Confusing Scholastic Achievement and Learning

Over the past few years, no writer has taught me more than Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Most likely because his background is sooooo different from my own.

And now, his essay “Acting French,” which explores his experiences as a 30-something man in a French immersion class full of college kids, is giving me new inspiration as a mathematics teacher.

I had never been a high-achieving student. Indeed, during my 15 or so years in school, I was remarkably low-achieving student.
There were years when I failed the majority of my classes. This was not a matter of my being better suited for the liberal arts than sciences. I was an English minor in college. I failed American Literature, British Literature, Humanities, and (voilà) French. The record of failure did not end until I quit college to become a writer. My explanation for this record is unsatisfactory: I simply never saw the point of school. I loved the long process of understanding. In school, I often felt like I was doing something else.
Like many black children in this country, I did not have a culture of scholastic high achievement around me. There were very few adults around me who’d been great students and were subsequently rewarded for their studiousness. The phrase “Ivy League” was an empty abstraction to me. I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed. These observations cannot be disconnected from the country I call home, nor from the government to which I swear fealty.

If you haven’t read Coates, you should try this one. This essay knocks down many wrong ideas, and only one of which I will mention in this post: The idea that black kids mock their studious black peers as “acting white.” When I started teaching in public schools, this idea was conventional wisdom. I still hear it from teachers and non-teachers. Coates takes a battleaxe to it:

The Baltimore of my youth was a place where white people rarely ventured. It would not have occurred to anyone I knew to associate reading with white people because very few of us knew any. And I read everything I could find: A Wrinkle In Time, David Walker’s Appeal, Dragon’s of Autumn Twilight, Seize The Time, Deadly Bugs and Killer Insects, The Web of Spider-Man. I had a full set of Childcraft. I loved the volume Make and Do. I had a full set of World Book encyclopedias. I used to pick up the fat “P” edition, flip to a random page, and read for hours. When I was just 6 years old, my mother took me to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Garrison Boulevard and enrolled me in a competition to see which child could read the most books. I read 24 that summer, far outdistancing the competition. My mother smiled. The librarian gave me candy. I was very proud. For carrying books in black neighborhoods, in black schools, around black people, I was called many things—nerd, bright, doofus, Malcolm, Farrakhan, Mandela, sharp, smart, airhead. I was told that my “head was too far in the clouds.” I was told that I was “going to do something one day.” But I was never called white. The people who called me a nerd were black. The people who said I was going to “do something one day” were also black.

For a long time, I’ve sensed that something in the culture of scholastic achievement can distract a student from really actually thinking. This is what I’ll be focusing on this year: making sure that as teacher, I am encouraging actual thought, trying to keep my students from being distracted by the details of notetaking & memorization.

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