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Is the notion that children in impoverished inner cities suffer academically a stereotype or a cultural fact? Schools in these poor communities are often at a disadvantage due to violence and vandalism, as well as a lack of funding and qualified teachers willing to put themselves into sometimes daunting situations. Families living in lower-class areas commonly have more than one child and live in unfortunate housing situations and conditions. By stereotyping all inner-city children to be of this environment, we are propagating common misconceptions of how we perceive and value each other.
Many filmmakers rely heavily on one-dimensional, over-simplified portrayals of people or groups of people for the purpose of quickly and easily establishing a movie character’s traits. Evidence of this use of labels can be found in the 2006 motion picture The Ron Clark Story. The made-for-television film follows the inspiring tale of an energetic, creative, and idealistic teacher who leaves his small North Carolina hometown to teach in the sixth grade at a public school in Harlem.
Through his passionate use of special rules for his classroom, highly innovative teaching techniques, and an undying devotion to his students which includes helping them cope with their problems, Clark is able to make a remarkable difference in the lives of the children. Even when Clark is overcome with pneumonia, he continues to work with his class via videotaped lessons, hoping that he can raise their test scores to an acceptable level, or possibly even higher. In the end, Mr. Clark’s class not only passes the state exams, but scores even higher than the school’s “Honors” class.
The Ron Clark Story is bursting with stereotypes touching upon poverty, racial tension, and inner-city education. After Clark arrives at the school he will eventually teach at, the principal introduces him to the “Honors” class. The students in this class are portrayed as orderly and learned. Meanwhile, Clark is focused on the “lower-achieving” class across the hall, which is mostly comprised of black and Hispanic children. The students in this group are depicted as unruly, disrespectful, and unconcerned with education.
When Clark establishes that he would like to take on the challenge of teaching these kids, the principal responds, “You can’t be serious. All of these students have problems with learning, discipline, and social skills. ” The stereotypes shown in this portion of the movie try to instill the concept that poor minorities, specifically blacks and Hispanics, are disorderly in the classroom and tend not to achieve as highly academically as students of other racial and economic backgrounds. But is this stereotype in fact true? Author and educator Ruby K. Payne believes so.
According to Payne, poor children exhibit certain “behaviors related to poverty,” which entail laughing when disciplined as a “way to save face in matriarchal poverty,” physically fighting because they “do not have a language or belief system to use conflict resolution,” not following directions because “little procedural memory is used in poverty” (Sato and Lensmire). Rather than blaming the negative effects of stereotypes as the reason poor children often fall below average on standardized tests, some academic writers instead claim that the lackluster teaching provided in low-income schools is at fault.
Alfie Kohn, author of “Poor Teaching for Poor Children… In the Name of School Reform,” expresses that one reason poverty-stricken students struggle in school is due to low-quality teaching strategies. The problem isn’t that their education lacks “rigor”—in fact, a single-minded focus on “raising the bar” has served mostly to push more low-income youths out of school—but that it lacks depth and relevance and the capacity to engage students.
As Deborah Stipek, the dean of Stanford University’s school of education, once commented, drill-and-skill instruction isn’t how middle-class children got their edge, so “why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn’t help middle-class kids in the first place? ” Mistilina Sato and Timothy J. Lensmire, writers of “Poverty and Payne: Supporting Teachers to Work with Children of Poverty,” also disagree with Payne’s statement.
They feel that the problem is not whether the students have the ability to achieve success academically, but that many educators do not teach in a “culturally responsive” manner. “Children from poverty are being labeled with deficit-laden characteristics that put them at risk of being viewed as less capable, less cultured, and less worthy as learners,” they explain. “Rather than dwelling on children’s perceived deficits, we believe teachers should be encouraged to focus instead on children’s competence as cultural and intellectual people.
