Penn Prof Helps Struggling Philadelphia Students

While politicians and activists argue over budgets and testing, Howard Stevenson talks to students.

While Philadelphia politicians, activists and researchers continue asking the same, tired questions about school reform, one bold professor has been asking a much simpler one: Can we talk?

“Can We Talk” is the name of a program run by Howard Stevenson, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, that is aimed at responding to the emotional needs of young students, particularly young African-Americans. For 25 years, Stevenson’s been the ears for “at-risk youth,” opening a dialogue between students and teachers in high-stress environments. His “racial literacy” is a conversation between students and teachers centered on the kinds of racial, financial and familial anxieties that so often plague students who go to school in urban communities.

“One of the reasons we have great ideas that don’t get done,” Stevenson insists, “is a lack of closeness with the students. Relationships usually are the ways that we learn to not know the future but still hang in there in hopes that it will be okay.”

Today, 66 percent of African-American children are born to single-parent families. In Pennsylvania, the number is 70 percent; and most of these single parents are mothers. Among African-American students in grades six to 12, 43 percent have been suspended from school.

In the city of Philadelphia, nine of every 10 shooting victims are African-American; most are between 18 and 20 years old. Seventy-five percent of school children, from the ages of 10 to 19, report having witnessed a shooting, stabbing, robbing or killing of another person.

Despite these tragic figures, Stevenson believes that our work might not be as hard as we’d expect it to be. In fact, it’s cut out for us: “It’s easier to bond with kids who are strikingly emotional,” he says, “because when you do it, it’s such a contrast to other things they’ve had in their lives, that you stand out.”

So, one of the central components of Can We Talk is role-playing. Stevenson or one of his colleagues will say to the students, “I’ll be your dad,” or “I’ll be the cop,” or “Son, I’m sorry I haven’t been around, I’m just wondering if I could spend some time with you.”

Within an hour, he’ll have children in tears. That’s not hard, he says. Some children will hurl curse words. They’ll yell, “Fuck you!” And Stevenson lets them wail. After, he puts on more of a teacher’s hat.

“How does my body react when I’m stressed: Do I get butterflies in my stomach? Do I feel my shoulders tighten up?” he’ll ask. He’ll tell them, “you should be angry when you’re feeling angry, you can’t always show it.”

Stevenson thinks we need to listen more. “If you’re afraid of the kids, it’s very hard to do … It’s an emotional process, not something you can do if you don’t have time.”

This is why, amid all the talks of unions, budgets, bureaucracy and test scores, we should push ourselves to take a much easier step in school reform. We can do it tomorrow: Open up an hour in the schedule, at the start of each day, for students and teachers in urban schools to talk. Just talk. We need to put the equivalent of Stevenson’s Can We Talk in the curriculum. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to know that a student who’s got something weighing on his mind is not going to be interested in algebra. The aforementioned statistics tell us that our inner-city youth have a lot on their minds. And we need to start listening.

Because as we continue to debate the tactics of the unions or the merits of standardized testing, real lives are being affected. We’re failing at giving so many of our youth a chance to thrive, and we should be ashamed. If you think we’ve tried everything and that nothing will work, then you don’t deserve a seat at the table. We need to fix this problem. It doesn’t take a bleeding heart to fix this problem, it takes a beating heart; and we’ve all got one. So let’s open our ears and get to work.