From Oz to Kansas

Out of Chaos and back to Aunt Em and Home

When you hear the word home what do you think of?  I think of somewhere safe and warm, where I find cookies and milk waiting for me when I came home from school.  In today’s urban school’s this is almost a fairy tale or a story similar to the “Wizard of Oz” movie.  With broken families, violence in the home, poverty, English as a second language now more the norm, how can we make learning a possibility for such a diverse group of students?  In reading “What Urban Students Say About Good Learning” by Corbett and Wilson, I learned that maintaining good order and discipline in the classroom was one of the six requirements that students identified themselves as being necessary for them to learn in a more effective manner. In urban settings where students lives may be filled with chaos, the only secure environment available for teens to learn, may be in the classroom.  Homes, such as Dorothy’s in Kansas, are not there to support the vast majority of urban students as their life experiences seem to parrallel the very hectic and troubled path along the yellow brick road to Oz that we heard described so eloquently earlier this week in our Professional Development Workshop.  I say teens because I want to teach High School Social Studies, History, Civics.  The very classes that I latched onto in High School with a passion to the extent that I became part of new programs such as the Junior Senate traveling to the State Capital and even to D.C. to participate in a student government program.  My greatest fear was that I would be placed in the pre K or elementary grades when I participated in this course, I love little one’s, especially all of my nieces and nephews, though only in short increments and well, I do not have that special gift that I see in many of my classmates that make them shine in their presence and I’ll leave it at that.  I’ll take the very imaginative, mischievious, and possibly just bored young adult that I see myself in to be quite honest.  18 year old felons returning to the classroom after court dates, 17 year old single mothers, 15 year old pregnant girls, my heart bleeds for.   I need to teach them the basic skills to survive and thrive, I do not fear them as some do, I want to reach for and embrace their ability to cope and survive in a world where they’ve been targeted by those flying monkeys you remember from Oz, the ones that at a younger age scared me.  The importance of voting, being able to read, the possibilities that scare my future students are exactly what I need to learn to deal with now so that I can be the calm in  tornado alley or their local neighborhoods (aka Kansas, Texas, New Mexico)  for them.  In case you didn’t remember during the speach, it caused the house to fly and kill the Wicked Witch and made a pair of Red Ruby Slippers available.

Our guest speaker, Mr. Earl Carter, emphasized how critical the ability to manage a schoolroom was for new teachers. That it was a necessity for teachers to acquire this skill of managing the classroom was so that we could get to know and have a personal relationship with our students, advising additional classes in the management arena if possible. He started his discussion with the story of Dorothy whose desire was to return home to Kansas to see her Auntie Em and the collection of friends who joined her along the way also seeking things they desired which included a heart, courage, a brain. Their adventures were very erratic and troublesome as they tried to reach the great Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. They encounter flying monkeys and a Wicked Witch as they traveled the yellow brick road to see Oz, which I picture as a very undisciplined and chaotic classroom with no direction or goals rather like a tornado. The individual goals of the characters and their distractions throughout the story line emphasized the fact that in the end the smartest and bravest character was Toto, who knew something or someone was not as it seemed in the Emerald City and chose to investigate until he discovered the truth that the Wizard was just a little man behind a curtain.  As Mr. Carter used this story to draw in my fellow pre service teachers, he again made the connections of how chaotic a classroom could become if not controlled as well as the importance of relationships in order to cement that trust between a teacher and student. He stated “You have all been blessed in having a high GPA, to attend the finest colleges, still…if you can not manage a classroom, you can not share the information you’ve acquired and will not be the most effective teacher until you have mastered these skills.” One of the ways to acquire these skills is to observe other teachers and emulate those styles that could work for me.  I am blessed that I have had a career that I adored that gave me skills that I possessed when I needed them.  As a Drill Sergeant for the Honor Guard, I do have a voice that when necessary can be very commanding and apparently forceful as noted by the students in the classroom this week.  It wasn’t until I introduced myself as Sgt Rogers during a history class on the SALT treaty and the Gulf Wars, that the class I had been shadowing found out that I had been in the military.  The 9th graders range from 14 1/2 to 18 years of age, and as mentioned, there is a young man who has been incarcerated, a young lady — who has a brother, and just deployed this week to Afghanistan, several that want to enlist for various reasons though primarily to pay for their education.  I didn’t mention that over half are special needs, many others have behavioral problems, and are in need of more intense teaching time and attention then my mentor can provide because I expected exactly that.  I didn’t expect to be greated by the majority so pleasantly with Good Morning,  Ms Rogers. (I can say that is the hardest thing to get used to after being called Sgt. for 20 years!)  The amount of respect the teacher has from her students is amazing and that she knows most of the 9th graders, where and what class they should be in during each period as they freely roam the halls is astounding!

