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Newsflash: If it sounds ridiculous, it probably is…


"City urges parent to nourish young minds with talk," says the headline on the front page of the Boston Globe (4-2-08). The article goes on to describe how "literacy coaches" are fanning out into public housing in the inner city to teach low-income parents the importance of talking to their children. "You might think you sound ridiculous and look like an idiot, but comment on everything," advised one of the literacy coaches who is part of this three-year, $550,000 program designed to close the achievement gap between low- and middle-class children.

The challenge for activists isn’t just that we have legions of crises to face everyday. It’s also that we have to operate in a corporate-sponsored culture that constantly barrages us and our communities with the message that individuals are the problem. The powers-that-be are even clear that the fix they offer will make us sound ridiculous and look like idiots, but, they advise, do it anyway.

We know that to stop wars, mend the social safety net, and stop runaway corporate control and enrichment of the few, there is no choice but to organize. But one of the first hurdles is convincing people to see themselves as part of a collective, a group that has power via its mass base. That’s no easy trick when powerful forces line up to blame individuals for massive social problems.

While well-meaning literacy coaches "teach" low-income parents to "narrate bath-time," a careful reader of the news might notice other factors are at play in low-income parents’ lives besides the quality of their running commentary. In addition to foreclosures, evictions, unemployment, a high murder rate among inner-city youth, and inadequate health insurance, inner-city kids face significantly higher drop-out rates in comparison to their suburban peers (see recent research by America’s Promise Alliance, 4-1-08).

Speaking of education, only a third of the kids who have made it to 12th grade are reading at a "proficient" level, according to an NEA report released on November 19, 2007. That means an overwhelming two thirds are not even proficient readers. Keep in mind that proficient is not exactly a high bar and that these numbers do not include the drop-outs. As an adult education teacher in Boston, I can add anecdotal evidence that many of my students with high school diplomas from Boston Public Schools were reading at a 5th or 6th grade level. They came to my Bridge to College class thinking they would spend a few months "refreshing" their reading, writing, and math skills, only to find they needed years of skill-building before they could test into college-level courses at nearby community colleges.

In this context, the city makes it a priority to urge parents to "chatter to young children." It is enough to make a person scream in frustration, cry at the pitiful band-aid going up against the hemorrhaging wound, or laugh with practiced disbelief and turn to the sports section for more reasonable commentary.

The problem is: because we are trained to look individually instead of collectively at our problems, too many readers won’t have any of these responses, and will in fact read on for tips on how to give their toddlers a head start by introducing more vocabulary to them at a younger age. Middle class parents, studies show, speak on average 300 more words per hour to their children than low-income parents. They will perhaps read the article and congratulate themselves for standing apart from the poor masses who don’t properly narrate daily activities with their babies.

It’s not that middle class parents are mean or smug. It’s natural to want to protect and nurture your child and to look for advice on how to do so. And it’s a scary world that parents must launch those children into. But how sad and ultimately ineffective that we’re all hoping our personal ploys might help our private offspring squeeze through the system and graduate at grade level.

The Globe article simultaneously soothes middle-class parents by making them think that vocabulary words inoculate their babies against a broken educational system *and* blames low-income parents by focusing attention on the quality and quantity of their conversations instead of the systemic forces arrayed against them. Neither group thinks of community-based solutions. How ingenious.

Not that people shouldn’t chatter with their babies. Perhaps this is a bit of driftwood you can grab onto in the great yawning ocean of underfunded cities, neglected demographics, gutted schools, and cynical quick fixes. With all the strikes against low-income, inner-city parents, chattering with your toddler is at least something you can do!

But we are being induced to stand by and even celebrate while the city *makes policy* out of handing out flotational slivers.

In addition to being inadequate and pitiful, the City’s new campaign has other problems. Did you ever wonder why inner-city parents aren’t narrating the bus ride to their toddlers (as the Globe article specifically recommends)? Well, maybe it’s not the same as riding around in the quiet, climate-controlled mini-van that their middle-class counterparts enjoy. Maybe you’ve had a long day at a menial job and you’ve picked your kid up from day care, waited in the cold for the not-too-dependable bus, and bundled yourself and your child up the steps onto the crowded bus. Maybe you’re exhausted from your day, from being yelled at by bosses, from not knowing if they’ve finally turned off your electricity at home, and maybe you don’t feel like hoisting the kid out of the stroller and onto your lap so you can point out the dilapidated buildings just visible through the dirt encrusted window. "Feel that bump, baby? That was a BIG pot hole, wasn’t it?"

The research notes that low-income parents are more likely to use words like no, shut-up, and stop, *and the literacy coaches want this to stop.* No one seems to notice the irony. After taking instructions all day at work, low-income parents get to follow orders from literacy coaches about how to do something deeply personal like relate to their children. Instead of talking to parents like they know something, like they have minds that work, instead of finding out what supports they could use, the experts dole out easy-to-follow-instructions that promise quantifiable outcomes that have no relationship whatsoever to the complex lives of the human beings in the mix.

Finally, if you follow the article to the inside page, you find that the chatter-to-your-children strategy has been bought and paid for by Staples. Hmm. I wonder why an enormous, big box chain store would fund programs that make inequality look like something that we are each individually responsible for and that promotes "solutions" that infantilize parents and sends them back to their private homes to feel ridiculous in front of their toddlers?

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