'Multiplication is for White People': An Interview with Education Professor Lisa Delpit
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JS: How does this relate to children who are seen as having learning disabilities or special needs?
LD: The biggest issue for all children is not that we don't see what they don't know, but we don't see what they do know, what they do come to school with. They learned something in those years since they entered the world.
JS: You quote a young woman who struggled with learning in school who wonders why learning differences are classified as negative attributes—"Can we not focus on strengths and positive attributes?" she asks. How could it be different?
LD: I am not a special education teacher, nor am I a specialist in special education research, so I don't want to position myself as an expert. But I do sometimes ask teachers to identify the students who are considered the most problematic in their class for whatever reason, be it behavior or be it in academic areas, and to write down 10 ways in which they are exhibiting difficulty or challenges. Then I ask the teachers to look at those challenges and see if they can be redefined as strengths, or if they can find other strengths in those children.
One teacher said, "I'm looking at this child who is disruptive and all the other children do what he or she does." She was able to translate that into "This is a leader. I need to give this child leadership roles so that she can assist me rather than detract from what I'm doing." Another child was always tattling: "So and so did such and such." So she reinterpreted that as a way of looking out for others—getting into a fuss with somebody because they did something to another child. So then she was able to translate that into nurturing behavior and to give the child roles that would allow her to nurture without creating a problem.
No matter what the child brings, be they special needs or learning disabilities or whatever label we want to put on them, instead of looking at the label and the problem that the label might represent, we can look at the person and see what strengths are there and what we can build on.
JS: Why do you think there are so many African American children in special ed programs?
LD: I think there are a multitude of answers. The larger society has a view of African American people as being less intellectually capable. It's not something that anybody designed or set out to do, but it's almost in the air that we breathe. And as a result of that, when African American children do poorly, the first explanation is that there's something inherent in them that's keeping them from performing well. In fact, as Beth Harry and Janette Klingner say in their book Why Are So Many Minority Children in Special Education? Understanding Race and Disability in Schools, much of the time the reason is external to the child—for example, poor instruction, or maybe something happening in the family or community that caused trauma. But the official explanation tends to be that there's something wrong with the child.
Another piece is that the behavior of many boys, particularly African American boys, is seen as pathological. Some white female teachers from middle-class families (who are, of course, most of our teachers) are not accustomed to seeing this behavior and so they tend to think of it as something that is abnormal. There may be a higher tolerance for movement within some cultures that teachers again may not be accustomed to.