The Dreamkeepers

The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children: Ladson-Billings, Gloria

Book:  The Dreamkeepers, by Gloria Ladson-Billings

This is a classic, and I really enjoyed it.  At just 156 pages (minus a second-edition afterward, and a lengthy appendix), it’s not long, and it’s also written in that hard-to-achieve balance between academically authoritative and literate / accessible.  I’ll skip the book’s background and just say that I have been intrigued by culturally relevant / responsive / sustaining pedagogy for a few years now, and as always, I wanted to go back to the source, which Ladson-Billings, and especially this book, are.  I wasn’t disappointed.

This book takes as its aim a focus on teachers who have success with African American children.  The book’s main thesis is that, while there is not necessarily a single “right” way to improve student achievement, there are important commonalities among the ten or so teachers’s approaches that Ladson-Billings profiles.  

The first commonality that I noticed was that all of the teachers were career educators working in regular public schools.  There was none of the glorification of the “hero” teacher, the white savior marched in from the Ivy League to improve the lives of inner city black children.  In fact, even though this book was written before the advent of TFA, Ladson-Billings’s work does offer an implicit critique of this model.  For Ladson-Billings, experience matters.  The least experienced teacher that Ladson-Billings profiles has 12 years of experience.  The most experienced has 40.  This becomes one of the explicit takeaways that Ladson-Billings offers: it takes time to develop into a master teacher.

Although each of these educators seems to have a different style, each of these styles seems to be the product of a great deal of inquiry, and to be explicitly tailored toward student learning.  One teacher is a veteran of the Bay Area Writing Project, the origination of the now-famous National Writing Project, and has shaped her classroom into a Nancie Atwell-style workshop.  Another teacher employs a more formal approach, incorporating phonics instruction.  Each one of these teachers has clearly studied a variety of techniques and approaches, and each teacher’s methods come across as the product of a great deal of thought, experimentation, and practice.  Again, this is a book celebrating real, professional career teachers — not heroes, martyrs, or saints.

And not only is it important to spend man years honing your craft, but you must understand your students.  This does not mean just understanding their individual predilections, but understanding their broader communities.  Education is not a simple science, like dentistry.  It’s heavily dependent on local context, in part because educators are not — whether they like it or not — sole agents in the educational process, a fact that it has taken me some time to learn, and which I believe many organizations that would like to takeover teaching (such as TFA) never have.  Educators instruct in anything but isolation; we work in tandem with formal institutions, such as churches, social service agencies, and community centers, along with less formalized institutions, such as families, neighborhoods, and the broader cultural mores.

Unfortunately, too many teachers of African American students discount their abilities.  Rather than potential, they see deficit.  Rather than enthusiasm, they see misbehavior.  Instead of resilience in the face of obstacles, they see indifference to academic responsibilities and even laziness.  When teachers do not understand or appreciate the communities they serve, their ability to foster student growth is severely limited.

But again, this is not a book about miracle working.  It’s a book about liking and understanding your students.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the women profiled in this book live and are active in the community in which they teach.  They attend church with their students’ families, buy groceries in the same store, observe children and their parents in multiple non-classroom settings.  One woman describes basing her expectations of students on the impressive responsibilities they assume within their religious community.  Others are informal mentors outside of school (girl scout leaders, Sunday school teachers).  The point is, these teachers do not dismiss the students’ culture in part because it is their own culture too.  They understand what motivates these children because they know these children on their own terms.  And they know how to work with student families because they know these student families.

This is not really a book that talks about educational goals, it’s really a book about means, and the approach that Ladson-Billings highlights is what she calls Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.  The idea behind it is that teachers must understand their students’ cultural background, respect it, and must figure out how to use this understanding to help these students achieve in the classroom.  

What seemed different to me was that these teachers did not seem to be appreciating these students out of a sense of pity, or out of a political desire to appear to be charitable, but out of an authentic belief that these students had potential.  

The heart of the book to me was when Ladson-Billings juxtaposes the beliefs of her profiled teachers regarding their students (and her own beliefs) with those of staff members in a primarily white school district.  Ladson-Billings writes, “The (white district) teachers seem to see only deficit and need.  I admire the resilience and strength of the students who continue to come to school and participate, even when their intellect and culture are regularly questioned” (99).