During my urban experience, I’ve been able to view classroom management styles that were radically different. The styles varied from being extremely lax with students throwing computer equipment across the room to authoritative, where it appeared to allow more time for learning in the classroom. My mentor teacher is very skilled at diverting students who may become disruptive and to refocus on that days lesson plan, adding the new information back to previous knowledge learned and current events. There are clearly established rules and each student is held accountable with consequences taking place when they’re broken. She has to work harder to reestablish rules of behavior for the classroom when others choose not to enforce the rules of the school. As Horace Mann wrote, “It is unjust also for one teacher to profit by letting down the discipline of a school, and thus throw upon his successor the labor of raising it up to its former levels.” I believe that when students are aware of the high standards of behavior and that they are enforced with reasonable consequences, students will shine brighter than the Emerald City in the story of Oz.   She reminded them Friday that she talks to their future teachers daily and that she expects to hear good things about thier behavior and achievements, letting them know that she is still involved in their lives if only on the edges.  She doesn’t become lalled to sleep in the poppy fields as the group of friends do when the Emerald City comes into view, she questions them on their weekend plans and what goals they have for the upcoming summer vacation.

My personal experiences in classroom management are as varied as thier locations…from the desert camps in Saudi Arabia and Turkey to the ROTC classrooms of Biloxi, Mississippi and Lakenheath, England. I prefer to set the rules and expectations upfront so there are no doubts about what is expected from the students and in turn they are able to demand certain expectations of me. That by the end of the course, they will know battlefield first aid or how to perform CPR that one day may save their child, friend, or coworkers life, knowing the dates and reasons behind the Gulf Wars as students in the ROTC. My moving positions around the tables and classroom helped to ensure what occasional disruptions between students writing notes or  the odd sleepy individual who had just gotten off a 12 hour shift stayed alert for the briefing worked in the past and I have employed these same tools this week while participating in the classroom.  I feel confident with these areas to include lesson plans to a point, I am nervous about the weekly lesson plans and paper work requiried by the district or state education department that I’ll be developing on Monday because I’m unfamiliar with certain terms and with their procedures.  I will work with my mentor to prepare a lesson plan, establish visuals, learning stations as well as gearing them to each class or students needs before teaching it which will help me feel that I won’t take anything away from the students which is my greatest fear and concern.   My teacher is willing to share any answers or experiences with me and when possible has included me in the teaching process allowing me to learn valuable insight before I start my education classes.  She found after her first year of teaching in this school that most students would lose binders or notes at home or were unable to keep them organized so established a method that allowed them to store them by class with other teachers using this same method, their use of study time for tests was increased and order started to come to the land of Oz.  Knowing my students and being able to teach the material pertinent to their personal safety or future educational goals, even if it’s just returning them home safely to family in Kansas (aka Phili school district) it is my passion!


A Day in the Life: Reflections on what it means to be an urban teacher

I have now spent three whole days in a high school English class in a Philadelphia public school. Looking back on my time as a high school student I remember often thinking how school was largely one big routine that was repeated day after day and week after week. However, now from the other side of the desk, each day I spend in class is different, and everyday I’m learning new information as if with each passing day a new layer in front of my eyes is being pulled away. With all that I have seen and heard and considered, I didn’t think an essay format would do justice to what I need to say so instead I’m modeling this blog as a series of mini-vignettes that all relate to my first few days in Philadelphia, both inside and outside the classroom.

