I recently received an email from March Morial, the president of the National Urban League. He personally invited me the Smoking Hot Young Professionals Summit. The theme for this year’s National Urban League Conference is You, Your Money, and Your Future. Wow. Me, my money, and my future!
The NUL’s mission is to promote self-sufficiency and self-reliance (economic and political) among African Americans and other disadvantaged peoples in urban areas so that they can become apart of and thrive in the American social mainstream.
NUL Affiliates provide a passel of social services to millions of people every year. Services like homeownership seminars, job and vocation training, career fairs, education fairs, utility and rent assistance, food pantry services, literacy classes, and computer training workshops are good things.
But if the Urban League is about helping disadvantaged people, how is it possible for these same people to attend this conference? They can’t. The truth is this conference ain’t for them. So, who is this conference for? Well, judging by the price tag, it’s for high rollers and other people who are financially well-off. Registration is $375 ($275 if you’re an Urban League member) and hotel costs are sure to be astronomical.
After checking out the on-line registration and conference brochure (which really grabbed my attention) I was disappointed by the lack of details about how the conference activities actually addresses the theme You, Your Money, and Your Future. I saw a lot of tag lines and eye catching graphics. Several high profile speakers and entertainers will be in attendance. The entertainment line-up is exciting, but the informational part seems like a box of chocolates. I won’t know exactly what I’ll get until I’m there taking it all in. Overall, the conference sounds like it will be a blast; that’s not a bad thing, but it just seems like a big gamble or at best an expensive party.
But what does any of this have to do with what the National Urban League is all about?
You, Your money, and Your Future – sounds like it should be a campaign slogan for the NUL and Urban League Affiliates across this nation. Sounds like the perfect battle cry to inspire the efforts of every UL affiliate. Sounds like a creed for the people who come to depend on the Urban League -- the people they help become more self-reliant.
And what of Mr. Morial’s promise of Smoking Hot Young Professionals Summit? Where’s all this fire coming from? I guess it must be for all of the social networking and receptions being hosted.
Why should young black professionals attend this conference?
What will we learn? Will we learn anything about civic engagement or social service?
What will this experience treat us to?
Will we become better professionals and/or better urban citizens after attending this conference?
Is the Urban League trying to attract a younger audience to the UL and its mission of social service and civil justice?
What’s more attractive about this conference – the opportunity to become civically engaged in a great organization or going out-of-town and having a good time?
Friday, June 29, 2007
I recently received an email from March Morial, the president of the National Urban League. He personally invited me the Smoking Hot Young Professionals Summit. The theme for this year’s National Urban League Conference is You, Your Money, and Your Future. Wow. Me, my money, and my future!
Monday, June 25, 2007
The average citizen often glazes over when they hear science or meet a scientist at a dinner party. Interestingly, scientists often glaze over when they have to talk about science in “everyday” terms. Most of us have a damn hard time relating to “regular people” and sometimes just dealing with non-scientists can be painful. Some call this behavior elitist; we label it as impatient.
And that’s usually what it is, impatience.
So, it would sand to reason that not everyone has the patience to do science outreach or science communication. Being an effective communicator or teacher calls on certain skills and pre-dispositions that come natural for some people. That doesn’t mean that many skills can’t be cultivated, developed, or improved; but it means that some people may be more interested in and able to interact with the lay public on matters of science.
But this matter may be very hard to drive home to other scientists, especially the top-notch research scientists. Science is by no means a mono-culture. But there is a bit of a hierarchy that people recognize exists. However, I am one to challenge the presupposition of this system. I think it serves the discipline better if each person is genuinely encouraged to pursue a scientific career that takes full advantage of one’s interests, abilities, and training. And no grumbling or rolling eyes. Let’s be honest. There aren’t enough jobs for EVERYONE to be a Big Research University Science Faculty member. And why should we all want to be? Who’s left to teacher the future science teachers, to write books, teach at community colleges, train technicians, mentor youth and young adults, advise politicians and voters? Each of these jobs is equally important.
As I’ve been discovering lately (mostly on my own), there are LOTS of alternative career opportunities available to scientists. In fact, science communication training is being talked about more and more as a necessary skill to be taught during graduate school. I sure wish I had the chance to take a class or internship while in graduate school. But it’s never too late.
