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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

Taking It to the Streets

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Social-emotional learning
School Culture
New teachers are often strangers to the urban communities where their schools are located, having been raised in very different types of neighborhoods. The current teaching force still does not represent the social and cultural backgrounds of the children they teach (Loewus, 2018), which can cause missed opportunities to enrich student learning and teacher-student relationships.
But what if there was a way to better familiarize new teachers with the communities where they teach and help them learn about the neighborhoods and lives of the children in their schools? For the last two years, as teacher educators at Pace University, we have introduced community-mapping projects to teachers and teacher-candidates who were interning or student teaching in New York City schools to help them discover and deepen their understandings about urban schools and the children who attend them. Community mapping is when community members collect field data about their neighborhoods to tell a story about what is happening in that locale. The data collected is often used to improve or enrich the community in some way—such as reducing violence or increasing health resources—or to view changes over time (National Community Mapping Institute).
Our project was designed to help teachers generate engaging learning activities and discover more about their students. We highlight three goals for community mapping as a classroom initiative: (1) providing authenticity and connections; (2) uncovering the funds of knowledge (local cultural information such as bus routes or where to hear the best street musicians) that students bring to school but are often overlooked or unrecognized by classroom teachers; and (3) achieving content-based curricular goals.
Most importantly, the activity involves a strength-based perspective about urban communities, which is especially important for new teachers who might not have experienced urban living themselves and who are from dominant ethnic and linguistic groups that are far removed by incomes, neighborhoods, and cultures of the children they teach.

Making Connections Between School and Home

There is sufficient research pointing to the importance of teachers making strong connections between their lessons and the lives of the children they teach (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994). When children's home and community experiences are legitimized and incorporated into classroom lessons, children are more likely to become engaged and successful learners. Freire (2005) wrote about the importance of knowing the students one teaches and recommended that teachers first study students' communities before planning their literacy lessons. Effective literacy teaching, according to Freire, must build on students' social and cultural knowledge of the world.
Similarly, Moll and colleagues (1992) argued that children bring important "funds of knowledge" to school that can be incorporated into classroom lessons. Awareness of these funds of knowledge (for example, local playgrounds to play soccer, where to purchase the best fruits and vegetables, how to get to grandmother's house) enables teachers to build connections between what children already know about the world and the school curriculum. Teachers might, for example, connect children's knowledge of a favorite city park with an illustrated book about urban playgrounds. An added benefit: When teachers identify with what their students know about the world, it can break down their own stereotypic and deficit-driven views about urban communities.
Our community-mapping project is based on previously documented work in which teachers mapped the literacy resources in children's school communities (Dunsmore, Ordonñez-Jasis, & Herrera 2013; Ordonñez-Jasis & Jasis, 2011). In these activities, the "mappers" discovered, gathered, and analyzed neighborhood literacy resources—such as libraries, cultural centers, or after-school programs located in housing projects, mosques, or churches. The purpose of these maps was to help teachers develop an understanding of the cultural and linguistic practices that make up the community life surrounding their schools and learn how these resources can support classroom reading and writing lessons.
In our project, we expanded literacy mapping to include the visual and performing arts resources. We asked teacher-candidates to step outside of their school buildings, visit the surrounding neighborhoods, and use the method or tool of their choice to map the presence of literacy and arts resources in the community. In addition, the candidates interviewed a community member to corroborate and explain the kinds of resources they found. These community members included school crossing guards, storekeepers, local librarians, children's caregivers, and cafeteria workers. After the teachers completed their maps, they wrote an essay explaining what they had learned from the project.

