Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Urban Eve's Assumptions

We make assumptions every day. Maybe we assume that the ATM will have cash to dispense when we slide our card in or maybe we assume that the man behind the counter at the McDonald’s is there because he couldn’t obtain a higher education. Are our assumptions correct? In the course of this paper I intend to explore my own assumptions about urban centers, education and what it entails, entertaining several relevant questions, and relate this to class readings and discussions from the first week of Education in the Inner City.

Born and raised in a white Catholic Polish-American household in the midst of the grand suburbia of North Jersey’s metropolitan area, I am sure my perspective is just a little bit skewed. Not that this is bad in any way, but our roots, family, home environment and surroundings certainly do shape how we view the world. My parents always seemed pretty open when it came to race; everyone was a human to be treated with kindness and interracial relationships did not seem to be a problem. But you start to talk an individual’s sexual orientation or visual appearance and personal expression, boy were there some strong judgments to awaken. So aside from exposure to openness in certain realms of diversity and a critical eye in others, I do feel like I was sheltered. I don’t feel, however that I lived in a bubble.

Trips to urban centers were not a commonplace occurrence for us but they did happen - well let’s just say we weren’t hanging out in NYC a few times a week. A trip would be more like a special happening - planned and the exception rather than the norm. There would of course be the traditional annual trip to see the Christmas tree all lit up coupled with a show or musical and dinner at a restaurant. We certainly enjoyed that portion of the trip, however, to see our sour frowns and wrinkled noses as we walked the streets of Manhattan, you could clearly see that my sister and myself were NOT enjoying our surroundings.

We HATED the City. Why?
Not only did the sight of trash in the streets and the smell of urine around me disturb me from an aesthetic standpoint, but for me an urban center represented mankind’s selfishness, carelessness, the anguish of poverty and the fear of crime. Why oh why the city? Weren’t these universal qualities and didn’t all of this exist in other areas? Sure. But my perceptions connected it more to the inner city. The close quarters in which residents lived and associated, and the dense population made it so obvious, so visible.

Too many people, too few trees!
The crowds of people were overwhelming for me, the rudeness and seeming inaccessibility of friendliness a factor of disappointment and even a point of contention, the noise a pounding headache. Oh was the city noisy. There was a constant flow of cars, trucks, horn honking, people shouting, endless movement and inextinguishable lights. I didn’t know how people could sleep there.

Where there seemed to be an overabundance of people, buildings and cars, there was a huge lack of trees and other vegetation. This made me cringe and it made me sad. My parents were not “nature nuts” (oh no, I’ve secured that title on my own) but they did instill in us a respect for the natural environment and enjoyment of the outdoors. My father used to take us hiking and camping when we were younger. So here my associations with the city were feelings of isolation and separation from nature, pollution, unhealthy air and vile stagnancy.

Violence & schools
I thought someone would have to be crazy to live in the city and probably even crazier to teach in the city. I thought of the schools as a challenge – a challenge for the teachers to deal with the students, who likely did not have a strong desire to learn and could become physically violent at the snap of a finger. Some of these associated perceptions stemmed from the media’s coverage of the city I am sure. I felt like every time the news was turned on (television or radio) or any time I opened the paper (as I got a little older), there was nothing but negativity. Abuse. Rape. Robberies. Drugs. Gangs. Shootings. Murder. Death. Most often the setting was urban. I hated hearing about it so much that for years I avoided the media almost completely. But it had built up enough of an image for me.

TV shows and movies also portrayed student violence and misconduct within the urban school, so this is what I came to think of as the norm. The students in the films mentioned in the article “Teachers in the ‘Hood” are depicted as
“loud, out of control, disobedient, violent,
addicted to drugs; having no family values;
and rejecting dominant social institutions,”
(Bulman, page 257).
This image, with the rejection of the school and the teacher, is, what came to terrify me about the prospect of dealing with an urban school. I didn’t feel I could be the right person to cope with that.

