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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Impressions: McKinley School

The first thing I noticed about the second school I visited in Newark, McKinley School, was how difficult it was to get into the place.  After parking in a lot behind the school, I tried nearly every door in the rear of the school, only to find them all locked (one was wide open, but it led into some boiler room that I was not about to venture through).  So, I walked back to 7th Ave and traveled up a block or so to the front of the school on Colonnade, and here something happened that left me both surprised and impressed.  I walked up a set of steps to the first set of doors I saw, tried them, and found that they, too, were locked.  But then, my luck changed.  A student was walking down the hallway on the inside, and I motioned to him to come to the door.  He did, opened it, and then told me that he couldn't let me in this door, but if I went to another set of doors farther along the front facade, I should find one open; if not, he would come down and let me in.  

My impression of urban students had, unfortunately, been largely formed by movies such as Lean on Me in which students are depicted as having little or no regard for their school, as willing to let any drug dealer or thug into the premises.  This single act by the young man from McKinley went a long way towards reversing my beliefs about urban youths yesterday.  Here I was, not dressed like a thug or drug dealer, but still being refused improper entry, as I should have been.  Of course, I don't know whether the student wouldn't let me in because of some pride he felt for his surroundings or simply because if he got caught doing so, the punishment would have been severe.  I can't know his reasonings, and I don't want to romanticize his actions.  But, regardless of what spurned him on, I think it was impressive that there is a rule in place about letting people into the building and the student followed that rule.  This small act left a large impression on me that ran counter to the talk of lack of control and chaos that so often surrounds urban schools.

Another experience I had later during my visit to McKinley left a similar impression:  My group had the chance to visit a 4th grade math class, and the experience was truly eye-opening for me.  As we walked into the class, we found the teacher sitting in front of the chalkboard with the students sitting in a layered semi-circle around him.  The teacher was using a manipulative to teach the kids fractions, and the process could not have been more extraordinary.  I won't go into the technicalities of what the teacher was doing, but I will say that for each question he asked, the students could barely contain themselves, raising their hands almost violently and begging to be called on.  These were not the uninterested urban students so often mentioned in various media.  What was also fascinating was how the group students functioned collectively.  There was no bickering or hatred displayed towards a classmate.  Instead, the group functioned as a small community of inquiry--all striving towards the same understanding of fractions, all taking part in self-correcting activities, all displaying a caring attitude towards each other (exhibited most often in applause when a student, after taking a while to think, got a question right).  That this sort of emergent, somewhat uncontrolled, somewhat chaotic, but good, productive, and caring discussion can exist in an urban environment is indeed eye-opening and promising.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Impressions: Maple Avenue School

For the first day of the Urban Educator's Institute, I had no idea what to expect, both from the program and from the schools themselves.  Driving into Newark, the first thing that struck me was the lack of urban sprawl in the area surrounding the Maple Avenue school: there were no skyscrapers or tenement buildings; there were no dilapidated buildings or disenfranchised people standing on every street corner; there was traffic, but not more than you might find on a busy road in a suburban neighborhood.  In fact, for all intents and purposes, the area surrounding the school very much resembled a suburban community.  I wonder if this is intentional, placing schools in residential, and not commercial, neighborhoods.

Inside the school buildings (the main building and the annex) themselves, there was a noticeable difference in terms of architecture.  It's possible that I did not get to see enough of the buildings, but what I did see seemed very crowded, not in the sense of a lot of people being present necessarily, but more because of the lack of open free-flowing areas.  Neither Maple Ave building had an entrance space or atrium; instead, immediately upon entering, you were ushered into the corridors of the school.  I don't think that is lack of open space is really a big deal, but it did occur to me that it might be indicative of the urban environment overall and its general lack of space.

My classroom visits at Maple Ave were restricted to the annex building and kindergarten classes, which is not really a point of interest for me.  Nevertheless, one feature that seemed to common to all of the classrooms I saw that I found to be incredibly interesting was the construction of different spaces within a single classroom.  For example, one kindergarten class had an area in the front of the room where the kids could gather around a rocking chair to hear a story, while the back of the room featured an enclave with bean-bag chairs.  The formation of private spaces seems to suggest that educators in urban environments are perhaps not as control-centered as I had previously thought.  That they seem willing to allow their students to not always be under the gaze of the teacher speaks well to the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between teacher and student in an urban classroom.