Mapping the Arts

We were inspired by the different ways that our teacher-candidates chose to display their mapping projects. Some hand-drew their community maps, sketching the literacy and arts resources in the neighborhood. Figure 1 shows a hand-drawn map that showcases literacy and the arts in McCarren Park in Brooklyn. This teacher's map identifies schools, churches, and recreational activities where literacy and the arts serve as resources for children's learning.
Figure 1. A teacher's hand-drawn community map of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York
Other candidates used the web tool MapHub, which allowed them to easily annotate photos of their urban communities. They could add a photo of a neighborhood grocery store, for example, and note that it was a popular spot across the street from the school for teachers and students to visit. One teacher included a photo of the housing project where most of her students lived and might play or collaborate on a homework assignment in their building's community room. She realized that the size of the apartment buildings and the kinds of life experiences the children acquired in them were vastly different from her own suburban life.
Another teacher shared a Google photo he had found of a mural located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he taught. The mural included portraits of contemporary and historic figures in the Civil Rights Movement. His students walked past these portraits every day, and these and other murals were often equal in their richness to those found in any museum. The teacher wondered what his students might learn about the visual arts and Civil Rights Movement from seeing this art and how these murals might be incorporated into his lessons.
As part of the project, teachers had to write about what they learned from the assignments. One of the candidates, Jarius, wrote about the Bronx neighborhood where he was teaching, noting that while the Bronx is the poorest borough in the city, he learned to see the many literacy and arts resources that were available to the children:
My goal now is to make sure that I create lessons that will truly grasp students' attention. I will try to incorporate readings that involve familiar things that my students know. Their writing topics will be on things that are relevant to their surroundings.
Another teacher, Kem, a recent Jamaican immigrant to the city, provided a long list of literacy and arts resources that were available in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he taught. Many of the other teachers in his school, particularly those living in suburban middle class neighborhoods, were likely unfamiliar with the resources and figures Kem identified, such as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Museum of African Art. He also identified well-known people who were from or linked to the community in some way, such as Big Daddy Kane, Lil Kim, and Mike Tyson—famous cultural figures who the students in the school would likely know and relate to.
Other candidates were able to dig deep into the events held in their neighborhoods that spoke to their students' cultures. "The Nuyorican Poets Café was founded in this area in a small apartment of Miguel Algarin, a poet and writer. It has currently moved to its current location on East 3rd St and still serves as a home to rich culture and diversity in music, poetry, rap, theatre, visual arts, etc." wrote one of our students about a cultural landmark on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She continued:
The Loisaida Festival is another key musical component of this area…. I asked a friend living in Loisaida, who attended this event, what her thoughts about this year's festival were, and she stated that the festival gets better and better each year. This year it rained on the day of the event, but she stated that her and her daughter had a great time dancing to Latin music and trying the various foods provided that represented the traditional foods of the Latin American—specifically Puerto Rican—culture.
Overall, the teachers felt their projects made them think differently about their students' lives and the communities where they taught. "[We] must make more of a conscious effort to create learning experiences outside of the classroom and venture off into the community," wrote one teacher-candidate.

Bringing the Community to the Classroom

For these aspiring and current teachers, community mapping provided an engaging and informative strategy to learn about the literacies and arts in the lives of children they taught. This information would help make teachers' lessons more effective and help bridge the gap between the school curriculum and children's life experiences.
One of the teachers explained that the project helped her realize the importance of personalizing her instruction: "When teachers are aware of their students' community and home experiences, they can better tailor their lesson plans to allow these authentic experiences to unfold," she said. Another Bronx teacher discussed the importance of inviting people such as police officers, construction workers, or bus drivers into his classroom because it gives students an opportunity to meet the many people who work in the community.
Teachers also discussed the importance of integrating language arts lessons with community knowledge. For example, another Queens teacher wrote, "For next year, I envision a class trip to The Living Museum, where students can pick a work of art that made an impression on them and later write about it … this would be rather similar to our class trip to nearby Queensborough Community College, where my students participated in a Brazilian drum show, and subsequently wrote about their experience…." A Brighton Beach teacher shared a language arts lesson in which his students would learn interviewing and note-taking skills by conducting interviews of someone who works in the neighborhood.
After completing the projects, the teachers were no longer strangers to the urban communities where their students lived. Although projects like this will not solve the problem of the underrepresentation of teachers of color in low-income urban schools, they can provide opportunities for urban teachers to become more knowledgeable about children's lives and more responsive to children's literacy and cultural experiences outside of school. This in turn can enrich their instruction and improve learning. As Dunsmore and colleagues write, "Literacy means you are reading things that are important to you, that matter to you, that somehow change your way of thinking or drive you into making a change for something, and that's where I've seen the students become more passionate" (2013, p. 333). If our mapping project helps fuel this kind of passion in our students and teachers, then we are moving in the right direction.

Dunsmore, K., Ordonñez-Jasis, R., & Herrera, G. (2013). Welcoming their worlds: Rethinking literacy instruction. Language Arts, 90(5), 327–338.

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers. New York: Westview Press.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). Dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Loewus, L. (2018, November 11). The nation's teaching force is still mostly white and female. Education Week.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

National Community Mapping Institute. Community mapping definition. Retrieved from:

Ordonñez-Jasis, R., & Jasis, P. (2011). Mapping literacy, mapping lives: Teachers exploring the sociopolitical context of literacy and learning. Multicultural Perspectives, 13, 189–196.

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