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Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. – book reviews

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, By Lisa Delpit, New Press, New York, NY, 1995, 216 pp. $21.00 hardcover

“…what we need to bring to our schools [are] experiences that are so full of the wonder of life, so full of connectedness, so embedded in the context of our communities, so brilliant in the insights that we develop and the analyses that we devise, that all of us, teachers and students alike, can learn to live lives that leave us truly satisfied.”

–“Other People’s Children”

It was Rudyard Kipling who so adroitly observed that the story of the hunt would differ drastically “when lions learn to write.” And so the tables are aptly and brilliantly turned in this collection of eight essays and a speech by an African-American, Harvard-trained, MacArthur Prize-winning educator who is the current Benjamin E. Mays Professor of Urban Educational Leadership at Georgia State University. Not since Sonia Nieto’s “Affirming Diversity: The Social Policy Contexts of Multicultural Education” has such an illuminating, instructive probe of the salient issues of diversity and schooling been offered. Not since Shirley Brice Heath’s “Ways with Words” has the subject been treated with such candor and cogency.

“Other People’s Children” grabs the metaphoric hunter — in this case, pedagogy that assails and represses the language and learning of students of color — and refuses to let it go until it hollers “Uncle!” In the process, Lisa Delpit also stalks and subdues the critical factors that too many mainstream educators choose to ignore when the pupils before them differ from them — namely, when those students are “other people’s children,” that is, non-white boys and girls.

Delpit’s reflections and recommendations are well grounded in both theory and practice. As a sociolinguist and educational anthropologist, she brings a keen and often introspective analytical bent to this volume. She also brings the benefit of two decades of experience in classrooms peopled by an incredibly diverse array of teachers and students, in Native Alaskan schools, in culturally responsive preschools in Papua New Guinea, in resegregated schools in Inner-City, U.S.A., and in vastly different education settings.

In section one, “Controversies Revisited,” Delpit deftly sets forth and defends her evocative ideas. The book’s second essay, “The Silenced Dialogue,” first appeared in the Harvard Educational Review in 1988 as a response to critics of the lead essay, “Skills and Other Dilemmas of a Progressive Black Educator.” For the “Skills” article, published in “HER” in 1986, Delpit garnered a lion’s share of reproach from advocates of whole language and writing process instruction who claimed she was disparaging these avant-garde modes of teaching and condoning oppressive, rote- and- drill-based methods for students of color. Delpit writes in her introduction about the harsh reproof “Skills” drew when it first appeared, recalling a time when analyses and conclusions such as hers would have been maligned as a matter of course — when educational power-wielders would have dismissed her views as intellectual impudence on the part of an African-American teacher. Apparently unbowed, she forges ahead by including these articles in this book and complementing them with another reprinted piece, “Language Diversity and Learning,” which takes a comprehensive look at the operative dissonances in language use and form in multicultural classrooms.

Section two, titled “Lessons from Home and Abroad: Other Cultures and Communities,” presents two articles that flesh out the vision of schools Delpit offers in the opening quote. In these, Delpit draws on her international experiences to illustrate two conflicts whose resolutions are critical to efforts aimed at maximizing the educational potential of students and communities of color. These conflicts are (1) the importance of context versus the decontextualizing rituals of mainstream schooling (discussed in “`Hello, Grandfather’: Lessons from Alaska”), and (2) the significance of human connectedness versus the dehumanizing, heritage-destroying processes, contexts and content of mainstream education — particularly literacy instruction (in “The Vilis Tokples Schools of Papua New Guinea”).

These articles clearly reveal that Delpit’s profound, yet practical, advice is seasoned by, and synthesized from, the viewpoints of educators of color such as those whose perspectives she shares in the third article in this section (“Teachers’ Voices: Rethinking Teacher Education for Diversity”). In this last piece, Delpit — who has earned a reputation for fearlessly conveying the perspectives of teachers of color, even and especially when they dispute the popular wisdom of the mainstream — confronts the mounting American dilemma of racial/ethnic disparities in the teacher-student population.

While one does not have to be a sharpshooter to understand that power imbalances exist in the American classroom, particularly in the increasingly diverse urban setting of the public schools, one would have to be completely off-target not to realize that Blacks and other people of color often get the short end of the stick when it comes to commanding and exercising power in educational settings. This is where “Other People’s Children” stands out as especially valuable and thought-provoking reading.

The thrust of Delpit’s argument is that the power imbalances resulting from historical racial, ethnic, class, and gender conflicts influence the quality and quantity of learning and teaching that goes on in schools. In thoughtful, measured terms, she explains how students, teachers and parents from disenfranchised groups develop various and often ingenious means of resisting and subverting dominant-group incursions into their ways of being and knowing (i.e., code-switching). She also provides ample evidence of the ways in which dominant-group school personnel, policies and practices misinterpret the knowledge base and stifle the potentials of non-whites, while ultimately missing the mark in their assessments of these “others.” What makes this work so compelling, however, is that it provides so much in the way of corrective actions and responses to help redirect educational efforts in our nation’s increasingly multicultural schools.

The challenge of diversity and the skills and mindsets necessary to welcome it positively are the foci of the articles in section three: “Cross-cultural Confusions in Teacher Assessment,” “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse,” and “Education in a Multicultural Society” (the latter being a speech delivered as the 12th-annual Charles H. Thompson Lecture of the Howard University School of Education in 1991). Delpit counsels far more earnest sensitivity, even (God forbid!) humility, on the part of those comprising the predominant group of present and future teachers — that is, white women — in accommodating their growing numbers of students of color However, she also cautions educators of al! persuasions to take full heed of the dangers of ethnocentric arrogance in their classroom endeavors, primarily the resultant distancing of communities of learners into alienated groups of “others.” As Delpit writes:

“This combination of power and otherness is what this book is all about. Black, white, Indian, Hispanic or Asian, we must all find some way to come to terms with these two issues. When we teach across the boundaries of race, class or gender — indeed when we teach at all — we must recognize and overcome the power differential, the stereotypes and the other barriers which prevent us from seeing each other. Those efforts must drive our teacher education, our curriculum development, our instructional strategies, and every aspect of the educational enterprise. Until we can see the world as others see it, all the educational reforms in the world will come to naught.”

“Other People’s Children” will undoubtedly be a hard bullet to bite for many mainstream white teachers, used to having full sway in determining the path of the proverbial hunt for knowledge and power. It will probably also be tough tracking for those who buy uncritically into that mainstream. Yet, for all readers, this book is an inescapably enlightening and empowering call to a different kind of hunting expedition. It is reasoned, seasoned lion-talk that invites understanding, encourages dialogue, and provides both repentant and resistive hunters with plausible avenues for redemption. Lisa Delpit’s insights lend so much to demystifying the discourses and realities of modern-day multicultural schooling that one would have to be almost blind not to see that the inevitable has come to pass: the lions have learned how to write. And if this book is any indication, the story of what must evolve to resolve cultural conflict in America’s classrooms will be decidedly different from now on.

Kamili Anderson is the Associate Editor of the “Journal of Negro Education,” a co-editor of the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of African-American Education” (Greenwood Press, 1996), and a former staff writer for Black Issues In Higher Education.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group



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