Staff Book Club: Whatever It Takes

I was thinking it would be nice to start some discussions for faculty via a summer reading opportunity. As we move forward, it is important to have collegial discussions about pertinent topics related to our ongoing school improvement efforts for all students.

Here is our next book…Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

Prompts to consider:

  • How much knowledge and cultural literacy must a person have to serve diverse communities?  Do our schools teach students and staff to not only appreciate diversity but work in diverse locales? (from the discussion questions of the YNPN Book Club)
  • What can be done within the San Marcos community to bring some of the ideas and practices described in the book to SMHS?

Please add your replies to our blog.



Book Description (via Amazon): What would it take? That was the question that Geoffrey Canada found himself asking. What would it take to change the lives of poor children—not one by one, through heroic interventions and occasional miracles, 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 compete 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.

Whatever It Takes is a tour de force of reporting, an inspired portrait not only of Geoffrey Canada but of the parents and children in Harlem who are struggling to better their lives, often against great odds. Carefully researched and deeply affecting, this is a dispatch from inside the most daring and potentially transformative social experiment of our time.


4 thoughts on “Staff Book Club: Whatever It Takes

  1. I just finished this book and think it has some really great ideas. I have also read Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada, which tells his life story of growing up in gangs and getting himself out. He was also featured in Waiting for Superman. So, I didn’t think I was going to get a whole lot of new information. However, like our students, hearing the same thing a few times is what helps it stick in my brain.

    Geoffrey Canada knows that we need to fix everything about an area in order for students in poor areas like Harlem to do well. They need parenting classes, social workers available, caring teachers, and more. What I liked best about this book is the idea of starting before the kids are even born. Canada figures that when mom is pregnant she should start taking classes in child development. At 18 months to two years the child should enroll in a pre-school that leads into a pre-K program and then into the K-12 system. When all of those levels work together and include parent education aspects our chances at success vastly increase. Starting at the middle school or high school level it is extremely difficult to make major changes in a student’s attitude and academic abilities.

    What I found most astounding was the data on very early (birth to age 3) verbal exposure. Turns out that middle class and upper class children have two to three times more exposure to words through family conversation, reading, and general discussions than do poor children (pages 42-43).

  2. Yes, this is what THRIVE Westside is working to achieve at McKinley, Harding, La Cumbre and San Marcos. Harding has early childhood education for students in their attendance area. They are working to make sure students are kindergarten ready. McKinley has been doing a lot of work with families in their attendance area with the AVANCE program. We are collaborating with La Cumbre on the Project College Bound (Posse) Program. Once the students matriculate through we should see some major gains.

  3. I just finished the book and I too found it extremely interesting. I have heard about the Harlem Children’s Zone before, but didn’t know the details of what went into it. It is truly an inspiring story with many lessons for folks in education. I believe there are three main points that we should take from the book as a staff.

    #1: as Helen said, the data on language is astonishing. To think that at age one almost all kids have the same amount of measurable language skills, yet by age three the differences are huge is a revelation. It is so important to have early language development. Geoffrey Canada has addressed this gap through his baby-college and pre-kindergarten programs in a phenomenal way. I am so glad we are partnering up with local organizations to pursue similar strategies. Canada’s frustrations moving junior high children up in math and reading are mirrored by our own frustrations trying to improve test scores for all students. Interventions must happen early and often. We cannot wait until high school to address learning gaps. The evidence indicates that even junior high is way too late. However, the reality is that we are doing just that, and we need to try our hardest to help as many students as we can.

    #2: We have to use a two-pronged strategy to deal with students whose parents are unable or unwilling to help them out. As Canada says, most parents whose children fall behind simply don’t know what they need to know. The two pronged strategy is 1) to not blame the parent, or use parenting as an excuse, and 2) to try our best to get parents involved as much as possible. Too many times I have heard teachers use parenting as an excuse for the child not being successful. I have heard this referred to as victim speak and it does nothing to help teach the students. Teachers that engage in this behavior are playing the victim role instead of helping the child succeed. We must eliminate such victim speak. The kids are who they are and the parents are who they are. We can’t change either. We need to help all kids succeed, period. We also have a responsibility to try and get all parents as involved with their students education as possible. We need to communicate efficiently and often. We need to offer opportunities for them to be involved. Too often, the teachers that lament the role of parents are the ones that communicate with them the least. The 2nd principal at Canada’s junior high was an inspiration in this regard.

    #3: To truly implement educational reform, we must look at DATA. Canada’s schools are well funded. They are funded above anything we will ever see at public schools in California. However, even that level of funding had little effect on educational outcomes until they began using data to specifically target academic needs of their students. We need to utilize data more and then specifically address student needs based on that data. I thought we did a pretty good job last year beginning to work with data, but we really need to up the ante. We also need to continue working on specific interventions for academic weaknesses. Study hall and study skills class must become more personalized to each students needs or we need to come up with a structure that will. I believe that soon we will need to consider all of our programs and structures, including the sacred cow – our schedule, and determine the best way to help students. I believe this third lesson is the most important one our school can take from the book.

    Thanks for reading if you got this far. It really is a worthwhile read.

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