+ “Whatever It Takes” — Poverty and Learning in Harlem

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Says Jay Matthews in a Washington Post review, Paul Tough’s book about Geoffrey Canada and his quest to effect major change in education is one of the best books ever written about how poverty influences learning — and vice versa.

Tough is an editor at the New York Times Magazine, and he has written about poverty for several years.   Consequently, the book is filled with a remarkable amount of material and deep reporting.

 “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” (Houghton Mifflin) is his first book.  It is about the man who wants to send an entire Harlem generation to college and to lives of creativity and substance.

The eldest participants in Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone have not graduated from high school yet.  The children in his Harlem Gems preschool and Promise Academy elementary school still have years to go before they start college.

The infants who are part of the young families attending his Baby College parenting classes have even longer to wait.

Tough tells the story from the point of view of parents, students, teachers, principals and wealthy funders, as well as that of Canada himself.

Canada is a former teacher who turned himself into a successful educational entrepreneur after growing up very poor in the south Bronx.

His brothers and he were raised by a single mother — a common experience for impoverished children — but Mary Canada had been a bright child.  She had gone to college for two years before her family ran out of money.

And that taste of higher education made all the difference in the stories she told her children.  She knew they weren’t doomed to lead a bleak life.

Tough is adept at explaining complicated research.  He reports on the work of child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R Risley, who studied 42 Kansas City families. 

Hart and Risley discovered that by age 3 on average the children of professional parents had vocabularies of about 1100 words, while the children of parents on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words.

Those endowed with more language were not born with more word power.

Over two years, the researchers visited each family once a month for an hour and recorded every word spoken in the homes during that time.  The only significant difference was the middle-class kids were hearing three times as many words as the poor kids.

Tough allows Canada to reflect often on the difference between his upbringing and the upbringing of his young son in suburban Long Island. 

At the Harlem Children’s Zone we meet a variety of people at every stage in the transformation process:  teen parents Cheryl Waite and Victor Boria and their infant son at the Baby College; earnest teacher Monica Lucente at Harlem Gems; bright (but troublesome) middle school students Ymani Jones and Julien Coutourier at the Promise Academy.

Also showcased are a legion of specialists who offer Children’s Zone families support outside of school — the support that is so crucial to keeping children in school.

Tough’s book is vivid, clear and honest; honest about cultural and racial divisions.

He writes

White America didn’t come up very often at Baby College, but when it did, it was regarded with a certain distance.  The idea wasn’t to adopt middle-class white culture, or even to imitate it — it was more like poaching an idea or two, borrowing some tricks and customs, like adapting a recipe from a foreign cuisine.

 Canada himself was open and honest.  During one of his worst weeks, just before he had to acknowledge publicly that his hopes for achievement gains were not going to be realized, Tough says, “He called me on the phone and, in a subdued voice, said he thought I should probably come up to the school next day, as it might be useful for my book.”

The book doesn’t end with trumpets and violins; Canada doesn’t defeat poverty in Harlem.

But the preschool and elementary school show promise.  Tough makes a vital point, as do other educators, that if these early-years programs can be expanded, there might be less need for hero teachers working 10-hour days that we so often find in the highest-performing middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.

This is an honest, but hopeful, book.

source: Jay Mathews article in the Washington Post on 12/19/08.  www.washingtonpost.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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