For the Love of Ballou

A couple months ago, The Washington Post ran a fascinating series of articles On Being a Black Man. There was one article I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. The article was the story of two African-American males, Wayne and Jachin, who just graduated from Balou High School, both star athletes, but also outstanding scholars. The article relates their journey through high school, and especially their efforts to promote good scholarship.

One of the things they did during their four years was work with fellow football team members to improve their grades. The result was that the grades of many football players increased, some to the point of earning membership into the National Honor Society.

Several were football players. And one was Jachin, who will always remember what some of the football players had said in heartbreaking sincerity to the coaches when, three years before, Wayne and Jachin were first introduced as examples:

“They smart. We dumb. We can’t get better.”

And Jachin’s reply: “That’s crazy. Anybody can get good grades. Just go to class and do your work.”

One of the points made by Postman and Weingartner in their powerful book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity is that teacher expectations matter for student performance.

Now the students at our institution are much stronger than those on the football team at Balou (aside from the two principals), but this article made me wonder about students at UMW who’ve been labeled C students or even B students. Do they think “we can’t get better?” And what does that mean–they can’t get better grades? They can’t learn more?

If so, how much of that is their fault, and how much of it is ours as instructors?

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