If I walked into the walls of an urban school with these preconceived notions before the true experience of living or working in an urban location, I think that my interactions with the teachers and students would be nerve-laden and fearful. I would worry about disrespect or misbehavior by students in the classroom, that someone would curse me out or even bring a weapon to school. Me to the fellow teachers would likely include a barrage of questions about what goes on in the school, what is ok and not ok, how to react and protect myself from students, parents and avoid impending doom.

Ok so I had observed a day of high school Earth Science class in Jersey City during March of 2007 and it so happened that a “Code C” was called that day. This was normally a brief 5 minute drill, but instead this took myself, the teacher, and her 25 students into a tiny back room, where we sat silently for over an hour, lights out and shades drawn, not knowing what was going on or when we would be let out. As it turned out, a conflict between two gangs the day before had led police to search the school for weapons. Unfortunately this experience did not really help to alleviate some of my assumptions about urban schools – however, it did work on some others. While the students of her class were back there, they complied and behaved remarkably well for high school students in a situation like that.

Some of my assumptions about urban education and urban school environments include examples from class discussions and literature. I envisioned urban schools as run-down buildings due to lack of funding and lack of concern for the general welfare and education of the community. Though the “Teachers in the ‘Hood” article’s description of the cinematic stereotype is a little more extreme than my take on it, my assumptions were along a similar vein:
“These are schools with no soul - just troubled
students, failed educational methods, burned-out
personnel... the vast majority of teachers have
cynical attitudes and their jobs, and they seem
to believe that most of the students are beyond
hope,” (Bulman, page 261).

But heavens do my perceptions of urban life seem so very negative! My urban assumptions also include what benefits the city can provide – a great deal! Through the family visits to the city where we experienced shows, musicals, the movies, restaurants, and people watching as we walked from destination to destination; through school trips to museums and galleries; and news about parades, protests, and other events, my eyes were opened to the awesome opportunities. There was so much to see; and the colourful surroundings in all the storefront windows, styles of passers by and glimmer of the evening lights created a visual bonanza. I came to see an urban center as a cultural oyster, always producing many pearls in the forms of entertainment, multi-cultural and ethnic representation, and tons of ‘possibility’.

I thought culture was beautiful. Diversity made life interesting and I loved the diversity of the inner city and the people. I wanted to learn more about a variety of ethnic backgrounds, cuisines, languages and traditions. My assumption was that the city would be the best place to do this and to truly be exposed to more diversity than anywhere else.

Where am I now?
Many of the more negative assumptions of younger years have since diminished. How do I see urban centers and urban education now, after having completed high school, going through college and biting into the start of a graduate degree? Some of the same sentiments have stayed the course, but now I certainly come to view the dynamic nature of an inner city as an adventure. I adore the cultural hub of urban life; I thrive on museums, galleries, shows and musicals, ethnic foods from across the globe, and seeing the awesome mix of people and diversity. I’ve come to see a lot of the same negative qualities that I had connected with the city exist in the suburbs as well, just maybe in less noticeable at first glance.

The eight senior fellows of the Annenberg Institute for School Change call cities ‘civilizing forces’. While this would not have been my ‘assumptive’ choice of words from my personal store of first associations, I now see this as a truth as well as an inaccuracy. I can see how in order for a city to exist, it must be a civilizing force, but I still feel it can also be a center of ‘uncivilized’ activities. Thinking upon the more positive urban assumptions I have held in the past and still hold at the present time, the fellows phrase it well in the following excerpt:
“The rich mix of races and ethnicities, languages
and cultures, also centers of intellectual and
artistic energy and creativity as well as catalysts
of social change,” (Estrada et al, page 1).

I think that these assumptions leading from childhood into the more recent years of my life will actually function in giving me a more powerful grounding when it comes to entering the urban classroom, because if the assumption and the truth differ greatly, I will learn all the more from it. I will see, through time spent in urban centers and interaction in urban schools, (and through this course), what is a reality and what is not. Once misconceptions are defined and realized, vision becomes so much clearer.

