THE BLOG

Let's Show Respect for Inner City Students

07/19/2013 04:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2013

School "reformers" are correct in asserting that poor children of color can master higher standards. One way of showing respect to inner city students is teaching them how to do close textual analysis of poetry. But, their idea that we should not link literature to our students' strengths is absurd.

Our classes always started with "History in the News." Students often came early to see if they correctly anticipated the History in the News topic of the day, or to propose topics. If I was back in the classroom, I know my kids would be insisting that we loop back to Bruce Springsteen's lyrics:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise mama you'll keep your hands in sight


Orientation always included a close textual analysis of Springsteen's "American Skin." The song was often called "41 Shots" because of the chorus, but the true title foreshadowed a deeper meaning. In the first verse, Springsteen wrote from the perspective of the white New York City cops who shot a Nigerian immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times thinking he had a gun, even though it was his wallet. "Forty-one shots, and we'll take this ride, cross the bloody river, to the other side."

The second verse was from the perspective of a black mother warning her son in case he was racially profiled. The third verse was from a universal perspective as we are "baptized in each others' blood," and a crucial change is made in the chorus, "Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it in your heart? Is it in your sight?"

Asked the source of Springsteen's image of "the river," Kesha (as I'll call her) replied, "Langston Hughes!"

"Great," I answered, throwing a copy of Hughes' poems to her, "Support your answer."

Kesha read, "I've known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers...."

That lesson always opened profound levels of dialogue. The downside was that adults were annoyed afterwards, as throughout the school students sang, "41 shots, 41 shots, 41 shots."

After curriculum alignment became the district's gospel, we had our only unfortunate experience with using Springsteen to engage students, to illustrate issues that we would study in Government and engage in "horizontal alignment" by helping English teachers to teach repetition, point of view, and metaphor.

During orientation, my class was watching Springsteen sing "American Skin." A high-level administrator appeared in my doorway, meaning that I could show off this great learning moment. I was pleased because I had feared that the day before I had angered the district leadership in general, and that person in particular. Bounding across the room, eager to share, I could not see the administrator's facial contortions. He or she rushed into the room and started berating me in front of my students. When I finally ushered the visitor into the hall, the administrator complained, "our kids don't have time for Bruce Springsteen."

Is this post an indirect way of addressing something that is hard to discuss in the blogosphere?

You bet. School "reform" is only one of the indignities that my kids face. The high-stakes testing that is driving meaningful instruction out of the urban classrooms is just one cross that my kids must carry. If I was back in the classroom, our discussions would be more frank. But, this is about as close to the Trayvon Martin verdict that I want to get at this point.