Another classroom aspect that struck me in my visit to the Maple Ave school--one that may shed light on why smaller instructional spaces were so prevalent--was the presence of at least two (and as many as 4) adults in every kindergarten class that I visited.  From the readings we had done, particularly the one on the Pedagogy of Poverty, I had been expected single-teacher classrooms that practiced skill-and-drill techniques.  What I found was quite the opposite:  children sat in groups and every group had an adult nearby assisting and engaging the kids.  To be sure, these were only kindergarten classrooms where perhaps skill-and-drill pedagogy is not that common anyway, but still, as one of the Maple Ave teachers put it, the school emphasizes teacher-to-teacher communication, so the learning styles implemented in the early grades could very well be reflective of the learning styles school-wide.

Monday, May 26, 2008

No Child Interested in Moving Forward

In the context of urban classrooms, I find the results of the PDK/Gallup poll on public education very disheartening.  The poll notes that a growing number of Americans are becoming disenchanted with NCLB, a number that is especially high among people who classify themselves as knowing a good deal about the law. 

If I were to go back and teach in the high school I attended, I would probably be ambivalent about NCLB.  My high school featured a predominantly homogenous population of people who had lived in America all of their lives and whose parents had also been established in this country for good while.  To this group of people, I think NCLB is just another set of paperwork to fill out; it's not a cause for concern.  I even might go as far as to say that people like the ones I went to high school with should be able to be proficient in Language Arts and Math--provided they do not have a learning disability--and attempts to make them so should not have to dominate the curriculum.

But, in the context of an urban classroom, NCLB strikes me as an obnoxious and illogical law.  How can we expect urban schools to meet AYP if they have large populations of immigrant students who are just learning English?  Perhaps more importantly, what corners are cut or what skeletons are kept in the closet to insure that urban schools with large immigrant populations do meet AYP?  In an urban classroom (especially), teachers need to be dynamic, to have a wide range of teaching tools at their disposal in order to meet the needs of a wide range of sometimes very different students, and one of these tools might be a varied curriculum that attempts to engage students at some visceral level, like their heritage.  But, teaching a novel where the majority of the text is in dialects, while it might increase the attention and desire to learn in students, might not increase their basic knowledge of formal English, and, in the age of NCLB, this cannot be tolerated.

What a shame.

Honoring America's Urban Dead

This might be a stretch, but here is the connection I see between Memorial Day and urban education:
Memorial Day celebrates and honors America's war dead.  I don't have the numbers to prove this, but I'd wager that the vast majority of those dead come from three wars, The Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War.  All of three of those wars featured a conscription army, and Vietnam (possibly the other two, but definitely Vietnam) also featured a class army.  That is, because of the draft, the majority of the soldiers who went overseas in that war were ones who couldn't afford not to.  Since the Civil War, draft boards have always set up shop in urban areas because the armed forces knows that therein live the majority of their potential soldiers.  Serving in the military, especially since the passing of GI Bill after WWII, has come to be seen as a way out for impoverished youth, the same demographic that makes up the majority of urban schools.  In that way, the majority of the men and women honored on Memorial Day are most likely ones who received an urban education.  More specifically, these people are probably the ones whose urban education failed them, leaving them unable to attain one of the professional jobs that would have been grounds for not entering the draft.  

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Urban Assumptions

On the one hand, assumptions are crucial to our ability to get by in everyday life.  They are a facet of memory, designed to keep us sane.  In the Jorge-Louis Borges short story, "Funes, the Memorious," the title character suffers a fall whilst horseback riding and gains, as a result, a perfect memory.  But this is not the blessing it might appear to be:  a perfect memory, Borges contends, would ultimately drive a person insane.  Each object would appear to be an infinite amount of different objects.  A dog seen head on, for example, would look completely different than the same dog seen in profile, and, if one could remember each image perfectly, one would have a difficult time reconciling the two depictions to the same animal.  In this way, it is actually our weakened memories that cause us to assume; to assume, for instance, that a dog seen head on and a dog seen from the side are, in fact, the same dog.  This is not to say, however, that assumptions are not without their drawbacks.  Take a toddler who has lived his short life in the company of a benign dog:  one day, this toddler comes across a less-than-friendly cat.  But, the toddler has no way of knowing that this creature is a cat.  Instead, he assumes it to be another dog, for both walk on four legs, have a tail, and have similar facial structures.  The toddler accosts the cat, as he would the dog, seeking to wrestle with it, but, rather than being met with licks and acquiescence, the toddler is confronted with sharp claws, poised to break the skin.  In this case, the assumption has proved harmful, but in both examples, we might characterize assumptions as means of organization for knowledge.  Assumptions call upon what we know and allow us to project that information--sometimes helpfully, sometimes not--onto present situations.

