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.