She's got two graduate degrees in education from Harvard University and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for the research she's doing at Morgan State University, but Louisiana-born Lisa Delpit says the biggest influence in how she thinks about the problems of urban education has been her mother.
"She's an amazing person," Dr. Delpit says of her mother, 75, a retired schoolteacher who taught math in Baton Rouge, La., for many years. "My mother had a very strong commitment to education and always thought of her students as a family. She knew who her kids were and taught them by relating book learning to everyday, real life."
In a way, that's the basic premise underlying many of Dr. Delpit's theories and recommendations about how teachers in urban schools can most effectively teach classes comprised of children from widely diverse cultural backgrounds. Dr. Delpit, a tall, attractive, 38-year-old senior research associate at Morgan's Institute for Urban Research, believes that such cultural differences play an important role in determining how teachers teach and how students learn. She describes this aspect of her research as having to do with "multicultural education."
Which brings up this question: Would she tell us what "multicultural education" means?
"Basically it means we live in a society where there are many cultures, many ethnicities. And that's increasing," she says. "The demographics of this country are changing dramatically. But I think what isn't changing is that most of us don't have a very good idea of how other cultures think about anything."
This lack of information about each other, says Dr. Delpit -- who has worked in cultures as diverse as Papua New Guinea and inner-city Philadelphia -- often results in cultural misunderstandings: "The same experience might mean very different things to people of different cultures. And if you don't know that, you may assume a person is acting belligerent or ignoring you, or is mean or doesn't like you -- when actually there's a whole other set of cultural understandings going on in that person. So part of the work I do is trying to make translations among different cultural groups; trying to help people of different cultural groups understand what is going on in settings that have different cultures within them."
She says, laughingly, that she thinks it is her work in this area that last July prompted the prestigious, Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation to name her, along with 35 other recipients around the country, as a MacArthur Fellow. The telephone call from the Foundation came "out of the blue," she recalls, "and was rather ambiguous about which aspect of my work they were singling out."
Here -- just in case you've never received a phone call awarding you $245,000 to continue working on whatever you're working on, no strings attached -- is what it's like to get such a phone call:
Phone rings. Voice on the other end says, "Lisa Delpit?"
You say -- somewhat abruptly because you're working on an overdue paper -- "Yes."
Voice on other end: "Lisa Delpit, I am calling from the MacArthur Foundation to congratulate you. You have been awarded $245,000 as a MacArthur Fellow for 1990."
You are shocked and silent.
Voice on the other end: "Well, I'm used to silence, so I will just keep on talking."
"I was literally stunned," Dr. Delpit says now, leaning forward over the desk in her university office. She laughs when asked whether the award has altered her life. "Well, for the moment, it has overwhelmed me with phone calls and letters and has made it really difficult to get on with the work. It's an odd thing to say -- because the money is given to allow you the freedom to be able to do other things -- but the fame that comes with it has kept me from being able to do those things right now." She holds up a huge stack of pink telephone messages, most of them asking her to lecture or serve on a board.
But it won't be too long, she says, before she gets back to doing the things she's most interested in: Teacher education, literary development and studying the cultural differences in children and how they affect the way they learn. Her research has convinced her of several things: "There is a tendency to think that good teaching looks just one way and a good curriculum looks one way. But I'm convinced that good teaching looks different in different settings."
The setting that most interests Dr. Delpit is the urban classroom. Learning to teach each child in today's culturally diverse classroom, she believes, is one of public education's greatest challenges. And it will require getting teachers involved in what she calls "teacher-based research" in their own classrooms. "One of the things I would like to do with the [MacArthur] money is to set up an institute in which teachers can begin to evaluate what's going on in the classroom and do the research themself."
One local first-grade teacher, Stephanie Terry, is enthusiastic about such an idea and says that many of the teachers who have read Dr. Delpit's papers find she is saying what they've been thinking. "It's very impressive to read her papers," says Ms. Terry, who's taught for 21 years and will work with Dr. Delpit to set up an institute for teachers. "I get the sense that she knows exactly what classroom teachers are going through."
One of the reasons why Dr. Delpit knows what teachers are going through may be because she has been a teacher. After graduating in 1974 from Ohio's Antioch College with a degree in educational psychology, she took her first teaching position in Philadelphia. It was in an alternative public school where, by design, the kids were 60 percent poor black and 40 percent upper-middle-class white.
