Sunday, June 15, 2008

Course Feedback

1. What was most helpful for you in terms of learning about urban schools and working in urban communities?
It was helpful to write and read several blogs about people’s assumptions about an urban community/education. As teachers I think that it is important to identify some of the assumptions and even prejudices that we might encounter while teaching. This is valid not only for an urban school but for any other as well, there are assumptions based on almost anything that we do, so that there would be assumptions about the schools and children going to a private or catholic school, just as there would be assumptions for students from rural areas and even suburbs. Learning about the urban community was one more step and one more opportunity that I could look into in terms of educating others. As a teacher I would like to make a difference, to cause an impact in my students, teach them to care about what they are learning and not just learn to pass a test; and teaching in an urban district may make this idea more meaningful and identifiable. I liked the fact that there was one course solely dedicated to instruction about urban education; I liked the straightforward style in which it was thought and the fact that everyone’s opinions were respected.

2. How might the course be organized differently? Think in terms of length of time for course, placement of activities, use of technology?
The course seemed packed with materials in the beginning, but then the readings dwindled. Though the syllabus had many pages, the assignment portion was left blank in the second week. It seemed that the readings were too close together at first and then none at all. Since there was a 15 blog requirement, I would have like to see more readings, or more opportunities for discussion.
The visits to the schools were great, my only complaint is that there were not organized ahead of time. Also since I was taking another course in the afternoon, I wasn’t able to attend all the schools I would have liked. Maybe the visits could be more spread out or an opportunity to visit the schools at different times. Though the presentations were nice, the most useful parts for me where the actual classroom visits, the opportunity to see teachers and students interacting; what was being used, how they were learning and how they were divided or grouped. I feel that the material that was presented could have been provided in a packet with more time dedicated to classroom interaction / visits. Maybe during the fall or spring semester there is more time for this, but nevertheless, it would have been nice in the summer as well.
I really enjoyed using the web as a tool and learning how to implement it as a tool in my future classes as well, especially the blogs which students are often already familiar with and will like the opportunity to create their own for a class. I am prone to say that technology is an integral part of life, you can’t move away from it; and teaching students how to use it effectively, properly and to their benefit is an excellent tool regardless of which subject or setting you are teaching. I had other courses that had placed readings on blackboard, and I found this useful since we did not have to purchase books.

3. What readings were most useful? What readings should be replaced? What types of readings would you have liked to have read?
I liked the readings on Teachers and Monday morning as well as the Hollywood article about the preconceived notions of urban education and what appears to work as effective methods. Both of these opened our eyes to what teachers are or are not aware of, what is missing and what could be included in educating future teachers. Additionally the Hollywood article played into many assumptions that either we held ourselves, or were familiar with from others around us and prior readings or encounters.
I would have liked to read more about teaching techniques, about what should be taught to future teachers. I would also have liked to read about success or failures in urban education; both from students and from the perspective of educators. I would also have liked to discuss the readings more in the classroom, especially since towards the end there weren’t as many readings, I would have like to have them more spaced and then have the opportunity to discuss them or interact with them during our class time.

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?
I enjoyed your teaching style, open, informative, providing your doubts, your agreements or disagreements with education in general as well as sharing your experiences. I also liked the ability to read your blog with your insights, opinions and projects. The open classroom with chances to interrupt, ask questions or provide feedback was a comfortable setting. I must admit though that I liked the traditional lecturing or information providing as well, especially when we went over the politics in education. I was not aware of all of the layers or of all the differences in types of schools and funding, so that class really helped me. The only other aspect as I mentioned before, would have been the opportunity to visit the other schools at another time.