However, if I did hold strong to some of my negative assumptions, I might have a more withdrawn interaction base, feeling more awkward and separated, in fear of rejection and violence, and wary of my surroundings. This would probably hamper my teaching as well as mar my little niche within the school. On the flipside my assumptions about culture and creativity would open my classroom up to all kinds of possibilities – from creative and collaborative projects to local field trip ideas and a thirst for cultural immersion. I would want to know more about my students of different cultures – of all cultures. I would include this aspect in assignments.

I hope to become a professional yet personable and caring teacher that values every student for their being, their potential, strengths and weaknesses, and value as a human being. Various activities/methods and teaching styles would go hand in hand with the recognition that different individuals as well different cultures may have different learning styles. My love of culture and diversity would tie into this as well as how I treat everyone with the same respect. My previous assumptions might make me have higher or lower expectations of certain students, and this is not where I want to be. I intend to challenge everyone in the classroom.

I also want to remain open and understanding. I may worry about rejection but I will hold onto my ideals and beliefs, and present the subject matter in my own goofy way (while of course still maintaining my professional base!). I would feel the strong urge to get these students OUT of the classroom and into the field, to where there are more trees and more of earth processes are readily visible, as often as I could. I also want to be a teacher the students feel that they can come to with questions, problems, and concerns, but also to know that they will have to work, learn, and be challenged intellectually and creatively in my classroom.

My views on urban centers and schools were certainly shaped first and foremost by my parents and family, but also heavily influenced by the media. Further down the line of influential factors is the personal experience that helped to form some of my views: in brief exposures and visits to inner cities and some interactions with children and adults from these areas. I know that my assumptions have morphed over time, but I wonder how much of what I once believed and what I currently believe to be ‘urban’ is a reality? Do these kids really need our ‘help’? Do they really need good teachers? Every district needs strong and qualified teachers. My mind turns over the possibility of teaching in the urban educational system and I think, could I do it? Am I capable? I guess I would not fully know the answer to this until I am able put all of my assumptions in place and see the reality, as close to or far away from mine as it is.

Works Cited
Bulman, Robert C. “Teachers in the ‘Hood: Hollywood’s Middle-Class Fantasy.” The Urban Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, September 2002.

Estrada, Cristelle Martinez et al, Senior Fellows. “The Promise of Urban Schools.” Prepared by the Senior Fellows in Urban Education, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Pages 1-11.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day & the urban ed. connection

The days preceeding Memorial Day are often filled with the anticipation of a nice, long, relaxing weekend coupled with BBQ's and parties. Publicized also are the various memorial events including services and parades in different municipalities. But does the typical American think much about what Memorial Day actually means, set aside the fervent bustle of life to dwell in thought for some moments on the sacrifice of others?

In an article posted yesterday on, "Carolyn Jessup, who is 53 and homeless, typically doesn't think much about Memorial Day. But she read a story about an American soldier killed in Iraq that brought her to tears" ( Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day and first observed on May 30th 1868, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. And although it may seem sad in spirit, it is also about reconciliation, about coming together to honor the lives and valiant efforts of the fallen.

So who are these people that we honor? The fallen soldiers were historically often those that could not afford to complete higher education, of impoverished families, and without a substantial paying job. So they entered the military to make their way in life. Many of these individuals may have been educated in urban schools which may not have provided a high quality education or prepared students for competetive jobs. So this may be a bridge to the association between these soldiers who sacrificed their lives for us and the urban education system.

To me personally, this holiday is not only about honoring the stereotypically male soldiers that have fought in wars, but also the women, men, and children that have died and lost their lives to a war or war-related violence. Remember them all for their sacrifice, consciously made or not.

Monday, May 26, 2008

"Teachers in the 'Hood'"

I can't say that I've ever been a 'teacher in the 'hood''. I'd like to think I can interact with people from all walks of life and all places and treat them the same as others. But do those beautiful juicy altruistic thoughts and aspirations we may have always fan out into the real thing?

I've worked with kids from the inner city in my days in outdoor education. Did all the stereotypes fit? Hell no. Did some fit? Sure. Of course my time with them was often too brief to really be able to tell too much.