I’ve come up with my own method (in progress) for how to become a better science communicator. 1) Recognize the average person doesn’t want to endure a long conversation with all of the sordid details. 2) Keep your language and explanations simple. I know it’s hard, but don’t rely on too much jargon or acronyms. If you use them, define them. 3) Explain via examples. Anecdotes are a great simple conversationally way to talk about important stuff. 4) Relate it something familiar or everyday. This instantly creates a relationship between the phenomena and the person. They can acknowledge how much they already know about something and may want to learn more about it.
Other references to check out:
Communicating Science: A Practical Guide
Because Science Matters
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Science is like the Brussels sprouts on a child’s dinner plate. Just like a mom insisting her child eats his veggies; the American public is needs to learn science.
But the American public just has no interest in science or math. Many people have no liking for science.
So the scientific community has three options.
1) Make the science fun and light – like the mom playing airplane to coax the veggies in a child’s mouth. And there are lots of great fun science programs being hosted by zoos, botanic gardens, science museums, children’s museum, even at school programs like Family Science Night. But how long can we play that game. Not too long. By middle school most students’ interests in science has peaked. Not only that, the extra-curricular and professional development support offered by informal science institutions stops abruptly at grade 8.
2) Force science on them. “You can’t leave the table until you’ve cleaned your plate”. Science is required for most public school students until grades 11. But requiring more science doesn’t necessarily translate to better science understanding or interest in studying science further.
3) Make the science lessons relevant – of dress up the veggies in cute arrangements, serve with ranch dressing. Focus on sharing science that is relevant to people, that appeals to them. “Framing” science information may be our best strategy for getting people (of all ages) to gulp down more science.
Why? Right now, science is a very heavy subject. It is weighed down with lots of jargon and technical information. Technical information isn’t interesting to most people. As scientists, we are very
Concerned with the details – blame it on our training. We unconsciously think “Surely you can’t really understand or appreciate the matter at hand if you don’t know the whole story – the whole twisted, up-and-down, every caveat and exception story?” It depends. Do you need to know how the food is grown and transported in order to take it home and cook it, and feed it to your family? No, but if you’re a farmer or produce manager those details might be more interesting to you. The average person wants to know the basics. The more they know the more they will want to know, later. The average person doesn’t care enough or doesn’t have the time and/or energy to get that deep, all at once. It’s a process and if we’re lucky, they’ll want to come back for more.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
The science of teaching is no easy subject to tackle. American public education is in dire straits. Elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions are increasingly under the gun to perform and help students “learn”. Specifically, K-12 schools have been hammered by the high expectations set forth by the No Child Left Behind Regulations. Right now, teachers and school administrators are trying not to be ‘left behind’ in the dust of all of the recommendations and the multitude of pilot programs that promise to be quick and effective fixes to this problem.
Beginning this school year, 2007-2008, public school districts must test students in science at least once in each academic level (elementary, junior high, and high school). Regrettably, our nation’s schools have always been challenged to offer quality science education to its students, especially those from poor school districts in rural and inner-cities. The matter of addressing science education has resulted in several initiatives and proposals by several agencies and organizations, most notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science or AAAS and the Project 2061 Program.
However, it is important that we fully recognize the seriousness of this problem. My main point is to draw attention to the current state of public school education. Secondly, I hope to encourage more people, specifically scientists to become more involved in outreach and policy forums designed to improve the state of science education in our nation’s schools.
First, it is important to distinguish between effective teaching and learning versus presenting information and testing students on the presented material. As reported in an Education Forum article in Science Magazine, many of our students receive very little quality instruction. Most of the ‘teaching activities’ involve teaching basic skills such as reading and completing routine seatwork. My personal experiences in a high school science classroom support these findings. Students spend a considerable amount of time completing worksheets and their grades are based upon the completion of these daily activities. Though I hate worksheets, there is an interesting study that demonstrates that quizzing can be an effective tool to student learning. One problem is that teachers have so many assignments to grade that have little opportunity to interact with students during lesson activities and can only offer students generic feedback. This results in classrooms that offer relatively few opportunities for students to practice problem-solving skills, engage in inquiry-based learning activities, or to apply the concepts and lessons they’ve spent so much of their time working on. Not only are these practices counterintuitive to ‘real learning’, such classroom behaviors are often incongruent with most standards and education benchmarks.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education is the foundation for innovation in the developed world. Nations such as the U.S. Japan and those in the European Union have been able to become world economic leaders mainly because of the advances in STEM.
