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...