After decades of educational attainment gains among African American and Latino students, American educators find themselves in the midst of a major retraction of many of those gains for the students who can least afford it. In an ideal world, we'd just add curriculum to young minds and stir for stellar academic results. But we all know that changing the life trajectory of our children is never that easy.
Increasing the percentage of students of color who graduate with a four-year degree from 35% to 100% won't happen through pedagogy alone. There are things that we must do to transform the culture of our classrooms so that, in the minds of our young people, college is transformed from an unlikely possibility to inevitable probability. Following is my power list for the college-centric classroom, which shows how you can make a difference for your students:
1) High Expectations
In a high-stakes testing climate like the one many of today's teachers contend with, it's easy to think that the related rhetoric signifies high expectations. The exact opposite is true. Overemphasis on testing can put pressure on educators to focus on the lowest common denominator of academic standard. Look for ways to encourage critical thinking by introducing advanced concepts. Create opportunities for students to solve problems in small groups. Offer frequent opportunities for extra credit whenever a new concept or idea needs reinforcement or captures the imagination of your students. Teach above the curriculum whenever you have the opportunity to do so. Be honest with yourself about your biases, and always demand more from your students.
2) Share Your College Story
It seems simple, but the best way to build authentic trusting relationships with your students is to share a bit of who you are. Why did you go to college? Did you face any obstacles? What did you get out of college academically and socially? What did college teach you about yourself? Tangible examples are always helpful. Display a copy of your degree in your classroom. Put up a banner from your alma mater. Everyday these visual images can serve as a reminder to your students of what you expect from them and what you believe is possible for their lives.
3) College Day, Week or Month
My daughter's middle school hosted an annual College Week -- I thought it was brilliant. College week meant a relaxed dress code where teachers came to work dressed in college paraphernalia and explored new ways to share facts about their alma maters through their lesson planning. I was given the opportunity to volunteer with students in all three grades. We played College Scattegories; teams of students were given a letter and a set time to come up with as many college names as they could beginning with that letter. Ask students to interview college graduates at your school, in their families, neighborhoods or houses of worship. Have students select a college to research who founded it and why, what academic and sports programs it's known for, and who are its most notable graduates?
4) Engage the Community
If you happen to be teaching in a low-income community, you may be under the assumption that there aren't any community resources in your area. The fact is that there are a host of religious and nonprofit organizations in most minority communities supporting families to overcome the challenges they face. Working in partnership with your school's administration and parent organization, reach out to local entities that can connect your students with college graduates of color through volunteer activities, pen pal programs and college awareness programs. Organizations like the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF) provide students with access to a host of current college students and college graduates through our various programs.
5) Tour a College
There is nothing like a college tour to make the goal of college seem more real. If you're working with elementary and middle school students, most admissions offices won't host tour groups for students that young. At HEAF we've been able to successfully engage students of color on various campuses through their Offices of Student Life. Existing student organizations generally jump at the chance to take younger students around and to talk with them about their experiences on campus.
All of these suggestions should be punctuated with an age appropriate checklist displayed in an obvious place in your classroom that reflects the kinds of academic and social skills students will need in order to be successful college students. As the class reaches various milestones in learning and community building, be sure to celebrate.
If possible, get your colleagues in on the college action so that each grade has explicit academic and youth development objectives related to future college success. And be sure to share that list with parents at school-wide events, via email, on your school's Facebook page and anywhere families are likely to get their information about new school initiatives. Raising the bar is possible when everyone is working towards the same goal.