I can't claim to know or understand anything about their lives or even dare to think they are so drastically different from me when it comes down to the core. What I think I do know (I dare to think I know) is that it is a far cry from a likely reality to think that a little bit of time from an outsider - hero or cowboy of sorts - here to 'fix it all' would effectively turn around the lives of students dealing with socio-economic ordeals, poverty, gangs, drugs, violence, broken families: a slew of hurdles and hardships - and in additon the emotional, psychological, and social effects of these experiences. Of course each case is different and some may be dealing with more or less than others, but the fact that we are trying to give it a quick fix [in the ideology of these Hollywood flicks] it is a little unnerving. We think we CAN and SHOULD fix it. Is that our role?

I am a firm believer that all children deserve a caring teacher, who believes in them and their potential because we all - urban, suburbanite, rural dwellers, whatnot - CAN LEARN. We're all people after all, no? Bulman's description of Blackboard Jungle pinpoints a view of the students as "working-class animals" and "beasts" (page 259): as if they are a human sub-species, an inferior culture, and that their behavior is the root of problems in the schools. One of the problems may be a lack of understanding for their background and life struggles. Instead they are looked at as 'the problem' and there is a detracted focus from the surrounding circumstances of the school and community condition.

It feels to me like in these Hollywood urban high school movies (although i cannot truly speak from personal viewing experience as the sheltered soul that is me has not really seen any of them - aside from maybe "Lean on Me" many years ago) that we are trying to say we need to "change" these students. The "teacher-hero/ine" is trying to 'save' the inner city kids from themselves and their troubles, but also to change them in this whole process. The cinematic solution to the state of turbulence in some urban schools is "to reform the individual student, not the educational system or wider society," (Bulman, page 267).

Challenging and engaging learning experiences are vital for all students; we as teachers can support and guide and of course encourage, but can we change who these kids are? Can we radically change how they view life and perceive? I certainly think we can make a difference in the lives of our students by our words and actions and maybe the misguided will one day 'see the light', but that we cannot forcibly change them. And we should never try to change who they are.

Of Bibliographies and Annotations

1) Murray, Christopher and Naranjo, Jason. “Black, Learning Disabled, and Graduating: An Investigation of Factors and Processes Associated with School Completion Among High-Risk Urban Youth”. Hammill Institute on Disabilities Remedial and Special Education. (May/June 2008) 29: pages 145-160.

Eleven graduating African American high school seniors of low income backgrounds are interviewed in this study that examines what factors come into play as having an influence on whether or not a student graduates from high school. The setting is a high-risk urban location and individual, family, peer and teacher factors are explored for their influence on student graduation. Several themes are explored, from parental involvement and structure to the degree of teacher demanding; and students provide personal insights of what is helpful/not helpful. The article stresses that it is important to bolster families, communities, and schools with strong support systems for our youth; as well as to work on the elimination of the social and structural chasms of inequality. I strongly agree with this, however the “how” this will happen is a question that remains.

2) Muller, Patricia A.; Stage, Francis K.; and Kinzie, Jillian.
“Science Achievement Growth Trajectories: Understanding Factors Related to Gender and Racial-Ethnic Differences in Precollege Science Achievement”. American Educational Research Association, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pages 981-1012.

Different racial-ethnic and gender groups were compared in studies of pre-college science achievement and growth rates. It was found that socio-economic status and previous grades were strongly correlated to 8th grade achievement in science; and that the amount of science taken in high school was the best indicator of science growth, across all racial-ethnic by gender sub-groups. Women and students of color are less academically prepared in science, and research points out that the time to catch them is before college. The study utilized hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) and longitudinal data from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS: 88). Since individual-level factors and associated science growth rates and other individual-level variables were quite disparate, we need additional research.

3) Towns, Donna Penn; Cole-Henderson, Beverly; and Serpell, Zewelanji. “The Journey to Urban School Success: Going the Extra Mile”. The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 70, No. 1/2, Samplings from Howard University CRESPAR (Winter - Spring, 2001), pages 4-18.

Four urban schools (all of different size, structure and finances) are studied in depth to determine why they succeed in rendering quality education effectively while others do not. The common thread found amongst all is a shared vision by all stakeholders involved, and effort beyond standard expectations to ensure success; including the efforts of administrators, teachers, parents, and students. What I appreciate very much about this study is that it does not use solely test scores to gage student performance to indicate quality education but examines cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects. It also recognizes that past “effective” school studies have not focused on those serving minority students.