What’s in a name?

"A rose by any other name..."

Who would have thought that Shakespeare’s famous words would be relevant to my teaching experience in a public high school in Philadelphia? In high school, during the first few weeks of the school year as teachers would try to learn the names of their new students, they’d always fall back on the excuse of “I have hundreds of students’ names to keep track of! Do you think I can remember them all?” whenever they’d mix up a name. Now I realize how much I overlooked this effort. Already after the first day in the school I was asking myself how on earth I would ever learn all of the students’ names in my mentor teacher’s five periods. Nevertheless, I made it a goal for myself to learn as many of my “adopted” students’ names as possible because I wanted to establish that personal connection. Not to mention, learning another person’s name is the first step to learning more about them and developing a deeper relationship that can lead to trust and respect, all of which are important aspects to foster in urban teaching. The presentation by Mr. Carter only reinforced the importance and necessity of learning as many of the students’ names as quickly as possible. He told us that when you are able to call a student by their first name your control over them increases. He wasn’t talking about an authoritarian type of control; he meant that when you call a student by their first name it is harder for them to ignore you, and it commands their attention. I do not know all of my students’ names yet, but my mentor teacher said she was really impressed by how quickly I was picking them up, and I’m happy that I am able to recognize faces and have people to say hello to in a school that was a sea of strangers on the first day.

Who wears the pants?

                  Learning your students’ names is not the only thing necessary to establish authority and control, especially in urban classrooms. My placement high school is populated almost solely by African American students, and from reading the articles assigned in class, listening to Mr. Carter’s presentation, and observing the classroom dynamics I have realized that proper classroom control and management may be the hardest part of the job for an urban teacher. The Corbett and Wilson article showed that urban students believe strictness is a quality of a good teacher, and so far my experiences in the high school have confirmed this research. The students in my mentor teacher’s classes don’t always listen to what she says, and I think their misbehavior may be partly due to the fact that they don’t see her as someone they have to listen to, so when they don’t feel like it, they don’t. Mr. Carter warned us that as a new teacher in an urban setting we must be very careful to show no fear and project confidence because children can be like dogs sometimes, and the minute they sense fear they will walk all over you. Lisa Delpit’s article offered another very interesting explanation for how perceptions of power and authority play out in the urban classroom. She said that because of African American culture, “black children expect an authority figure to act with authority.” In other words, as an urban school teacher you must display a clearly defined authority at all times in order to earn the respect and obedience of your students. I do not have a particularly forceful personality, so I have focused so much on this issue of authority and classroom management, and have paid close attention to it in my observations because I know that if I ever become an urban teacher, this issue would be my priority. However, after reading Delpit’s article and her argument that black and white cultures have different views on authority and how it is earned, I wonder if the strictness and tight control necessary in urban classrooms is required in suburban classrooms where the majority of students are white…

Food For Thought

Sometimes a student's basic needs are not met, and this effects their performance in school.

Teaching in any setting isn’t defined solely by how you manage your classroom, and as I continue with this experience I am seeing more and more clearly that being a teacher requires a certain level of personal sacrifice and commitment to your students and their lives. Again, drawing from Mr. Carter’s great speech, sometimes it is necessary for a teacher to be a parent, a caregiver, anything really that your students need at the time. I knew before coming to the Philadelphia public school that some of the surrounding communities were very poor and had access to limited resources, but during my time spent in the classrooms I have seen this effect firsthand play out in the students. Throughout the day I hear students saying that they are hungry and thirsty, and one day a girl had to go to the nurse to get breakfast because she hadn’t eaten anything and was feeling sick. I hear them complain that they need better school lunches, but I think the instance that stuck out to me the most happened on my second day in the school. I was in a period that is like homeroom with all freshman girls, and one girl took out a turkey and cheese sandwich. Another girl from the class saw what she was eating and asked if she could have some. She said yes, and when the girl came over to take the sandwich she was smiling and said she was so happy she could cry. That’s how hungry she was. The next day the girl with the sandwich offered the other girl half of her sandwich again without even asking. It’s the little instances like this that make me realize how right Maslow was in arguing that if a person’s basic needs for food and water aren’t met, then it is more difficult for them to focus on schoolwork. So how can I help when I’m a teacher? Well that’s where the sacrifice part comes in. I realize now that it might be necessary to occasionally buy lunch for a student who is hungry or bring in food for my students who don’t get enough breakfast at home. This experience has opened my eyes to see that when you are a teacher, you are really so much more.

