A Student by Any Other Name
Katherine M. Searle firstname.lastname@example.org
As educators, we have been schooled to accept the decree that all students can learn if and when teachers and support staff find the magical delivery system that fits the needs exhibited at any given moment. Sounds pretty basic. Factor in a stint of living at the Salvation Army Shelter. Factor in a parent who'd rather hit than listen. Factor in a comprehensive family history of poverty and illiteracy. Factor in a defeatist attitude honed throughout the educational experience. Factor in a neighborhood steeped in blaming the system. Factor in a flagrant distrust and contempt of authority. Factor in an inability to interact in socially acceptable ways. The picture begins to develop. Initially, the uniqueness of the urban student seems tied to a catalog of negatives too ingrained to be significantly affected by teachers and schools.
Not so. Yes, the urban student is a challenge, but the rewards in meeting that challenge are sweet. To that end, each urban student must be considered as an individual. To lump such students together with generalizations, however well meaning, is to lose the chance to be an effective teacher. Square pegs in round holes don't always want to become round to fit. Urban students expect the holes to become square. Being able to "honor" the unique quality each student brings to the educational process while tempering it is a difficult balancing act that requires more energy and passion from the teacher than from the student.
As an English teacher, I try to find opportunities to respect what an urban student knows. In the process, I learn. After reading a story about a neighborhood honoring native heroes by creating a mural, I combined an earlier letter writing lesson with a real-life situation. Students had to work in groups to brainstorm perceived neighborhood problems. The final product was a persuasive letter written to neighbors urging them to work together to solve problems like litter, loud parties, speeding, run-down property, drug houses, and gang activity. Students who had previously done haphazard work, generated detailed work plans to clean up the neighborhood, created sign up sheets and posters, and designed tee-shirt logos on the computer for specific neighborhoods.
Had I not given that assignment, I would never have seen the organizational skills, the tact in explaining why the neighborhood should be cleaned up, and the highly developed sense of pride in neighborhood held by the entire class. Students were proud of the products they created. They did extra work because they were engaged with the outcome. During the course of the activity, I saw students who previously had not gotten along work together to reach a desired end. Quiet students who had not done much of anything took charge of a small group and kept everyone on task. Given the chance to demonstrate what they could do, these students did just that. The likelihood of their continuing to meet my expectations is great because they have experienced success on a variety of levels.
Dealing with the urban student is not always that easy or that rewarding. A roller coaster ride of ups and downs is the rule. One boy wrote a gritty 3-page poem which I'm sure detailed his home life "hidden" behind a persona he created. I was touched by what I read and shared it with several teachers and support staff. These adults spoke to the boy and praised his writing talent. The change I saw in class was nothing short of miraculous. He wrote another poem and didn't have time to use the computer. I typed his poem at home and added a graphic. I gave him a copy and submitted the poem to a poetry contest. The beatific smile on his face said it all. In the flush of success, I thought no more problems here. That lasted until I asked him to pick up a piece of paper for me. The vituperative harangue that followed told me how wrong I was. I used that "argument" to explain/model social skills, but in the heat of the moment, it was wasted. Regardless, that student knows he can do something well. He has continued to write on his own time and sometimes shares pieces with me. We can get past each outbreak of misdirected anger.
Over the years, I've taught a number of female urban students whose contempt for me has seemed unparalleled. How could I possibly know anything about their lives? They took one look at my white, upper middle class exterior, turned up their noses, and closed their hearts against me. One girl in a fit of anger screamed, "I bet you have your own washer and dryer." To her and her friends, those possessions marked the dividing line that guaranteed our experiences would never mesh in a way that could allow me to teach them anything. I patiently explained that the washer and dryer were anniversary gifts from my father because I couldn't afford them at that time. Still, I had a father who would spend that kind of money on a married daughter. In my naivete, I'd only made matters worse.
Through repeated attempts to get these students to write for me, we gradually arrived at a delicate truce. They would not throw desks at me if I shared my life with them via comments on their papers. The couldn't put the exterior together with the fact that I'd grown up the child of an alcoholic mother. They had trouble believing that my fancy jewelry was a legacy from my mother's suicide. Because I had been willing to put myself on the line, dialogue had been opened. Truly teaching an urban student means taking risks. These students feel their private business is written all over them. Leveling the playing field by being honest goes a long way toward breaking down the barriers that often cause an insurmountable, adversarial relationship in the classroom.
The examples I have discussed come from my own classroom because I feel it's important to note how much impact the classroom teacher can have. However, there are a number of programs at J. B. Young Intermediate that deal with the urban student. Young Intermediate houses the Health Initiative, an on-site medical screening program; a Rape/Assault Program; a juvenile court liaison officer; a breakfast club sponsored by CAD's; mentoring; tutoring; Puppeteers; and the Family Service Center, a program to help families connect with social service agencies. The school is part of the Iowa Behavioral Initiative and uses the Boystown model. Many good things come out of these varied programs which are supported by staff members, students, and families.
However, for the urban student, these programs are just one more indication that they are somehow lacking in what everyone else has. They need a personal connection from someone who doesn't see them in the capacity of "urban student" and who doesn't represent an agency geared to solving urban problems. Although I have used the phrase "urban student" repeatedly, I don't think in those terms. It is likewise important that urban students don't apply those very limiting and inherently negative connotations to themselves. To that end, the classroom teacher has a responsibility to approach each student without labels. "What's in a name?" you might ask. Very simply--success or failure.