"Not only was there a racial difference but a class difference as well," recalls Dr. Delpit. "And because I had learned to teach at Antioch -- which catered very much to the upper-middle-class white kids -- I discovered I was a more effective teacher for the white students in the school than I was for the black kids. I found the strategies that worked best with black kids were strategies that the older black teachers at the school knew about but I didn't. Because I had, in a sense, been educated out of how to best teach the kids in that community."
Dr. Delpit cites her own mother as a schoolteacher who excelled at educating children because she related to who they were and thought of them as "family."
"That's quite true," says Mrs. Edmae L. Butler, of her daughter's observation. "I did feel that way about my students and if I couldn't inspire them to learn, it would hurt me so much I'd cry." Her laugh crackles over the long-distance line from Baton Rouge as she says this. "And I really tried to make learning easier for my students by transferring learning from the book to real life."
That teaching philosophy, says Dr. Delpit, is a cornerstone of her research: that learning should not be driven only through workbooks and drills but also through the application of such skills to what goes on in the cultural background of the student.
"One of the things we do [in public education] is assume that everybody learns exactly the same way. We don't try to understand how children may be different culturally as well as individually. Some cultural patterns exhibited in school often get interpreted as something wrong with that child; that every difference indicates a deficit. And that's because he's being seen through the lens of essentially middle-class, white values -- which the schools are based on."
But Dr. Delpit says she is not breaking the classroom down into white culture vs. black culture: "To be a good teacher you have to be sensitive to whatever culture the children are from. And [teachers] have to learn more about the community they're teaching in. When I was growing up, most of the teachers lived in the neighborhood. That's not true now."
Dr. Delpit, who earned a doctorate in education from Harvard University in 1984, grew up in Baton Rouge, La., and attended both segregated and unsegregated Catholic schools.
"That experience was one of the things that contributed to my wanting to think about how different groups of people think about education," she says now. "Because when I went to the integrated school I suddenly understood how good the [segregated] elementary school had been. Because many of my black classmates were actually at the top of their classes in the integrated school."
But she feels that the "sense of family and identity" that existed for black students and enabled them to excel in segregated schools frequently was lost in integrated schools. Partly, she says, this was due to a change in the way teachers felt about their jobs. "Teaching took on a different ethos," Dr. Delpit says. "It became much more of a job and had less of the sense of a family."
One of the many projects Dr. Delpit is currently involved in is co-chairing a task force that will work with the curriculum department of Baltimore City's public school system. "Our charge is to help them beef up and develop the African and African-American component of the multicultural curriculum they're developing," Dr. Delpit says. The task force will make its recommendations to the school board next month.
Ironically, Dr. Delpit originally came to Baltimore in 1988 to be executive director of the school board, a post created by Meldon S. Hollins, then school board president. Dr. Delpit, who says Mr. Hollis was a "mentor" of hers at Harvard, arrived to find the position had been created without the consent of the school board and, after criticism, was abolished. "I was surprised at the politics," is all she says of that episode.
But she liked Baltimore well enough to stay on. Married briefly but now single, Dr. Delpit lives in the Ednor Gardens section of the city and is in the process of adopting Maya, a 21-month old child who has lived with her for the last year and a half.
And since receiving that windfall of $245,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, she's been able to do some home improvements: "Well, I had a new counter put in my kitchen." She laughs. "I guess that means I'll be staying awhile."
THE DELPIT FILE
Born: May 23, 1952, in Baton Rouge, La.
Family: Single, in the process of adopting 21-month-old Maya.
Education: Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, B.A., Education-Psychology, 1974; Harvard University, Ed.M., 1980; Harvard University, Ed.D., 1984.
Positions: Currently senior research associate at Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research; associate professor, School of Educa- tion, Michigan State University; coordinator, Teacher Education Program, University of Alaska; assistant professor of reading, Language and Literacy, University of Alaska; numerous other academic, research and consulting positions.
Awards: MacArthur Fellow, 1990; National Academy of Education Spencer Fellow, 1988; American Association of University Women Educational Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, 1983-'84; Annie Ryder Fellowship of the American Association of University Women, 1981-'82; Harvard University Scholarship, 1979-1982; National Merit Achievement Scholar, 1969.