The United States Science and Technology workforce is in danger. We are training fewer and fewer scientists and engineers who are native citizens. STEM education is imperative and we must invest in present and future generations. However, we must not overlook the wealth of human resources available in our nation. This isn’t about perfect representation of all minority or disadvantaged groups. This is about inclusion --inclusion for survival. Presently, our nation’s leaders in politics and science policy are taking this matter seriously and calling attention to the need to:
- Attract and retain diverse student populations to pursue science and engineering degrees
- Improve efforts to diversify Science and Technology Workforce in the U.S., and
- Attract well-trained science and math teachers to public K-12 education.
The United States has always taken pride in the fact that it is the world’s most innovative nation. And the reason for these innovations is due to the fact that it is a free competitive nation of many peoples. Some of the world’s most enduring inventions and improvements were created by what I call least likely sources. Sometimes not being apart of the mainstream or being trained differently gives one a fresh perspective, view point of the world. Diversity is key to innovation.
Equally important is offering a firm quality education to all students. The average student has his or her mind made up by the sophomore year in college. And for many minority students, science is usually written off as a career option by high school. So, getting students interested in science and math in school is important and all of that hinges on making sure they get the best science and math education possible. It pains me to see “less-than-qualified-and-knowledgeable” individuals misrepresenting science. This is not slight on every science teacher, but it is an accurate description of far too many. These teachers are the gate keepers to our nation’s future. These students are our resource pool. The more students that are better prepared, the more likely we are to attract the best, brightest, and highly motivated to tomorrow’s Science and Technology workforce.
So, how can the country produce more and better science and math teachers? Well, combine content and pedagogy. Education majors are heavy of education philosophy, pedagogy, etc, but light on content (A New Twist on Training Teachers). Include more content and at higher levels. Offer incentives to undergraduate and graduate students in science, engineering, and math to become volunteers at struggling schools/school districts. This would create a relationship between the schools and local colleges and universities. It might also be a good idea to encourage K-12 and undergraduate curriculum administrators to work together to create a more contiguous science and math curriculum. It also would give the K-12 students role models and promote civic engagement among the college students. These incentives could include book scholarships, education credits, loan forgiveness, work study, the list can go on.
But overall, I’m just glad that this matter is being addressed and that there are some really great proposals on the table. Read more about this topic here and here.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Poverty conjures up many images. I call to mind faces of despondent men, women, and children; blighted neighborhoods; children with inadequate clothing and resources; tired and hungry senior citizens. Poverty includes but is not limited to a combination of circumstances including financial insecurity, food/nutrition insecurity, having few material assests (though not necessarily, I'll address this paradox later), poor health, high stress, and overall low quality of life. Plus, there is crime, homelessness, sometimes gang activity, abandoned lots with heaps of trash, disabled vehicles, the lack of businesses and services.
Two weeks ago, I was picking up my charge who had recently moved to a new home. I am sure the mother of my charge moved to so as to find a better neighborhood. But if that was her goal, I wouldn't judge her move as succesful. The new neighborhood and old neighborhod seemed the same. Most of the the homes were boarded up. There were abandoned cars and overgrown empty lots between buildings. There was a burned down house in each neighborhood. Finally, there were lots of school age children hanging out on porches and in front yards. Well, there was one difference. The kids were wearing different colored shirts and bandanas. My guess, a different gang ruled supreme in this new neighborhood. My thought as I was leaving the neighborhood, "This place is as shitty as the last place. My God, being poor sucks." Where were these types of neighborhoods her only option?
I still don't know the exact answer(s). But studying poverty as a state and as a process of urbanization (studied from an urban geography point-of-view) helped. According to Knox and McCarthy (2005), poverty is perhaps the most compelling problem in and of cities. Poverty bequeths social, psychological, financial and physiological pressures to its recepients. Poor people are more likely to be less educated, have inadequate access to education, health care, employment. Poor people are captive. They often must 'make do' or 'deal with' the circumstances put before them. So what if the grocery stores don't offer quality foods. So what if the landlord, shopkeepers, or municipal workers are rude to you. You just deal with it. What other options do you (think you) have? Poverty is gregarious, often taking a hold of entire neighborhoods. And it is heritable. And that's the shame. How can one escape it? What's the use? That's the psychologically damaging aspect of poverty. It can yield a load of obstacles that most people don't care to admit are real and must be surmounted.
