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.

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