I recently had the opportunity to watch a video entitled Inside/Out, a 52 minute documentary that features prison inmates promoting the importance of education in contrast to the consequences of dropping out of school. The message is compelling, and I found myself welling up with tears several times. The educators and community members who made up the audience with me were emotionally moved as well; the documentary is powerful and thought provoking.(http://www.mattiecstewart.org/)
Personally, I have made no secret of the fact that my father was a junior high dropout. Over the years I've heard glamorous stories of him quitting school to support his large family - going to work delivering milk to rural North Carolina porches. However, when I envision my teenaged father, I think that he was probably pretty happy just to be out of school. One of my earliest memories is of the Student Data Sheet that I brought home every year on the first day of school. One of the required fields was always "highest grade completed by parents." Every year my mother would guess at the highest grade my father had attended. He was secretive about that part of his life. But later, as he fought bone marrow cancer, he would periodically be well enough to answer the nurse's intake questions at Duke Hospital. Once I heard the question, "What was the highest grade you completed in school?" And then his answer, "Seventh grade."
I trembled beside his hospital bed. Seventh Grade! I teach seventh grade! And as I stood there and thought about my students and the fact that not one of them is ready to be out on the streets, I realized that my father was most likely not ready either...
Again, the documentary makes an excellent case for staying in school, but I'm afraid the message was preaching to the choir. Those of us who were horrified by the lives of the prisoners on that screen are most likely not the type of people who would ever be incarcerated. The students I have who I consider at-risk for dropping out, however, are desensitized to this type of life. I hear it daily: "I have to go visit my daddy in jail" or "My uncle was put back in lock-up last night." These sidebars are common circumstance during our classroom discussions. This documentary is not going to "scare straight" my students. In fact, some of my kids have more shock value in their day to day lives than was depicted on the video.
A point the video attempted to make, and I'm paraphrasing here, is that those who drop out of school become illiterate citizens. The message seems to be "If you drop out of school you won't be able to read and write." However, I believe the opposite: those who struggle with reading and writing in school are more likely to turn to a lifestyle that puts them at-risk for jail. Clearly, the students I teach who just don't "get" the work are the students who have attendance and/or discipline problems. These same kids are the ones who are weary from the struggle and who eventually give up as soon as they are of legal age.
The documentary didn't mention one variable that I believe is important to dropout prevention. Students must feel that they are part of a community, a school family. The "outsiders," those without a group to share interests; these are the students we lose. Sometimes we lose them to school violence; other times they just leave and drift on the streets. Either way, we've set our communities up for a continuation of the cycle of poverty, a cycle that we must work tirelessly to break.
So will Inside/Out keep our kids in school? I believe that many students who are at-risk to drop out will think "I've heard this all before. What does this have to do with me?" But if this video changes the direction of just one student, it's worth it.
It's more important that we encircle our children with all the resources available. We have to call in tutors, counselors, social workers, mentors, and especially loving teachers who refuse to give up on kids. Circle the wagons around them, folks, and block the exits! Go at it like their lives depend on it...because they do.
Words of Farewell
12 years ago