Friday, June 13, 2008

Self and Class Assessment

Self Reflection

1. What were your expectations for this class? What did you hope to learn? What did you learn?

It was my hope that I would leave this class with a historical knowledge of education in urban environments, a picture of how that education has been formed and what it looks like today. I had no thoughts about learning best practices and practical tips for teaching in any environment, especially urban ones, but ultimately, I think that that is what I did learn in this course. I think this course has provided me with an intense, if narrow, view of urban education: it has offered me a good look at real classroom practice, but, although we touched on it a little, I don't have a great grasp on the sort of policy decisions and political movements that have greatly influenced not just urban education but urban environments in general. Ultimately, though, I think I might have gotten an even trade-off. I feel comfortable leaving this class with the knowledge it has given me, even if it is not the information I thought I would be receiving.

2. What was your biggest personal challenge in terms of the themes and content of this course? What was your greatest accomplishment?

My biggest challenge in this course was to be open minded. For me, the course was all about learning about 'the other.' I have no sense of urban life and no sense of urban education, but I do have a lot assumptions about both, and the consequent challenge was to not blindly abandon my assumptions but to interrogate them in light of our class discussions. I think my greatest accomplishment was, by the end of the course, to be more open minded about urban education. In the last few classes, especially, I found myself intrigued by and receptive to my classmates' comments whereas earlier in the course I am not sure that this was the case. In part that might be because as the class progressed, our discussions became more refined and better articulated, but in any case, the more I can participate selflessly in a conversation the better because traditionally, my doing so has been rare.

3. Based upon what you've experienced this semester, what do you think are the most important skills, knowledge, and dispositions that teachers need to develop if they plan to work in urban schools? Where are you on this journey? Even if you have decided urban teaching is not for you, what will you bring with you as a teacher?

The two skills that I think are paramount for urban teachers are the ability to be flexible and the ability to communicate effectively. From our discussions, it seems clear that we can accurately characterize urban communities as pretty consistently in a state of flux: there is high mobility among students, there are a multitude of state and national initiatives that want to have a say in education, there is a constant question of funding, and so on. Given this, an urban teacher, I think, has to be able to shift his/her plans, teaching style, perhaps even curriculum at a moment's notice. Additionally, I think that urban educators must be effective communicators; there are a lot of barriers to break down in a diverse, urban environment: barriers of language, barriers of interest, barriers of motivation. What's more, these barriers are not just between the students and the teachers, but also between the teachers and the parents and the educators and the community as a whole. If urban schooling is to succeed, I think all factors of urban life must be involved, and communication stands as the best method with which to engage people.

The most crucial bit of knowledge that I think an urban educator must carry with him/her is an idea of what the urban community in which he/she teaches is like. I think teaching becomes a dramatically different skill when your students are worried they might dead in a week from gang violence or when they haven't had a meal all weekend. It seems that there is an almost constant tension in urban environments between just life and death and to throw education into that mix carelessly will probably bewilder and "turn off" many students. Concurrent with this knowledge of culture, I think that the urban educator must have a compassionate disposition. This is not to say that he/she should baby students or go easy on them, but rather, urban educators need to make sure that their classroom is a place of stability for students, one where they are not threatened, so that they can, perhaps, forget about outside influences and focus on learning.

As for my own point along the journey of attaining these qualities: I am very near the beginning, I think. Not having ever taught it's difficult for me to say what I will be like when I teach, so I am hesitant to characterize myself as any of these qualities. That said, however, the fact that I can outline these qualities as necessary for urban teachers must count for something. The fact that I can picture the path I am on should indicate that I have at least started my journey.

No matter where I end up, I think that I will bring with me all that I learned in this course. As I said in another blog post, I think this class has made me realize that good teaching is good teaching, and that while environments do play a part in learning, teachers tend to employ variants of the same strategies no matter where they are.

