As I entered the first school we visited on Monday morning, I felt as if I was back in my elementary school. It had the same outside look, the same stair cases (floors and floors that you had to run up and down on), the same hallways, and once inside the classrooms, the same classrooms. A few of us mentioned how the windows, the blackboards: old and almost unworkable and even the same back closets decorated with colorful collages reminded us of our own elementary schools, at least two decades ago. Yes the building was old, but the teachers and students seemed as fresh as the spring. We were greeted by students nicely dressed in jackets, proud of their responsibilities, mainly escorting us the visitors into the classrooms and the gathering sites; their pride was palpable as was the pride of the teachers for their students.
Was the visit what I had expected? Yes and no. Yes as far as the building and conditions, mentioned also in the Power Point presentation, mainly lack of enough resources, struggle to achieve parental involvement among those frequently mentioned. I was lucky enough to have attended an urban school for a couple of years so I knew or hoped to prove myself right, that the students would be working just as hard, proud of their schools and responsive to the teachers, just as the teachers as in any other school, or to correct myself, as any good teacher, would be doing their best with what they have available. Both of these were evident as we walked into the school, listened to the presentation; spoke to a few teachers and even students.
No it wasn’t, in terms of the conduct of the classrooms, classroom size, teachers or even the inside of the building. When I attended school the regiment was pretty authoritative, teacher as the center of attention, individual work and total silence. What I have learned in the MAT program so far are the techniques to implement group work, teacher as facilitators rather than strictly authoritative and use of creative and critical thinking rather than simply repeating back material. In most of the classes we went into, children were working in groups, teachers walked around for assistance but there was no silence, and there was complete interaction. Did it seem real? Did it seem like a show for the visitors? Those are tough questions to answer. I think a little bit of both, but the students were familiar with the structure and adapted to it quickly, so that may count as evidence that it had been done before. The size of the classrooms was smaller than what I had but within the limit of what we are told is good, about 16 students. I will say that all of the teachers seemed very in tune with their students, showed care and concern. For the inside of the building it was colorful rather than the dull beige or gray people are used to seeing in schools. Additionally all the walls were decorated with works from the students, papers, drawings, and pictures. The school looked alive and happy.
One disappointing element was the series of answers to what was being implemented out of a trip that several of the educators had taken to Japan. Their description was impressive, they seemed to have grasped a new culture, a new diversity, but when it came to what would be done to imitate the successful school system; the answer was implementation of uniforms and a focused awe on cleanliness. I apologize but that seems a bit absurd! It was great that they noticed that everything was clean and that students took part in helping. What was more impressive was the individual discipline of the students. The fact that they were conscious of others, such as the example of someone on the bus assisting an elderly unknown, or more closely related to the school: the fact that students don’t need to be assigned homework since they are all expected to go on to college and will therefore review and study themselves without having to be told. None of that was part of something they would be working on for their students. I understand that they did not have an opportunity to sit down with teachers to go over lesson plans to construct their own, but wouldn’t their observations suffice to brainstorm a lesson plan, a structure of their own?
The visit was very valuable in terms of leaving any preconceptions behind, of reinforcing existing knowledge of urban schools from prior experience and above all to see what a school can be like with positive teachers and students. Unfortunately nothing is perfect and this was a big letdown of sorts as far as new techniques and ideas within reach that would not be implemented.