‘Paradise Lost’ in Baltimore

“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”

“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.

His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”

“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”

But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.

He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.

So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis.  The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.

 I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.

Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . .  all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.

Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.

Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.

“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.

When education isn’t the equalizer

Most Baltimore first graders classified as “urban disadvantaged” remained poor as adults, concludes a Johns Hopkins study. Less than half completed high school on time and only 4 percent earned a college degree. By the age of 28, just 33 of 314 reached the middle class.

Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.

Education “did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off,” notes the Washington Post.

Low-income white boys didn’t go far in school, but earned higher incomes than their black classmates. They were able to “tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore,” researchers found.

These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks.

Danté Washington, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, is one of the few success stories. His father died of liver problems when he was 12. A mediocre student with a short temper, he was “in and out of modest trouble.” But he finished high school on time. And he’s always worked.

Washington had a son when he was 17, and he has worked nearly every day since. He worked at Au Bon Pain, then MCI, and for many years since, at a publishing company in sales and business development.

When the Johns Hopkins researchers last interviewed him, he only had a high school degree. But in 2013, he finished a bachelor’s in business, earned at night at Strayer University. He owns his own home and, notably as he drives through his old neighborhood, a Lexus.

He wants to become a financial adviser, so that he can talk with people in communities such as this one about the things no one discusses here: retirement, equity, savings.

What made the difference for Washington? His mother had a steady job for the school district. In high school, he participated in programs for students interested in business, including a summer program on the campus of Morgan State University.

Dante Washington is seen in the backyard of his home. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Poor kids do worse in Baltimore than India

It’s harder to be a poor teenager in Baltimore than in Nigeria or India, according to a Johns Hopkins study, reports Vocativ.

Researchers analyzed health challenges faced by 2,400 15- to 19-year-olds from impoverished areas in Baltimore, Shanghai, Johannesburg (South Africa), Ibadan (Nigeria) and New Delhi.

Baltimore's slums are not far from skyscrapers (AP Photo)

Baltimore’s slums are not far from affluent areas (AP Photo)

In Baltimore, “adolescents exhibited considerably high rates of mental health issues, substance abuse, sexual risk-taking, sexual violence and teen pregnancy.” Johannesburg teens also fared poorly.

Baltimore and Johannesburg teens “don’t feel safe from violence,” said Kristen Mmari, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor. By contrast, Shanghai adolescents had little to fear from violence.

Half of young females in the Baltimore study said they’d been pregnant.

I suspect it’s harder to be poor in a wealthy country.

Poverty casts a long shadow

Poor kids usually grow up to be poor adults, concludes The Long Shadow. Johns Hopkins researchers followed 790 Baltimore first-graders until their late twenties. Nearly half had the same income status as their parents; only a third of the poorest moved out of poverty.

Four percent of those from low-income families had a college degree at 28, compared to 45 percent of their higher-income peers.

Baltimore’s low-income blacks do worse than low-income whites, writes Michelle Gininger.

Forty percent of blacks who dropped out of high school were now working, compared to 89 percent of white high school dropouts, the study found.

Black and white women both earned less than their male counterparts, but white women tended to be better off financially with the benefit of marriage or a live-in partner. Black women earned less than white women and were less likely to be in stable relationships.

Growing up poor affects adults’ sense of control, concludes a new study. Even those who’ve reached the middle class may be more likely to make impulsive decisions and “quickly give up on challenging tasks in uncertain situations,” according to lead author Chiraag Mittal, MS, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota.

Showing participants a photo or news story about economic uncertainty decreased persistence for those who’d grown up poor. So did asking them to recall feeling uncertain about their own finances.

Participants were more likely to persist — even if they’d grown up poor –when asked to recall a time when they were in control of a situation.

“Persistence is directly tied to myriad important outcomes, including self-control, academic achievement, substance abuse, criminal behavior, healthy eating and overspending,” said study co-author Vladas Griskevicius, PhD, also of the University of Minnesota.

However, persistence at an impossible task isn’t necessarily a good thing, the researchers concede. “Time and energy are limited resources, and sometimes it is adaptive to stop expending effort on an endeavor one cannot control in order to pursue more promising opportunities.”

