edwards and his Advance 100 Program for their good work.

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Coach Natalie Randolph: Teaching on the Field and in the Classroom

Here’s an inspirational story from The Washington Post to savor along with your Thanksgiving leftovers: Coach Natalie Randolph, an African American believed to be the only woman currently coaching a high school football team in the country, led her Coolidge High School Colts earlier this week to the Turkey Bowl, Washington D.C.’s public school football championship. This was the Colts’ second appearance in the game since 1987 and the first under Coach Randolph.

But Coach Randolph has done much more than improve the on-field stats of these high school athletes. With her focus and discipline in the classroom as an environmental science teacher, she has inspired the players to improve their overall grade point average from 2.75 last fall to 3.0 this season. Under her watchful eyes, one of her starting linebackers improved his GPA from 2.0 to 3.5. “She motivated me to become a better person” he explains. As the Post article, found here, notes, “Coolidge players say that in Randolph they see a uniquely genuine person, someone who is tough when needed (‘no study hall, no practice’) but will cheer louder than anyone when they earn an A”.

The players respect Coach Randolph and want her to see them succeed. “It makes me feel great that we can do this for her and do this for ourselves, to take the first lady to the Turkey Bowl in her second year,” senior wide receiver-defensive back Calvin Brown said. “That’s a great accomplishment. It pays off, the hard work that we put in pays off to the Turkey Bowl.” Although the Coolidge Colts were defeated in the Turkey Bowl by Dunbar, a D.C. football powerhouse, the team knows that the hard work they put in to get there will continue to pay off for them.

Coach Randolph teaches three environmental science classes while coaching the football team, and has seen great results in the classroom as well as on the field. She is a shining example of what GCP has focused on in several previous posts: the good things that happen when the motivation and discipline that boys accept and absorb from coaches is brought into the classroom. (See, “What Teachers Can Learn from Coaches”, 4/8/11, and “What We All Can Learn from Coaches”, 10/18/11) As Coach Randolph demonstrates, teaching and coaching is truly a winning combination.

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What Works: The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute

GCP is dedicated to bringing you information about what educational programs are working for our children around the country. The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute operates four charter schools on Chicago’s South Side which have the express aim of sending their students (mostly African American from low income families) to college, and the schools are impressively achieving this goal. But the Institute does more than run charter schools. It has developed and employs innovative educational research and teacher training programs as part of its plan to improve urban education. Read all about it here. (Thanks to GCP reader Dr. John E.Ellis for sending this our way.)

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Waiting for Superman? Superwoman Was Already Here

GCP is keenly interested in promoting educational models and practices which have demonstrated success with our boys, particularly those that can be scaled up to impact the greatest number of children. As you know, much of the current education reform discussion revolves around how to effectively measure and improve teacher quality, whether standardized tests are the best way to hold schools accountable for student learning, and whether charter schools can better serve our children.

We were recently contacted by GCP reader Daniel Petter-Lipstein, who suggests that those embroiled in the educational reform debates are overlooking the benefits of the well-established Montessori approach. He shared with us his thoughtful and insightful article on Montessori schools, “Superwoman Was Already Here”, which you will find here and below. Lest you think that the Montessori method is limited to private pre-schools, you should be aware that there are dozens of public Montessori schools which range from elementary to high school, serving diverse populations (including ESL students and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch). In fact, Petter-Lipstein notes that a June 2011 Milwaukee NAACP report stated that “[p]rospects for educational achievement are brightest for Milwaukee Public School students who are enrolled in Montessori Schools”.

Have you had positive (or negative) experiences with Montessori schools? We’d love to hear your stories and perspectives.
*****

Superwoman was already here.

And she gave us a superb educational model to end the “Race to Nowhere.

Her name was Dr. Maria Montessori and in the first half of the 20th century she pioneered and refined the Montessori method of education. Today, there are over 17,000 Montessori schools worldwide including thousands of preschools in the USA and hundreds of Montessori schools in the U.S. at the K-8 level.