Self Reflection
1. What were your expectations for this class? What did you hope to learn? What did you learn?
To be honest I registered for this class because it was a requirement in the program. I went to an urban elementary school for two years then on to the first year in high school, both in Newark. I had good experiences in both schools, that is to say, I like most of my teachers who had a positive attitude towards students, believed in us and pushed us to the limit always saying that we could do anything we wanted to. I won’t say that all of them had this attitude, unfortunately a few did not and actually told us that they saw no point in our continuing to go to school since most of us would not amount to anything. Take these so-called teachers and combine them with the Hollywood depictions of urban schooling and you have a nice ugly picture, but again Hollywood is Hollywood, it is making money, selling to the masses, and the masses like to think of themselves as correct and the worst the picture, the better. So when I entered a course on urban education I had actually expected it to show those schools that was most in need. I was actually delighted that after all the incorrect assumptions and readings, the class had a chance to see urban schools, much like the ones I attended, that did work, that had caring professionals.
I hoped to learn more about teaching in general and also about techniques or methods that work more effectively in an urban setting. I did learn quite a bit. Mostly I learned about how people’s misconceptions and about the politics of education which like all politics serve to push forward only those on the inside, while leaving those most in needs, our children, where they were originally – still in need.

2. What was your biggest personal challenge in terms of the themes and content of this course? What was your greatest accomplishment?
I don’t know that it was my biggest but certainly one of the main challenges was to keep a blog for the class, where I could put my reactions and opinions and where not only the teacher, but also all of my colleagues could read and give me feedback. I was very self-conscious and apprehensive in the beginning, but found it really rewarding and an excellent experience overall. It was great to receive comments regardless of them being positive or negative, because it made me reconsider my thoughts, and my writing. It did not necessarily make me change my mind, but it opened me up to a bigger picture, especially after reading some of the other blogs. I saw it as a great tool, one I intend to keep using it for my future educational classes and possibly into my teaching career. I also hope to have an opportunity to demonstrate this to my students and invite to share the experiences in a closed setting within the school or classroom only.
My greatest accomplishment was learning the methods and techniques that can be used by any teacher, not just in urban education. By that I mean that I saw my initial assumptions about a good teacher materialize, namely if you want to be a good teacher, you have to care about your students, your subject, your methods, you have to give more of yourself not just expect students to step up to expectations. Learning like trust works both ways, you have to give in order to receive and having students want to learn is something you earn not something you can force. I would also say that coming up with a website focused on urban education and on our subjects was one of the biggest accomplishments so far in my studies as well. It was a great opportunity to work in groups, to gather material and to learn from the entire class about different subjects within the urban setting.

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?
I think the most important skill / disposition for an urban teacher is the knowledge, belief and drive to make urban students as successful as any student. Urban teachers need to know and be prepared for entering a different environment, but above all they must be open to embrace the diversity in all senses of the word among their students. As mentioned several times in our classroom, the teacher must teach, he/she must leave behind the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the impediments that pop up wherever he/she turns, and teach with his/her heart and soul, believing that the children are capable of learning and doing / exercising any profession they choose.
I think that I am on the right course of the journey, but not yet fully ready. I have learned about urban education, have experienced it first hand as a student, have also had experience as a suburban student, but now I think that what is missing is a “how to course,” where I can learn to develop effective lesson planning. I am aware that different students learn in different ways, at different paces, but I would like to be exposed to different techniques, possible ideas, what doesn’t work, what could work, etc.
Though I attended an urban school, like the ones we visited, it was more or less the same inside and outside. To be frank, I haven’t yet decided if urban teaching is for me, sometimes I think it is, that I would like to be part of one of those schools and try to make a difference, push students, show them what they are capable of and may not be aware of. At other times, I am not sure, and my biggest fear on that is not being brave, strong enough to be there for them all the way (by them I mean ALL students). This will be a factor in any school and I am counting on my future courses, fieldwork and student teaching experiences to push in the right track.