Course Feedback

1. What was most helpful for you in terms of learning about urban schools and working in urban communities?

I think that I learn best when there is a discussion that can be represented visually. For example, the two classes where we talked about urban environments and drew concentric circle depictions of them on the board really helped me understand all the factors at play in urban education. I would have liked to have done something comparable to this in most of our classes.

2. How might the course be organized differently? Think in terms of length of time for the course, placement of activities, use of technology?

I have two critiques about course organization: 1) The Urban Educator's Institute. This, I felt, was very poorly organized, or, at least, its organization was poorly relayed to us. Not finding out what was going to be happening during each of the three days until the morning of the first day at the first sight did not maximize the effectiveness of the experience for me. It would have been much more beneficial if we knew what to expect before we went so that we could discuss what things we might want to pay particular attention to, especially when considering that many of us wanted to use the UEI as a source for our websites. 2) the syllabus. After about the first week, I don't think the syllabus articulated what we were doing very well. Readings were not listed, and I felt just a general sense of playing it by ear. It would have been helpful if the syllabus was more complete in terms of what we were accomplishing each day and any readings that were assigned.

3. What readings were most useful? What readings should be replaced? What types of readings would you have liked to read?

I'm not sure that I found any of the readings all that useful, but that might be because I also have the sense that we did not talk about most of them in enough depth. None of the readings seemed particularly bad, but because of a lack of discussion about them, I have a sense that I'm not sure why they were picked or how they supplement the class. This isn't to say that I would have preferred each class being mainly a discussion of readings, but rather, that if we're not going to discuss these "academic" articles, then I would rather read more personal narratives about individual teachers' experiences with urban education. Those would have information that I feel I could synthesize more thoroughly by myself.

4. What could I have done to make this a more valuable experience? What teaching styles worked for you? What could have made the learning experience more accessible for you?

The main critique I have, as I said, is I would have liked a better articulation of the planning of the course. After week one, things felt like they were just happening, and, while I am sure that this is not the case, I never felt like we were progressing on a path towards some end. I could never get a sense of the part (each class) and the whole (the scope of the entire class). This idea also relates to the website, which, until the last class where we used a rubric to critique each others', I wasn't really sure what it should look like, contain, etc. I would have liked to have had that rubric earlier.

A Central Question

Sometime around the second or third class this semester, a question began to form in my head. At a few points during the last four weeks, this question has partially surfaced and been discussed but never in such a way so as to eliminate it from my thoughts. The question, phrased poorly, goes something like this: What makes for good urban education?

We've spent a good deal of time in class, on our blogs, and on our websites discussing techniques and best practices for the urban educator. But, in thinking over many of the recommendations we have come up with, I find that they apply--in most instances--equally well to suburban or rural education. The discussions of best practices in this course have helped me to come to the understanding that, quite possibly, good teaching is good teaching, and it looks pretty similar whether it takes place in the inner city, suburbia, or elsewhere.

That said, however, I also have come to the conclusion that there is something that makes for good urban education, and that something is unique to the inner city environs. The articulation of this something might be poor, however, because it is something that, for the moment, I just tend to feel intuitively. The notion that something must be different arises out of my site visits in Newark where it was clear to me that even though most of the practices advocated by the teachers and administrators could be applied to any educational setting, the environment in an inner city is so different from other settings that it must play some role in the education received there. Another way of saying this might be that although the same practices apply in any educational setting, the nature of urban environments must have an affect on those practices that is unique. 

Ultimately, I think when we pose the question of what makes for a good urban education, we are posing a question that challenges our assumptions of what is possible in an urban environment. If we conclude that the same practices apply in any environment, then we admit that socioeconomic, geographical, and other outside factors should not inhibit good teaching. True, good teaching will have to adapt to these outside forces, but should not lean on them as crutches for its poor performance. What makes for a good urban education, then, is some combination of the standard of good practices with a knowledge of how urban environments might affect an educator's ability to implement those practices, and the good urban educator, I think, is one who has navigated that problem and introduced good, sound practices that work with--and not against--the urban setting.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Calling a Spade a Spade

Nothing in the above clip has anything to do directly with urban education. If you don't want to watch it, I'll give you the gist: have you heard that phrase "staycation" recently on nearly every media outlet? Jon Stewart contends that it's just the media's way of once again trying to make the unpalatable palatable and, in so doing, deprive us from a real discussion about what may be the depressing facts of the current situation.