As a wealth of literature suggests, one of the most assumed about present situations in education is the urban school.  What I seek to do in this essay is be clear about the assumptions that I hold about education in urban environments.  Furthermore, I want to interrogate those assumptions to uncover not only their origins, but also their implications on both my everyday practice as a teacher and the set of standards that I retain as my educational philosophy.

Before I discuss my assumptions about characteristics located inside of urban schools--their teachers and students--I want to first lay out what I assume to be true of urban centers in general, including the physical structure of urban schools.  As many of these assumptions can be captured in a single word or phrase, I feel a list format works best for this purpose:
--high(er) crime rates
--heterogeneous, but segregated
--cultural center
--rigid, discipline-oriented school architecture
--built vertically, not horizontally 
As you can see, the majority of these assumptions are negative, and even where the terms themselves are neutral ("vertical" and "horizontal"), the implication, "less open space, sense of constriction," is negative.  In fact, the only positive assumption that I appear to hold about urban environments is that they are meccas of culture.  Yet, even this term I offer with a less than wholly enthusiastic feeling, for culture can be broadly defined, and not all cultures are desirable (ie. drug culture, gang culture, culture of violence).  

Reading this list over, I find it both a little surprising and more than a little depressing that these are the assumptions I hold about urban environments.  I am surprised because, as someone who has studied his fair share of History, I know enough to know that urban centers have, throughout nearly all of civilization, been a hotbed for revolution and change, usually for the better.  But, if I can perform a meta-cognitive analysis, I suppose that I largely relegate those vast social changes to the urban centers of history and not to the realities of today.  This, naturally, begs the question:  From where have these current assumptions about urban centers come?

In part, at least, I believe they come from my own lived experience.  To be clear, I have never lived in an urban center.  I do, however, live about two miles outside of Paterson, NJ and about 20 minutes outside of New York City.  As such, I have many times driven or walked through urban areas, yet this is not the lived experience to which I refer.  Instead, I believe it is my lived experience as a suburban resident that has shaped my assumptions.  Embedded in the very idea of suburbia there is, I think, a certain xenophobia, a sense that the suburban community should exist as an impregnable fortress able to resist urban culture.  Implicit in this belief, therefore, is the idea that there is something dangerous about urban environments, or, to put it another way, there are all of the above assumptions in urban culture.  

But, as I said, lived experience is only part of the origin of my urban assumptions.  The other part is media.  Whether the medium is the news, film, television, or print, again and again I am exposed to depictions of urban areas as less-than appealing (or, sometimes, as "appealing-despite-the-unappealingness").  Here, some might contend that if the news is my source of information, then perhaps my assumptions are not assumptions at all because they pertain to facts.  To such a claim, however, I would respond by saying that there is no such thing as a fact, only ideological positions, for, if you believe the news media deals in facts, then you have to question how they cram in a day's worth of them into a 30-minute-1-hour program.  To keep from heading down a path laden with media criticisms, however, let's turn back to our talk on assumptions.