My children go to a private Jewish Montessori school in New Jersey called Yeshivat Netivot Montessori. After five years as a parent at Netivot, I now believe quite deeply that it is a national tragedy that Montessori is largely deemed to be an educational option only for privileged kids from families that can afford tuition at a progressive private school.

Millions more American children deserve access to a Montessori education.

There are about 350 public Montessori schools in the United States, a number that is shamefully small.

I am not writing to explain, “What is Montessori?” There are several good books, lots of internet videos and numerous websites to answer that question. But I do want to offer three reasons why I love Montessori and believe that millions more American children could benefit from this extraordinary approach to teaching and learning:

1. Curiosity

In a Montessori classroom, questions matter more than answers and a child’s natural curiosity is welcomed, not shunned.

Newsweek ran an article last summer about America’s “creativity crisis” with this striking paragraph (emphasis mine):

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.“

In a Montessori school, this dynamic does not happen because teachers “follow the child” and are always encouraging the kids to ask questions. The Montessori method cares far more about the inquiry process and less about the results of those inquiries, believing that children will eventually master–with the guidance of their teachers and the engaged use of the hands-on Montessori materials which control for error–the expected answers and results that are the focus of most traditional classroom activity.

My daughter’s lower elementary teacher (Montessori classes are typically multi-age, lower elementary is grades 1-3 together) recently told me that a few kids in her classroom were learning about the triangle and they asked “Can a triangle have more or less than 180 degrees?” In classic Montessori style, the teacher turned the question back on them and said, “Use the hands-on geometric materials and try and make an actual triangle that is more or less than 180 degrees.” So the children have their question honored and arrive at the proper answer by themselves.

This story also highlights the role of a teacher in a Montessori classroom as being a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.”

In a world where the amount of information is doubling every 2.5 years (with much of it available at the click of a mouse) and where the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004, encouraging kids to ask good questions and giving them life-long tools to investigate those questions is far more important than instructing them on how to produce correct responses. Even if those answers require some level of complexity, they are generally still straight-forward and predictable, which hardly prepares them for a world whose path is increasingly winding and unknown.

The culture of inquiry that is the hallmark of a good Montessori school is also a critical foundation for the creativity and innovation that America will need to compete in the 21st century. In December 2009, the Harvard Business Review published an article called, “The Innovator’s DNA” based on a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives including visionaries like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman, and P&G’s A.G. Lafley. In an accompanying interview (with two of the three authors of the study) entitled “How Do Innovators Think?”, one of the professors that conducted the study noted (emphasis mine)

“We also believe that the most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration. Sometimes these people were relatives, but sometimes they were neighbors, teachers or other influential adults. A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity. To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).”

2. No Homework

Many parents ask themselves, “If my child is spending six, seven or eight hours in school, why does she get so much homework?” If she were alive today, Dr. Maria Montessori would definitely be asking the same question.

My children do not have any daily homework at their Montessori school. While this varies at Montessori schools, most Montessori schools do not give kids any kind of daily homework. They may have research projects or long-term book reports (as do the students at my daughters’ Jewish Montessori school), but no daily homework.

The effectiveness of the Montessori approach usually obviates the need for homework. As one father in our school noted to me, “My 7 year-old was in a traditional school last year and he learns more in a day at this Montessori school than he did in a month at his regular school.” Since children in a high-quality Montessori school learn mostly by doing and by using as many of their senses as possible, in-school time is extremely productive and there is little or no requirement for homework to review and/or build upon their daily in-school lessons.

Without the crushing burden of homework that most American kids face each night, kids in a Montessori school are free to do whatever they like after school: play outside, watch TV, read, participate in sports, etc. The daily emotional battles over homework that most parents know all too well are also largely eliminated.

And homework is a waste of time. The research has shown consistently that homework at the grade school level has virtually no correlation with academic achievement. See this article from Time magazine which summarizes the leading research.

