Monday, April 13, 2009

Learning to Study an Urban Community: From the Abstract to the Real

Regardless of where one teaches, it is crucial that a prospective teacher learn as much about the community in which s/he will teach. It’s not simply a matter of gaining a basic perspective of “what the community is about.” In many cases, it is a matter of necessity, especially when the community is very different from one’s own.

I think about the first time I started working in Rochester. Before I started teaching, I was involved in a research project with the C.H.A.N.G.E. project, a collaborative that brought together community-based organizations (CBOs), health groups, local businesses and education to better meet the needs of families and students. I spent a year working in a local middle school, interviewing students, teachers, and people from CBOs to better understand the needs of the community and how CHANGE responded. I learned just how diverse the city of Rochester was, and it really helped me to better meet the needs of my students when I became a teacher.

Later, when I began to work with the Teaching and Learning Institute, as part of the Rochester Educational Access Collaborative (REAC), my work with CHANGE really helped. You can read about the TLI program here
(interestingly enough, I worked with the three students mentioned in the article when they were first year students in the program. Even though I am not mentioned, I am a proud momma). Understanding the community helped me to understand why many students joined TLI even though teaching was not necessarily an interest of theirs. The program itself was seen as a safe program for students in a very large school.

Long story short, studying a community is crucial to being an effective educator as member of that community. It’s not enough to claim that the students need a firmer hand, parents should turn off the television, students need to do their homework (or that they can’t), or that schools need to do more. One needs to understand the community to effectively meet the needs of students. This is where the Community Inquiry Project comes into play.
If we start with considering the elements of culture (interesting definitions here) that help to define a community, there are a number elements that we can and must explore in order to understand a community:

Basic demographics
Language
Religion
Economics and employment
Housing
Geography
Food
Norms and values
Politics
Relationship with local geography
Formal Education and level/type of education
Structures and Institutions

And the list goes on. The point is, in order to understand a community, you have to explore the above elements, which coincidentally, are many of the same characteristics that we use to describe a culture. Demographics are descriptive; culture is a lived experience and series of changing relationships between individuals and groups.

While reading Unequal Childhoods (Lareau. A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Los Angeles: University of California Press), we have been exposed to different children, their families, and their relationships with their local schools. From the portraits of these families, we can glean some basic information about differing communities. While the families should not become stereotypes, they can provide us insight into the different types of families with whom and communities in which we might be working.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked you to take a look at the NJ Real Cost of Living Index (NJRCL) from the Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), which is a very useful piece of research for those of us who live and work in New Jersey. For those who are on the outside looking in, NJ looks like an incredible wealthy state. After all, the median annual salary in NJ is greater than that in the nation. But, NJ is also one of the most expensive places in the nation to live. Granted, the cost of living varies widely from county to county. But, taken as a whole the NJRCL provides a very sobering picture of why so many families in NJ struggle as much as they do.

But the LSNJ's report on living in poverty in NJ, is truly disturbing, as is it's report on the growth of poverty in the economic crunch.
As future urban educators, the reality for many families is one of struggle and hard choices. It makes sense, given the recent economic crisis, to continue our exploration of urban communities by returning to an examination of the demographics and the economic situations of different families with whom we might be working.

We have started in in the abstract and now need to move towards the concrete. It's not that we are not going into the community; rather, we are going to look at the existing data which helps us to consider the bigger picture. Using that data, we will extend our understanding of the families presented in the Lareau text to the communities in which we will work.

Our task:

To make sense of economics, poverty, the impact of class, and families

1. Review the families in Unequal Childhoods, and see if you can create a chart that reflects the following demographic and cultural information:
Race/ethnicity
Language
Religion
Economics and employment
Housing
Geography
Food
Norms and values
Politics
Relationship with local geography
Formal Education and level/type of education
Structures and Institutions
You may not be able to fill out the columns at this time.

2. Turn to the NJRCL report and pay specific attention to the information provided about Essex County, and the concerns, challenges, and recommendations in the report. Review the six families in Unequal Childhoods, and make connections between the NJRCL report and the realities these families might face if they lived in Essex County, NJ.

3. Look at the two reports from the LSNJ on living in poverty. What further information can you glean from the reports regarding the struggles the poor families in Unequal Childhoods might face if they lived in NJ?

