George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

If I had to change something about higher education that would be achievement gap. Eradicating this gap in education progress of USA between urban students and suburban or low-income students will increase the access to higher education for students.

Anna.'s picture

I think the article was interesting. It shows how much there is to be done about encouraging students to stay in school despite their cultural differences. The students feeling left out could succeed, if there are people giving them support and encouragement. It helps when people believe in a group of students.

Cory H's picture

This article raises some great points and I think they would be of great use for any school. It always saddens me that every child doesn't feel safe and free to learn at school for whatever reason.

The three points in this article would be a great first step for the American education system to use to become a safe haven for all students.

Shakir's picture

I agree with just about everything you said in this article. I really feel like a lot of schools don't care if students fail or pass now as long as they're getting their checks every month. I feel like if they did care about the students they would use way different methods on how they taught and how they speak/relate to students as you said as well.

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