4) Lee, Okhee and Anderson, Charles W. “Task Engagement and Conceptual Change in Middle School Science Classrooms”. American Educational Research Association, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 585-610.

Twelve 6th grade students in two classrooms were provided with adequate instruction and extensive support to understand science better, in order to study task engagement of students in two areas of research: research related to their science knowledge and learning; and motivation research. I believe the observation and study of these two areas in concert to be vital in order to steer clear of a one-sided argument that bypasses other variables. It seems that the declining levels of student achievement in science can be linked to both a lack of understanding of the content as well as lack of desire or motivation to learn it, so I like that this article takes a look at both. The studies found that an interplay of several factors

5) Article in Review: “Educative experiences and early childhood science education: A Deweyan perspective on learning to observe” by Elaine V. Howes. Teaching and Teacher Education: Volume 24, Issue 3, (April 2008), pages 536-549.

This article details a study on the teaching of science at the elementary school level utilizing some of John Dewey’s ideals of education. The data was gathered at Monarca Elementary School, an urban public school in a poor to working class immigrant neighborhood with predominantly Latino students. More than 60% of students are ESL learners and more then 90% qualify for free lunch.

The author, formerly a secondary school and college-level science teacher, functioned as a participant observer and offered routine consultation to the teacher study group developed from a set of instructors at the school. She also made observations in the classrooms and participated in co-teaching experiences in after-school science programs. She related Dewey’s take on education and how these views manifested within this urban school study; what was effective and what was not.

One of Dewey’s arguments involves “educative” processes functioning to promote and develop a learner’s desire to pursue further learning experiences related to the current experiences at hand, and that these experiences engage children on intellectual, emotional and social levels. This study showed that having small animals (such as slugs, ants, butterflies, a mini-ecosystem) in the classroom helped to provide an “impulse” in children to examine and question, leading to a potential educative experience. It was found that it was not only the animals themselves but that the teacher guidance that mattered as well. Mis-educative experiences, such as bringing a hamster into a classroom and not caring for it well or bringing animals in just for ‘fun’ and not connecting the children’s experience more than sheer entertainment, can happen and I see how these do not provide quality learning experiences.

He also emphasized the value of children’s connectedness of presented material with previous and future life and learning experiences. I agree that we cannot just bring in super engaging science experiences and expect that students will maintain an interest beyond those first brief moments of excitement at seeing a wall of ants crawling about in a terrarium but need to connect it to their current knowledge base, their past experiences, and what we hope they will be learning in the future. We also need to instill in them more questions to will push them to want to explore and learn more.

Dewey, as well as the study, also maintain that it is not really the activity itself that is so important as the student – teacher interactions. Observations in the classroom, followed by a free-choice activity of taking notes and creating diagrams to record, incorporating whole class discussion and creation of original texts as well as discussing ideas with a classmate (such as ‘think-pair-share’), and using student questions to guides the direction of the learning, were all methods that were found to be effective in these classrooms in accordance with Dewey’s ideology.

There is so much more to this, but I will finish with a conclusive thought: that it is not one of these methods alone that will do the trick to create a powerful ‘hands-on’ or ‘real-world’ learning experience that Dewey visualizes but the combination of factors and practices.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Pedagogy of Poverty

What is life even, without some spontaneity? Experiencing the same routine day in day out, endlessly, like a machine's moving parts turning the same way each time, I think would be more than many of us could bear. Not that there is nothing to be said for a scoopp of familiarity and dollop of comfort in a particular routine. However, it seems that when we come to expect a pattern and see nothing else, we are on the road to apathy. Or maybe we're already there!

Chaos to calm
As we've touched on in discussion, some children in the inner city may be dealing with more than we could know in terms of their lives outside of the school walls. Home may be a topsy-turvy place without many constants or certainties, an unstable situation painful to sort through or deal with. The pattented routine of a designated start and stop time for the beginning and end of the day, a set place and time to go for each of the pre-decided subject areas, and of course a consistent WAY that it is all done - well, this all provides a ritualistic routine that can be a huge comfort when you want SOMETHING in your life to be set and expected.