I commend all those who work to overthrow systems that promote or maintain poverty. It commend those who work to help those who are impoverished. I commend those who try to help poor people and improve neighborhoods in private ways, even if those efforts are ineffective and/or enabling. I give this last group of people, organizations, etc., a hard time. It's not because I don't have passion for the work they do or I think the people aren't worth it. But, I encourage those who do social service and work with the poor to take the time to study the literature. Work with social scientists, economists and others who study poverty and related systems so that the efforts put into your work can be more effective and empowering. Knowing more about the beast, helps you know how to defeat it -- once and for all.
For additional study I recommend: Urbanization, 2nd edition. 2005. Paul L. Knox & Linda McCarthy. Pearson Prentice Hall Press, New Jersey.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
I've always performed well in school. At one time or another I attributed my academic success to many different things: my natural intelligence (until age 10), my "good genes" and family upbringing (until age 13), my parents involvement and encouragement (until age 18), my study habits (now), etc. As I mature, I realize it's a little of all of those things, but not one thing in particular. A common compliment I receive is "you are so smart" or "you must be smart". As a young child, I was honored to receive such a compliment. I thought it was an affirmation. 'I am smart. I have all of the answers. Ask me anything and I can tell you. I'm the smartest. kid in the class, smarter than all.' My being smart was badge of honor and I had a huge ego, even as a 10 year old.
In junior high, I attended a college preparatory school. Suddenly, I wasn't so smart. I wasn't the smartest in the class or room, or row. I offered as many wrong answers to questions as correct responses. My academic prowess was slipping. Plus, I noticed that I was being snickered at by the other students. (Now, this wasn't new to me. I was laughed at and called nerd. But my ego told me that it was because I was a know-it-all. I was.) But the comments weren't the playful jabbing of familiar playmates. I didn't know these kids and they didn't know me. And more importantly, I didn't know what was important to them. I knew nothing about name brands. I owed none. I had no stories to share about family vacations. I couldn't brag about my generous allowance and I had NO fancy names to drop. At age 12, I was given a first-hand lesson in socio-economic status.
I got past the snobbishness and class-ism. I did make friends. But more importantly, I learned something about life and achievement. Those 'new kids' all came from families where both parents were college graduates. Their parents were teachers, principals, engineers, lawyers, executives, advisers, and such. My folks and my elementary pals' parents were wage earners, mechanics, beauticians, truck drivers, factory workers, housekeepers, and such. I lived in a rental apartment complex. My junior high school pals lived in houses. During the lean Reaganomics years, my and my elementary pals' families struggled to keep jobs and a home.
I realized that life is different for people who have a college education.
Even today, I see that it is the poor and less educated of the world who are oppressed and abused. They have no advocates. They either don't know how or don't have the energy to advocate for themselves. I am a zealot when it comes to education. But it's easy for me to be this way; I've always loved school. My answer to everything is "go to school" or "take a class". When a childhood friend of mine was released from serving an 8 year sentence for aggravated burglary, I was there congratulating him on his release and placing a college application in his hand. I called to check on him and encourage him to go to school with me. But he didn't bite. Less than a year after his release, he was kicking in doors again and robbing people.
But, I still believe in Education as Salvation from poverty, oppression, abuse, racism, class-ism, negligence and all other ills. It is in this spirit that I recommend reading or listening to the Admittance to a Better Life by Michael Oatman, on NPR's This I Believe. He speaks so eloquently on the same subject and I join him in doing my part in trying to create a better life for myself and for others by sharing the power of education and understanding science to elevate from lower SES to middle-class.
Friday, June 8, 2007
Part 3 of my installation on recommendations to improve urban science education.
Recommendation #5. Promote interaction and collaboration among students.
