Other Gaps

As a “hook” to our Legal Clinic, I spent a day in January working with graphs and charts about the legal system.  Charts and graphs are awesome tools in the classroom.  If you are a teacher and don’t use them, you should do so.  I don’t care what subject.  Reading data is a type of nonfictional reading, essential for basic citizenship.  It’s also fun.  On this day, my class walked into a “gap”.  I think we’re still stuck there.

The prompt for charts is “What do you learn from this?”  Students are encouraged to list as much as they can.  Normally I go with “There are a bunch of right answers and a bunch of wrong ones.  Defend your answer and try.”

For this chart however, there’s only a few possible choices.  Almost every student observed a higher number of African Americans in NC prisons than Whites, about half concluded it was suspicious.  One student noted that the layout of the graph was ineffective – laying the population numbers side-by-side and the prison numbers side-by-side would be less confusing.  Critical thinking, people!

There were a few students who deduced that African Americans commit more crimes than Whites.  This was troubling.  It was easily dismissed with a few questions1, but it was hard to fathom and, in retrospect, something I should have dealt with.

This is an awesome graph if you like teaching awesome graphs.  First, it’s an absolutely staggering illustration of the US prison population.  Next, it lends itself as a lesson against the lazy reading of data.  Most students claim that crime has gone up every year – proof “our generation” is the worst2.  But a simple “every year?” pushes student to test their hypothesis.  When I ask if they can find any years where the number of inmates went down, you can see the gears start to move.  What was the turning year?  1980 or 1984.  Why?  Lots of answers here.  Drugs, gangs, disco, wars.  In each of my 3 Junior classes I had some studenst who connected the year with the rise of crack cocaine.  The lingering question, of course, why are there so many people still in jail if we have way fewer people using crack?

crime

The last one (link is better than my screenshot) is a Zillow.com heat map of crime in our fair city.  It’s a fun one.  Since the lesson was done through the projector, we toured the city together.  The point here is that some of the highest crime is in places you wouldn’t expect it – 15th and Market has a the larger concentration of crime than 61 and Kingsessing.

In two classes, we never made it this far.  When were “touring” Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, a student in my largest class explained “There’s no crime because that’s where all the nice, White people live”.  And silence.  In a class of 32 African American young people, not a single easily-outraged teenager was moved to outrage over an out-and-out racist claim.

I addressed it.  I did so with data and logic and more angst than usual.  I didn’t scream, even though I really wanted to.  And I was humbled by the job, thinking about all the gaps we are trying to fill.

Teachers in Philadelphia are inundated with the Achievement Gap, the one which shows that African American and Latino students are falling behind their peers.  We see it at every professional development.  Our school’s contribution to that gap will make up a healthy chunk of my evaluation.  It’s the constant boogeyman – say what you want, but you can’t deny these numbers.

But it’s not the only gap, and our focus on skills and standards belie the other challenges we face.  If students believe their neighborhoods are worth less because the people who come from those neighborhoods are incapable of civilization, they are going to have some problems succeeding in school.  If they honestly believe that people who look like they do and talk the way they talk possess an innate talent for ruining nice things, they will go out of their way to avoid nice things.  They will lower their expectations.  They won’t follow through on a college application or “forget” their financial aid or become as small as possible so as to slither through the closest available crack.

I have no idea what to do about this.  I addressed it in class, I addressed it with individuals.  I add context to my lessons that (hopefully) connect with my students’ lives.  I’m relentlessly positive about my students.  But in the end, I come from a different place and lack the specific ethos to make an impact.

So what are you doing about this gap?  What systems are in place to break these stereotypes?  What do you do to reinforce the good and question the bad?  The stereotype threat is real – what are we doing about it?


  1. “Is everyone in jail guilty?” “Does everyone who commits a crime go to jail?” 

  2. A favorite talking point