You Keep The Lemons, I’ll Make My Lemonade Out Of Prunes

When I signed up for this seminar I thought that I would be learning how to teach, specifically math, in a high school setting.  Along with that I figured this would be a good opportunity to try and learn some things about student and teacher life styles in an urban setting, which is unfamiliar to me.

Well stop. Reverse that.

I have learned so much about life, about myself, and about the culture in this atmosphere of education.  Oh and that math? Ya, honestly, I forget I am in a math class sometimes.

Back in my hometown, I had fantastic teachers.  They made the job look so easy and they always seemed to be enjoying themselves.  Their students were plump, juicy lemons, and with these lemons my teachers made the best lemonade. My classes were filled with students who now attend such prestigious schools as Penn, Duke, Cornell, and Notre Dame.  My classes were environments where everyone wants to learn, grow and mature as individuals.  Did we “goof off”? Absolutely. Did we have days where we did not learn? You bet; however, that is all part of growing up.  Learning what is right and wrong, learning your strengths and weaknesses, that is how people grow, mature, and develop a sense of self worth/direction in their lives.  I remember thinking to myself if this is how the teaching life is, I cannot wait to begin to take part.

Fast forward to the present day.  I have sat in an inner city high school math classroom for 3 days now,and let me tell you, nothing has been what I expected, nothing.

Remember those lemons in my high school? They seemed abundant, everywhere you turned there was a student that you knew was going to be a successful adult.  There were teachers who could connect with the students, and make them eager to engage in learning.  Parents were not only were supportive of the children, but also knew how and what means were needed to support their children.  Our streets were safe, our homes were were up kept, and our lives were awesome, and we took it for granted.  This environment was perfect for growing lemons, and the teachers knew exactly when to pick them and when to let them continue to ripen, because they had the time, the means, and the knowledge to do so.  We were SO naive. Not every environment is suitable to grow lemons, and inner city Philadelphia is a perfect example because it grows prunes.

When you are in a grocery store, how often do you look at the prunes?  Even if it happens once in your life, that seems to be more that most people.  So what happens to these prunes? They sit on the shelves multiplying exponentially.  Sure every once in a while someone will come along and scoop up a few packages, but the prunes never can keep pace with the apples, oranges, and lemons of this world.  They fall behind, become an after thought.  This is exactly what is happening in inner city schools across the nation.  The kids are prunes, and all the lemons in this world just turn a blind eye towards them.

Unlike the lemons, prunes grow best in almost a complete opposite environment.  Dangerous streets, parents who want to support, but do not always know how, since they were never taught how to support themselves, teachers who struggle to connect with the students, broken homes and families, the list goes on and on and on.  Yet the teachers that are employed in these regions have to make the same sweat tasting, refreshing lemonade as schools like my high school do.  How can you possibly make lemonade out of prunes, that seems impossible.  Well I am here to tell you that it is not, and I will show you from what I have learned in just three days.

A drug dealer, and wedded couple, 3 wedlock babies, a young man who will die before he is 25 because he cannot obtain the right foods to control his diabetes, a homeless child, and these are just a few of the students in ONE of my classes.  Most teachers would ignore these facts and just focus on teaching the material dictated by the state, but not the teacher that I am observing, not at all.

My teacher cares about these students in ways that no one else would even imagine.  Everyday math is taught…but only when it is an appropriate time, and those appropriate times may come few and far between.  My teacher instead primarily focuses on life and on lessons that will help his students succeed just a little bit better in the real world.  I have 2 examples to show this to you.