The best way to learn is to teach. Creating cooperative learning communities is a great way and a proved way to improve student learning and develop character. Encourage students to discuss topics and assignments with each other. However, since liberal teaching methods are relatively rare at urban schools, student may interpret this as free time. Offer guidelines to keep them on track. Assemble various groupings of students so that they work with different students. As they become more accustomed to the format, the instructor should relax the rules. Also, encourage them to form study groups. Study groups have been proved as very effective learning tools, especially for high school and college students.
Recommendation #6. Quash cheating and keep students honest.
Copying answers from the book ore from a neighbor is a SERIOUS problem. But I am not just talking about copying answers from a crib sheet or looking over a neighbor's shoulder. Stop students from cheating themselves from learning the lesson. One of the reasons I have worksheets is because it is all too often treated as an assignment to complete. Students are rewarded for finishing the task, not demonstrating what they have learned. Hold students accountable for learning, not just handing in an assignment. Reward credit to student that complete independent assignments on a steep curve and re-normalize all scores to an average. This is a very unconventional tactic. Most urban educators can't afford to have students fail, so this might sound scary. But this tactic could really make students take their studies seriously. Grade on a curve for all regular assignments, and grade examinations in a traditional manner. This would ensure that students don't help slackers or allow others to copy their work. It would also encourage students to answers more completely.
References for these recommendations:
Martin Haberman. 1991. Pedagogy of Poverty
Eric Mazur. 1997. Peer Instruction: A User's Manual
Craig Nelson. 1996. Student diversity requires different approaches to college teaching even in math and science
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Part 2 of my installation on how student learning in urban schools can be improved.
Recommendation #3. Frequently check students’ understanding of the concept or material.
After teaching a concept it is best to pause for a moment and gauge students’ understanding of the material. This can be done informally or formally. Informally, an instructor can check students’ understanding with a short review discussion or through simple Q&A sessions. Questions can be those generated by the instructor, from fellow students, or from the text. Formally, the instructor can offer a quiz or questionnaire or have students complete a problem. All too often, students are given seat work or worksheets to complete. I hate worksheets; worksheets are the devil. Students are buried in a sea of papers; and the material seldom challenges them beyond the second tier of the cognitive domain. Learning is about thinking. Checking their understanding helps the instructor fix any misconceptions or incorrect understanding of the material. Plowing ahead does not achieve learning. Plowing ahead is indicative of a teaching style that assumes that covering the most information possible will ensure student success on assessments. It’s better for students to properly understand a little information than for students to memorize lots of facts that mean nothing to him/her beyond the next examination. They’ll just dump it and they’re back to being as ignorant as they arrive or still depending on the same old misinformation to inform they’re decisions.
Recommendation #4. Offer immediate feedback to students on any and all assessments.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Check their work and correct it as soon as possible. Return their papers with comments and recommendations for improvement as soon as humanly possible. Feedback is the basis of revision and correction. If students understand the concept or material then the instructor can continue to the next topic or delve more deeply into the present topic. If the students do not understand, then it is imperative for the instructor to slow down and review. It might be beneficial to modify the teaching style or use alternative examples that the students can better relate to. There is no sense forging ahead to more difficult topics if the students fail to understand the simpler ones. Their marks will be low because they lack a basic understanding on the material.
Monday, June 4, 2007
How can we improve student learning in urban schools or any school for that matter? Well, there is no magic bullet, so I won't pretend as if I have the answer. However, I do have are a few recommendations based on my experiences as a classroom observer and resource assistant to a science teacher at a metropolitan urban high school in the Midwest United States. The high school was more reminiscent of "Fair Eastside" than anything. Almost every student received free lunch, the drop-out rate was about 50%, far too many of the students were parents, and gang-related violence was not at all uncommon. My first year at the school included 2 complete police lock-downs of the school ending only when several students had been arrested and were weapons discovered.
Most people ask: "How can students be expected to learn in such an environment?"
My answer is "Set high expectations for all students, especially for those young people who society, their neighbors, even their own families, expect to be failures. Expect the best from them, because the truest and purest potential resides as much in them as it does in the most affluent and well-prepared sub-urban students."
Recommendation #1. Set the tone early.
