Friday, August 31, 2012

Champions aren't Made in the Gym

The other day, I stopped in at the website of Nashville Prep,  a public college preparatory school.    At Nashville Prep, "Every class is named after a college, because all of our students are headed for college." The students have a longer school day (7:30am to 5:00pm), a longer year (190 instructional days) and over two hours of literacy and over two hours of math instruction every day. Students receive targeted tutoring and academic support throughout the week. The students also participate in one hour of enrichment activities every day, which include chess club, chorus, drama, dance, basketball and journalism.

The Nashville Prep website displays the following quotation prominently:
Champions aren´t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.” —Muhammad Ali
I've been an advocate for longer school days and longer school years for disadvantaged students.   I believe that catching up when you are behind requires hard work, and more of it.   But the quotation reminds me of the importance of desire in making the learning process effective.  A lot of people talk about the barriers that impede learning among disadvantaged students. Some people even claim that we can't overcome the achievement gap, unless we first overcome those barriers, poverty, language, and other social barriers.  And yet, when I think about the role of desire in learning, I keep coming back to the biography of Frederick Douglass who learned to read, when it was against the law and the penalty for breaking that law included torture and disfigurement.  Frederick Douglass' story instructs us that if we can ignited the learning torch within young people, we can be much more effective teachers.  

Frederick Douglass was born in a slave cabin, in February, 1818, near the town of Easton, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Separated from his mother when only a few weeks old he was raised by his grandparents.   When he was eight years old, he was sent away to serve as a house-slave.   There, Mrs. Auld, began to teach him the alphabet and a bit of reading.  You can find online the story in his own words of how he learned to read and write.  Slaves were prohibited from learning to read throughout much of the South, and Mr. Auld stopped the training soon thereafter.  If Frederick were seen trying to read, punishment followed.  It took courage for a slave to learn to read in those days.   A passage from the Cornell University online library tells us:
In most southern states, anyone caught teaching a slave to read would be fined, imprisoned, or whipped. The slaves themselves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy, from savage beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes.
 But Frederick had recognized that learning to read represented a road to freedom of the soul, and now he could not be stopped:
From this time I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself. All this, however, was too late. The first step had been taken. Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.
Nobody forced Douglass to take proficiency tests. Nobody sent him to  "Read 180" lessons or had him stand up and take direct instruction.    Douglass had  the learning bug:  or should I say, the learning flame within.  He explained:
The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent to errands, I always took my book with me, and by doing one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge. I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids--not that it would injure me, ~ but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.
The Douglass story tells us that once a student understands the connection between learning and freedom, between effort and empowerment, then nothing -- not poverty, not white privilege, nor even mediocre schools, can prevent that student from succeeding.    “Champions aren't made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.  As we talk about curriculum and instruction, we must never forget that students learn best when we ignite that "something deep inside.....the desire, the dream and the vision."

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