Example number 1: A girl has a father who is in a halfway house, and promised his daughter the world for her senior prom.  Now, she has found out that there is no money to afford the luxuries she had been promised.  She is devastated.  A girl who is usually quit and calm, is snippy the whole class, you can see her eyes are red from crying.  She is not her typical self. My teacher takes her out in the hall, he talks with her for 30 minutes, one-on-one.  After class he explained the situation to me and said that he was going to do everything in his power to get that girl to her prom.  On Monday, I cannot wait to see that girl’s smile in class because she got to go to her prom when she thought she could not have.  Just a little care, a little involvement in a student’s life can go a long way in shaping them to become a better person.

Example number 2: The students in my school get a free breakfast everyday; however, a lot of students eat multiple breakfasts at school.  They did not realize that every time they get that second breakfast, they are charged money.  At the end of the year, if they owe money to the school they can’t get the report cards or graduate.  The students had no idea this was happening, they couldn’t, for the life of them, figure out why they owed so much money to the school.  My teacher had a conversation of over 30 minutes with them about money management.  The students were so thankful at the end of class that some of them even hugged my teacher.  Just small life lessons for children can go a long way in shaping them to become a better person.

Many other examples like these happen each and everyday in my math classes.  The students used to walk in expecting to learn math, now they walk in knowing that they will be walking out of a place that they trust.  A place where they learned from.  A place where they feel more accomplished about themselves.

My teacher is taking these prunes, and working so hard to make some amazing lemonade, and even if he only gets one glass a year, it’s one glass more than a lot of other places.  I want to be like my teacher.  I want to make lemonade out of an ingredient that most people will not take the time to try.  If this is the only thing that I take away from this seminar, I’ll consider it a monumental success, but I know that I still have time to learn and grow.

When I make my lemonade it is going to be the best lemonade ever, because I worked hard getting my ingredients blended just right, and doing something using hard work, dedication, and love always makes things taste better.

Oh, by the way, my lemonade has no lemons. I use prunes.

Finding the Cracks: Paths for hope and success in urban schools

In his article, Duncan Andrade references Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” as a kind of hokey hope. I agree with his argument that this kind of false hope, which “suggests if urban youth just work hard, pay attention, and play by the rules, then they will go to college and live out the ‘American dream,’” is a waste of time for the students and teachers in urban schools because it ignores the unequal preexisting social stressors in the community that the students must conquer. Some of the key characteristics of an effective urban educator that I got from this article are that the teacher has to be aware of the social environment in the community and classroom, realistic about what they need to do and what their students are able to do to reach higher goals, and invested in their students as individuals in order to sacrifice the necessary time and effort to help them better themselves.

This last quality requires a concept I learned about in EDPSY 14 called unconditional positive regard, which means that the teacher must view all students positively and without judgment. This high level of compassion and concern resounded the most with me. Throughout my school years and continuing in college I always respected and loved my teachers and professors who showed a sincere interest in their students and were willing to help them better understand class material. For example, in high school I had the same math teacher for two years in a row, which was the best thing that ever happened to me in a math class. She would review problems with me and teach me better ways to solve them anytime before or after school. When I was placed in a similar position this past year while tutoring a freshman in Algebra I, I remembered the time and care my teacher dedicated to me when I was in high school and made sure I gave all my energy to helping my tutee improve. Sometimes this required researching material ahead of time that I might have forgotten so that I would be able to help her understand. This level of sacrifice is nowhere near the level of sacrifice an urban educator might be required to give, but my experience helped me better envision and appreciate the kind of sacrifice the author was talking about.

As Andrade pointed out, when teachers demonstrate a commitment to their students through their words and actions, they become teachers who are loved by their students rather than just teachers who are liked by their students. I put forth the energy and time while I was a tutor, and my goal for the Urban Seminar is to continue to develop my sense of commitment and sacrifice, because I don’t want to settle for being a teacher who is merely liked. My experience as a tutor also taught me that not only does your effort in helping students earn you more respect and admiration, but also it gives you an immense sense of satisfaction and good will that your actions helped a student do better. It is hard to describe the pride and happiness you feel when your student shows you their first 100% on a quiz or tells you that their grades have improved one whole letter grade until you actually experience it for yourself, but I’m sure that it is these feelings that provide educators in all settings with the hope they need to keep going under tough circumstances.