3. Calm and Peaceful Classroom Environment

Good Montessori classrooms have a sense of calm and order that is amazing; a setting where all kids are consistently engaged throughout the day in activities that they find meaningful and fun. We are starting to fully grasp how critical this type of environment is for learning and development, regardless of age. In the past three decades, there has been an explosion of important research that documents the connections between stress levels and the ability of a person to function and thrive, whether it be at home, work or school.
In a wonderful new book called “Brain Rules for Baby” by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist, some of this research is examined and explored. Dr Medina, in a chapter on how to raise a smart child writes:

“First, I need to correct a misconception. Many well-meaning moms and dads think their child’s brain is interested in learning. That is not accurate. The brain is not interested in learning. The brain is interested in surviving. Every ability in our intellectual tool kit was engineered to escape extinction. Learning exists only to serve the requirements of this primal goal. It is a happy coincidence that our intellectual tools can do double duty in the classroom, conferring on us the ability to create spreadsheets and speak French. But that’s not the brain’s day job. That is an incidental byproduct of a much deeper force: the gnawing, clawing desire to live to the next day. We do not survive so that we can learn. We learn so that we can survive.
This overarching goal predicts many things, and here’s the most important: If you want a well-educated child, you must create an environment of safety. When the brain’s safety needs are met, it will allow its neurons to moonlight in algebra classes. When safety needs are not met, algebra goes out the window. Roosevelt’s dad held him first, which made his son feel safe, which meant the future president could luxuriate in geography.”

In Montessori classrooms, the methodology of engaging with children, the approach of the teachers and the way those teachers are trained all help build and foster this environment of safety where children can learn and flourish.

CONCLUSION

My commitment to my Jewish identity means that my kids need to go to a Jewish school so they can learn deeply about Judaism and their Jewish heritage. Every day I wake up grateful that an awesome Jewish Montessori school exists five minutes from my house in New Jersey.

But I am also an American who loves his country and cares deeply about all her children and their future, which of course will largely determine America’s future.

Our public education system needs radical transformation. Every child has gifts and talents that should be nurtured and we are wasting vast oceans of human ability and potential with our current system.

There are no silver bullets and I do not want to suggest that if every child went to a Montessori school, all of our educational challenges would be solved. Not every child is right for a Montessori school and Montessori is not right for every child.

But Montessori can be a great educational experience for many, many more American children and I urge all parents to spend two hours visiting a high-quality Montessori school, one that is certified by either the American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)-USA.

There are an increasing number of public and charter Montessori schools. If your children do not live near one, then organize with other parents to demand that this approach be offered as an option in your school district. Get in touch with people from other cities who have found a way to provide this option to their children in a public school setting.

Superwoman arrived over 100 years ago and showed us how extraordinary school can be for all types of children. It is up to all of us to carry on her legacy and work. America’s children deserve nothing less.
* * *
Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein is the father of three children that thrive at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, a Jewish Montessori school in NJ. He graduated from Harvard College and Columbia Law School and after a decade still finds satisfaction as a lawyer, though he sometimes wishes he could just take a month off and audit his daughters’ 4-6th grade upper elementary class where they are learning concepts like stellar nucleosynthesis and studying the history of marbles and creating their own marble games.

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GCP Interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, Pt. II: How to Pick the Right Schools For Your Child

In Part II of GCP’s interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, GCP asked Dr. Noguera for suggestions to help parents identify the best educational settings for their sons from pre-school to college.

Pre-school

Dr. Noguera noted that parents often look for the most highly structured, regimented pre-school program for their son, because they feel it is critical for their boy to learn to follow rules.  He suggests instead that parents should carefully consider their son’s personality and think about who their child is when deciding where he should start his formal education.  Dr. Noguera firmly believes that an open and less structured early learning environment, like the one found in Montessori classrooms, can benefit a child and  “develop [his] intrinsic motivation to learn”, thus creating a life long learner.  When trying to determine whether an unstructured Montessori environment or a more structured environment would be better for your son, Dr. Noguera noted that, “as a general rule, if the home environment is less structured, more structure is needed in school.” He cautioned that unstructured home environments are found at all socio-economic levels, so it is important to be honest about your home environment.