School partnerships with the University

The participation of two of the persons responsible for the partnership program in the university in our classroom was very informative. Not only did we learn more about the partnership program, what it entails, the benefits for both sides and the differences that it is making in the schools in question, but we also learned more about the politics and what goes on behind the scenes in the education world. I think that good teachers should also be aware of this backstage information, of the political aspect of education, of ways to improve their classes, their school, and their own education.
I had some previous knowledge of the types of schools that exist, but their clarifications and examples really helped to clarify the status of the different schools, the choices of parents and students, the money, the budgets and the qualifications of students and teachers, in some of the cases. It was also interesting and hopeful to learn of the schools where administrators are open to new ideas, improvements for their students and educators, partnerships, where the focus is on student achievement and progress rather than on discipline. I was particularly interested in the parental involvement factor in the schools, and the contrast between schools with and without parental involvement; the tremendous influence it has on student’s learning and willingness to learn and succeed; as well as the teacher’s relationship with parents and guardians. One of the ideas I took from the visit as well as from our classroom was that of speaking to parents either before the start of classes or during the initial week, with a possible visit to their houses, to show interest in each student and a commitment to help them learn and succeed. I also liked the idea of calling parents to let them know of the progress of their children, of something positive that happened, rather than calls simply to talk about issues, problems, and misbehaviors.
The last bit of acquired information was the idea of the culture of the urban schools (and this will apply to any school actually). But specifically related to schools where there are metal detectors and other security devices. I had never stopped to think of their impact not only on students but in teachers and administrators, and the way in which they are presented, tolerated or ignored plays an important part on the behavior of the students and how they perceive themselves and their environment.

The role of the media

The media plans an important role in people’s lives, either by providing actual news, or by portraying realities and even fantasies in movies, dramas, sitcoms and others. Although many reports and news are delivered in a seemingly plain and effective manner many appear to be embellished or built-up to cause a greater impact on the public.
I notice this especially when there is a report on someone who became successful. It is always portrayed as a bigger accomplishment if the person came from an unfavorable background and even more if that person came from a known urban area in great need of improvement. Although it is important to note that there are many success stories from all over the globe, I think that the main point should not be and the person came from an urban area, as if he or she is the only one that could overcome obstacles. I think that in order to diminish and hopefully end assumptions and negative receptiveness to urban areas, the pieces should say another person who succeeded among many doing great things in urban areas. I think that singling out is exactly what the media does best, selling the news and furthering the misconceptions about urban areas. The media is not showing the potential of the areas, rather it is distancing them even more, making them seem worst so that the individual’s accomplishments will appear greater.

