She's got two graduate degrees in education from Harvard University and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for the research she's doing at Morgan State University, but Louisiana-born Lisa Delpit says the biggest influence in how she thinks about the problems of urban education has been her mother.
"She's an amazing person," Dr. Delpit says of her mother, 75, a retired schoolteacher who taught math in Baton Rouge, La., for many years. "My mother had a very strong commitment to education and always thought of her students as a family. She knew who her kids were and taught them by relating book learning to everyday, real life."
In a way, that's the basic premise underlying many of Dr. Delpit's theories and recommendations about how teachers in urban schools can most effectively teach classes comprised of children from widely diverse cultural backgrounds. Dr. Delpit, a tall, attractive, 38-year-old senior research associate at Morgan's Institute for Urban Research, believes that such cultural differences play an important role in determining how teachers teach and how students learn. She describes this aspect of her research as having to do with "multicultural education."
Which brings up this question: Would she tell us what "multicultural education" means?
"Basically it means we live in a society where there are many cultures, many ethnicities. And that's increasing," she says. "The demographics of this country are changing dramatically. But I think what isn't changing is that most of us don't have a very good idea of how other cultures think about anything."
This lack of information about each other, says Dr. Delpit -- who has worked in cultures as diverse as Papua New Guinea and inner-city Philadelphia -- often results in cultural misunderstandings: "The same experience might mean very different things to people of different cultures. And if you don't know that, you may assume a person is acting belligerent or ignoring you, or is mean or doesn't like you -- when actually there's a whole other set of cultural understandings going on in that person. So part of the work I do is trying to make translations among different cultural groups; trying to help people of different cultural groups understand what is going on in settings that have different cultures within them."
She says, laughingly, that she thinks it is her work in this area that last July prompted the prestigious, Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation to name her, along with 35 other recipients around the country, as a MacArthur Fellow. The telephone call from the Foundation came "out of the blue," she recalls, "and was rather ambiguous about which aspect of my work they were singling out."
Here -- just in case you've never received a phone call awarding you $245,000 to continue working on whatever you're working on, no strings attached -- is what it's like to get such a phone call:
Phone rings. Voice on the other end says, "Lisa Delpit?"
You say -- somewhat abruptly because you're working on an overdue paper -- "Yes."
Voice on other end: "Lisa Delpit, I am calling from the MacArthur Foundation to congratulate you. You have been awarded $245,000 as a MacArthur Fellow for 1990."
You are shocked and silent.
Voice on the other end: "Well, I'm used to silence, so I will just keep on talking."
"I was literally stunned," Dr. Delpit says now, leaning forward over the desk in her university office. She laughs when asked whether the award has altered her life. "Well, for the moment, it has overwhelmed me with phone calls and letters and has made it really difficult to get on with the work. It's an odd thing to say -- because the money is given to allow you the freedom to be able to do other things -- but the fame that comes with it has kept me from being able to do those things right now." She holds up a huge stack of pink telephone messages, most of them asking her to lecture or serve on a board.
But it won't be too long, she says, before she gets back to doing the things she's most interested in: Teacher education, literary development and studying the cultural differences in children and how they affect the way they learn. Her research has convinced her of several things: "There is a tendency to think that good teaching looks just one way and a good curriculum looks one way. But I'm convinced that good teaching looks different in different settings."
The setting that most interests Dr. Delpit is the urban classroom. Learning to teach each child in today's culturally diverse classroom, she believes, is one of public education's greatest challenges. And it will require getting teachers involved in what she calls "teacher-based research" in their own classrooms. "One of the things I would like to do with the [MacArthur] money is to set up an institute in which teachers can begin to evaluate what's going on in the classroom and do the research themself."