Elementary School

GCP asked Dr. Noguera his opinion of the push to educate boys of color in single sex schools.  He expressed skepticism that single sex schools are the best solution in all cases.  He noted that “our society has a lot of confusion about masculinity,” which can result in single sex schools focusing on teaching the boys rules to follow to become men.  He believes that the better schools, both single sex and co-ed, “are taking a looser approach [and creating] a space for [boys] to be themselves.”

Middle and High School

When selecting a middle or high school for our boys, Dr. Noguera cautioned parents not to consider schools that did not offer a nurturing environment and a solid support system.  Once these threshold attributes are met, he believes that the most important factor parents should consider is the school’s track record.  Parents should ask where the Black and Latino male students have gone on to school after graduation.  In addition, parents should be sure that the school does not engage in tracking (separating students by perceived ability).  Lastly, parents should make certain that the school has a wide range of extra-curricular activities available.

College Readiness

Dr. Noguera suggested that Black and Latino parents needed to broaden our definition of success when it comes to our children.  He implored parents to help our sons (and daughters) discover their passions, reminding us that the happiest adults are those who can make a living doing what they love.  Dr. Noguera encouraged parents to consider having our sons take a gap year between high school and college, noting that “life is not a race,” and that there are many pathways to success.

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Dr. Pedro Noguera to Parents: Pay Attention, Stay Involved

Dr. Pedro Noguera is the Peter Agnew Professor of Teaching and Learning at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.  Dr. Noguera is a nationally recognized expert on the best practices to narrow the achievement gap between African American and Latino students and White and Asian students.  He has worked both with high poverty urban schools and integrated suburban schools. In his book, The Trouble With Black Boys: …And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education (2008, Jossey-Bass), Dr. Noguera details how the daunting challenges facing our young men– from low expectations and even suspicion from teachers and other authority figures to negative peer pressure from other Black and Latino boys — can negatively impact their school performance.

GCP recently sat down with Dr. Noguera to gain his insights on how parents can best support our African American and Latino boys.  We began with a key GCP concern:  How should parents should respond if they see their adolescent boys suddenly putting less effort in their school work or adopting risky or self-destructive behavior? According to Dr. Noguera, parents need “to create a home environment that has consistent and clear messages stressing the importance of education. Dr. Noguera observed that there is an unhealthy tension in many families between an emphasis on sports and an emphasis on education.  He cautioned that parents have to work to maintain good relationships with their children as they enter adolescence. “[Parents also need to] give their sons the space to be themselves and to talk about themselves” he noted.  They need to move from a model of “control” to one of “influence.”  Dr. Noguera cautions parents that it is important to be aware and “try to remember what you were like at that age.”  Parents need to “pay attention, stay involved and set limits.”

Our discussion then turned to how parents can help their sons deal with teachers who may judge them unfairly. Dr. Noguera stressed that it is a parent’s responsibility to prepare his or her son for the real world.  He noted that while he frequently sees Black parents trying to shelter their children, it is important to be realistic and not try to protect them from experiencing any adversity at all.  According to Dr. Noguera, “we have to prepare our sons to deal with teachers, police and others that may judge them unfairly.” Moreover, we need to help our sons develop “strong, positive self images and good judgment”.  We also need to recognize that when our sons are one of few people of color in an academic setting they can experience a “heightened sense of difference and heightened scrutiny.”  Parents can counteract this by ensuring that our children spend time in all Black or Latino settings.  We also need to model behavior by letting our children observe us interacting with people from different ethnic and class backgrounds.  Dr. Noguera suggests that we bring our children with us into the workplace on occasion, so that they can see firsthand the “codeswitching” that successful Black and Latino adults engage in during the workday.  Most importantly, we have to stay connected to our sons and encourage them to de-brief and share their experiences with us.

