I have mentioned it before and it is a concept that I will return to again and again; the issue of equality in opportunity to learn. Today, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on a short story I once wrote that relates directly to the main topic: considering whether all learners have equal opportunity to learn and succeed.
You won’t have a chance to read the actual story. It is stored somewhere so safe that the best minds are yet to uncover it. You must instead rely upon my synopsis. As far as the setting, the story takes place in inner city San Diego in the late 1990s. It is a low socio-economic community with issues common to the time: drugs, gangs, racial tensions and the working poor. I was teaching at a high school in the community when I wrote the story.
The story itself is an appropriation of “Eveline” by James Joyce. In Joyce’s tale, the main character - Eveline - is a young woman who is sitting forlornly in front of a dilapidated house in a crowded street in Dublin. Her mother has passed away, and she left behind a baby girl, Eveline’s sister. Eveline’s brothers have moved out of home, her father is a drunkard, and she is now responsible for raising her baby sister whilst working part-time and avoiding her father’s abuse. Her opportunities are fairly limited by poverty, circumstance and the expectations placed on a woman of the times (early 1900s).
In the story, Eveline is approached by a “fellow” who confesses his love for her, and promises to take her away from this misery and start a new life overseas. We might expect her to rush towards this door of apparent freedom, but she doesn’t. At the critical moment where she is to board a ship bound for the New World, she stands frozen on the docks and she watches the fellow leave her behind. We don’t know if she stays due to a promise she made to her mother - "to hold the house together" - or her fear that she would face another type of servitude as a wife in a foreign land. Eveline’s opportunities are severely limited by complex factors, which serve to paralyse her.
In my appropriation - “Jinicia Sings the Blues” - my main character - Jinicia - is a young African American women - aged 18 or so - leaning on a railing outside her house, watching her younger brother deftly navigate a local game of street soccer. Inside the house, Jinicia’s baby sister is asleep. Her dedicated father is at work, and he works three jobs just to pay the bills. Her mother left the family with another man. And her older brother was shot dead in a gangland dispute a couple years ago. Meanwhile, Jinicia watches her younger, talented brother with a mixture of pride, envy and pity. He is good at school, good at sport and is a born leader. She wants him to dribble the ball down the block and out of the neighbourhood and never look back. She is afraid that the community will eventually swallow him up in some minimum wage job or worse, and that the dream of a scholarship to college will be left unrealised. Jinicia is a clever young woman who wavers between hope and fear, and can’t help battle a deep cynicism. The story ends as she walks back into the house to cradle her waking sister, who she also looks upon with both love and trepidation.
At one stage, I entertained the thought of extending the story. I thought of introducing a character from the other side of the tracks, or across the bridge in the wealthy peninsular community of Coronado. I imagined Jinicia reflecting on the differences in the two worlds. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from thinking, “would my older brother still be alive if we could have bailed him out of his trouble? would I even worry about my younger brother if our circumstances were different?”
I think the story cuts right to the heart of the Opportunity to Learn issue. Whilst the story might not be about literacy, it engages with an issue raised by Donaldo Macedo, “reading specialists … who have made technical advancement in the field of reading … [must] make linkages between their self-contained technical reading methods and the social and political realities that generate unacceptably high failure reading rates among certain groups of students.” (Macedo, 2001, pg xiii)
If the components of reading development are known (National Reading Panel and others), why is it that success rates are directly linked to differences in socio-economic factors and not to differences in cognitive functioning or personal motivation? (Chiu, McBride-Chang & Lin, 2012) We need to know, “the sociological processes which control the way the developing child relates himself to his environment. It requires an understanding of how certain areas of experience are differentiated, made specific and stabilised … What seems to be needed is the development of a theory of social learning which would indicate what in the environment is available for learning, the conditions of learning, the constraints on subsequent learning, and the major reinforcing process.” (Bernstein, 1964, pg. 55)
As stated by James Paul Gee, “caring about [students’] rights means caring … about the trajectories of learners as they develop … as part of communities of practice, engaged in mind, body, and culture, and not just as repositories of skills, facts, and information.” (2008, pg 105) We must be ever diligent on issues of equity, both in enhancing opportunities and respecting diversity. We must be conscious of the socioeconomic, motivational and neurocognitive factors that are brought to bear on learning. We must be mindful of the impacts of poverty, discrimination and instability. The conditions for success are multifaceted, long and intricate.
Bernstein, B. (1964). Elaborated and Restricted Codes: Their Social Origins and Some Consequences. American Anthropologist, 66(6_PART2), 55–69.
Chiu, M. M., McBride-Chang, C., & Lin, D. (2012). Ecological, psychological, and cognitive components of reading difficulties: testing the component model of reading in fourth graders across 38 countries. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45(5), 391–405.
Gee, J. P. (2008). A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. Haertel, & L. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76 – 108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Macedo, D. (2001). Foreword. In P. Freire (Ed.), Pedagogy of freedom: ethics, democracy and civic courage (pp. xi – xxxii). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.