However, as the article also took care to mention, “a single event cannot, by itself, provide the healing and long-term sustenance required to maintain hope amid conditions of suffering.” Up until now the only experiences I have had in teaching others has been on an individual basis, and while it has been great being able to impact and help one person, I am excited to have the opportunity during this seminar to try and help many students do better in my time in the classroom. With this excitement comes fear and nervousness about whether I can handle such a new situation with minimal references to draw from, but I know that other students will be going through similar trials, and I am also excited to learn from my mentor teacher and others about ways to deal with trying to help students who all face different needs and different levels of disadvantage. I know the responsibility to make a change in how we help students and teach them to hope lies with the teacher because they’re “the ones who create classrooms that instill in our young people the ‘audacity to hope.’” As a future educator it is my responsibility to look for ways to control and improve the classroom environment to maximize the learning and success of every student. When you do that, you are on the way to finding one of the cracks in the concrete. That is my mission for the urban seminar; to find the cracks in the classroom and to see how the teacher is using them to their full potential to help the students grow so that I can use similar techniques when I have to help students out of tough situations.

Inspiring Hope

Hope.  Believing in the unattainable.  It may come easy to some, so easy that they take it for granted.  Coming from an urban city, I know that sometimes hope is all we have.  Born and raised in Southwest Philadelphia, I am very familiar with being in an urban environment.  I attended kindergarten at a private Christian school right across the street from my house along with my older brother.  However, because my parents did not agree with the curriculum in the schools they pulled us both out.  Instead of transferring us to another school in the area, my parents decided to homeschool my older brother, my younger sister, and I.  From first through tenth grade, I was schooled at home.  Homeschooling had many different pros and cons; I basically grew up without having any friends, but I was also able to focus on my work, advance beyond my grade level, and learn independent study at a young age.

Even though I resented being homeschooled for so long, when I became a tutor at my local library I was able to appreciate the solid academic foundation it gave me.  When I was fourteen years old, I became a Teen Leadership Assistant at the Kingsessing Branch library located on 51st and Kingsessing Ave.  For three years, I tutored elementary and middle school age kids along with becoming a mentor to some of them.  It was during these three years that I realized I wanted to become a teacher.  I have always loved kids, but working with my students at the library—hearing about the struggles they went through at home, and seeing how much some of them wanted to learn but just weren’t presented with the opportunities—really influenced me.  I decided that I wanted to encourage kids to learn and inspire them to aspire to be anything they wanted to be, not just what society was telling them they could be.  At the library, watching my kids grow up and go through different teachers, I could see the affects “good” and “bad” teachers could have on their students.

What many people don’t realize is that teaching in an urban environment is not simply teaching your curriculum in the classroom.  Working as a TLA, I would often become upset with how many teachers ignored life issues that affected their students’ education.  Often, because of the ideologies society presses upon minority students in urban environments and with the growing need of renovations in our school systems, a teacher must go beyond his or her place to plant hope in the hearts and minds of his or her students.

Being a native Philadelphian, I know that I do have a home field advantage over some of the other students coming from Penn State, however, I know that there is much I am unaware of as far teaching in an urban environment.  Even though I was not a student in Philadelphia’s school system, I am excited to be able to work in the system through the Philadelphia Urban Seminar as a teaching assistant.  I plan to utilize my knowledge of growing up in an urban environment and mentoring and tutoring students to make this experience memorable.  I want to learn all that I can being a TA, but I also pray that I will be able to influence the students I am working with and maybe, just maybe, plant seeds of hope.  Not “mythical hope” or “hokey hope” which Duncan-Andrade explained in his essay “Note to Educators”; but instead a true hope, which will live eternally in the students in my classroom.  Sometimes all a child needs is someone to believe in them and help them build up hope, for them to succeed in life surpassing all limitations.