Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. XIII: Whatever it takes

Black people need to expand their vocabulary and read to their kids more. They also need to be nicer parents.

That’s the upshot of the book “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” written by Paul Tough. Tough’s 2008 book, equal parts history, profile, science and sociology, is the story of a remarkable man, Geoffrey Canada, and his ambitious project to break poor black kids out of poverty.

In my first installment of this diary, I noted that Karen, my “Foundations of Education” professor, told the class we did not have to read “Whatever it Takes,” a book that had been assigned to another class. In the college bookstore “Whatever it Takes” was stacked near books that were on our syllabus, and some students had mistakenly bought it. Karen told them they could “take it back” to the bookstore.

That was unfortunate, because “Whatever it Takes” should be required reading for anyone, like me, who is studying to become a teacher.

It tells the story Geoffrey Canada, a remarkable man who is attempting to change the education system in Harlem by changing the entire culture of poor black America. Specifically, he wants to change the culture of parenting in the black community.

Canada is an African-American educator and activist who in the 1980s and ’90s came across statistics that changed the way he looked at the problems of poor black people. One study revealed the massive discrepancy between the vocabularies of poor people and everyone else, and how this affected everything from taking a test to doing well in a job interview. In the first few years of life, babies from poor families hear far fewer words than whites, and what they hear is often negative. Hearing fewer words, and negative words, was having a physiological effect on the brains of poor children—it actually affects brain development and brain chemistry. Infants of all races who are read to and treated with love, support and kindness do better on tests, in conversation, in job interviews, etc.

Lack of this kind of nurturing, Canada believes, kneecaps poor kids before they even get to the first grade. The liberals are wrong that racism and economics were why blacks did not get ahead—after all, massive social spending and economic booms have not changed the black unemployment rate in the last 40 years. And conservatives are mistaken in claiming that character or IQ is destiny. How could it be, if IQ is malleable in the earliest years of life? What matters is how a child is spoken to and treated in the first few years of life. Change that, and you may be able to change everything. Paul Tough, the terrific journalist who wrote “Whatever it Takes,” sums it up:

“However you measure parenting, middle-class parents tend to do it very differently from poor parents—and the path they follow, in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages, both cognitive and non cognitive: a bigger vocabulary, better brain chemistry, a more assertive attitude. As [researcher Annette Lareau] pointed out, kids from poor families may be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite—but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.”