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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

EL Study Guide / Learning From Urban Schools

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Articles in this issue encourage educators to learn from the practices of urban teachers and to look at both their own attitudes and the community resources around them for solutions.

Examining Teacher Attitudes

Dick Corbett, Bruce Wilson, and Belinda Williams (“No Choice But Success,” p. 8) believe that student success in urban schools depends on an uncompromising teacher attitude that each student can achieve. The breakthrough teachers the authors observed held students accountable for their actions but refused to let them fail. These teachers believe that if they give 100 percent, and push students to do the same, no mix of problems—from poverty to dyslexia—need ever be a recipe for failure.
  • Examine and discuss your attitudes about students who struggle without success or who come from groups with high failure rates: Do you believe that every child in your school can achieve up to a certain standard, no matter what problems they face? What about reaching a specified level of performance on a standardized test—is this truly possible for everyone? Do you think it is important for teachers to believe that every student can make assigned benchmarks, or is such an attitude a setup for disappointment?
  • Think of a group often stigmatized as “hard to teach,” such as minority urban kids. Try spontaneously completing the question Stovall and Ayers pose: “What is it about the presence of large numbers of [these kinds of students] in your schools that makes those places _______?” What adjectives popped into your mind, and why?
  • Now try filling in the blank with words like wonderful, creative, and inspiring. Challenge yourself to think of qualities the “hard-to-teach” group possesses, or experiences you've had with such students, that show they are wonderful and creative.
  • Pick a student you're finding it hard to believe in. Brainstorm several strategies you could try to reach that student more effectively in the next few weeks. Report back to the group.

Empowering Students

  • Discuss how you could help your students see content or skills they are learning as “tools for recognizing, naming, analyzing, and confronting the . . . social conditions facing them” as Duncan-Andrade writes. Writing teachers might guide students to research and write persuasive letters on an issue; math teachers could launch a unit on consumer pricing and why food often costs more at small “convenience” stores than at large supermarkets.
  • Share your ideas and brainstorm resources—such as movies or local citizen groups—that might help you and your students explore the topics you came up with.
  • Consider projects your class might undertake to confront a problem facing students in the school, the way teachers in Duncan-Andrade's article organized students to protest the sale of toy guns.

Spurring Parent Involvement

Conventional wisdom says it's harder to get families from poor urban areas involved in their children's schools. James P. Comer's article (“The Rewards of Parent Participation,” p. 38) gives the lie to that assumption. Comer shows that the parent-school connection is a two-way street: Poor families will become deeply involved in school activities and decision making when they are trusted to help in meaningful ways—and when school personnel help to identify and fulfill some of these families' basic needs.
Discuss the level of parental involvement in your school, looking at any available data. Are families from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds equally involved, or is one particular group overrepresented and “running the show”?
  • What are these parents' goals for their children in school? Do they believe the school is helping them meet these goals? How could the school help more? (You may want to ask teachers in your school the same question.)
  • How aware are parents of school events and chances to volunteer or get involved? Do they feel welcome and comfortable at such events? What things make it difficult to be active in school events?
  • Do parents feel able to easily contact the school when they have questions? What has been their experience interacting with teachers and school staff?
  • How much do parents know about their children's teachers, schedules, and academic expectations? What seems to be their level of comfort and trust? Have they felt welcome to seek information and offer their opinions?

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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