I am a big fan of NPR’s weekly podcast This American Life, which is essentially an hour-long show about lives in America that often highlights, features, and does investigate journalism into some of the biggest social, governmental, and human problems facing America nowadays. Being particularly interested myself in education and the current horrendous state it is in of reflecting institutionally racist and classist policies, I thought I would share a few episodes that have deeply touched me and give good looks into what American education actually looks like nowadays and historically. Particularly wonderful in This American Life’s style of journalism, I think, is that it really focuses on the human beings involved in the stories and their feelings and needs, which is far too often overlooked or swept under the rug.
Best ones I’ve listened to:
#1a & 1b) The Problem We All Live With – “Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program. First of a two-part series.” I cannot recommend this highly enough and from my experience in schools ranging from the most expensive undergraduate university in the United States to a Level I Chicago Public School serving a 95% African-American and Latinx population to here in Budapest, Hungary, I would say that this is a fundamentally important idea whose realization would be one of the most positive social changes that could happen in our lifetime. Crucial questions raised in this episode of what really determines success, what life opportunities are available to which people, and why things are the way they are.
#2) Three Miles – “There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better” -> Another important story about the vastly different qualities of school systems across the US.
Ones which I have not gotten to, but need to and plan to:
#3) Two Steps Back – “Ten years ago, when he was still a reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered, host Ira Glass did a year-long series on a Chicago public school where things were getting better. Test scores were rising. Students were motivated. Last year, changes at the school dismantled some of the programs that had made for the school’s success, and one of the best teachers in the school is thinking about quitting. We devote the whole hour to this story, about the rise and fall of school reform.” Obviously important to anybody who is thinking of going into a high-needs district or getting involved in the serious change that needs to occur in (especially urban) education.
#4a&b) Harper High School Parts One and Two – “We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances. We found so many incredible and surprising stories, this show is a two-parter…We pick up where we left off last week in our second hour from Harper High School in Chicago. We find out if a shooting in the neighborhood will derail the school’s Homecoming game and dance. We hear the origin story of one of Harper’s gangs. And we ask a group of teenagers: where do you get your guns? Harper has set up a donation page here.” -> A school a mere 20 minutes by car, 45 minutes by public transit away from my apartment and home university and, in fact, named after its first President; despite this, I have never been to it, never met or interacted with any of its students, and am largely disconnected from it by the respective communities that we live in, Hyde Park being patrolled by and under the jurisdiction of a private police force.
Others I’ve listened to and/or are tangentially related to education, but super recommended:
#5) “Ïs This Working?” – “Stories of schools struggling with what to do with misbehaving kids. There’s no general agreement about what teachers should do to discipline kids. And there’s evidence that some of the most popular punishments actually may harm kids.” – an interesting and fun topic not quite as serious as those above it, however the stories contained within bring up similar questions and issues about how our society is actually organized and to what degree schools reflect or could change that.
#6) Harold – “A parable of politics and race in America. The story of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, told two decades after his death. Washington died on November 25, 1987.” A very thorough look at one of the defining moments of change in Chicago, and the backlash it was met with, as well as bringing up the questions of how much our environment has changed since those times. Especially important for understanding education in Chicago in terms of historical context.
#7) A Not-So-Simple Majority – “We take it for granted that the majority calls the shots. But in one NY school district, that idea — majority rules — has led to an all-out war. School board disputes are pretty common, but not like this one. This involves multimillion-dollar land deals, lawyers threatening to beat up parents, felony criminal charges, and the highest levels of state government. Meanwhile, the students are caught in the middle.”