Education Trends

The American Promise to Our Young Students

January 24, 2014
Photo credit: Orrie King (copyright POV Films)
The Brewster family

My last piece about the anniversary of Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers started a bit of controversy on social media, mostly around the relevance of the album to the work we do as educators. The thrust of the piece was mostly comical, because who thinks an organization like Edutopia would embrace the RZA, the GZA and the ODB with such fervor? Yet, in the piece, I left a few gems about taking classrooms to the next level, especially with students who might otherwise feel disengaged from subjects that don't often reflect their personal experiences.

If we don't find a way to connect with children whose culture is different from ours, how do we expect to teach them at all?

Resistance and Empathy

The movie American Promise follows two young African-American boys making their way through an elite private school in New York City. The name of the institution, while mentioned, is not important. Watching the movie, we see not only the triumphs and trials of two boys struggling to keep up in a mostly white environment, but we also see them combat the cultural, academic and economic battles so many of us face daily. With poignant and simple language, they're able to deconstruct the complexities of race, class and education from the point of view of the least advantaged of us. They face resistance from the private school, and also from their own friends and families, each of whom views these boys through their personal lens.

As someone who empathizes with the boys, it was daunting for me at times to carry the burden of explaining to others about a way of life they weren't used to, including the things we didn't have, the books we didn't read, or the perceptions we came up against on a daily basis. Adults, especially those who haven't had to deal with similar stereotypes, are often at a loss as to how to address this. It takes a lot out of adults to extend themselves towards empathy, but for the students who see themselves as "different," whether culturally, economically or otherwise, they need us to step outside of ourselves.

3 Steps Toward Fulfilling the Promise

The solutions are myriad and local, but they boil down to three elements: support, involve and check in.


In schools, the best way to support our children is to assume that they can, and it is our job to help them find out how they can. Too many of our students suffer from adults' lack of expectation from them, and that's how they fall through the cracks. Sometimes our institutions aren't built to handle the diversity (and not just racial diversity, either) that ensures all students can and will succeed. Yet we ought to make an effort to reach out to students that have the academic potential, but don't see themselves reflected in their curriculum or the general student body.


We should involve as many students as possible in the school culture. It usually starts with a club or sport, but it can be as simple as meeting with a group of students with similar concerns. For example, if we see a group of students who identify openly as LGBT, we might ask them to create an affinity club or have the principal meet with them about any pertinent issues. Involvement will depend on the students' level of interest, but just getting them involved indicates to others that, yes, every student in the building belongs. Everyone matters.

Check In

Once a school has outlets for everyone in the student body, sometimes staff can feel like they've done enough. When things get too quiet, it's good to check in and make sure that everything is going well. For example, I might have a student who got into a few fights outside of school recently. If I meet with him or her once, that helps, but if I make a point of regular check-ins, that student knows he or she can depend on me. Checking in on a regular basis not only helps the students -- it also helps the staff get a sense of what's happening in their building.

Of course, what this looks like will differ from school to school. I see the need for more conversation around how it will look, especially in situations like American Promise. And the term "promise" works two ways. In the first, we understand that these students show some promise, or an aptitude for the material. In the second, our country ostensibly has committed to providing access to a quality education for all via Brown vs. Board of Education and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. As close as we've come at times in the United States, we haven't quite fulfilled the promises we made to our predecessors. How do we do better?

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