Monthly Archives: June 2008

This past spring, I had the privilege of visiting two very different, very interesting educational institutions. The first was Hartford University School for Urban Exploration, a K-8 grade school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The second was Cretin-Durham Hall, a Catholic high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both observation days held surprising things in store for me…

Hartford University School, Milwaukee

The only other MPS school I had been in recently was 21st Street School, where I did 50 hours of preliminary fieldwork the year before. Whereas 21st Street seemed more or less dismal (burned out teachers, bored or destructive students, weak programs, invisible administration), Hartford wowed me. The teacher of the eighth grade classroom where I was observing was particularly impressive—she managed to keep her classroom under control, while at the same time acknowledging her students as individual human beings. The environment was spectacular. The classroom was half computer lab, half desk space, which managed to be both welcoming and professional. All the staff members I encountered were energetic and positive. Even the little details of the day were indicators of the good things going on there… Teachers stood in the middle of the hallways, greeting students as they arrived in the morning. The announcements (including birthdays) were delivered over the P.A. in a fantastically human, happy, conversational fashion. Student art mosaics graced the border of the campus. Art and music programs were healthy and visible. The diverse student body seemed to blend harmoniously with each other as well as with faculty. Classes were interesting. It was as a school should be, and its urban setting felt like an advantage. This school was a wonderful example of the good things that ARE going on in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

A family friend who teaches high school senior religion courses in St. Paul was kind enough to let me visit his school for a day. Having not seen the inside of a parochial school since my own seventh grade year at Sacred Heart of Jesus in St. Francis, WI, and having never been to St. Paul, I was unsure of what to expect. (Wow, so many saints—there seems to be a Catholic theme going on here!) I was impressed to say the least. The staff was extremely kind and accommodating to me, even escorting me from room to room as I observed the English classes. The rest of the school’s environment, too, reflected a sense of caring and community that was remarkable.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about being in a parochial high school was that the teachers aren’t required to teach to the Wisconsin state standards. They could form their curriculum according to their own goals, one of the most apparent being the presence of a social justice focus. I found this refreshing and fascinating. In spite of my own standards-oriented training, I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined being able to teach without the cloud of quantitative accountability hanging over my head. Then again, I realize that many teachers might flounder under such laissez-faire requirements. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, teachers seemed comfortable, inspired, and happy. The kids seemed pretty happy, too, even in their navy blue uniforms.

Hardwood Floors
Besides being high-quality places of learning, there was an unlikely feature that both Hartford and Cretin-Derham shared, and that was historic architecture. Hardwood floors, carved wooden handrails on the staircases, narrow corridors, and well-worn classrooms with high windows created a sense of history and beauty that is rare in today’s schools. Aside from all the great professional development pointers I picked up, this was my favorite thing about both visits—admiring the beauty of the old buildings themselves. I love old architecture. It replaces the stark, industrial feeling that so many schools have with a sense of character and dignity. I love the idea of walking into a place that feels prestigious, old, and like so many things have happened there.

Here is what I hear, often: “Wow, I can’t imagine a little white girl like you teaching high school in the ‘hood.”

Okay. Thanks. I hear this from friends, acquaintances, relatives, and random people that question me about myself while patronizing my suburban workplace (a flower shop). I normally respond with something like: “Yep… I’m ready for it, though.”

But what do I really mean when I say that? There are so many conflicting emotions that surface when an observation of this kind is made. Among them:

1. Why does it matter that I’m white? I’m already aware of (and feel guilty for) the white privilege I’ve inherited. [Please see Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”] I already realize that I will be in the racial minority among my students. I have made my best effort to research and understand how to value and pay respect to the cultures of my students, even as they differ from mine. I have excelled in an education program with an urban focus. But still my worth as a white teacher among non-white students is questioned. Does my whiteness erase my desire to help kids learn, no matter what their hue? Does it void my love and respect for all members of my human family? Because I’m white, does that mean I don’t count in the eyes of my non-white students and their families? I think not.

2. Yes, I’m a female. And a young woman at that. And a petite one at that. But what can I do about my body and the social stigmas that accompany it? I am certainly not going to present myself as a vulnerable “girl,” who is powerless, meek, and sensitive. I am just as capable as a man to fulfill the duties of my profession. I am smart enough to teach. Should I also be concerned about being physically strong enough to… to… what? Subdue wild students who may attack me? Come on.

3. What exactly is “the ‘hood”? Is that anywhere that’s not in the ‘burbs? Anywhere that white people are not in the majority? Anywhere run-down? Most people who use this term in a pejorative sense are making generalizations about what kinds of people do and don’t belong there. I really like to think that we can think beyond such rigid stereotypes. I guess am a silly idealist. I have a feeling those aren’t supposed to go to “the ‘hood” either.

Such things are upsetting to think about… They make me call my own convictions into question. I used to believe that, despite my L-W-G status, I can be successful and influential, as well as compassionate, respectful, and genuine to my inner city students. I used to believe that I could do this without physical damage to myself and without outright rejection. I used to think that being a teacher was a more or less simple goal.

And I still believe those convictions. Except for that last one. I see now that I have to be ready to face a two-fold challenge. Part I: Completing the actual process of student teaching. Part II: Combating the damaging attitudes that come from the outside about my students, their neighborhoods, their families, and their futures.

I once had an educational psychology professor that proclaimed, categorically, that we can train our brains to do anything. She was adamant that prodigies, geniuses, and virtuosos were merely those who had the most practice at their skill. Of course, many of us in class protested, defending natural gifts and thinking styles, but she shut us all down. It was as simple as this: 3,000 hours of practice at a skill would lead to mastery. With one hour, every day, for eight years, you can prove your genes wrong.

I was rather skeptical that things could be that simple. However, I was interested in this viewpoint, and decided to adopt it with blind faith, just to see what would happen. I tracked how much time I logged practicing certain skills, and how much I improved over time. No surprise—practice was making me better. Suddenly, I realized that (according to this new theory) I could really master anything, as long as I was ok with starting at zero hours and working my way toward 3,000. I really wanted to test this. So I, the same woman who previously viewed walking from one end of the house to the other as “exercise,” took up long-distance running. I’ve since spent many hours with a pair of fine running shoes and the road. Every one of those hours counts towards what I hope will be eventual mastery. (And since female runners peak in their 30’s, I might actually be pretty respectable!)

The point of all this? Well, genes may [almost certainly] have to do with our propensities towards certain skills. But I’ve chosen to ignore that. I remember how believing that I could become a runner made me work harder and more often to do so. So why not decide that anything is possible? Dream, plan, do. It can be that simple, sometimes. And I think this is a positive viewpoint to adopt in the classroom. Any child really can succeed, if he or she is willing to devote time to learning. So much of learning really occurs through practice anyway… It’s less intimidating to think about it like this: no matter how poor your initial performance, the more you write (or read, or evaluate, or throw darts, or play clarinet), the better you will get.

I think today’s population suffers from excessive excuse-making:
“Oh, I can’t do that because…”
A. It’s too hard.
B. That’s not for me.
C. I don’t have that kind of time/money/energy.
D. I suck at it.
E. I can’t miss Lost [or insert TV show title here].

Wouldn’t we all do better to decide that we have unlimited potential, and to work as hard as possible to test its limits? That’s a more positive way to live and teach. I’m not saying that mastering difficult things (writing research papers, for example) is simple. I’m just saying it’s possible. With time and faith, it’s possible. For everybody.