The list of assumptions above on urban environments is probably the most complete and interesting set of assumptions that I hold.  I say this because it reflects my own experiences with lived space as well as third-party (media, etc) conceptions of urban lived space.  I also believe this set of assumptions to be most interesting because I think further assumptions about urban education will stem from it.  In other words, I feel assumptions about space to be the most essential because they are universal.  Everyone has experiences with an environment and, as such, can relate those experiences into assumptions about other environments.  When we narrow the topic for our assumptions, say, from urban center to urban teacher, it is not likely that our assumptions will change in attitude.  Moreover, it is possible--but hopefully not the case--that our assumptions might lose some reflexivity as the specificity of our subject increases.  Nevertheless, it is important to articulate and interrogate these assumptions, and I will do so here on urban teachers:
--"skill and drill"
--mostly teach the basics
--restricted by environment/students
As with my assumptions on urban centers, these assumptions are also predominantly negative, and, as I said before, this is not surprising.  But unlike the environmental assumptions, which I believe are reflective largely of my lived experiences in suburbia, I do not believe that a similar, personal explanation exists for my assumptions about teachers.  Or, perhaps one does, but in a different way.  If my list of assumptions about urban neighborhoods stems largely from an "othering" of that environment--it illustrates the qualities I believe the ideal suburban environment is not--then my view of urban teachers works a converse manner:  my assumptions about urban teachers are based directly on--and not in contrast to--my experience with suburban teachers, for I think any of the above assumptions applies to teachers in either environment.  As we noted in class, the qualities Martin Haberman ascribes to urban teachers are not different than the qualities we would assign to suburban teachers (1).  The main difference, in my opinion, between urban and suburban teachers exists in their respective environments, especially in the comparative abundance or lack of resources and the absence or presence of safety.  This latter difference has been noted by Deborah Smith in "Perceptions of Violence:  The Views of Teachers Who Left Urban Schools." 

This, of course, is not to say that other mediums, such as film, have not tried to have a say in my perceptions and assumptions of urban teachers, but I believe that I can honestly assert that I have maintained the ability to consistently view film as a fictional and hyperbolic medium, as one from which assumptions should not stem, at least with regards to depictions of urban teachers.  I know enough about education, through my own experiences and others' shared anecdotes, to correctly perceive the ridiculousness of Robert Bulman's "teacher hero" (254).

But, although I know enough to distinguish real representations of teachers from ludicrous ones, I do not know enough to possess assumptions of urban students that differ from the ones often presented in Hollywood films.  Bulman notes, "These students [in urban high school films] are seen as working-class animals.  These are ‘beasts’ that even music won't soothe" (259).  Now, I don't possess the same harsh line of thought that sees urban students as animals or beasts, but certainly, I have been trained through fictional media (and some non-fictional media) to think of urban students as unwilling to learn, combative, and uninterested in their education.

When I coalesce these assumptions on various parts of urban life, I paint a dim picture of what my experiences as an urban educator might be like.  In my thus-far vaguely formed teaching philosophy, I envision an educational experience that is, perhaps above all else, collaborative on a variety of levels.  I see myself ideally engaging my students and encouraging them to work at developing their own curriculum.  I want to provide students with a structure, but not a rigid framework.  Ideally, my students and I would work together to develop topics of interest and methods with which those topics could be investigated.  But, if I were to enter an urban classroom tomorrow, taking with me the assumptions I currently hold about urban students, this ideal situation would be far from reality.  Instead, I would probably conform to the assumptions that I already hold about urban teachers; rather than engage students and encourage them to engage the material, I would seek to control students and make sure that the material met some district or state standard, without regard for student interest because, after all, my assumed students have no educational interests.

When dealing with my fellow teachers, I would ideally see them as colleagues in a community of inquiry, all sharing the same goal of furthering the students' education in meaningful and innovative ways.  But, if my assumptions hold up, then this relationship with my peers would be the exception and not the rule.  If my assumptions are correct, I would most likely end up segregating myself, as so many teachers do, and working without passion.  Similarly, if my assumptions about urban communities are correct, then I do not think I will be able to collaborate with the community, bringing it into the classroom and having my students go out into it primarily because to do so, would be to expose the students to danger.

What exists, then, between my assumptions and my ideals is a great disconnect.  My assumptions about urban education effectively stand as roadblocks to the education I would seek to implement as a teacher.  But, this does not mean that I am without hope and resigned to an ineffective, unsatisfying career.  On the contrary, I hold firmly the belief that assumptions, while necessary as the Funes story illustrates, are, like the second example earlier pointed out, more often than not harmful.  I do not see myself as the toddler in the second example, approaching urban schools only with assumptions.  This is why I am enrolled in the course for which I write this blog.  All of the assumptions listed in this essay beg questions, most obviously of which is "Are they true?"  This is what I need to find out.  I know enough about the sources of these assumptions to understand that some might be true and others certainly are not, but I do not know enough to know 1)which is which and 2)the implications of the assumptions that are, in fact, true.  If it turns out, for example, that my assumptions about urban students are true, then perhaps I could not be the teacher I want to be in an urban setting.  Or, maybe knowing what students in urban high schools are most often like will challenge me to rethink the ways that I can align my professional goals with educational realities.

