Sunday, September 04, 2011

Michael Oher's story

STOP THE PRESSES!  I just finished I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond (, written by NFL star Michael Oher, the guy featured in the movie and book, The Blind Side (  I really enjoyed the book and hearing his amazing personal story (mom was a crack addict, never knew his dad, homeless, constantly moving and hungry), and was particular struck by how he described his experience in Memphis's inner-city public schools.  Here are some excerpts:


While there were some great teachers in the Memphis city schools, after Ida B. Wells, I just didn't have any of them.  Mine pretty much didn't care if I was there or not.  They just kept passing me so that they didn't have to deal with me anymore, and answer questions as to why I was failing – and it wasn't just me.  That was true for so many kids.  We would just be held in the classroom for the period and the teacher would go over the material, but nobody (including the teacher) seemed to care if it stuck or not.  No one checked for homework or book reports or even gave any many tests.  When no one around you, at school or at home, seems to think learning is important, it's pretty hard to think that it is important yourself – especially when you're a teenager.


But there was one period a day that I never, ever missed: lunch.  At any inner-city school, you'll almost always see that the lunchroom is packed even if there aren't that many kids showing up for class.  Since we were all on the free lunch plan, we knew that we would always get a hot meal in the cafeteria, so even on the day when we just stayed out on the streets, we were always in school at lunchtime.




My school records were a mess.  I can't even remember how many different schools I attended.  I often changed schools when I was in the foster care system.  Sometimes I'd just be in a class for a few weeks and then it would be off to another house and another school.  My mother had never made me do homework or helped me read a book.  My other had never made me get up and go on the mornings I was feeling lazy.  No one had ever bothered to take the time to find out what I did and didn't know.  I did just enough work to let them know I was still alive and they passed me along because I was a good athlete, and especially in high school, they wanted to keep me eligible to play.


And once he starts at Briarcrest, the teachers realize he can barely read (in high school!):


And that pressure was building up for me.  As nice as everyone was in trying to make me feel welcome, I had a much harder time trying to fit in with my studies…The going was rough.  It was very difficult at first, and my biology teacher, Mrs. Beasley, was the first one who caught on that I did know the material.  She noticed that I seemed to do okay answering questions she asked in class, but when it came to reading and answering questions on a test, I was stuck.  She tried reading the test out loud to me, and when she found I could answer the questions that way, she realized I wasn't slow at all – I had just never been in a caring classroom long enough to learn how to study and test effectively.


As soon as that became clear, all the teachers and administrators snapped into action to help figure out the best way to help me catch up and strengthen my study skills.  The biggest challenge for me wasn't learning the material – it was having to break old habits and get away from comfortable behaviors that I had slipped into over the past ten years.  I couldn't cost anymore; I had to really put my brain to work!  I had to learn a whole new way of thinking and living – and I just needed people around me who cared enough to show me how to do that.


Sometimes I was pulled out of class to do extra work, and sometimes the teacher would stay after class and do some one-on-one tutoring with me.  And the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.  Some of my teachers told me later that I was one of the most eager students they'd ever had.  I looked forward to school and was excited to study because it was such a thrill for me to be learning so much so quickly.


The hardest part at first was not grasping the material; it was grasping the idea that the teachers actually cared about my progress.  Except for one year in Ms. Logan's class and at Ida B. Wells, I have never know that kind of concern.  Everyone seemed to care about improving my study skills so I could improve my grades, and I felt like I was starting to move forward.