Noting that class differences can lead to tensions between middle class Black boys and boys from less privileged backgrounds, GCP asked Dr. Noguera for suggestions of how to mitigate or resolve these differences.  Dr. Noguera noted that the recent dust-up between Grant Hill and Jalen Rose constituted a missed opportunity to explore the way class shapes perspectives.  Our children need to be aware that despite some obvious and visible successes, many Black Americans suffer from extreme levels of poverty and can harbor resentment of more fortunate Black people.  We need to teach our children that character is more important than material wealth and expose them at an early age to all kinds of people.  Dr. Noguera noted that sports and church offer natural opportunities to interact with Black people across the class spectrum.

A key point that Dr. Noguera returned to several times during our discussion is the importance of parents protecting the emotional health of our boys.  He believes that there is “a global crisis in masculinity” in response to the changing roles of men and women in society.    Our outmoded definition of men as strong, emotionless providers can hurt our boys, as this definition ignores the fact that boys and men have complex emotions, and that it is okay to experience and show them.  Above all, we need to recognize that our sons are individuals, and we must teach them to be sensitive and caring ones.

In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Pedro Noguera, we’ll share his perspective on how to find the best educational setting for your son.

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Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Helping Parents Raise Their Sons

Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. is a psychologist and school consultant who has made the study of boys and their development the focus of his career.  He is the author or coauthor of many books on this subject, including,  “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen” (with Teresa Barker, Ballantine, 2008), the New York Times bestseller, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”, (with Dan Kinlon, Ballantine, 1999)  “Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions about Raising Sons” (Ballantine, 2000) and “The Pressured Child: Freeing Our Kids from Performance Overdrive and Helping Them Find Success in School and Life”(with Teresa Barker, Ballantine, 2004).

Dr. Thompson has been talking with teachers, school administrators, and parents for years about the national problem of boy underachievement, which results in boys falling behind in school and fewer young men graduating from college.  In his latest book, “It’s A Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen”, Dr. Thompson offers his top ten reasons for the relative underachievement of boys in school, which include such interesting concepts as “Schools are hostile environments for boys”, as the demands for sitting still, paying sustained attention, and verbal production are tougher for boys to follow; and the notion that “Girls have been getting a more consistent, encouraging message from their parents and teachers for the last thirty years” since educators began focusing on the math and science gap between girls and boys in the seventies.

Also in “It’s a Boy!”,  Dr. Thompson includes “Insider Tips from Educators: What Teachers Want Parents to Know”.  Here he offers teacher’s suggestions to parents, collected over years of consulting, as to how parents can best support their son’s development in a school setting.  These thoughtful and practical suggestions are as follows:

  • Listen to your son.  There is value in almost everything a boy will tell you.
  • Don’t look over your son’s shoulder at every movement he makes and every change of circumstance that happens to him.
  • Be generous with honest praise.
  • Focus on his gifts and talents, instead of trying to create a boy in the image you want him to be.
  • Let your son grow.  Be patient with the process, the valuable steps of progress and failure that will shape him.
  • Don’t make excuses for your sonBoys desperately need to take ownership of their own lives.
  • Create realistic expectations, but let your son fail and figure out how to succeed on his own.
  • Model responsible communication for solving problems.  If your son complains of a bad teacher or course, contact the teacher in a collaborative way to learn more, and show your son how to engage in that process of fact-finding and, if necessary, respectful conflict resolution.
  • Set limits and stick to them.
  • Never say, “My son would never do that.”

GCP will be interviewing Dr. Thompson in the coming weeks.   We encourage you to take a look at his books and discover, if you don’t know already, the valuable resources that he provides.  If you have any questions you would like us to ask during our interview with Dr. Thompson, please include them with your comments on this post.