Although this book is very much about African American students, I found myself thinking of many students here in Vermont, a place where the cultural disconnect is not so much racial as class-based.  Poor students find themselves at odds with the school system, in part because it’s often difficult for middle class teachers to appreciate these students’ strengths.  It is tempting for many teachers to dismiss students and their families for perceived deficits: not encouraging learning at home, not appearing to value education, not teaching their children the importance of hard work and dedication.

But Ladson-Billings has a great passage that underscores the approach that real, professional teachers (like those she profiles) should always take:

“I raise these points not in an attempt to absolve parents of their responsibility toward their children’s education but to encourage teachers to look more broadly and carefully at the causes of the behaviors they see, to develop multiple perspectives, and to make the commitment to working with their students, regardless of parental participation (or lack thereof)” (145).  

This, to me, is an incredibly important takeaway, and it’s an attitude I have come to share, particularly since having a child of my own now.  Parenting is incredibly hard.  We are all doing our best, and there are surely times for all of us when our parenting decisions must look to outsiders like laziness or indifference.

And not only have I become a parent in the last few years, but I now live, like Ladson-Billings’s teachers, within my school district.  This has led me to understand the community in an entirely new way.  

For example, sometimes when I am driving my son to daycare, I see a man getting into his truck with his own son at a house at the bottom of my road.  His truck is old and rusted, his home a small trailer, his life with his son, I have come to believe, one shared just between the two of them.  This man takes his son to daycare at the same time as I do.  Sometimes I think: If I am so challenged by parenting (I who have a new car and house and a supportive spouse), I cannot imagine how it must be for this man.  I think about him often, and about that son of his, when I see my own students, who live in similar trailers, with similar single parents, in an entirely new way than I did just a few years ago.

Ladson-Billings’s point, though, is that compassion isn’t enough.  As a grown-up, professional teacher, it’s incumbent upon you to understand this child’s circumstances and cultural background, and to understand what strengths this child brings, to see the latent potential within him, and to understand the pedagogical approaches necessary to create the conditions for success for him in the classroom.

Again, that is very different from mere charity or pity.  It’s a warm-demandingness.  It’s the casting of a discerning professional eye over each student and a tracing out of what’s going on with each child.  It’s the same sort of understanding that allows a teacher to see misbehavior not as a personal affront but as the symptom of an individual’s complex responses to his situation.  It’s almost a psychological understanding, an understanding of behaviorism in children, of what really makes a kid tick.  Professional appraisal in this way is non-judgmental.  It’s clinical, professional.  That’s what I love about this book: Ladson-Billings isn’t selling shortcuts that anyone can just waltz in and do in the inner city.  Nor is she selling some kind of virtue-signaling compassion for the oppressed.  She’s selling the work of professional teachers who choose not to dismiss, but to carefully understand.

Now, any time you are talking about anything having to do with “relevance” in education, John Dewey is probably hovering not far off.  Ladson-Billings never mentions him, perhaps in part because Dewey never wrote explicitly about making work relevant to student “culture,” but passages from The Child and the Curriculum and Democracy and Education kept springing into my head as I read this book.  The whole idea of Deweyian pragmatism (best expressed in his chapter on aims in education in Democracy) is the notion of the teacher truly understanding where a student is coming from, and then setting challenging short-term aims, calibrating and recalibrating, and constantly checking a student’s progress toward those aims.  Dewey talks in Child about “psychologizing” the curriculum — taking whatever the subject discipline is and, rather than presenting it as a dead, logically organized body of knowledge to be memorized, a teacher must find the best way to recreate its discovery so that students could have the experience of learning it, as if discovering it for the first time.  The careful monitoring required, which Dewey compares to a farmer judging his crops, understanding soil conditions, weather conditions, and nourishment, requires an understanding of, as Dewey reminds us, the crops themselves, and what they innately are capable of.  Ladson-Billings’s reminder is that when schools close off the range of acceptable strengths that students may demonstrate, ultimately teachers cannot psychologize or interpret the curriculum in appealing ways.  

The revelation for me, dealing with poorer, rural white students has been Dewey’s attempt at a higher synthesis between the Aristotelian distinction between thinking (the intellect) and doing (in the case of education, in Democracy, vocational education).  Too many teachers dismiss vocational education as being tangential to the real goals of school, but Dewey points to a kind of higher synthesis that combines the two in profitable ways.