I also realized that I couldn't get away with my old standby trick from the public schools anymore: copying directly from the textbook.  If we had an assignment, I would open up the book and just write down a page or two, exactly as it appeared in the book.  I figured that the right answer had to be on the page somewhere.  The first time I did it in public school and got back a B on the assignment, I knew that there was no way the teacher was even looking at what I was doing because otherwise it would have been obvious that I'd taken the easy way out.  But at Briarcrest I realized I was going to have to work for every grade I earned – and the crazy thing was, I was happy to do it…


…I think that a lot of times students who come from rough backgrounds struggle to learn because they are afraid to embarrass themselves by asking questions about what they don't understand.  Ms. Lavender did a good job of making my learning time with her very relaxed, which meant that it felt like a safe place to ask questions.  I didn't have to be afraid that she would be annoyed or frustrated or think I was dumb.  She made me feel comfortable so that I could feel confident enough to ask for explanations on what I was still trying to learn.  That was something I had never done before and I think it was a huge obstacle in my schoolwork.


And finally:


My last semester in high school, I made the honor roll, which remains one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.  In order to attain the NCAA's GPA requirements, though, I needed to do some extra work to make up for my earlier years in high school before I got to Briarcrest…


…Now that I was so much more confident in my ability to study, I gobbled up those courses, studying authors and historic figures, writing reports on poems and novels.  Each time I finished one and got my grades back, I felt like I was erasing a failure from my past.  Just because I didn't have someone to show me how to learn effectively when I was fifteen didn't mean I had to lose out on a chance for college now.


I was very fortunate to have such a strong support system of people who were really concerned with helping me catch up.  If I had known how much work it was going to take to get my grades up, I would have been in the books more when I was younger.  It was my freshman year, when I still in the public schools and still butting class a lot to hang out, that caused the problems.  I am just grateful that I had the opportunity to make up for some of my earlier mistakes and poor decisions because I know that most kids in my situation don't get that second chance…


…I know that there will always be people who think that the extra courses I took to help raise my high school GPA were a lame excuse for making up the classes I failed the first time around.  There are other people who will always be convinced that I am just a dumb football player who only graduated from Briarcrest because I had a lot of people helping to pull me along because they wanted to get me into college.  All I can say in response to that is, look at my academic record while at Old Miss.  I wasn't just squeaking by with the minimum GPA – twice I made the dean's list.  It's amazing how a life can turn around with some encouragement, some support, and someone willing to say, "I believe you CAN do what you've set your mind on doing."


Miss Sue is a huge part of my success because she helped me believe that I could do what so many people around me seemed to think I couldn't."


I get very emotional reading this – but not the heart-warming, inspiring emotions you'd expect.  Rather, I feel deep sadness, anger, and outrage because I know that Michael Oher is the unbelievably lucky exception – the needle in the haystack – and that every day, there are MILLIONS of Michael Ohers who are being failed – yes, by their families and our government (our childhood poverty rate has soared to 20% ( vs. less than 5% in Scandinavian countries, for example), but also by our schools.


I've seem estimates that FIVE MILLION CHILDREN attend chronically failing schools (that's about 10% of the total, which sounds right), where little or no learning is going on and where kids like Michael Oher are just passed along, year after year, on the path to jail, welfare, early death – in short, broken, ruined lives.  This is both deeply immoral, but also suicidal as a country, to waste so much human talent and potential.


Are schools solely to blame?  Of course not!  Parents/families are a much bigger factor.  BUT, Michael Oher's experience – whereby a high-quality school with great teachers who really care about and set high expectations for every kid – is no longer an anomaly.  We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proven by hundreds of schools with tens (hundreds?) of thousands of kids, that high-quality schools CAN change life trajectories meaningfully for the majority (not 100%) of kids from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds.  It's not easy – in fact, starting and running such schools is that hardest thing I've ever seen – but it CAN be done.  It's too hard for this to happen quickly – it's going to be a many-decade journey of 1,000 miles – but for Pete's sake, let's get started rather than saying inane things (as, for example, Ravitch does) that these schools are only a small percentage of schools right now and are not THE answer, so therefore we should focus elsewhere.  In my mind, we should be looking for things that are working, even at a scale, and then: A) Try to scale them as rapidly as possible; and B) Take the lessons/"technology" that's working and spread it quickly in the existing system.


What also fills me with outrage is that people who know what's happening nevertheless fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo – a good example being what's going on in Chicago (see #3 below).

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