I favor non-traditional teaching approaches. Non-traditional means getting away from the chalk-talk or sage on the stage format of teaching. All teaching approaches, activities, etc. should begin with the end in mind, i.e., focus on what you would like for your students to learn, When introducing teaching approaches such as inquiry or problem-based learning, begin on the first day of class. Far too many students (urban, rural, and suburban) have become accustomed to teacher-centered experiences. Because of this, and their familiarity and ability to exploit such a system, they will not be apt to change. But give them time. Be firm. Reinforce expectations throughout the first few days or weeks of class.
Recommendation #2. Emphasize student responsibility.
Many people expect teachers to simply pour knowledge into a pupil's head. This is called the empty-vessel approach to teaching. No one is an empty vessel. Students have pre-conceived notions of lessons, may have been previously introduced to the material, may have some experience, and at the very least, has some serious mis-conceptions about the subject. So it is important to alert the students that learning is what pupils do. Teaching is what instructors do. And I believe that teachers should help facilitate learning. Help student erase incorrect notions and modify/revise incorrect or incomplete ideas about a subject. but it is imperative for everyone to understand one important thing: TEACHERS CANNOT MAKE STUDENTS LEARN. Students are responsible for reading, completing homework assignments, studying, etc. Challenge students to come to class prepared and to become critical thinkers.
Friday, June 1, 2007
I'm quite positive that I have a high Prosociality index score. I care about and work to create a fair and egalitarian society. I also believe that is why I like the Green Party so much. My personal values wed well with the Party's Ten Key Values. Particularly important o me is the fact that this party promotes a social just strong grassroots democracy and activism. These efforts to support and improve the lives of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable, e.g. the working class poor, who lack the big-time financial and political clout to "grease" the wheels of democracy - if you know what I mean.
I have a strong sense of civic responsibility. In fact, I attribute my strong sense of righteous indignation and Nazi-like environmental behaviors to my sense of civic duty. I'm an altruist, dammit. But I'm also quite non-conformist and often anti-authority and this is quite problematic among African-American social institutions. The clash of generations (Gen X &Y vs baby Boomers and other ancients) is a very serious thing and causing some serious rifts within many Black Religious denominations, Fraternities, Sororities, Social and Civic organizations/clubs/associations. Surprisingly, though I can be a pain to such authority figures, I also credit my membership with such organizations for my powerful sense of civic duty. Ironic, eh?
My enthusiasm for school, particularly science education reform, is based on these sames feeling of responsibility and duty. A review by André Blais on D.E. Campbell's book Why We Vote awakened me. "Schools are mean to to produce intelligent citizens but also responsible ones". Based on Campbell's study, people become civically engaged in order to fulfill a sense of civic duty and/or to protect their own interests. He even states that school - formal classroom lessons, such as those provided in social studies, civics, history, economics, etc- plays an important role in cultivating this sense of duty. Read more here.
Now some schools have gone a step further in promoting prosociality. Many districts require high school students to complete X number of community service hours as a graduation requirement. But many fail to ensure that the students actually learn the intended lessons of the requirement. (To learn more about service-learning, read here.) This bothers me. Already many classrooms lessons are filled with "doing busy work", now well-intentioned programs to get kids to become good citizens is doing the same thing.
Presently, I've become rather impatient and irked by the lack of leadership provided by many African-American Civic and Social Service organizations. Why? Because they seem to have become distracted and suffer from an organizational illness I call Mission Drift. Seems to me, that they are not truly promoting and cultivating civically engaged citizens, like they once did. In fact, Bruce Gordon left the NAACP after only 19 months because he thought the organization needed to re-think its plan so as to become more effective (read here for more info). I don't know if I agree with Gordon or not but it still calls attention to something important: Are we being effective or are we just doing something that looks and sound good?
What's with this "doing something for the sake of doing it" pre-occupation?
How can African-America institutions, civic organizations, social service providers, help empoer people as opposed to enabling them or ignoring them?
The condition of poor people, people of color, and the disadvantaged is to grave to allow these less-than effective activities to continued un-challenged and un-checked. The time is long overdue to be accountable, to encourage our children and neighbors to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, responsible, and discerning. Those of us who 1) know better, 2) care enough, and 3) have the abilities should start calling others to task. We should set an example for others. Help educate those who are most vulnerable. In other words, we should extend some of our social and intellectual capital to create a better citizenry and neighborhoods.