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Review: Whatever it Takes by Paul Tough

Title: Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's quest to change Harlem and America
Author: Paul Tough
Year Published: 2008

Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 283 plus notes and index
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Geography Connection (my Google Reading map): USA (New York)

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from my principal

Summary (from the back of the book): That was the question Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children--not one by one, but in big numbers, and in a way that could be replicated nationwide? The question led him to create the Harlem Children's Zone, a ninety-seven-block laboratory in central Harlem where he is testing new and sometimes controversial ideas about poverty in America. His conclusion: if you want poor kids to be able to compare with their middle-class peers, you need to change everything in their lives--their schools, their neighborhoods, even the child-rearing practices of their parents.

Review: I have already read Geoffrey Canada's book about his experiences growing up called Fist Stick Knife Gun and thought it was really interesting, so when my principal offered this book about Geoffrey Canada as one of our faculty summer reads I jumped at the chance.

This book is choc full of information about Geoffrey Canada, poverty in America, efforts by many groups to "fix" education, and how the Harlem Zone works (and doesn't). If you've seen the film Waiting for Superman you've seen Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem charter school. They have some lofty goals and have really made strides towards reaching their goal of infiltrating the 24 block area in Harlem and fixing what ails it.
  • Education alone won't fix poverty
  • Working with poor families must begin at the beginning: before the birth of children
  • We must work with all sectors of people's lives: health care; education; child rearing; job; etc
  • The people must work themselves and not just have outside forces come in to "fix" them
One of the most staggering statistics for me was the impact of vocabulary and speech on very small children. I will not have the exact numbers correct here, but middle and upper class families use language more, up to three times more than welfare families. While the middle and upper classes talk to their children, welfare parents tend not to as much. By age 3 middle and upper class children have vocabularies over 1000 words while welfare children have just over 500. Apparently birth to age 3 is one of the most important for development and potential and success in education.

That makes sense to me. As an educator at a high school I see that most students' behaviors, systems, and attitudes are already in place; it is difficult (but definitely not impossible) to turn things around. If we could get to all children before pre-school, what a difference it would make.

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