So, how does K-16 education need to change in order to prepare young people to become effective participants and change agents in the 21st Century?
First, a disclaimer. I teach in the “inner city” of Los Angeles, so my perspective comes from a place where, as near as I can tell, not many people are expecting those, these, OUR, inner city children to be “change agents” or “effective participants” in the 21st Century. By “inner city” I mean un-academically educated, non-middle class, not generally a part of the American mainstream, whether perceptively or concretely. By middle class I mean academically educated, and a part of mainstream society, and literate. I do not want to get too heady into why I think inner city kids are not perceived as agents for change in the future, but I do think it is important to note that my opinions are based on my experiences working in an overcrowded, over 100-year-old, hardly diverse and VERY ISOLATED – from middle class ideas and resources – middle school in South Central Los Angeles for the past eight years. Most of my students are Latin American, with a small percent being African American. I am solidly middle class, brought up with educated parents, went to summer camp, and was read to often, and always, as a child. The arts were a central part of my academic upbringing. I have a lot to learn from my students and their families. And they from me.
To dispel some common myths and assumptions: Urban kids are just like non-urban kids in almost every way: They are eager to learn, eager to do things and eager to get their hands into things. They don’t like to be bored, they don’t like to be in trouble, they don’t like to be disrespected or yelled at or ignored. They don’t like to read textbooks and they jump at the chance to play music, do art, perform in plays, and they LOVE science. They love to APPLY math. They are silly, and funny, and test me and don’t like to sit in their seats for too long. They like to eat, chew gum and write notes in class. They like to have hobbies and lots of colorful things to create with. They like to be class clowns, out-wit their teachers and their peers and they like to be loved and encouraged. They like to feel comfortable and challenged and try out new things. They like to show off for each other and they like to be popular. They like to take care of each other, especially when it really, really counts, and they will. I’ve never had a discipline issue on a field trip, or a tagging issue or disrespect of elders. They think that the way they live is the way all people live. They like themselves. They are normal.
How they differ from their middle class counterparts: they most often have un-academically educated parents; they don’t get to go to camp; they have too many kids on their campuses; they don’t get enough field trips; their parents work really long hours, or have lots of stress, and sometimes see school as day care. They have a really boring curriculum in school. The slightest infringement is met with the threat of citation or even arrest by the school police officer. Sometimes their classes are interrupted in a “search and seizure” manner to confiscate their pencil sharpeners which have “blades that can be used as weapons.” Sometimes this makes them cry. They live far from the beach. They can’t play outside. They often have close family members in prison. They don’t have books at home. There are no bookstores in their neighborhood. They have to be “extraordinarily extraordinary” to succeed and go to college or even have that choice. They can’t just be normal and succeed academically. They are very strong when they do succeed. They often don’t know they have these things working against them. They often have very strong family support mechanisms. Their families have huge social networks. They often know how hard their parents work for them. They want to be kids anyway. They speak at least three languages: English, Spanish and/or Black-inner city English and they often must translate between two cultures. Standardize test that!!!!!! They travel between here and South American countries often. They have foreign relatives with foreign ideas. They get to visit them. I have seen my students go out of their way to make a child they’ve never met, on a field trip, feel comfortable on a play ground. I’ve never had a discipline issue on a field trip. I’ve seen them come to each other’s aid without hesitation when one of them was feeling uncomfortable or in distress. They have a sensitivity I don’t remember seeing when I was a sixth grader, and I certainly never hear about it on the news or mainstream media. There are so many things I don’t see because I am not living there.
At our school, over 90% Latin American, and in our district, English tests are the litmus for how” intelligent” a student is considered to be, what class level they are placed in and what extra-curricular subjects they are allowed to study. For example, the music and art options – and they are not many and they are a recent addition to our curriculum – are offered primarily, if only, to the “English-only” and honor’s strand of students. Humanities are an “elective” class that is taught by English teachers to a strand of their students that fall into the above categories. This means that if you are a beginning English learner, thus a low tester, you do not get subjects outside of math, science, history and English. Subjects, incidentally, taught via Sixth Grade English Level Text books. This approach also disregards any aptitude in math, as students are placed in ALL subjects according to their English levels. I believe this is done because it is easier for the administrative process.
So, what do our students need? From the school, and district, they need us to educate them with the vigorous assumption that they are intelligent and eager to learn no matter how low or high their level of English. They “ALL” need music, drawing, sculpture, wood working, singing, music, theater and CREATIVITY – in all sizes and shapes, every day and every year and these subjects need to be considered as important as the “testable subjects,” math, English, history, etc.
What they need from “US.” The greatest challenge our urban kids face is that their parents are largely less academically educated than their middle class counterparts. Inner city kids are more isolated. I do not believe that a lower economic status naturally leads to a lower educational level. I do think, however, that it needs more attention to correct the tilt. We need to start thinking about all kids as OUR kids. Schools need the parental attention the middle class schools get. We need middle class parents volunteering in inner city schools. And I don’t mean to overrun the cultures that exist in those schools, but to bring the academic presence up. I’d love to know more about Hispanic culture. I need to incorporate more of my students’ parents’ strengths and interests into my classroom. We need parents who know how to participate to show the parents that don’t know, how. The inner city is woefully over looked by the middle class. I called Big Brothers Big Sisters to get help for some of our boys who needed a positive outside influence I was told that there are NO volunteers for South Central! There are none within the South Central community and none outside willing to come in? There are over eight million people in Los Angeles! Are they all saving Darfur or adopting kids from China? My colleagues who teach in independent/private schools can’t get rid of their over-achieving “helicopter” parents fast enough. I’ll take them. I want parent aids in my class room to help with field trips, organize fund raisers, science fairs or theater productions. I want them to show our parents how they can be involved. And it’s not that our students’ parents don’t want to help, many of them don’t know what it looks like. They do not come from academic backgrounds.
Please, find a school near or far from you that your child does NOT attend and volunteer. Become a class rep for an urban school. Organize a PTA. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister to an urban youth; there are NONE in South Central. Help get the word out in urban areas that Big Brothers Big Sisters even exists. There are mentors within the inner cities! Volunteer to do a reading program after school. Help get a theater department going. Organize a science fair. It’s not money we need, its participation and education. Head up a garden. Do some landscaping. Organize parents to get homework clubs going. And do these things with the parents of our students who really do want to be a part of what their child is doing but in many cases do not know how. WE need ALL of OUR children to be willing and enthusiastic participants of society. And OUR children really DO want be WILLING and enthusiastic participants in OUR society, and WE need to show them how, by being WILLING and ENTHUSIASTIC participants ourselves, in OUR own society.
Article by Sonja Williams, Public School Teacher, Circus Performer
Sonja Williams attended Highland Hall Waldorf School from kindergarten through 12th grade, and graduated with a BA in History from UCSB after years of academic experimentation at six city colleges. She has been teaching since 2000, and loves to travel, cycle, and perform in the local circus. [Sonja is GMJ guest editor Joan Jaeckel’s daughter.]