Review of “Other People’s Children” by Lisa Delpit

This book is pretty much considered the vade mecum for “culturally responsive instruction,” i.e., teaching successfully across varied cultural and linguistic contexts.


Delpit addresses how best to handle not only the multitude of races and ethnicities in our increasingly diverse country, but also how to counteract “the great putrid underbelly of racism and classism in our nation…”

In her introduction to the updated 2006 edition of this book, she bemoans the way we have given up “the rich meaningful education of our children” in favor of decontextualized, fact-laden drills designed for the passing of tests, now necessary to ensure the continuation of funding. What about, she asks, the development of human beings? What about ensuring that those without power have a chance to succeed in society in spite of racism, privilege, and rules for success based on the culture of the upper and middle classes?

Delpit provides numerous anecdotes of teachers who consider children from less privileged homes to be dumb or disruptive when they are only displaying different styles of interacting and relating to material. Also, these kids may not have acquired the same language skills at home as did students from higher socioeconomic levels. These students then get ignored or reviled; disciplined; and shunted into losing tracks without ever having a fair chance.

What’s the answer? Delpit deplores the tendency for educators, even those who are purportedly “liberal,” to think they should decide the best way to teach “other people’s children.” Parents and educators of color are rarely consulted, and usually ignored if they do try to offer advice. She compares this situation to colonialism, and I don’t think she is unjustified.

She proposes that “we must open ourselves to learn from others with whom we may share little understanding” about what these students need. Teacher assessment should take into account that different methods may be optimal for such students. [As just one example, she sites studies showing that African-American children from low socioeconomic groups are more influenced by the need for connection than for achievement. They also respond differently to how explicit teacher directives are, and how much teachers do or do not sound like authority figures with whom they will feel comfortable. This means that different styles and incentives need to be used for these children than with kids coming from middle and upper class homes.]

Principals and teachers both need to be as conversant in the norms of the community they are teaching, as they expect the students to be in theirs. It goes without saying that encouraging more teaching candidates from the same communities would be strongly beneficial. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, however, because, as Delpit reports, many teachers of color feel disrespect from white faculty members, and they are often socially ostracized as well.

Delpit strongly believes that underprivileged students must learn how to succeed in the dominant society and become familiar with its modes of discourse, albeit without an insistence that they abandon their culture or their “primary” discourses. We all have heard stories of individuals who choose to reject the dominant discourse because it would identify them as toadies and would lower, rather than raise, their prestige among their peer groups. She cites bell hooks, who writes of “the need for African-American students to have access to many voices.” But how do teachers convince the students of this?

First, Delpit writes, teachers should acknowledge and validate the student’s primary mode of discourse: “The point must not be to eliminate student’s home languages, but rather to add other voices and discourses to their repertoires.”

Second, teachers need to acknowledge the peer pressures on students not to talk, think, or act in the same way as dominant socioeconomic groups, by teaching students about those of their own groups who have used these tools to achieve greatness and end oppression.

And finally, teachers must be open about “the unfair ‘discourse-stacking’ that our society engages in.” She advocates that teachers have open discussions with students about the criteria mandatory to succeed in this society, and how successful participation in society can provide opportunities for changing the way it operates.

Evaluation: This is an excellent and inspiring book. Lately, all the emphasis on “no child left behind” has turned the public’s focus to numbers and percentages rather than quality, substance, and the future utility of such school experiences. In contrast, this book examines the content of teaching today. In particular, Delpit looks at the effects of the distribution of social and economic power in education (and in society generally), and how important it is for teachers to “cross borders” in order to validate young people of all races and social classes; to help them develop the skills to think critically about the preconceptions, engrained power structures, and cultural manipulation all around them; and to ensure that young people have options to succeed in society rather than just giving up on anyone who is “different”; such children then believe they have no alternatives but failure, despair, or even violence.

Rating: 4/5

Updated Edition published by The New Press, 2006


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4 Responses to Review of “Other People’s Children” by Lisa Delpit

  1. Beth F says:

    Yes! Teaching kids to think critically is more important than teaching them to pass a standardized test (though they need basic reading, writing, & math skills too).

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds like a must read for everyone in education. Vance finished school in a university town and I thought the diversity was the best part of the school system.

  3. Vasilly says:

    Are you going to read the author’s latest book, Multiplication is For White People? I started it but had to return it to the library unfinished. I think I’ll add both books to my tbr list for summer. Fantastic review.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    This book looks good, but I’m curious about the title of the one Vasilly mentions!

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