What does the pedagogy of poverty have to do with this?

"The pedagogy of poverty is not a professional methodology at all. It is actually certain ritualistic acts that, much like the ceremonies performed by religious functionaries, have come to be conducted for their ritualistic value rather than to foster learning," (Haberman, pg 3).

It is this act, the routine of school, may be a very calming thing for some students in the thick of violent, dysfunctional or unstable lives. And when that known routine is taken away, what are they to do? It's like having the carpet pulled out from under your feet.

Thwap! BAM, smack down you fall to the ground. OWCH!

Ok so the start and end time, the timing of the school periods, and other logistical aspects of school will likely stay the same. But what can change to disturb this pattern? The way that content is taught in the classroom.

The pedagogy of poverty asks that we maintain set roles, where the teacher is in charge and responsible, gives directions and teaches, and the student follows these directions, engages in appropriate behavior, and learns. What if we want to try some Socratic questioning? Student-directed groupwork? Put them in charge of their learning?

Can we do a whole lot about what goes on in the personal lives of these students? Probably not. Does this mean that we give up the new and innovative or interesting methods that we may want to try in class? No. But if we can at least realize where these students may be coming from, and allow it to help open our eyes and shape our perspectives, we've already made leaps and bounds.

Then we can understand that they are not necessarily rejecting US or the information or method itself, but it may be the impact this NEW method has on their stability.

And to foster learning... is this not our ULTIMATE GOAL as educators? The rituals may prevent this learning from achieving the level that it could, given all the different methods and resources available to us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Promise of Urban Schools

Through the appointment of its 8 selected Senior Fellows, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform has set out to create an ideal - or if you will, what they say are conceivable aspirations for urban schools. These "Great 8" have ironed out - and nicely I might add (tho not quite as good as my mom's ironing) - 5 different areas of focus.

Relevant questions are addressed throughout. Where/or in what does fault lie in urban education? What might we strive for? And HOW can it be achieved? To prevent an entry that will make your eyes roll out of your head it's so long, I will focus on one of the areas, agency.

Agency brings us to a place of empowerment. WE CAN create change in not only our own lives but in society as well! I see the value in letting our students know that they ARE VALUABLE and they CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE; infact this is INvaluable. Our Big 8 state that, "Successful urban educators connect the construction of knowledge in the classroom with the language, music, poetry, and other cultural forms that students use to express their lives and ground the curriculum in intellectual, political, and artistic contributions of their students' racial, ethnic, and religious communities," (The Promise of Urban Schools, pg. 2).

Connections connections

Can't you relate best to something that hits upon your own world? I'm Polish and if I were asked to do a study on the history of piergois and polka music - needless to say how incredibly stereotypical as this is - I would feel a connection to it and dive in all the deeper! It's all about connections. If you connect a child's world to what you want them to learn, what you want them to store away in those 3 lb. wonderful organic machines, it will have so much more gravity and meaning to them. It's also a better way to get them INvolved and INtune.

So this agency helps the student to see the need in society and provokes them to become actively involved in pubic life and society, rather than subsisting as a bystander and allowing action to happen to them. For a more powerful learning experience, students need to become agents of their own learning. They are not objects that should sit and simply be talked at, but unique "producers" of knowledge.

But let's not leave the paperweight on the students side. There is a great deal to be said for the questions that teachers ask, the timing of these questions, and the effort they make to be INvolved as well. Local and school avenues are out there for the teacher to get involved in: VOTE in your local elections, write a letter to the editor on an issue that you strongly believe in, pull up your sleeves and put your two cents in at school debates and meetings about school issues, be a chaperone and DANCE at the school dance.

Not only is that a great example for the students - because they WILL notice what you do and what you say, just like young toddlers notice and immitate the actions and words of their parents - but this helps create that dynamic setting to inspire others to learn and take action.

Do you walk the walk that you so love to talk up?