My own experience as a teacher, in fact, bears this out.  Although I succeeded in a traditional academic setting, it took the discovery of a practical career (not a physical job, but certainly the work of a practitioner) in order to give my intellectual aspirations a real starting point.  This is the old Deweyian notion of teaching students math through hooking them into a project repairing a car.  It’s a higher synthesis . . .  but in practice, it’s a pretty big mindset shift for a lot of teachers, one that’s as simple as not looking down at students’ interest in vocational learning, but instead identifying their strengths through this inquiry process, honoring them, and then turning that understanding toward positive achievement and learning, within the vision of creating happy, engaged citizens.

This is what I found myself thinking about while reading Ladson-Billings’s book: the simple mindset shift between dismissing certain students based on our perceptions of their race, class, or circumstance versus really understanding these differences, valuing them, and using them smartly to our advantage.

There crux of the book, of course, is that this process is doubly daunting for new teachers: you have to understand pedagogy first, and then you also have to understand your students’ cultural backgrounds.  You have to understand the community that you work in.  For many of the teachers in this book, that’s not hard because they live and in some cases grew up in the community.  But for many of us who end up teaching in different places than we are used to, it can take a long time to understand a place and the people who live there.  A classic example is Scout’s teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Caroline, the young middle class woman who does not understand the characteristics of the various families, or really of the town itself, immediately makes several major blunders, even as she is gently enlightened by the narrator, who at a very young age still possesses a kind of local “knowledge” that the teacher does not.

But this is the perennial challenge of teaching that Ladson-Billings’s book brings up: You have to know your students, deeply — not just their academic abilities, but their cultures, too.  This knowledge will always be easier for teachers who are naturally inquisitive and who see their profession as one of a John Hattie-style feedback from student to teacher.  But it will also be easier for teachers who are more like their students than not — particularly when they’re alike culturally.  It’s just easier to teach students who are really younger versions of you because you understand them better.  As teaching goes, that’s not exactly a high degree of difficulty.  

But at the same time, of course, as I mentioned, each of these teachers profiled here stands out even among many other teachers who also grew up in these same neighborhoods.  The reasons partly lie, again, behind their inquiring nature, their professionalism, and their innate belief that students can learn.  And herein lies another paradox of teaching itself: the more you learn about students’ backgrounds and how to teach them, the more you become convinced (I believe) that they can learn.  When you’re first starting, especially with students whose backgrounds you are ignorant of, it can sometimes seem daunting to imagine teaching them the mysteries of literature or algebra.  But the more you learn — not only about what makes them tick, but also about your discipline, the distinct steps involved in mastering those novels or those equations, the more you can carefully “psychologize” (in Dewey’s words) the curriculum for these students.  This is the riddle of Dewey’s apparent neglect of subject matter.  This is what he means (I think).  He’s not abandoning content or traditional academics in favor of child-centered nonsense; he’s saying that teachers must have such a clear understanding of the components and of the ins and outs of their content knowledge that they can be malleable in teaching this content to a variety of students.

Here’s another basic issue in teaching:  The young will always have a different kind of “culture” than their adult teachers, and it’s incumbent upon us to constantly try to learn about this gap.  Ladson-Billings shows several of these teachers doing just that.  One wonderful scene has an open-minded teacher printing out the lyrics to a classic early 90s rap song and asking the students to explain the cultural references to her, even as she pushes them to analyze it as an important text.  (The artist?  M.C. Hammer!).

Another perennial issue is the balance between, yes, understanding the local community, but on the other hand, of bringing the perspective of an outsider, someone who can introduce students to a broader world beyond their local environment.  In a sense, teachers must have a great degree of “local” knowledge *and* “foreign” knowledge — the broader world into which they can introduce students to possibilities beyond their communities or neighborhoods.  This is another form of the debate about student interest — hooking students enough by understanding their personal passions, but leading them upward and outward to more and greater possibilities.  It’s really the old Platonic cave metaphor.

Anyway, I really enjoy this book, and it’s a great antidote to so many books written since then.  Culturally Relevant Pedagogy makes a lot of sense to me, and it makes me reflect even further on how, even when you remove race from the equation, there are still so many different “cultures” even within an apparently homogenous community; the more teachers can understand each one, the better.  

I haven’t even tackled the question of strengths-based approaches versus deficit-based approaches, either.  That’s certainly part of this book.  So is the notion of critical pedagogy, which is another school of thought that Ladson-Billings seems to be associated with.  I’m interested about the link from this book to that other topic.  She alludes briefly to it in this book, but the connection isn’t particularly strong.  

Either way, this post is already too long.  Suffice to say, I think this book is a classic.