Watch Yo Miz! on PBS’ “To The Contrary” here.
At 13 years old, Mignon escaped the Ivory Coast’s civil war to Mali. Her parents kept her and her whole family locked in their house since she was 9. It was too dangerous to go outside. She landed at a half-sister’s apartment in el barrio, in Manhattan, when she was 16. Sent to a NYC public middle school, she was given a standardized test. She had never been to school. She had never learned English. She failed the test. “Some woman was pointin’ ha finga ad me sayin’ I shoulda learnt dis in 5th grade,” she told me. She was 18 when I met her while substitute teaching at the Academy of Environmental Science, a NYC public high school. She was forced to take 5 Regents exams every January and June – a carved-in-stone graduation requirement for every student. An impossible barrier for Mignon and many other students with similar stories. Mignon had learned one thing for sure: that she’s a failure. Over and over.
So how do we teach Mignon? Easy. Through her own story.
Want her to learn history and politics? Let’s start with the civil war in the Ivory Coast.
Math? Let’s begin with the exchange rate between the Ivory Coast and the USA.
Writing? Let’s get her going on her autobiography. She can write it in French. Why not? Meanwhile, we’ll continue to work with her on her English.
We’ll hold her to to high standards. She will be required to present her story to a committee of friends, teachers and professionals from the community. She’ll create a power point. She’ll present her indigenous music. Perhaps she’ll bring a traditional dish she loves that her mother cooked. We will ask her questions about her life. As to assessment? She will pass or she will re-present. She will never fail.
She will learn to value her story, her family, her history, her culture. She will learn she is unique and worthy of success.
Yes – we will hold her to very high standards and push her to extend her intellectual and creative reach. We will reward her for her effort and courage.
When she passes her presentation, we will celebrate. Her victory is our victory.
This is what we do in America. This is what makes us great.