Finally, I want to end this essay by posing one final question, one that I feel is at the heart of much of this discussion but one that possibly cannot be answered, at least by me at this time:  Why do I have the assumptions that I do?  Note, this is not the same as where do the assumptions come from, or how did I obtain them.  This question seeks to know why the information for my assumptions is available in the first place.  It might be that, at one time or another, all of my assumptions were facts in one place or another.  Or, it might be that all of my assumptions indicate a subtle (or not so subtle) racist/classist element.  It might be both of these; it might be neither.  But, I think regardless of what the answer might be, it is important that we attempt to articulate not just the assumptions and their impetuses but the larger discourse that allows such impetuses to exist.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mythic Violence in Urban High Schools

Everyone knows that urban high schools are violent places, right?  Well, it turns out, maybe not as much as we all think.

In "Perceptions of Violence:  The Views of Teachers Who Left Urban Schools," Deborah Smith and Brian Smith attempt to identify if there is a correlation between violence at urban high schools and teacher attrition rates.  The authors begin by noting, "‘rates of violent victimization and injury are substantially higher in large, inner city high schools’" (36), and, "[w]hile [school violence] is often normalized by administration and students, one study found that fifty-six percent of the teachers do nor [sic] feel safe in schools that are rated as providing a fair or poor education" (36).  In an attempt to substantiate this information, the authors interviewed twelve teachers who, at one point in their careers, taught in an urban school but had left that school within five years of beginning.

At first glance, the results of the overwhelming majority of the interviews seem to corroborate the standard notions regarding urban high schools and violence.  Nearly all of the teachers interviewed had a story about violence to relate, and "[t]his fact alone, that ten of the twelve respondents [sic] most prominent story about urban schools involved violence, points to the significance of the link between attrition and perceptions of violence" (38).  But, just because most of the teachers interviewed had a story about urban high school violence, it does not follow that most of the teachers interviewed had actually experienced violence in an urban high school:  "Many of the stories of violence that respondents recounted were indirect; they had been told of violent happenings by other teachers and students" (41).  This characteristic of the respondents' stories suggests a different picture about violence in urban education.  It does not, to be sure, indicate that violence in urban high schools does not exist, but it does call into question exactly how much violence--how many new acts of violence--actually occur during the course of a school year. Judging from the authors' results, it seems as though it is more fair to characterize urban schools as having a problem in perception of violence than in reality of violence.  That is, urban schools seem most damaged by the stigma of being violent places--a stigma that might be unavoidable when each new violent act becomes hyperbolized in light of its predecessors.

Work Cited:  Smith, D.L. and Smith, B.J. (2006).  Perceptions of violence:  The views of teachers who left urban schools.  High School Journal 89(3), 34-42.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Civilizing Missions" in Action-packed Urban High Schools

In "Teachers in the 'Hood: Hollywood's Middle-Class Fantasy," Robert Bulman proffers an analysis of urban high school movies that I found to be quite illuminating.  Bulman's thesis, "In these films the poor and mostly non-white students must change their behavior and accept middle-class values and cultural capital in order to achieve academic success," articulates the essence of these movies precisely.  Last semester, in one my education classes, we watched the film Lean on Me because the professor felt that the movie did a good job of portraying some of the realities of urban education as well as education in a Type I school system.  My response to the film was only half in agreement.

Lean on Me does do a decent job of portraying the sometimes-corrupt nature of BOEs--and local politics in general--but I felt at the time, and Bulman's article has reinforced my belief, that the film does a poor job of articulating the job of an urban educator.  In his essay, Bulman discusses the archetype of teacher-/educator-hero in these urban high school films as a cowboy, an outsider to the system who is not afraid to use violence when needed.  As a corollary to this line of thought, I wonder if we might not view films with the cowboy teacher-/educator-hero less as part of the urban high school film genre and more as part of the action film genre.  Or, to put this another way, I think that urban high school films of the cowboy hero type make up a sub-genre within the broader action movie umbrella.  

