What students aren’t learning and what they need to know

I talked to an eighth grade class the other day at my grammar school, St. Nicholas of Tolentine on the southwest side of Chicago. I usually do this every year for my former teacher, with whom I’m now friends. She asks me to come in and talk during the beginning of their research paper topic scouting, especially since, as a journalist, I use similar concepts to find sources and get to the root of the stories at my job.

My introduction has changed every time I’ve talked. The first time I did it, it was much more formal and I had ideas on what I was going to talk about. This was when I worked for Café Media. The second time I did it, I felt rusty and I don’t quite remember why.

This time was a complete turnaround and I feel that it is because of where I am in my life, how much experience I have working with kids, and knowing what they need to hear.

When I talk to kids, I talk to them like adults; like I would my cousins. When I speak to them, I expect them to look me in the eye, listen to what I’m saying and have a drive that I can feel. You probably think, that is a lot to ask of eighth graders, but not how I see it. It’s crazy that I can actually use life experiences to back up my theory.

If we don’t expect ambition and drive from our youth, they won’t have it because it’s not a standard. We have to make it a standard, full of belief and curiosity to grow in educational knowledge.

I taught an introduction to journalism class for two semesters at the University of Illinois during my graduate program. It was great. But while teaching and getting to know my peers, I realized that there was a lot of information these kids weren’t getting in grammar school and high school. It was sad to say, but I saw the biggest distinction in students of color.

While a senior in college a group of friends asked me to help their frat brother out with a paper. As a college freshman, this guy was still writing five paragraph essays. Though this was a good place to start, I told him, this isn’t where you need to be. For four hours, I sat with him, explaining the nature of an outline, how to structure a thesis and how to formulate ideas that went above and beyond what he already knew. I had to explain critical thinking. Of course, I asked where he went to high school and what exactly he learned. I learned a ton in those four hours about him and what he wasn’t learning.

I keep this in mind every time I talk to students about papers and structure. When I have time, which I wish I had more of, I go and visit my old stomping grounds at Christopher House, where they have a college prep program for high school students. When I walk in, the coordinators usually assign me to help a student working on an English paper or some assignment that has to do with writing. Determinant of their level in school, there are some high school kids who need a push in the right direction while there are some younger students who don’t know how to spell.

It’s these situations that lead to my explanation of having expectations for oneself, not waiting for others to formulate who they need to be. They have to want it and not just academically, but socially and emotionally.

There was one eighth grade student at St. Nick’s who didn’t look me in the eye when he was speaking to me, I called him out on it. “Look at me when you talk to me, not at your desk,” I said. “Have confidence!”

Kids underestimate themselves a lot of the time. They don’t think they know as much as they really do and it limits their contributions in the classroom. I push creativity because that is what will lead to curiosity and questioning and learning.

“What made you pick your topic?” I asked them. “What do you want to know? What is your research going to show and what will it address?” I kept telling them to build curiosity. To develop a thirst for knowledge and what they want to learn about their topic.

Some kids had already done their research. They knew their topic, they had answers when I asked questions and I pointed them out. “See? It shows she did her research. She wants to know.”

If there’s anything I got from high school, it was a desire to learn and fill your head with knowledge. “You’re not going to use everything you research,” said their teacher. And I had to chime in: “That’s the best part! You get to fill your head with knowledge and insight into different things. And on top of that, your papers will be better because you actually know what you’re talking about!”

The majority (I think all but one or two) in the classroom were Latino and if there’s one thing that irks me about grammar school is that there are no Latino studies. The class had two themes to choose from: Black history and Women in history. Most of the class, with the exception of a few girls and a boy, chose Black history obviously because they thought writing on this topic would be easier. “That’s not true,” I told them. Little did they know how deep Black history was.

“Here’s a story idea for you. Where were Mexicans and Latinos when Blacks were encountering segregation and discrimination? They were there, right along side them and guess what. We were part of the segregation, too.”

It’s never talked about. Ever. No one even knew that we were here that long ago. Why? That’s the biggest question running through my head. Why don’t they know? The world in grammar school is Black and White, but how will Latinos ever grow up to succeed and prosper and hold their heads up when talking to a stranger if they don’t realize just how much of their own history lies within the boundaries of the United States?

In order to look into your future or know where it’s going, you have to know your past. It shapes and defines you. It makes you whole.

I wish I could go back to that classroom and let them know that we are here and were just as substantial in the passing of many laws and the development of this country. I want to let them know that for a lot of us, we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. I want to let them know about the discrimination people in Texas endured, being treated as second-class citizens and that the water fountains were segregated with “Whites Only” and “Blacks and Mexicans Only.” I want to tell them that there were Puerto Rican riots here in the city of Chicago, that the first successful desegregation case in southern California it was  Mexican-American and that there were people who are still going through harsh realities even though we didn’t have a Million Man March or a Martin Luther King, Jr. to help us pave our way. But that our Chicano movement happened in California and spread throughout the country, just not into their text books; not the right way.

I want to tell them about the Latinas out there who have helped shaped literature, about the Latinas who have done such important things in the country’s history that they don’t know about. I want to teach them about their history, about their culture, about how they should hold their heads up high and be proud for being bilingual and have double the smarts that a monolingual person has. I want to tell them that college is not out of their reach and if anything, they should reach for the stars and the next universe.

If we don’t teach our children about their heritage and just how important it is to know where you come from, who will? If students don’t learn how to read and research and write now, when will they or will they ever? The questions simmer in my mind all the time. There are so many students to help and not enough time, but changing one kid’s mind can make all the difference in the world.

I had a few students come up and talk to me after I spoke to their class and tell me that they wanted to “wow” their teacher or change their topic because they wanted to learn more. I was thrilled.

During my talk to the students, I was inspired to give them a bit of motivation. I told them that the top three papers in the class would be published on Clique-Communications.com. You better believe that my friends were on board with the idea.

Education is the key to a substantial future and community. Teach a student. Tell them the truth. Tell them they’re worth it.

Here’s a little bit of information on “our” movement:


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