4. Finally, turn inward and think about who you are as a budding urban educator. In what ways is this information useful (or not) for you? In terms of better understanding a community? What do you need to learn, or what skills and dispositions (frames of mind) do you need to develop related to demographics and economics to be a successful urban educator?

5. Put it all together. Bring the chart to class next week, and answer 2-4 in the form of an extended blog of about 1000 words (250 words or so per each task). Keep in mind the idea here is to move from the abstract to the practical.

Monday, March 30, 2009

When the poor are punished for being poor

One of the things that has always really disturbed me is the myth, "justice is blind." The idea is that all people are equal under the law, and have the same opportunity to launch a defense when charged or held accountable for a crime (e.g., found guilty). Long ago, I realized that wasn't true, when a friend of my sister's was facing two years in jail for a dime bag of pot (size of a thumbnail), while another guy I knew more or less walked on a coke charge. The essential difference between the two guys? Money and the ability to hire a really good attorney. And, we've seen it happen over and over again.

Today, I was doing my usual loafing about the internet, and came across the story of a woman who was jailed because she was too poor to pay for her son's incarceration fees. Imagine that. She's unemployed, homeless, and put in jail because she can't pay her kind's fees. Last time I checked this was illegal, but then again, I could be wrong.

I think the thing that infuriated me about this is the fact that this nation has a long history of punishing people for being poor. It's an interesting paradox given the fact that there are social service programs that are designed to help them. And then I think about the school serving to poorest children, and the fact that those same children are further punished because they were born poor. This is not to say that there isn't an amazing resilience, loving relationship between family members. I think we are seeing that with the families we are reading about in class.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Information for Class 2/9, Note 2

Hi all,

The readings are posted on Blackboard, in the Assignments section.

In addition, if you are having trouble with a blog topic, here's one.

Blog 3: After reading the two pieces, please reflect upon and respond to the following question: What are the major influences that shape schools, those in urban centers in particular?

See you in class tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Interrogating my own assumptions (spoilers)

I never intended to be a classroom teacher. I started my graduate program with the goal of becoming a college professor who was an expert in human development. I discovered quite quickly that my interest in human development was not nearly as great as my interest in why schools function the way they do, why students learn what they do (or don't), and how all of this comes together to shape kids into the adults they become. So, I switched to a program in teaching in curriculum.

Specifically, I switched into a program with the title Teaching, Curriculum, and Change. The change part was what I wanted to get to. I wanted to change things. I remembered my own experiences in school. I loved learning, but found that the stuff that I was really interested in (why things were the way they were) was rarely talked about, and we students were rarely asked to do anything other than spit back what we had been told. I knew we needed the foundation, but I also knew that we needed to be able to do something with what we learned. To figure out why change was so hard and slow in coming, I really needed to learn about teaching and curriculum. And, if I was going to teach about teaching, learning, and change, I’d better have some experience in the trenches. So, I learned how to become a teacher.

When I first started learning about how to be a teacher (a transformative one, in my mind) I assumed that there was a magic bullet, that my professors would teach me what I needed to know in order to be a teacher. There were certain things that they did teach me. I learned about human development, but had to figure out what it meant in practice. I learned about the history of curriculum, and why schools focus on what they do today. I even learned about the importance of lesson planning, having a clear structure in teaching, and the importance of goals. I learned practical things about ordering activities, the importance of assessment and the utility of testing, but didn’t really get it until I got into the classroom.

When one of my professors noted that a local teacher was looking for someone to work on two different projects, one that would prepare high school students to become teachers and the other to create a new theme-based US History class, I jumped at the opportunities. I assumed these two opportunities would make me an expert teacher with just a little bit of practice of the theories I had learned.

Was I wrong. What I learned was that no matter what you learn in teacher education classes, what you see in the classroom is far more complex. Think about it. You can be told what to do when X happens, but you never really encounter X. For instance, the first time I encountered student resistance to learning, I employed the strategies that I learned in school, only they didn’t work. Why? Because I had forgotten what I had learned earlier about who kids are, what they are interested in, and how to engage them on a human level. So, for awhile, I sucked as a teacher. It wasn’t until my cooperating teacher told me that it was OK to take that step back to learn about my students that I relaxed about getting through the curriculum.

