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A FAMILY CONVERSATION OVER THANKSGIVING DINNER 

By Dr. Eugene Stovall

December 2, 2013 Oakland, California


“My principal asked me to mentor one of our school’s new teachers,” Eugene announces.

It’s been three years since Eleanore and I have had a Thanksgiving dinner with both of our children, at the same time. For a number of years, Eugene lived in Baltimore attending Johns Hopkins University and then teaching in the Baltimore Public Schools to reduce a portion of his student loans. Now Eugene is home, teaching at James Madison Junior High School in Brookfield Village, one of Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods,. 

“As a mentor teacher you’re going to learn a lot more about teaching now,” Eleanore comments. 

Eleanore knows a lot about mentoring new teachers. For five of her fifteen years as an elementary school teacher, she served as a mentor teacher through the Oakland School District’s new teacher support program. After receiving her credential as a Reading Specialist along with her MS Ed in 2008, this year she took a non classroom job assisting teachers with the new Common Core standards and Balanced Literacy pedagogies at Fruitvale School. 

“I’m already learning more than he is,” Eugene remarks. 

“What do you mean?” his mother asks. 

“The new Common Core curriculum puts so much pressure on both teachers and students that only those who have technology as well as classroom management skills can be successful,” Eugene replies. “Everyone else is being left behind.”

“Which seems to be the plan,” I remarked. 

“Whatever happened to “No Child Left Behind”? Jennifer snickers.

“If you’re “Racing To The Top” somebody has to be left behind,” I laugh. But knowing how I feel about Barack Obama no one comments on my pun. 

After a lapse in the conversation, Eleanore says, “If the students can’t read at the advanced levels the Common Core curriculum cannot advance their education. Successful Common Core implementation depends upon literate parents who read to their children and who read, themselves.” 

“And you don’t find much of that in Brookfield Village,” Eugene says. 

In Brookfield Village,” Eleanore says. “You don’t find that anywhere in Oakland. How many black parents do you know who can read and who also read to their children?” 

“Do you mean black parents?” I asked. 

“They’re too busy watching Tyler Perry and Scandal,” Jennifer laughed.

Eugene ignores the tangent in the conversation and continues with his train of thought. “My mentee graduated from Columbia and has technology skills but is having difficulty managing his classroom.”

“Technology is an essential learning tool …” Jennifer offers. 

As a college student, Jennifer uses her computer for everything from school registration and checking class schedules to research and sharing notes with her classmates.

“Dad bought you a computer for school,” Eugene retorts. “Some of my kids don’t even have one  computer in their homes.” He pauses, then he continues. “Some of my kids don’t have homes.” 

“What do you mean?” Jennifer asks. 

“The new teacher that I mentor was having trouble with one of his students so I gave him some intervention strategies ____ one of which was to have the parent come to school and observe the student in class once or twice a week.” 

“What happened?”

“At first, the student began to improve. She became attentive and attempted to do her work. But then things started to deteriorate.”

“Deteriorate how?” Eleanore ask 

“When the student didn’t turn her homework in on time, my teacher penalized her,” Eugene said. 

“Why didn’t you suggest to your mentee that he allow the student do her homework in class?” 

“I did…”

“And..?” 

“He was inflexible,” Eugene explained. “He said that his students needed to understand that homework was to be done at home.”

“So then what happened,” Eleanore asked. 

“The student’s mother stopped coming to class and the student relapsed into her old behaviors.” 

“Well that’s too bad.” I said. “But you know you can’t save them all.” 

Eugene gave me a strange look before continuing. “Last week I noticed that the student hadn’t come to school for several days so I asked my mentee if he knew what happened to her.” 

Eugene hesitated after that, as if weighing whether or not to say anything further . So for a long time he was preoccupied with his food. He had to be prodded into saying anything more.

Finally, after waiting as long as she could, Jennifer asked, “So what happened?”

Eugene sighed. “The student’s mother had been shot and killed and the student was being held by Child Protective Services in Juvenile Hall.”