” Themes from The Ron Clark Story also relate very well with bell hooks’s essay “Seeing and Making Culture: Representing the Poor. ” Several scenes in the film refer to hooks’s quote, “If [the poor] cannot escape poverty, then they have no choice but to drown in the image of a life that is valueless. ” For instance, when Mr. Clark informs Shameika’s mother that he believes her daughter is capable of great things, she is taken aback since she had never even considered that her daughter had any potential.
This type of negative thinking is also displayed when the principal tells Clark that he doubts the children will do well on the upcoming standardized tests. “They’ll be your problem now,” he says. An angry Clark retorts, “Every one of my students will pass. The problem isn’t the kids; it’s not even what they can achieve. The problem is what you expect them to achieve! ” As Sato and Lensmire would conclude, even though it is possible that the kids can meet their goals on the exams, many people judge poor students to be incapable of doing well in school.
While poverty in this film is more the cultural norm in this Harlem elementary school than a stereotype, the movie does go on to portray the black children as tough and disrespectful, as Payne’s views would show. This oversimplification of a group does not allow for diversity among individuals. In the same way, the previous teacher of this class, a black man, “ran away” from teaching them. He did not want to put himself in danger, nor did he think the children could amount to much more. At that moment, along comes Mr.
Clark, a young, energetic white man who believes in these kids and knows they can rise to their full potential if given the chance. This “white man saves the day” theme could be considered another stereotype in the movie if not for the fact that The Ron Clark Story is based on true events. A passage from “Poverty and Payne” states: Based on this depiction of the poor, educators become perfectly situated to take on the role of middle-class, primarily white, saviors of children in poverty by being “good” role models, and teaching these children the so-called hidden rules of middle-class.
Through the objectification of the poor, educators are implicitly positioned as the true historical subjects with ability to act in creating social change. In the end of the movie—when the students not only meet, but surpass their standardized test goals—there is an overwhelming feeling of pride and accomplishment in the classroom. All of their families have gathered for an awards ceremony, where Mr. Clark gives out trophies distinguishing their individual accomplishments for that year.
This directly ties in with bell hooks’s disagreement over the misconception that “value is achieved when material accomplishment is achieved. Worth is gained only by material success. ” These children put a high value on their educational achievements and their self-worth is elevated through their success. Their poverty level and their problems still remain; however they now feel that there is a chance to actually have a better life for themselves since they are on the same playing field with the better educated students. The controversy over education in lower-income areas continues.
Academic writers throughout the country still debate what factor is at fault for poor students suffering academically. Is their low achievement because of negative stereotypic portrayals or because of uninspiring teaching tactics? It is still hard to separate the two claims. While stereotypes in the media might lower a student’s expectations of himself, poor education does not help his situation. There may never be a definite answer to this problem, but there are certainly some suggestions from both sides to help remedy the situation.
References hooks, bell. “Seeing and Making Culture: Representing the Poor. ” Print. 28 Sept. 2011. Kohn, Alfie. “Poor Teaching for Poor Children… In the Name of School Reform. ” Education Week 27 Apr. 2011: 32-34. Academic Search Elite. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <http://web. ebscohost. com/ehost/detail? sid=2153518f-ae24-47fe-880e-a28bb38634e7%40sessionmgr14&vid=2&hid=111&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=afh&AN=60767583>. Payne, Ruby K. “Poverty Does Not Restrict a Student’s Ability to Learn. ” Phi Delta Kappan 01 Jan.
2009: 371-72. Academic Search Elite. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://web. ebscohost. com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer? sid=2538705a-f74b-4fab-a7cc-c770febef54f%40sessionmgr110&vid=2&hid=127>. Sato, Mistilina, and Timothy J. Lensmire. “Poverty and Payne: Supporting Teachers to Work with Children of Poverty. ” Phi Delta Kappan 01 Jan. 2009: 365-70. Academic Search Elite. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://web. ebscohost. com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer? sid=6f58c2be-6877-4491-a11d-20fea288714d%40sessionmgr113&vid=8&hid=15>.