Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Tutoring Down the Rabbit Hole: The Inner-City Classroom, and What I Found There

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Tutoring Down the Rabbit Hole: The Inner-City Classroom, and What I Found There

Article excerpt

Prior to fulfilling the tutoring requirement for Dimensions of Secondary Education, my only experience with Providence inner city schools was limited to driving past them, feeling awed by their size and intimidated by the volume of students I had often witnessed spilling into the street. While I had worked with Providence students on a smaller scale at the Met (an alternative high school containing many mini-campuses with intimate class sizes and a lax atmosphere), the encounter was wholly unique and not at all representative of the public school system. The Met students embraced and reflected their school's creative philosophy, and genuinely enjoyed the educational experience. Basing my judgment of the public school system strictly on hearsay and what I had observed from behind the wheel, I was terrified to begin tutoring those kids--the ones with heavy bass blaring from their cars, with stony stares and baggy clothes--kids half my age who had already lived through and seen more in life than I would ever have to.

Initially, I was afraid of everything. I was terrified of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, of overstepping my bounds or--worse--circumventing them entirely. I saw myself as the Bumbling White Girl awash in a lively sea of students whose faces and experiences did not reflect my own, struggling to maintain a transparently politically-correct vocabulary. Most of all, I was afraid of being "outnumbered."

I entered the situation preoccupied with my own anxiety without considering the converse: what I had perceived as my "minority status," the students understood as a lack of representation, their own faces and experiences not reflected in the faculty (Takaki 18). I was afraid of validating my xenophobia simply by acknowledging it, unaware that awareness is the first, and most crucial, step toward dismantling prejudice. This assignment forced me to counter my apprehensions and habitual preconceptions with reality. From the first time I walked into the classroom at Nathanael Greene Middle School, an exhilarating combination of acceptance, confidence and symbiotic enthusiasm overwhelmed any trepidation.

I worked in a seventh and eighth grade Special Education classroom with a literacy focus. The students did not have profound disabilities, and most demonstrated no other disability than requiring a more active education than they had previously received. These were not your desk-bound, worksheet-educated kids. While their reading levels were significantly below grade (the teacher copied most of the worksheets from third- to sixth-grade level workbooks), the students demonstrated keen interpersonal skills, far superior to any suburban students (or adults, for that matter) I had observed. They seemed at their most insightful and engaged when they interacted as a whole class, in a sort of pinball method: the teacher introduces an idea, and each student takes what he or she can from it and adds his or her own spin before another student latches on, and so forth.

During these occasions, the students' enthusiasm would reach peaks of absolute flow; if unguided, however, chaos tended to reign. The teacher proactively sought to avoid these outbursts, apparently anticipating insubordination, and would punish the students by forcing them to work independently on worksheets. But often the nearly comical cycle would begin again when a student would ask a question, engaging the whole class once more--before meeting, inevitably, with punishment.

The students were frequently chastised in this manner. It's not my intention to slander Mrs. Smith (1) or offend with any personal attack. I believe Mrs. Smith felt exasperated by the incompatibility of her square-peg students and her round-hole curriculum and felt jaded by, and in some ways responsible for, their failure. After class, she would frequently tell me that these students were impossible to teach and that her job had become more like babysitting. …

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