Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Assumptions about Urban Schools

I’ll begin by saying that of the six years I went to school in the US as a teenager, half of them took place in Newark, NJ; currently designated as an urban school. I say currently because since I studied in the Ironbound section, I had never really considered it an urban school until I reached the high school freshman year. My assumptions then are based somewhat on past experience, what I can recall from it and how it was over 15 years ago, as well as an aggregation of bits and pieces I have heard, seen or read from unreliable sources. Fortunately some of these erroneous and absurd assumptions are beginning to dissipate as I read more for our class about today’s urban schools.
It was during my freshman year at East Side High School that I saw more diversity between students and teachers; since in middle school most of the students and over half of the teachers were Portuguese. It was also at East Side that I felt fear, I felt threatened or oppressed depending on which building I was going to or which staircase I had to take between classes. I will note that in this case I don’t recall being afraid of Portuguese students, though some were not very innocent to say the least. What I feared was the rivalry between the ethnicities, the veiled and outspoken hymns of which nationality, race or group was better, smarter, stronger, etc; it became steadily worse after that. Here is a question for myself or an assumption of sorts: Was I not afraid of the Portuguese because I was a descendant, could speak their language and had friends among them? Did I think that if I did get into some sort of problem, that I could count on them (this group) to help me out? Why?
Recalling my behavior and what I felt is almost like watching a scene from one of the movies that always portrays urban schools as bad, as dilapidated and beyond repair. Do groups always stick together and is that something just from urban schools? Doesn’t suburbia have its own groups, just as tight, strong, rivals, dangerous? I will answer my own question, yes it does. I moved into a suburban school, a mostly Italian neighborhood where though I was a descendant from Italians as well, I was still an outsider. There was no more fear of walking in the hallways, but there was also no group there that would come to my aid if necessary. I had escaped the urban pressures, but I was not home free. My assumption is that not all urban schools are the same, some systems work better than others, some may be more oppressive, have more violence while others have innovations and programs in place yet are still labeled urban because of their geographic location and lack of resources.
I had some great teachers who cared about every one of their students, about their progress, their improvement, their well being within and outside of the school. I also had some terrible teachers whose style was to lecture to the walls, without paying attention on whether any of the students were learning, had questions, paid attention or were busy throwing flying airplanes across the class. My initial assumptions about urban teachers were: 1. that they really liked teaching, used innovative / creative methods and wanted to make a difference (the good ones); 2. Had begun working there, had done it for so long that felt stuck or simply didn’t want to move on, while at the same time didn’t care whether students were learning or not (the bad teacher); or 3. Were there as a starting point, to gain experience or eternal fear of the profession (the teacher that could go either way).
So far I am still inclined to go with these assumptions but I have added a few more to my list. For example, I don’t know if I could teach at an urban school right now. I say this because I sincerely hope to be a good teacher, and to do that I believe that the teacher has to care not only about what he/she is teaching, but about the students as well. The teacher has to be able to identify with the students as a whole and to all the baggage that they bring with them: their knowledge, their fears, their backgrounds, their culture, their environment, their families or lack thereof. I think teachers have to possess a hard coat and a soft touch; they must be able to withstand pressure not so much from students, but from the parents, the school and the system, but they must be soft or show their care and concern; their will to teach and their openness to learn.
As far as the students from the urban schools, my assumption is that they could all improve at different levels with the right teacher, method, system, and safe / orderly school environment. In the last articles we have come across, many of the concerns about urban schools are the buildings themselves; how they are falling apart, not functioning properly and acting as a distraction and impediment to learning. When I went to East Side, there was a pool on one of the buildings on the top floor which had not been working for years. Do I think that some students might show more interest if they could use the pool; if it was an option in gym class or if a team were put together? Yes, I do. Would it have made a difference for me, not particularly, I can’t swim; but not all students are wired the same way, that is not all of them have the same reaction or receive their incentive from the same place.
I don’t see urban students as inferior to other students just because they live in an urban town; they are not less capable of learning. My assumption is that if they are inferior it is because of the type of education that is available to them at that school. At the same time, there may be students who will look for ways to learn outside of school by going to a library, museum, or tutor. Just because they are there doesn’t mean it is by choice, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable or willing to improve and do better; but may be just lacking an opportunity. I don’t think though that all urban students intend to graduate and go onto college or other scholarly professions or schools, just as not all suburbia students intend to go on to college; but that is not to say that they cannot aspire to do better just because of where they are.
When we were talking about urban schools and towns, some of our assumptions were that people who live there are poor or at least at a lower income than those in the suburbs. There may also be people who are there because they are close to others of their ethnicity or culture; those who live there because it is closer to where they work, or more convenient because of transportation, and commodities (shopping district, supplies). Often it may consist of people who do not speak English well, who are immigrants, often in an illegal status, who have an easier time finding manual labor or jobs without skills in the centers. My assumption is that people do tend to live in niches, and these are often found to a greater extend in urban cities than in suburbia, unless these niches are more prominent.
I honestly don’t know how my interaction with other teachers in either setting would be. I would be looking for a mentor or someone I could identify with, someone I saw as trying to make a difference for students, a positive influence. My assumption is that there will always be bad teachers who can be found anywhere not just in urban schools. Actually my assumption is to the contrary. It is that currently many good teachers are going into urban schools to attempt to change the system, to break the molds and stereotypes. I would often question the system, the methods, and the changes that are slow at being proposed and even slower at taking place, so that I don’t know if the bureaucracy would win over the willingness to teach.
I want to conclude with some questions, some of them to myself, to try to decide if I could be an urban teacher. Did my experience in a Newark High School over 15 years ago really count as an urban education? As an aside the year I left was the year they placed metal detectors on all the entrances. Did living among those who spoke my language make it easier to study there at the time, because of culture and ethnic similarities? Would that still hold if I were teaching in another urban school? Just because I am from a different background and culture, does that help me to understand all other cultures, backgrounds, beliefs? Is it more difficult for me to let go of some of my assumptions because of having experienced an urban education or should that make me struggle more to disprove them?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Urban Schools Articles and Citations