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Dr. Ronald Ferguson: What Parents Can Do

Are Black and Hispanic college educated parents doing all that they should to help their children learn?  Ask Dr. Ronald Ferguson, Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, and he will point to Table A8 in his book Towards Excellence With Equity: An Emerging Vision for Closing the Achievement Gap (Harvard Education Press, 2007), which justifies the question.   This table organizes the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading, math and science scores for 12th graders by race/ ethnicity and parental educational level.  Not surprisingly, children of every racial group do better on average when their parents have more education.  What is surprising is that in all subjects, Black and Hispanic students with the most highly educated parents (16 or more years of schooling) scored considerably lower on average than the white students in the same category.  In fact, the Black students’ scores correlated more closely with white students whose parents are only high school graduates, and in some instances with white students whose parents are high school dropouts.

Dr. Ferguson, an MIT trained economist who is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, has been traveling around the country visiting racially mixed public high schools, collecting data on the students and the school districts, and determining ways to close the racial achievement gap.  He has determined that closing the gap in U.S. schools involves skillful parenting along with transformative school reform.  While a large part of effective parenting is tied to the availability of resources to the parents, Ferguson’s research has shown that learning-at-home gaps appear at all socio-economic levels.  It further indicates that college educated Black parents seem on average to be less focused on having an academic environment at home (e.g., they have fewer books at home, spend less time reading, doing science projects and playing games with their children) than their white counterparts.  Why is this and what can we do about it?

“Parents are busy, it is hard to summon the mental energy to focus on this when you get home,” Dr. Ferguson suggested.  He believes to some extent it is also a lifestyle decision.  Parents are settled into routine ways of allocating time, effort, attention, and resources to activities, and “we don’t always know what it looks like to do things differently,” he notes.  What does it involve?  Dr. Ferguson explains, “ It is creating a rich intellectual lifestyle at home for your child from birth.  It includes reading to your child, talking about what you are reading, focusing on how much talking and interacting you are doing with your children.  It also includes paying attention to what you celebrate in terms of achievement, celebrating those ‘a-ha’ moments of intellectual discovery with your children.”

Dr. Ferguson acknowledges that the statistics showing a persistent achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students across socio-economic and parents’ education levels are disturbing, but believes that we cannot improve what we fear and refuse to confront.  He included the NAEP score chart in his book at the urging of Black and Hispanic parents, many of them college graduates, who heard about these statistics during his presentations across the country.  They were concerned about these findings and believed that their inclusion in the book would motivate others, as it did them, to find ways of responding. Dr. Ferguson does not suggest that enriching the intellectual life at home will instantly close the gap.  But he does believe there are things parents can do to make a difference.

He offers an example: “Most parents read to their three and four year old children.  But there are different ways to read to them.   Rather than read the book from cover to cover without stopping, you should have a mixture of reading and discussion during the reading session.  Asking questions like ‘What would you have done here?’ and ‘What do you think will happen next?’ engages the imagination and encourages higher order thinking.  Reading with a mix of easier questions (prompting your child to recall something you’ve already read) and the more engaging and challenging ones build comprehensive skills.”

Dr. Ferguson has compiled a list of “Research Based Tips for High Achievement Parenting” which he often distributes when talking to groups of parents.   The list, which can be downloaded here, should be required reading for all of us.  Ferguson warns, however, that a focus on the list must be preceded by the fundamental question: What is the goal for your child?  “Every child is not born to be a straight A student. Different kinds of children have different skills,” he notes.  “Life is a project, and a parent has to help each child figure out what his or her project will be.  If they have no project, and can’t come up with one, parents have to help them find one.”  The tips on his list are designed to help parents help their children become engaged, life long learners, as opposed to just helping them do well in school.

Dr. Ferguson and his wife have raised three boys, and he understands the special challenges Black boys face. “Along with their race and gender identity comes a certain expectation of swagger, a level of cool and dangerousness, a demeanor that ensures no disrespect. In addition to focusing on their schoolwork, Black boys in school are trying to figure out ‘How do I become a Black man?’  ‘How do I signal my authenticity?’  It is a lot for a young man to figure out.”