Culture Project

I see culture as an element that embraces the individual, for instance it can be summed up into what makes someone, and his/her features, behaviors, habits and even choices. Features, sexuality, gender, language and religion are all parts that help build us into who we are and influence, reflect or go against our culture. As an example, a Muslim woman may have one view on people from her own culture and from the world around her, while a Buddhist monk may have another perception and behave completely differently. I know these are extremely examples, but they serve the purpose of illustrating the differences that are in the world and that often can be seen in classrooms. Certain nationalities and religions use silence as respect, acknowledgement and acquiescence, so that a child may simply listen to the teacher while glancing down and not answer back, as a sign of respect, not of ignorance, misunderstanding or negative attitude as would often be assumed by someone in the US for example. Teachers must be aware of the diversity among students, learn about their customs, their cultures in order to provide them with the assistance needed without confrontation or embarrassment.
The US is home to many cultures and beliefs while at the same time fostering its own. From the poles and readings, we learned that the majority of teachers are white females. To follow along this idea, I would venture to say that many of them are unfamiliar with other cultures, and may not know where to start or how to address different situations. As white females, they have views on sexuality, perhaps liberal, perhaps not, but some of which may not even be considered possibilities in other cultures. In the same token they may have their own assumptions about their students, their behaviors, their potential, their knowledge, as well as about the area in which they will be teaching; all of these are shaped by their own culture, by what they are familiar with, have experienced or seen. It is difficult to separate experience and belief from reality; just as it is difficult to set aside wrongful assumptions about someone, or a group of people from another area, another country, another religion, another culture.
I tend to tie or make a link between one’s culture and one’s nationality or heritage, because in my case since I am Brazilian, but with heritages from Portugal and Italy, my culture is shaped by all of these countries and their cultures and customs. In my collage I tried to make sense of who I was, where I came from, how I got there, my goals, my experiences and my future as a teacher. When I first read about the project, I didn’t know where to start or what I would include, as I started to look through photo albums however, I couldn’t decide on what to include and by the end there was so much I would like to have included that there would not have been enough space; so I left many things out from the collage but which I tried to include in the presentation and which I hope to include here as I reflect on my culture.
I started with the people who influenced me and who I am, by placing two very distinct pictures, which reflect my Italian and Portuguese heritages as much as it reflects the poor side of the family with the affluent one. The happy picture of the entire family on my mother’s side is at my grandparent’s house, a simple house made by my grandfather through much struggle but a home to the entire family and the friends seen on the right side as well. What they didn’t have in currency they made up and doubled in love, affection and support; we were all together, crammed into the tiny kitchen with a table filled with the best food, from their mini-farm. To the right of that is a picture of my parents in my paternal grandparents’ dining room, the fancy room, in a fancy house and a dysfunctional family. My parents are total opposites in everything, from their personalities to their physical traits: my father is tall, and my mom is short as you can see they are very happy, not. They were divorced when I was eight years old and only posed for this picture because I asked them to, about 15 years after the divorce, when we returned to Brazil for a visit. For those cultures where women play minor roles, usually victimized, oppressed and without their voices, I respect but feel badly for them at the same time. In our culture, women are equals and for me specifically my mom was my pillar, she is someone I aspire to be: strong, willful, hard-working, sincere, honest and someone who supported me and still does no matter the consequences. Their divorce is the reason I came to the US, hence the airplane where I made my long journey, and there is me a 10 year old on New Year’s Eve seeing snow for the first time; my milestones.
The picture in the center is me now, married to a wonderful husband (who unfortunately is not in the picture) and mother of two beautiful daughters, my life and joy. They are among the many reasons why I decided to become a teacher. I want to be able to take part in their education and help other children, perhaps children like me when I arrived here learning English and struggling to be a part of this culture. At the top right is a phrase I use often and truly believe in Tomorrow begins today. My culture, or I should say the Brazilian in me, says that we have to live today like there is no tomorrow; there is no point in just waiting for the future and not enjoying or living the present. There is always hope for the future, for a better education, for the end to prejudices of all types and the embrace of diversity, but it must be accomplished one step at a time, and it has to begin in the now. This is also something that is part of the motto or the hopes of the group Olodum, whose CD cover I have attached also. They are a Brazilian Samba-reggae band that plays several types of drums, there are about 40 of them, and they have many social projects, among them taking children off the streets, placing them in school and teaching them to play instruments; and one that is aimed at ending racism and prejudices of all types in Brazil and around the world.
On the right, I also attached a memoir I submitted for an English Writing class which focuses on my studies in the urban school when I came to the US, the teachers I encountered, good and bad and my struggle to learn a new language and culture, as well as the reception from students and professionals. I also attached a critical thinking paper I wrote, actually it is the first chapters of a novel on an American ambassador’s family who travels around the world, learns new languages, learns about new religions and cultures and then returns to the US to share their experiences while trying to fight against prejudices and negative assumptions. This is a project I would like to continue and which I think can be expanded with the classes I am currently taking, including our Urban Education class. Above this piece I included the words Meaning and Diversify, because I think that it is important to make meanings out of personal experience and above all it is important to diversify and embrace diversity. I also attached to it as representing this idea a map of the world filled with opposites, and representations; and a picture of colored pencils to show the differences that exist and the fact that put together they create a beautiful rainbow.
I was a good student in Brazil; I went to a Catholic school and was among the top students of my grade. When I came to the US, I entered a public school in an urban area and although I excelled in other disciplines, I was placed in an ESL class. I was in a Portuguese dominated community where the dominant view was that Brazilians were ignorant, lazy, and any other negative connotations you may imagine. My goal was to prove them wrong, to defend not only myself and my family, but my culture and country as well. Yes, I think that my culture played an important role in which I am, and how I got here, my struggles and my accomplishments. I left for a suburban town at the end of my freshmen year, but I had certainly proved to them that my culture also had intelligent and hard-working people; I was 4th among over 400 students. What I take from this into my hopes as a teacher is the idea that all students are capable of excelling, it doesn’t matter where they are from or where they are living. I see them all as equals, because that is how I wanted to be seen. It doesn’t matter what nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, what culture a person is from, they are to be respected, given incentives and praise.
I want to be an English teacher for middle school or high school and I would like to be able to include readings from foreign authors as well as American and British literature. I think that this would give everyone a sense of what is available, differences in style, writing, and even cultures. I would also like to include this collage activity to introduce students to one another, or to introduce the diversity and culture themes into my classroom. I think that it is an effective and fun tool, one that gives all students a chance to participate, to show their abilities, their talents and their struggles.