In terms of teaching in an urban community, I have to admit I was very na├»ve. I knew that I was going to have to engage students who, for the most part, had very different experiences from me. I grew up in a predominantly white, middle class community where almost everyone went to college. In fact, people who did not go to college were looked down upon. If anyone has read Penny Eckert’s Jocks and Burnouts (1989: Teachers College Press), you know the type of school community to which I am referring. My teaching in Rochester was very different. And teaching in two different schools was like night and day.

City High was the large comprehensive high school. There were as many 9th grades as there were 10-12th graders. 50% left or disappeared. That’s a scary number, much like what Michele Fine talked about in Framing Dropouts (1991: SUNY Press). Demographically, the high school matched the city’s because the lottery system made sure that all schools were balanced. That meant that 60% of the students were black, 20% were white, and 20% were Hispanic (I know I am mixing race and ethnicity here, but these are the categories the district used). Rochester was and is the second highest needs district in the state of New York. That also meant that more than two thirds of students were on free or assisted lunch.

In the high school magnet program at City High (a pseudonym), I assumed that the students were there because they wanted to be teachers. Wrong. The truth was they were attending a large comprehensive high school that they perceived to be too large and dangerous. It was a large school. The facilities took up an entire city block in downtown Rochester. And, because Rochester uses a lottery to match students with their choice schools, many of the students attending this particular school did not get into the first or second choice. City High was where they ended up, one of 1800. They and their parents were afraid they would be little more than numbers and would be lost. The magnet program enrolled 30 students per year. It was more intimate, classes were cohorted, and teachers knew their students personally (or so parents were told). The reality was, we were working with urban kids who were scared of the school which they were attending. Parents and kids assumed we could protect them, and we assumed we could mold them into teachers.

The other school, Beyond Borders, was a small alternative high school that attracted non-traditional students. In fact, many of the students who attended this school most likely would not have made it if they had attended a more traditional high school. These were smart kids, some of whom had learning disabilities, all of whom thought outside the box. They were frequently independent, inquisitive, and very critical. But, they were still kids from Rochester, which meant that some of them had all the opportunities life could afford them, and others lived hand to mouth.

In the case of social studies, I assumed my students would like my classes because I thought they were interesting. True, my interest in teaching and passion for the subject matter made it easier. But, let’s be honest, most 9-12th graders are not interested in Civics. I had to make it interesting for them. So, I had to step back and talk to them about the rules and laws that they experienced on a daily basis. All of a sudden, I had students who were talking over one another, trying to express their frustration about a number of things related to government, laws, and fairness (or what they perceived to be a lack there-of). They were incensed that they could be drafted at 18 and potentially die in a war, yet they couldn’t buy a beer. They were told that “we” have freedom of speech according to the First Amendment, but their voices were marginalized and silenced. They were censored. They couldn’t wear clothes with political statements. That ended up being my starting point.

I never thought going into teaching in Rochester that I would be unsafe. I never thought I would be mugged or jumped. And I never was. I did assume that I could save the kids from their home environment, and I did picture myself to be one of those “great white hopes.” That lasted for about three days. They saw right through me, and I had to rethink how I was going to approach everything. It was a long bumpy road. I couldn’t save the kids, but I could save myself. I learned to be more humble, I learned to look beyond the surface and see the kid for who he or she was, not who I though he or she should be. I also learned that as a teacher educator, I cannot provide my students with the silver bullet to “fix” the schools, and I cannot tell people how to “fix” their students. I can teach them how to see with different eyes.

To be continued…

Information for Class, 2/9, Note One

By now, you should all have sent me your Blog URLS, posted your frame of reference paper, and completed your Media assignment as outlined at The Urban Files. Please check and make sure your blog is in one of the groups, and that your colleagues have access to your work.

I have posted the readings for next week in the Assignments Section. Please download them and/or print them out.

I will see you in class on Monday. Don't forget to bring a hard copy of your assignments (you will need them in class). You might also want to bring a computer if you have a laptop.

And finally, don't forget to comment on some of your colleagues' posts!

Monday, February 2, 2009

A video from the Dead Prez

My good friend and colleague who is a principal in the Bronx shared this song with me years ago. It is a great song, with an incredible critical message about urban schools, racism, and the quashing of possibility.



It's not an easy video to watch, especially if you have had fond memories of school. But it speaks an uncomfortable truth, particularly about urban schools. As we dig further, I'll share some research that has studied what Dead Prez talk about (but with much less profanity).

