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.