Childhood’s ‘long shadow’

Only 4 percent of low-income Baltimore children had earned a college degree by age 28, concludes a Johns Hopkins study that followed 790 first graders for 22 years. Forty-five percent of higher-income children went on to earn a degree.

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander says The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth and the Transition to Adulthood.

White men from low-income backgrounds were less likely to attend college, but more likely to find well-paying blue-collar jobs. At age 28, 45 percent were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds.

At age 18, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black drop-outs.

White women from low-income backgrounds were much more likely than black women to be in stable family unions with a working spouse or partner.

At age 28, 49 percent of black men and 41 percent of white men from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction. But whites were much more likely to be working because of their stronger social networks, the study found.

Reading, writing and (urban) renewal

Can a new public school save a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood? In Reading, Writing and Renewal (the Urban Kind), the New York Times looks at a Baltimore school that was designed to be the “centerpiece of a major redevelopment project.”

Operated by Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with Morgan State University, the school, which opened in January, belongs to a $1.8 billion plan that also includes new science and technology buildings, a park, retail development and mixed-income housing. While gentrification might threaten to displace the poor, the school is to be the glue that helps bind the district together.

Built for 720 children, the school includes an early-childhood center for infants and toddlers and a grade school that runs through eighth grade. A community center, library, auditorium and gym will be open to the public outside of school hours.

Don’t blame schools for violence

“To end the killing” — 141 murders so far this year — a Baltimore Sun editorial called for  “effective police and prosecutors, ample drug treatment, better schools, and more economic opportunities.”

Don’t blame the schools, responded Dave Miceli, a veteran teacher, in a letter to the editor.

I have taught in the Baltimore public school system for the past two decades. What we need is better students. We have many excellent teachers. I cannot count the number of students who have physically destroyed property in the schools. They have trashed brand new computers, destroyed exit signs, set multiple fires, destroyed many, many lockers, stolen teachers’ school supplies, written their filth on the tops of classroom desks, defecated in bathrooms and stairwells, assaulted teachers (beyond constantly telling them to perform certain impossible acts upon themselves) and refused to do any homework or classwork.

Miceli blames the crime rate on “a total disregard for life” in Baltimore and other cities.

Who’s responsible for a culture of violence? I’d look to parents.

Retraining is tough for ex-steelworkers

When RG Steel closed in Baltimore, laying off 2,000 well-paid steelworkers, Community College of Baltimore County offered workers a chance to retool. But college was a hard sell, despite federal retraining aid for displaced workers. “It’s a group of men who think college is for other people,” says Brian Penn, who runs the college’s heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and energy technology program.

Baltimore: Cut suspensions, get a bonus

The “Baltimore school system is paying bonuses to teachers and administrators at struggling schools that reduce suspensions for non-violent offenses, drawing criticism from union leaders who say the program could provide a financial incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety,” reports the Baltimore Sun. Teachers also can earn more if their schools reduce truancy and absenteeism.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she fears that the bonuses could exacerbate the problem of educators feeling pressure to keep suspension numbers down, sometimes at the expense of maintaining order in the classroom.

“I’m worried about the safety of our teachers,” English said. “When you offer a bonus for something like that, you are putting a price on what’s going to happen around safety in a school.”

So far, 72 teachers and assistant principals have been given bonuses of $5,000 to $9,500; two principals received  $3,000 each. Teachers must have satisfactory evaluations and attendance rates to qualify for a bonus.

Baltimore is using $695,000 in federal Race to the Top funds to pay for the program.

Teaching for America in the ‘Terrordome’

After Teach for America’s five-week teacher boot camp, Heather Kirn Lanier was assigned to a Baltimore high school known as “The Terrordome.”  Students roamed the hallways or barged into classes to disrupt lessons. While she was teaching one day, a student lit her classroom door on fire. Her book, Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach for America, recalls her frustrations at Southwestern High School, now closed.

Southwestern was too big and impersonal, Lanier tells the Baltimore Sun.

A small, close-knit community, where the principal knows every single student by name and where the teachers work in teams, would have been helpful. It wasn’t until I got to know my students and their problems that things started to click.

Lanier praises the teachers who stayed on the job, avoiding burnout. After two years, Lanier left K-12 teaching. After earning a master’s degree in creative writing, she taught remedial reading and writing to immigrant Berkeley students.