Class 2/2: Films, Music, TV, news... oh my!

Tonight's class is an on-line meeting session, and what better tie-in than for us to explore the impact of the media on our views of urban education!

But before that, here are a few reminders:

1. If you have not already done so, please set up your blog, and send me the URL. I will post it here, in one of the 5 groups, so you all can read each other's blogs. If you look to the right, you will see some of the blogs already posted. Read and comment away!

2. Please complete the Frames of Reference paper as outlined in P. 5 of the syllabus (located in the docs section on Blackboard). The Frames of Reference paper serves as your first blog post. Please post it on your blog, and bring a hard copy to our next class meeting on 2/9. You will need that hard copy for an activity in class.

3. For tonight's fun:

Let's face it, we live in a mediated world. Film, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, music, the internet... It's almost impossible to avoid some form of mediation. Our exposure to all of these media have helped to shape our understandings of the world around us, for better or worse. Tonight we are going to explore the role media has played in shaping our assumptions about schools, teaching and learning (urban, suburban, and rural). The point here is not to find a correct answer; rather, it to better understand how people's beliefs are shaped.

For many of us, there is a film or song that comes to mind when we think of school (and our personal schooling experiences, in particular). For me, it was Dead Poet's Society, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. The father of one of the boys was just like my father, and watching that movie was physically painful to watch at times. For me, this movie really drove home the importance of allowing children to be who they are, not who we want them to be.

Think back to the movies, music, television, and news articles you have read about suburban, urban, and rural communities. These media forms frequently help to shape what we believe to be true about ourselves and others. This is your opportunity to explore the connection between media and the social construction of urban communities, schools, and education. However, it is not enough to simply consider what an urban community is; we also have to explore what urban communities are not, especially in terms of how they are presented (or not) in popular culture.

Most of this activity will require you to take a quick trip down memory lane. You can use anything you need to help you with this: Youtube, your music collection, your yearbooks (if you still have them), etc. Don't be afraid to dig deep. This is only the beginning of an exploration that will continue in a later project.

In a nutshell, our goal for tonight is to do a little exploration. Rather than explore any- and everything, we are going to focus on the "basics" of popular culture: film, music, television, and the news. For each form of medium (film, music, television, and news), brainstorm a quick list of artifacts (exemplars) that represent suburban, urban, and rural education. Then, for each medium, choose an example that illustrates a representation of suburban, urban, and rural education. Discuss each example and how it shapes your PERCEPTION of education.

For example, I might choose the following films:

Suburban: Mean Girls
Urban: The Principal
Rural: Songcatcher

After you brainstorm and narrow down your choices, discuss how each film (or song, tv show, or piece of news) represents the community, students, and teachers. I might also create a chart to help me keep track of everything. Then I would move on to the next medium. When I was done I would have a paragraph (3-4 sentences) for each. Post your final product to your blog.

The goal here is to do a little data collection that we can explore further in class. If you can't come up with anything, feel free to use google. And, don't be afraid to explore and be creative.

Finally, once we have worked through all of this and our frames of reference papers when we next weet, we will be creating a COLLECTIVE KWL next week.

Thinking about teaching in urban communities

Let's face it, no matter where you choose to teach, the work of teaching and learning is HARD. Too many people think that they will become teachers because of the "short work day and summers off". Too bad that the short work day is merely the time you have contractually have to spend at school, and there are few teachers I know who actually don't work over the summer. But, it's a belief about being a teacher that persists.

When I think about what people believe about working in urban schools, in particular, I am often struck by the number of people who tell me what my experiences must have been like, even though they have never set foot in any school other than as a students. Take for instance, Mr. Edubabbler, who one day told me how to fix all urban schools: the man who has never worked or been a student in an urban school, who attended private schools lost of his life. He's lucky he survived that discussion. But, here are the highlights shared with me by people who have never set foot in an urban school:

1. The students need more discipline. Schools should be run like military academies.
2. Teach only the ones who want to be there. The rest can go for job training.
3. Force the parents to come to school.
4. Use more classroom management and discipline.
5. Get better teachers.
6. Get rid of the "bad" students.
7. Hire better principals.

And so it goes. What amazes me about most of the items on this list is that the focus is internal to schools, as if they have nothing to do with the societies or communities in which they exist. And of course, I have to ask where some of these ideas come from...