Wednesday, March 12, 2014

For All You Fans of The Wire Out There

          I took a class last semester about race and social justice issues through the lens of the critically acclaimed HBO show The Wire. Here's a snippet (quotations and footnotes excluded) about the value of Urban Debate Leagues - even the writers of the show knew how great high school debate is! 

          School-after-school activities offer “corner kids”—and others that might be alienated by the rigid hierarchical structures of “gen pop” classes—the opportunity to become more engaged with the world and to change the trajectory of their lives. Throughout The Wire, Namond Bryce’s developing sense of belonging and empowerment mirrors his character’s arc. His “ability to join the new world and his inability to follow the script of the street are interrelated.” When taken out the “prison” that he believes the “gen pop” classrooms represent and brought into the experimental classroom, the children, especially Namond, become much more animated and engaged in discussing the world they know—“the game.” Fielding a question from Major Colvin about why no one can ever give anybody a break on the street, Namond parrots the street mantra that “if you let him slide for a dollar, it’s a sign that you’re weak. Today’s dollar is tomorrow’s two.” Yet, that increased level of engagement enables Namond to see connections to the larger world when Major Colvin asks the students to write down some of the rules of the “the game”:
Like you all say: don’t lie, don’t bunk, don’t cheat, don’t steal, or whatever. But what about y’all, huh? What, the government? What’s it—Enron? Steroids? Yeah, liquor business. Booze, the real killer out there. And cigarettes? Oh, shit. Hey, you got some smokes in there? . . . And drugs, pays your salary right (pointing to Colvin). We do the same thing as ya’ll, except when we do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, these kids is animals.’ Man, that’s bullshit . . .What’s it – hypocrite, hypocritical?
Joe Chappelle, The Wire, Episode 4.08.
Traditional school programs, and reform efforts, have failed to provide urban students with similar opportunities for engagement with the curriculum. Perhaps more important than problems such as the narrow focus on “juking the stats” and “teaching to the test” (or, “curricular alignment,” as a school superintendent in Season 4 refers to it), urban youth are all too often marginalized from society and alienated by the their classroom experiences. While these marginalized students certainly need to improve basic academic skills, the substance of their education should provide an outlet for them to express their identities and take ownership over their own education and maturation. In other words, schools must emphasize ways to equip students with “not just the tools of the academy, but also the tools of empowerment.”
Extra-curricular activities, such as after-school athletics, are common outlets for students to learn critical lessons about team-building, hard work, sacrifice, and discipline. Equally importantly, they keep students off the street and give a fortunate group of them an avenue out of their neighborhoods and into college by virtue of athletic scholarships. Participation in athletics is not for everyone though, and athletics is not a panacea in and of itself. There must be other avenues for education and empowerment, particularly those that are more directly tied to helping students develop academic skills and engage meaningfully with the world around them. Unfortunately, many other extra-curricular activities (and even athletics sometimes) are often the first on the chopping block when budgetary cuts must be made and/or when schools panic to reallocate all available resources to the “basics.” This paper implores schools to avoid such rash decisions when it comes to successful activities and programs; specifically, this paper will focus on expanding debate programs at inner-city schools.
Debate—an “academic sport” that helps students build reading, research, communication, and critical thinking skills—provides urban youth with a competitive outlet that empowers them to succeed in school, college, and their careers. Through the efforts of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues and other organizations, Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) now thrive in more than nineteen cities in the United States. By teaching urban youth how to think, communicate, and collaborate, and by providing them with constant opportunities to receive feedback and support, UDLs can transform these students educational career and their lives by inciting their passion for learning. This passion creates synergy with their school coursework, and helps students engage positively with the world around them.
Namond’s turnaround—capped off by the Season 5 scene featuring his speech about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa at the Baltimore Urban Debate League championship—can be attributed to his finding an outlet through which he could express himself. This process started with the “school-within-a-school” experimental classroom with the rest of students that were too disruptive for “gen pop” classes. Obviously, the importance of Bunny Colvin’s adoption of Namond cannot be overlooked. Having a responsible role model and stable parental figure in his life facilitated his maturation and gave him space to find himself that he did not have when he was trying so hard to live up to the legacy of his father. Yet, participating (and succeeding) in the Baltimore Urban Debate League ostensibly granted Namond the opportunity to exercise autonomy and control, to learn that he can succeed, and to feel an enhanced sense of belonging.
Namond’s experience, like much of The Wire, is not pure fiction. His story plays itself out every day in urban schools around the country. Urban Debate Leagues help smart students that may have struggled in school, had poor attendance records, and a history of disciplinary problems turn their lives around. Statistics convincingly demonstrate that more debate leads to better grades, higher standardized test scores, and higher graduation rates.