In your typical action movie (think Die Hard or a James Bond film), there is very little--if any--consideration of collateral damage.  I recall one action-packed scene from the Bond film Goldeneye in particular.  In the scene, Bond commandeers a tank and rides it through the streets of St. Petersburg, causing innumerable automobile accidents, substantial damage to buildings and other infrastructure, and the destruction of a monument to Peter the Great.  But, to the audience, none of this damage is supposed to matter; in a Bond film, all that matters is that Bond completes the mission (and usually gets the girl).  In Lean on Me, I think we find a similar set of audience of expectations and thematic disregard for collateral damage.  When Joe Clark kicks out a good portion of the school for suspected drug dealing, we are not meant to wonder or care about the future of these individuals.  They are roadblocks to Clark's success and must be plowed through in much the same way that Bond plows through the cityscape of St. Petersburg.  The reality of education, of course, is that this method of the ends justifying the means should not be tolerated.  Teacher preparation and education programs like the one at MSU stress that educators must believe that all children are able to be educated.  But films like Lean on Me would have us believe that education is only for the children who already have a disposition towards it.  In truth, it might be fair to say that these children need educators least of all.

A second corollary that Bulman's article raised in my mind is that we might also view urban high school films as an extension of the imperialist phrase, the White Man's Burden.  To be clear, I have not watched enough of these films to make a truly convincing argument, so I am only extrapolating based on Bulman's research and my experience with Lean on Me.  But, even Lean on Me, which might initially appear as anything but the White Man's Burden because Joe Clark is black, I believe, ultimately finds its roots in the "civilizing missions" of the nineteenth century.  When the film begins, we see Joe Clark as a teacher at Eastside in the 1960s (70s?).  He is decked out in an afro and wears a shirt looks anything but professional white man attire.  When Clark comes back as the principal of Eastside, however, his hair is now cropped close to the scalp, and he dresses in three-piece suits.  This latter-day Clark seems disconnected from his previous incarnation, and this can be no coincidence.  As Bulman points out, success in these films is based on an adoption of white, middle-class values, and these values must be introduced from someone, namely Joe Clark.  Thus, Clark comes to stand in for the imperialist missionaries and explorers like Livingstone in both his practice and appearance.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Annenberg Institute Article

"The Promise of Urban Schools," published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, strikes both an optimistic and pessimistic chord on urban education.  On the one hand, the article outlines the immense capacity urban schools retain for positive social--and, more importantly, educational--change.  "Urban schools," say the authors, "can be models of participatory democracy and centers where adults act together to nurture the efficacy of all students" because of their unique store of "cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity."  In this way, urban schools actually exist as possibly the best microcosms of larger American society.  This characteristic of urban environments, however, is not without its drawbacks.  Just as large-scale America is fraught with inequality, inefficiency, and downright ineffectiveness, so too are urban schools.  Perhaps the most disheartening facet of this article is the fact that it has to be written at all.  Urban schools are largely failing their students for what seem to be the precise reasons in which the great hope for urban schools exist.  There seems to be a paradoxical relationship, then, between the promise and the success of education in urban environments.  Can urban schools undergo educational reformation whilst retaining--hopefully in the same degree--the very characteristics that make them worth reformation in the first place?

The people at the Annenberg Institute think so, and they outline five areas where they see a need for reform as well as subsequent strategies for reform in those areas.  But I remain skeptical.  To be clear, I do not disagree with the reforms recommended by the Annenberg Institute authors, but I am not convinced that their study goes deep enough.  The Annenberg article remains too much at the superficial level, identifying the problems of urban education as well as the possibilities, and, although the authors do provide strategies for implementing reform, these strategies, too, strike me as too basic or simple.  For example, the authors note the importance of equity and justice in urban schooling and state, "School policies and practices must implement principles of equitable and just access, opportunity, and outcome so that every student develops her or his potential."  Later, the authors say, "Educators...must demonstrate their commitment by providing innovative, effective, and caring ways to engage all students in meaningful and successful learning."  These, to me, are unarguable points.  It seems obvious that these characteristics and approaches would be needed (not just) in urban schools.  The better question, I think, is what is an innovative or effective or caring way to engage an urban school student?  What is an equitable policy and how does it differ from current policies?  Answers to questions like these are crucial to any urban educator, and, while the Annenberg Institute has done an effective job of identifying the ideal characteristics of an urban school, I don't believe that it has offered sufficient examples of how that ideal state might be achieved, especially in a practice that seeks to resolve the paradox mentioned above.