Where the Children Educate the Theorists


Forget the statistics in "Workforce 2000." I know, I'v saidhere that they were important, and they are. So are the factors analyzed in reports such as "Quality Education for Minorities" and other studies by foundations, boards and industry groups.

But forget all that for a minute. For a single child, it all comes down to the involvement with the all-powerful person in the front of the room -- the teacher -- and the way his or her family deals with education.

"Will you help me with my math?" The boy, a Kelson School second-grader who'd been bounced from one class to another, earnestly wanted to learn. His teacher, Jeanette Coleman, was busy, so he turned to the teacher's helper. I'm not large, but chairs fit for first- and second-graders no longer fit me. I kneeled down and got to work.

Educational theories are one thing. The kids themselves will rapidly educate any theorist, including volunteer drop-ins who are not teachers, about their needs. That's the under-riding premise of Spencer Holland's Project 2000. Mr. Holland, head of Morgan State University's Center for the Education of African-American Males, began Project 2000 in Washington, where fellow members of Concerned Black Men were looking for ways to put their considerable energies to work improving the schools.

The idea was simple: get black men into the classroom.

"Will you help me, too?" Another child was pulling on my coat.

Educators have wooed guys like me for years, with special programs to move us out of successful careers in other areas and into teaching. Many people have fond and somewhat skewed memories of the bad old days of yesteryear, when teaching was one of the few careers open to blacks and the "best and brightest" were teachers. I'm uncomfortable with such talk, for I was taught by those "best and brightest" and remember their frustrations. Besides, "best and brightest" implies blatant disregard for the people in the classroom now, who have dedicated their lives to a mission many others have refused to accept.

"Hey, cut that out!" I rushed over to separate combatants. "No hitting, pal. We're in here to learn."

There is validity in the idea that a female-dominated teaching corps poses certain difficulties to male pupils, to be sure. Too many other studies have shown how teaching and learning styles suitable for girls are less successful with boys. Other, more disturbing studies point to a quicker resort to discipline for black boys, and far less support and encouragement, in far too many classrooms.

But how to achieve the critical balance? Dr. Holland's idea, now at work in Baltimore and other cities, is to get men from differing pursuits to take mornings or afternoons off, at least once a month, to spend as teacher's helpers. Their presence, as men who think it's not sissified to learn, who speak clearly and can help with schoolwork, might help give the boys a new focus.

In class, it's not just the boys who pay attention. Dr. Holland runs training sessions for volunteers, emphasizing the needs of boys for discipline and manly examples. The boys do pay close attention, turning to watch my every move and smiling, waving and coming over to talk.

But the girls don't think I belong to only boys. They want just as much help with their schoolwork and are about as prone to take a swing at their neighbors.

"Mr. Thompson, today's my birthday." No kidding? Let's all sing "Happy Birthday."

Mostly what you get in those inner-city classrooms, along with kid-directed instruction on what works and what won't, is affection. The volunteers get to Kelson's classrooms about once a week, too little time to do effective teaching even if we knew how.

The real name of this game is stand-in fathering, being cheerleaders and part-time tutors and the teacher's relief as she works closely with small groups. Discipline comes up sometimes, but usually problems can be solved by taking a kid aside and talking things out:

"Listen, smart guys run everything. Tough guys only work for them. If you want to be friends with me, you'll have to work on being a smart guy. I don't hang out with tough guys."

The first time I tried that, the kid grudgingly accepted. He's a lot better now, and so are many of his classmates. Especially on his schoolwork. I couldn't have taught them all that much, even with the help of Mrs. Coleman, the expert.

It seems to come down to attention. I get hugged and touched often by the children, and other Project 2000 volunteers say the same thing. The kids like the encouragement we give and listen closely when we talk. They watch what we wear and do and comment on everything. And they smile and laugh, and demand still more attention. But sometimes, I think I'm getting more from this experience than they are.

G; Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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