I've posted this video in this blog because I think Stewart's larger point has ramifications in education. On another class blog, I, Teacher, Mark talks about NCLB and a response to it that is gaining some ground ( The broader, bolder approach to educational reform seeks to tackle the real issues of why the majority of kids who fail at school fail. When I say 'real issues,' I mean structural issues, things like economics. As Mark notes, NCLB comes across as an emotional response to an educational problem; it's as though we've tried to put a band-aid on a gaping wound. Or, to relate it to the video above, it's as though we've tried to oversimplify our educational deficiencies by relegating them to test scores, and then we've branded a program to improve test scores with a catchy, awe-inspiring name like No Child Left Behind. But, just like a staycation doesn't really address the looming economical problems our country faces, NCLB doesn't really address the fundamental inequalities of our social--and therefore, educational--state.

What's needed is a true conversation about what's wrong that isn't afraid of exposing America as a country where inequality exists at a multitude of levels and in a variety of ways. We can't begin to solve problems until we acknowledge the reasons why those problems exist.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Moment of Reflection

I have just completed putting some finishing touches on a website of which I own 1/4,, so now is an appropriate time for a moment of reflection on the process:

First off, creating a coherent website that is easy to use is pretty hard work, even with a template like the ones offered by Google. There's a lot more planning than I would have thought, not just in terms of content, but also in creating a logical path for navigation. But, once you sort through that stuff, I am really impressed with the opportunities a website can offer in an educational setting. Now, I realize that last sentence sounded like someone who has just discovered the Internet, but sadly, I think in some ways education is just discovering the Internet. When it comes to class projects, I am so used to creating something that maybe the whole class sees for five minutes and then is forever discarded, that the prospect of a long-lasting website excites me. When students can create a permanent artifact, I think two things occur: 1) they are inspired to do a better job because the project is no longer just about a grade; the website will exist long after the grade has been issued; and 2) concurrent with that idea is the fact that learning can continue after the class time has expired. I think it's pretty cool that at some later date I can go back and read and reread not only our website, but everyone else's, too. Moreover, the websites are artifacts that can be accessed by anyone, so that someday I could possibly recommend one to a colleague.  To put it more simply, I think websites do an excellent job of taking learning out of the traditional learning environment of school, and in so doing, they dramatically increase its frequency, thoroughness, and applicability.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Disconnecting Policies from Best Practices

As part of my work as a graduate assistant in Curriculum and Teaching, I had the opportunity to read David Cohen's book, Learning Policy.  What struck me the most in Cohen's work was his ability to study the implementation of the California math reforms in the 1990s and synthesize from that data some concrete findings about the way professional development should be structured in order to achieve optimal results.  Cohen notes two main concepts about successful professional development: 1) it is lengthy and 2) it focuses on curriculum areas, not general or "gimmicky" topics like differentiated instruction, collaborative learning, etc.  At the same time that I was reading Cohen's work, I happened to be enrolled in a Curriculum course taught by an adjunct professor who is a middle school vice principal.  Dishearteningly, this professor's expressed views on professional development seemed almost completely antithetical to Cohen's research.  The vice principal/professor talked highly of how his school offers exactly the type of professional development programs that Cohen argues do not provide much in the way of real results.  I would love to say that this astonished me, but sadly, it did not.  Having two family members who are both public school teachers, I have heard a lot about what a waste of time the vast majority of professional development opportunities are precisely because they mimic what the vice principal said and went against what Cohen argues.  What I do find surprising here is that clearly, we have research that outlines best practices, but we don't follow it.  I can't think of another field (except maybe politics) where inefficiency is the norm.  If medical research strongly advocated against using Drug A to treat illness B, you wouldn't find an adjunct professor in a med school, who is a doctor, advising you to use Drug A to treat illness B.  Yet, this seems to be the very thing that we find in education, if not from all of our professors, then definitely from administrators and BOE members.  