Calderon, Margarita. “Staff Development in Multilingual Multicultural Schools. World of
Education Library. July 1997 May 22, 2008 http://library.educationworld.net/a13/a13-185.html
The article describes the increase in multiracial and multicultural students in classrooms, while the majority of teachers remain white; it also states that teachers should learn how to deal with these students in order to foster a healthy environment. It explains the gap and lack of understanding that has emerged between bilingual and mainstream teachers; the lack of assistance in the development of a better program for bilingual teachers and their accountability in bilingual student’s education. Most importantly it discusses the needs of bilingual teachers, their knowledge, and change in methods and pedagogy that would be needed for improvement.

Desimone, Laura. “The Role of Teachers in Urban School Reform.” World of Education Library.
July 2000 May 22, 2008 http://library.educationworld.net/a13/a13-187.html
This article speaks of the need for a CSR (complete school wide reform) to change both teaching and learning; one that should have the participation of teachers for its selection, development, and evaluation as well as implementation. It also refers to the time that is needed for effective planning and development of curriculum and lessons; mentioning the success of teachers who are provided with more time versus those that struggle with the time they have.

Schwartz, Wendy. “Family Diversity In Urban Schools.” World of Education Library.
September 1999 May 22, 2008 http://library.educationworld.net/a13/a13-180.html
This article described the differences in students’ homes, which are no longer the traditional models. Children’s families may consist of only one parent, divorced parents, same sex parents; children may be in foster care or living with a grandparent or other member of the family and may come from multiracial backgrounds. Its main purpose is to educate teachers to be considerate and attentive in addressing student’s homes; rather than the traditional “father” and “mother” denominations. Additionally it is important for the teacher to acknowledge the family’s or caregivers wishes whether that home can become public knowledge or not.

Weiler, Jeanne. “Girls and Violence.” World of Education Library. May 1999 May 22, 2008
This article cited examples of girls’ violent acts, distinguished them from the typical acts committed by boys and commented on the increase in violence among girls as well as an increase in arrests and punishments for these crimes. The article proposes a correlation between violent women and their troubled home environment; as well as one between girls who come from different ethnicities, races, and lower income backgrounds. One finding that I was not aware and that was cited was the possible correlation between girl’s lower achievement in school and their tendency to violence as opposite to boy’s behavior, where higher grades lead them towards “acting out.” The article ends with a brief description of programs that aid girl’s tendencies towards violence.