Day Two, School Two

In this school there wasn’t a lot of presentation, there was a short and sweet introduction to the school, information on its being one of the largest in the district housing children from Pre-K through 8th grade; overall pretty standard information, just as my school years. The school’s surroundings were more typical of the idea of where urban schools are located, near a highway and taller buildings.
This is the school where I had the longest amount of time where I visited classrooms, and spoke to teachers at greater length. Though there was a brief itinerary, visiting three classrooms, we toured almost the entire facility, dropped in on several classes at random, from language arts, to technology, to science, to a contained classroom. Teachers shared with us ideas of what worked in their classrooms, of different types of approaches with different types of students. We also went into a Read 180 classroom where students where using the computer to assist them with their English assignments. As a future English teacher, this really caught my attention as I learned the benefits of such a program and what could be done with the right resources and the right attitude.
I was impressed with all the schools and happy to see the environment in all of them. I liked the openness of the teachers, and the interest of the students in whatever class we went into; this I credit teachers for, making the subject interesting, making it matter to them and captivating their attentions. With all we have learned about the difficulties in urban education, and setting aside all the myths and assumptions, these schools were great examples of what can be accomplished in any school.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Second Day, First School

This school was a little different than the one in yesterday’s visit, not only in terms of the grades that it housed, but also of the diversity of the students. There was still team spirit, enthusiastic and extremely happy students, younger children with big smiles and huge inquiring eyes. This vision makes me recall another class I had last semester where the professor made the comment that in the younger grades students seem happier, willing to go to school to learn, it is when they are getting older that the interests seem to shift or the desire to learn seems to decrease. His next comment, all the more interesting because it really is something to think about, was: What are we (teachers, school personnel) doing wrong? What has changed?
As I walked through this school I kept reflecting back on these two questions. I am not saying that the other schools did not have happy students, often outgoing and very intelligent. I am just commenting that it was noticeable. These were just questions, maybe the younger students in the other schools, with whom I did not have contact where just as happy, maybe it is nothing to do with educators, it could be a specific group, a specific place. Either way I believe these questions are important for all schools and teachers in all areas urban or suburban and in all grades pre-K through college and beyond.
One of the aspects that I thought was very interesting was the ethnicities in this school, mostly Hispanic. A positive outcome we learned was the multiple ESL classes and bilingual programs put in place to assist all students. Not only would those students who were learning English as a second language be benefitting from such programs, but the native speakers would in turn be learning a second language at an early age. I saw these programs as truly valuable for all students as well as for teachers, administrators and even parents. To run along on this point, this school seemed to have, or at least mentioned more parental support than the previous one. The school had parental meetings and even volunteers.
Finally, close to the end of their presentation, we were told that for many of these students, they would be reading books for the first time when they entered into the school. They may have no previous reading or being read to experiences, so the school, these teachers would be the first ones to introduce them to books, to the knowledge and the fun one can achieve by picking up a book to read. I thought that their gift of a book of stories that their children often read was one of the most thoughtful presents I ever received. It illustrated so well the commitment of the school to the students and their families as well as the devotion of the teachers.