I think our class discussion today might have hit upon one of the reasons for this disconnect: a culture of anti-intellectualism coupled with a widespread belief that anybody can teach and/or solve the problems of teaching.  But honestly, I hope the reason is more sophisticated than that, because those reasons, as true as I think they are, are absolutely nonsensical.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Teaching as Utopian Realism

Let's be honest:  if you're getting into teaching for the money, you either have very few job options or an intelligence so questionable perhaps you should not be teaching.  It's no secret that, compared with other professions that require four years of college, some specialized training, and see many holding Masters degrees, teachers don't get paid a lot.  True, there's a good pension, but that's only after you've put in a good amount of time being underpaid and, most likely, under appreciated.  So, why teach?  If I had to make a wide, sweeping generalization--and apparently, I do--I would say that teachers posses  what David Halpin calls utopian realism, a world view that might be imagined as a string tethered to two points: one located in a world of imagined ideals and the other anchored in the here and now.  I think that teachers, or maybe more specifically, pre-teachers and young teachers, before they might become jaded or cynical, tend to exist along various points on that string, realizing that they have to work with what exists but hoping to transform what exists into something better.  And, what's important, is that maybe they not only tend to exist in that frame of mind, but they have to.  Halpin discusses that utopias are about transcending the status quo, and I find it nearly impossible to imagine someone wanting to become a teacher so that he/she can maintain the status quo.  Teaching is always about change, even if that change is just the difference between your students' minds in September and their minds in June.  To teach, perhaps necessarily, is to want to improve, to make different and better, to envision a realistic utopia for each student and work bring him/her there.

I was going to begin this response by noting how important a sense of hope must be in urban education, but upon further reflection, I think that hope is important for all education, urban or suburban or rural.  Moreover, it is characteristic of all education.  To the extent to which a sense of utopian realism might differ in various education settings, it would be a difference perhaps in the scope of the idealism.  In more impoverished environments, the utopian realist might envision wide-spread institutional reform that corrects the socioeconomic disadvantages of students.  In wealthier districts, the utopian realist might wish to see students who hungrier for knowledge and less complacent.  In either case--and in all cases--I think education, as it is practiced by those actively involved in the teaching of kids, is comprised of Halpin's utopian realism. 

My Consumed Culture

More than once throughout my years of school, I have been asked to reflect on the question, "Who am I?"  And, more than once, I have been asked to create some sort of visual representation of my answer, usually in the form of a collage.  Attempting to answer this question almost always entails some evaluation of what I consider to be my culture .  In the past, I have created collages that consisted entirely of pictures of musicians, or of baseball players, or of family and friends, or, sometimes, all three.  To begin to approach the question of identity entails, I think, a narrowing of that query.  We are all too complex to to be explained in any linear, logical, or even comprehensible way.  So, while past attempts at this question have narrowed the question in different ways--sometimes even by leaving the question of identity broad but narrowly selecting objects for the collage--this time, I decided to probe my identity by asking myself, What do I consume, or What has consumed me?

