Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Observing with new eyes

The hardest thing to do whenever you enter a new environment is to leave your assumptions at the door. I have to do it at the beginning of every semester with each class I teach. I have expectations regarding certain behaviors and interactions, and yet, I have to remember that students bring their own expectations and assumptions as well. The only way I can encourage them to have an open mind is for me to have an open mind myself.

A case in point is the class in urban education I teach once a year. It is a combined undergraduate and graduate class. The undergraduates are part of the Urban Teaching Academy, a program that recruits and prepares people to become urban teachers. They are in the class because they want to (for the most part) be there. The graduate students are a bit more tricky. Many of them are there because they have to fulfill a multicultural requirement for their programs. Some of them are interested in becoming urban teachers; others are there because they have to be. I have to set aside my assumptions, particularly for those who are there to meet an external requirement. And, I have to figure out a way to make the course meaningful to them.

It becomes tricky, then to balance out the needs of those committed to urban education with those of the students who are more ambivalent. I want to empower all my students, but the reality is that I sometimes teach too much to those who are ambivalent about urban education, and it pains me to admit that.

The truth is, learning how teach is hard. Learning how to be an effective teacher is harder, and learning how to be an effective urban teacher is really, really hard. That's partially because it's hard to come face-to-face with what we have been told about urban education. It's also because many of us have been raised to deeply believe in the American dream that if people simply work hard enough, they can be successful. Combine that with the myth of equality, and we run the risk of falling into a vortex that quickly leads to burnout.

When you start out with more, it's easier to accumulate more. It was easier for me to be academically successful because my parents were college-educated professionals who understood the system. When they were unhappy, they knew how to work the channels to effect the changes they wanted to. My parents also have graduate degrees. My mom was a social worker. My dad is an attorney. They know the law, and they know how to make it work for them. Combine that with the fact that they were economically solvent, were able to own their own house, pay for extra curriculars, and I had a sweet setup as a kid. My father could help me with math and science (until I got to geometry and then it was a different story), and my mom was great at writing. I had the help at home, and my parents pushed me (sometimes too much, but that's a story for a different day).

When I started teaching in Rochester, everyone who knew me was concerned because it was the "inner city." And that meant drugs, gangs, absentee parents, and bad schools. The reality is that we find those same things in the suburbs. So what made it different? The fact that it was all there: drugs, poverty, gangs, absentee parents (for many reasons beyond their control) and more... immigration, homelessness, single parents, parents working three or four jobs, no health care, underqualified and undercertified teachers, the bureaucracy of large urban districts, not enough funds. One, two or three of these challenges in a community can be offset by other positives. Pile it all on the schools and there's a lot that schools become responsible for that make the work of teaching really hard. Pedro Noguera talks about this in his book City Schools and the American Dream (2003: Teachers College Press). He also points out another stark reality: if the American public really cared about the fate of urban kids, who tend to be poor, minority, and immigrant, then urban education would not be an issue. I agree with him on this point. The US has a history of showing how it can rise up to meet an urgent need. If the nation had a will, great changes could occur.

But therein lies another assumption: that with collective will, the nation could magically make hundreds of years of legalized exclusion, from the happenings that make the American Dream possible. The truth is, when banks don't service economically depressed areas, it's that much harder to get a loan. Without being able to build credit, families can't buy their own houses. Schools that have been expected to equalize society cannot do so on their own. Lawrence Cremin drove this home in Popular Education and its Discontents (1990: Harper & Row). Schools not only help to create society, they also reflect society in all its strengths and weaknesses. To assume they can change the world independent of the world is too high an expectation to place on teachers and their students.

It took me a long time to give up the assumption that schools can do it alone. After all, I firmly believe in the potential of public education. I have built my career on realizing the possibilities of urban public education. If I give that up, I might as well stop being me.

So what do I do? How do I temper my assumptions and expectations with the harsh realities that face us as urban educators? Well, that's the subject of a different post.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Comment, dammit!

I just took a quick perusal through some of the blogs tonight, and they are pretty fantastic. I also noticed there were some comments from colleagues here and there. And now, oh brilliant colleagues-in-training, read some more and comment some more. Take a look at what others are saying. Let's build that collaborative community we talked about today in class.

Off to finish things for the night.

By the way, I never did have my corona on the back porch. I am, however, the happy new holder of a motorcycle learner's permit. Almost one more checked off on the bucket list (still a long way off from the hog). he he he... roads look out!


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Media representations of teachers

I was in high school when The Breakfast Club came out. I remember watching Dead Poet's Society and slouching down in the seat because I didn't want anybody to see me crying. And I also remember the first time I saw Lean on Me. It wasn't until I started teaching at the college level that I really began to consider how popular films shape people's views of teaching and learning, sometimes more-so than their own experiences in school.

Whenever I teach the foundations class I teach, I make sure that we talk about some of the movies out there and how they portray teachers and students. I try to remind students over and over again, that that what they see in the movies are caricatures, even when they are still vaguely based on reality. And still, students are more likely to say that Ditto from the movie Teachers is more the reality than the character Nick Nolte played (n.b. I can't remember the name-- how funny is that?).

As an urban educator, I am always concerned at how the thing that I am most passionat about is portrayed to outsiders. I am the first person to say that there are some horrible teachers working in urban schools. There are some pretty bad ones in other places as well (I know, I had a few of them). The difference is that bad teachers combined with other less-than-optimal circumstances up the chance for failure. There are also some... well, I'll say it... really bad kids in urban schools. Some of them are downright mean. And there are the same type of students in other communities as well.

The issue is, whenever a story about a bad teacher or bad kid from an urban community comes up, it's expected. It's a shock if the individual is from a suburb. Violence in schools has been an issue for years. It too Columbine for people to pay attention.

So what do the movies have to do with all of this? Well, the truth is, they don't necessarily convey what should be viewed as the truth (there are some people who believe they are truth). They do, however, reinforce what people to believe is true. It takes a lone teacher (usually white) who defies the inept administration to do what's best for the kids. And the kids are wild. And the poorer and darker they are, the more wild they are. So, while it may just be a movie, it does send a message. And it's one that bugs me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The facts and nothing but the facts...

From class today, just in case you forgot:

Welcome, welcome! This is what I call a skeleton syllabus, because the real one will be posted online for you to print and read tomorrow. Here are the highlights:

1. Our guiding framework:

a. What are the myths, realities, and possibilities of urban schools and communities?
b. What makes some thing urban?
c. What are the characteristics of a successful urban teacher?

2. Our goals:

a. To explore the myths, realities, and possibilities of urban schools and communities through reading, considering media sources, and conducting field visits to different urban schools
b. To explore our assumptions about what makes something urban and to consider the lens through which we understand ourselves and the communities around us
c. To identify the characteristics of a successful urban teacher and reflect upon our own growth and potential towards that goal

3. Our evidence:

a. Attedance: One freebie absence and late, then grade penalty. More than three absences=F
b. Blogging (15%)
c. Assumptions Paper (25%)
d. My Culture/my Community Project (25%)
e. Inquiry Project/Website (25%)
f. Self Evaluation (10%)

4. How will we learn it?

a. That’s where you come in. Let’s figure it out!

Welcome to the U(rban) Files!

This is where we start at the very beginning. And, it really is a great place to start. Our ultimate goal is to become critical viewers of the urban world, especially for those who are planning to become urban teachers. Our starting point today? Learning the basics about blogging.