At the end of the day, Ferguson opines, “Kids learn from all the things they experience in life. They will be well prepared if they can spend high quality time on task across lots of different experiences”.  While he warns there is no magic bullet, his research has indicated that there are combinations of simple and more complex suggestions for parents to follow.  The conclusion of his chapter on “The Role of Parenting and School Reform” says it best: “In the end, developing and sustaining the collective will, skill and discipline of adults to effectively prioritize learning by children, including other people’s children, is the central challenge we face in a long-term, nationwide movement for building excellence with equity.”

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Dr. Tammy Mann: Raising Expectations

Dr. Tammy Mann, Executive Director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund, leads the Institute’s efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for African American children from preschool through college.  While many of the Institute’s programs are gender neutral, she is acutely aware of the need to focus on boys. “On UNCF campuses women outnumber men 2 to 1 on average.   UNCF is very concerned about this imbalance,” she notes.

One of the Institute’s current projects, which provides performance-based scholarships to low-income African American males, hopes to improve these statistics.  The Institute teamed up with MDRC, a social policy research organization, to offer scholarships tied to academic and attendance benchmarks to African American male college students with averages lower than traditional scholarship programs.  “The goals of this program go far beyond just providing additional money to these young men”, Dr. Mann explains. “The program is designed to change their mindset.  When they receive this scholarship money, they know that someone else is focused on them doing better than they are currently doing.  The expectations are being raised, which, in turn, helps these young men raise their expectations of themselves”.

Raising expectations is an important component of several Institute programs, including another aimed at increasing college matriculation and completion rates of low-income minority youth. In the Partnership for College Completion initiative, the Institute, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network and the Corporation for Enterprise Development  provide groups of 6th and 11th grade students and their families with a mix of financial incentives, financial education, college readiness skills and peer networking skills. Dr. Mann explains, “This program seeks to prepare entire families for the mindset of college. It is especially important for the children to know that their family is preparing for them to go to college, so that they can begin to see themselves as college students.”

While the Institute’s research and initiatives are primarily designed to provide support to those with limited means, the importance of raising students’ expectations cuts across economic lines.  “In fact, I would say that the values of working hard and staying focused could be even more difficult to impart to children when the parents have the ability to provide more things” she suggests.  “Parents can be so focused on what they are providing for their children, they may make the assumption that if children are given what they need (or what we think they need), the children will understand our expectations, establish their own, and the right trajectory will just evolve.  This is not always the case.  It is important for parents to think more specifically about what messages their children are getting from them.”  So how can parents make sure their children are getting the right message?  “We can help children appreciate the choices and sacrifices we are making for them and the importance of making those choices by having deliberate conversations with them in non-confrontational moments” she offers.  “This can help create the framework for our children to understand the importance of having and meeting expectations.”

With an 18 year old son and an 11 year old daughter, Dr. Mann has the perspective on these issues of a mother as well as a researcher.  Her son is a freshman at Morehouse with plans to pursue a dual degree in applied physics and aerospace engineering.  While he always had a strong academic focus, she worked hard to ensure that he understood his parents’ expectations and that he continued to raise his own.  When he became interested in science and math, she enrolled him in math and science enrichment summer programs.  She researched the merits of the International Baccalaureate Diploma program his high school offered, and supported his completion of this program.  Even with a willing pupil, it wasn’t easy.  “It takes a lot of work—you have to look around to see what is out there and make sure that your children are able to take advantage of whatever opportunities exist.  Knowing your children, and being tuned in and attentive to what will spark their imaginations are key.  It can be so tough for parents because regardless of how much work you put in there are no guarantees of success.”   Equally important for parents, especially moms, is managing their own expectations, in order to get to the point where they can feel as if they have done enough.  “The balance between trying to do all you can to support your sons and knowing when you have done enough is very difficult to find”.

Raising our sons’ expectations, managing our own—we need all the help we can find to be up to the task.  The research that Dr. Mann and her team are conducting identifies issues and offers approaches that should be of interest to us all.  More information about the work that they are doing can be found at http://www.uncf.org/fdpri/.

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