The nature of consumption is one that, I think, relegates us almost entirely to the present.  In other words, I am so consumed by the things I currently consume that it is difficult for me to remember the past consumptions of my life.  In that way, my collage above depicts not a history of my life and culture, but rather a snapshot into who I believe myself to be now based on the things I am currently consuming/being consumed by.  As I begin to analyze it, the first bit of self-reflection I run into tells me this:  I am an educated, white male, who is neither so well wealthy so as to be part of the establishment nor so poor so as to be unaware of hegemonic structures at work in my society.  Additionally, I might be an atheist, and I definitely have leanings towards humanism.  From where do I glean this information?  Well, from the things I consume:  Gravity's Rainbow, V., The Crying of Lot 49, The Erasers, these are difficult texts.  Moreover, they are texts that contain more than simple, straight narratives; they are layered with cultural references and social commentaries; they are texts whose authorial audience has been exposed to literature before.  Why might it be obvious that I am a white male?  Because everything that I have consumed (according to my collage) has been the product of a white male.  For as much as some of the works on the collage might be considered symbolic of particular counter-cultures, they are all part of that dominant white male society.  But, even while they are the works of white men, these products are also, in nearly every case, polemics on social change, or, at least, cynical works that are unhappy with the status quo.  Importantly, however, the change advocated by many of these works is a change geared toward the self, a change about becoming a better human, even if that means recognizing that all in society is absurd.

My point in describing myself through the cultural products I have included on my collage is to illustrate the obvious correlation between race, class, gender, religion, etc and culture.  It's my firm belief that had I been a black female, who was a Southern Baptist, and living below the poverty line, I would not be consuming the same things.  And that speaks to more than just personal preference and taste; what I mean by that is that I would not be consuming even the same type of things.  It's very possible that someone who shares the same characteristics as me--white male, etc etc--might not have Slaughterhouse-Five or Darkness on the Edge of Town on their collage, I would wager that he would have other artifacts that share similar qualities.  This point also speaks to the fact that, while I think it's true that who we are helps determine what cultural artifacts we choose, it's also true that the cultural artifacts we choose help determine who we are.  I can better articulate myself through my cultural artifacts perhaps for the very reason that these objects are cultural and, therefore, part of a larger shared community who understands them in much the same way that I do.

So, if we have established that there is a sort of symbiotic relationship between self and culture, each reflecting back onto the other, then it is worth discussing how that relationship plays out in the classroom.  The town where I attended high school (as well as middle and part of elementary) was overwhelmingly white and upper middle class.  I note this because often, throughout my teacher education, I have heard much about forming curricula that are representative of student interest and culture.  Assuming that my teachers heard much the same thing, I have to think that my experiences as a learner were shaped by the culture of the school.  I don't see it as coincidental that the majority of the novels I read in English class (some of which are on the collage) were written by white authors, and that when we read a novel by a black author, there was a distinct air of  "cultural diversity" about the text.  The culture of students in school invariably affects the sort of learning experiences they have, particularly in classes where there are a multitude of culturally different texts from which to teach.

Clearly, I give a lot of weight to culture as a factor that affects learning experiences, as I imagine most others do, too.  My view of culture--or the aspects of culture that interest me most--namely, the artifacts produced such as literature and music, however, might be wholly different from someone who views culture primarily as concerned with heritage, family traditions, and the like.  When I teach someday, then, it's very likely that my view of culture could have interesting implications.  For example, if I am teaching a lesson on Slaughterhouse-Five, I might emphasize to my students the sort of larger, cultural context of the novel:  how it deals with the Vietnam War through the lens of WWII, how its tone of pessimistic humanism might be related to a larger feeling present in post-war America, etc.  But, if a student of mine tends to think of culture in far more personal ways, he/she might not grasp what I am saying, might see it all as a stretch.  At the same time, these differing views of culture can also affect my interactions with my students.  For example, I might tend to view them as I view my classmates in my own high school experience, as a collective mass of a certain type of person.  But, the students might not understand this view.  They might see themselves as too unique to be categorized, as each having a particular culture that is separate from their classmates.  Moreover, they find it frustrating if I do not give them some personal details from my life that can help them to see me as a member of a small, personal, probably familiar culture.

Ultimately, recognizing these different ways culture can be conceptualized will only help me to become a more effective teacher.  The more ways in which I can understand my students culturally, the more strategies I will have at my disposal for connecting with them and helping them to connect with me.  This might prove especially true should I end up teaching in an urban environment where there might be such great diversity so that my view of large cultural collectives will be difficult to apply.