Schwartz, Wendy. “The Schooling of Multiracial Students.” World of Education Library.
November 1998 May 22, 2008 http://library.educationworld.net/a13/a13-189.html
This article centered on the definition of what is considered “multiracial” and what educators can do to make their subject matter to multiracial students. It begins by mentioning the increase in the number of “multiracial” students and families in the US and indicating that the term multiracial will be used to define “individuals of mixed racial, ethnic, or cultural ancestry whose lives reflect multiple heritages.”

The article explains that some multiracial students may or may not identify themselves as multiracial, in fact, they may either opt for only one race, culture or ethnicity, or as the article blatantly states the student may opt simply to be “classified solely as human, asserting that any designation other than ‘white’ relegates them to a lower status, given existing racism.” On the other hand, there are those students whose parents teach them to be proud of their heritage and demonstrate such pride openly.
Although the article was not as “illuminating” as I had hoped, it did shed light into how educators should conduct themselves, how they should assist all of their students regardless of their background and how they can ensure a safe, tolerant and respectful classroom environment. Most importantly it instructs educators not to group students because of their appearances or ethnicity since everyone has different cultures, aspects which may or may not be observed; additionally a student, his/her parents may choose not to demonstrate that ethnicity. Educators should speak to students and their parents/guardians; find out more about them, their ways of coping with stressful, racial situations, rather than assuming.
As I had mentioned before I am originally from Brazil but I came here when I was 10 years old. Until my first year in high school I lived in the Ironbound section of Newark, which was then predominantly Portuguese, with some Brazilians and even fewer Hispanics; where my experiences were passable since many of the teachers were also Portuguese and familiar with our culture and of course language. I then moved to Belleville, a predominantly Italian town, where resistance, skepticism and rudeness was unfortunately not limited to students, but openly engaged in by teachers as well. I know that the view on non-American families in general has changed somewhat with the increase in immigration, but racism is still very much a part of our lives. It is sad that even after reading this article, after attending several classes in the education department, there is so much that could be done for all students regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture that is not done because of the system and because of those who could make a difference but stand in the sidelines instead.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

the Promise of Urban Schools

I guess the first thing that came to mind as I was reading this article is that many people take for granted the differences among schools and education in general. It seems that it is assumed that all students should learn the same material, pass the same tests, meet the same standards,yet if we are to look at schools, urban schools as they said in the article, we will notice that this task becomes almost impossible in some areas. It is discouraging to enter into the field of education full of hope and ideas, and then encounter an article that shows the harsh realities we may be facing depending on where we will be teaching.Diversity exists everywhere. I personally see that as something valuable, something that can teach, provide a lesson in itself, instead of being ignored, run over or disregarded.
Unfortunately the article shows that often the population of urban schools is mostly minorities and lower income, students who are not appreciated, nor will have the opportunity that every student should have.Whenever we think of education, we think of homogeny, of everyone being on the same page, everyone being able to learn the same things at the same pace. Too often, people in general, and even educators forget about those that cannot keep up, because of where they are, their school, a learning disability, a lack of knowledge not only of content, but also of the English language. Though the latter is associated with immigration, it is not necessarily a rule. One of the sentences in this article that illustrated that was "all too many schools lack all-day kindergartens, reading resource teachers, science labs, small classes, art and music, state-of-the-art books and materials, culturally relevant curricula, and other important material and human resources for an enriched and engaging education." Senior Fellows in Urban Education "The Promise of Urban Schools" (2000, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, p.9) I thought the quote was a perfect example that many times it is neither the students nor the teacher's fault that they cannot pass a test or are not up to standards but the fault of the system, a system that is nowhere near perfect.

I kept thinking about Ron Clark, a North Carolina teacher who decided to teach in New York after watching a program about Urban schooling, the lack of teachers and the struggle of students in the poorest neighborhoods. Clark described driving by several schools and stopping at one where he saw a fight between a teacher and a student; he broke it apart, talked to the student then to the principal saying he wanted to teach there to try to make a difference. He won teacher of the year award and is currently traveling to research other schools in need of improvement as well as other teachers who have taken on an innovative approach.
As I read about innovative methods of teaching, of success not only in including the students in decision making and in reaching out to them in terms of responding and incorporating aspects of their daily life and interests; I recalled my readings of Ted Sizer's book Horace's School where he emphasizes that students should take part in decisions about their studies, in the creation and implementation of their curriculum. He also stressed the importance of having what he called exhibitions, basically interdisciplinary projects that would enable students to "show" what they had learned, apply the theories, and incorporate their creativity as well as critical thinking skills.

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