Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Yes, They Can! Urban Readers and Writers Achieve with Rigor

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Yes, They Can! Urban Readers and Writers Achieve with Rigor

Article excerpt

Cartwright and D'Orso (1993) bemoan the fact that "Most of the teachers didn't expect much of the students, and they did not demand the most of themselves" (p.157). Unfortunately, their statement rings true of many urban teachers who have either just arrived or have been in the urban schools for many years. Most teachers come with the best of intentions for making the world a better place; however, they soon become overwhelmed by conditions within and without as well as sheer numbers in the classroom. Only the rare, gifted teachers, those who are identified in urban districts as "bright spots," hold high expectations and push their students to achieve at their maximum potential as learners. These teachers who achieve at high levels with their students are considered the miracle workers with the magic touch.

For the excellent teachers in urban settings, their teaching conditions are not much better than those described by Jonathan Kozol (1991) in his Savage Inequalities: "In my notes I find these words: 'An uncomfortable feeling - being in a building with no windows. There are metal ducts across the room. Do they give air? I feel asphyxiated...'" (p. 87). Many of our inner city schools are past their prime and in need of major renovations. Few have the equipment necessary to meet the needs of their student population. Overcrowding is rampant. Many of the "bright spot" teachers toil within sight of some of the worst living conditions in America. According to Cartwright and D'Orso (1993), "Almost everyone who could leave, White and African American alike, left. There were still strong, defiant, proud homeowners left in this neighborhood, people who refused to surrender, who insisted on holding the line against the gangs and drugs and random violence that had come to rule the streets even if it killed them" (p. 14). Yet it is possible for teachers to reach these children in overcrowded classrooms in dilapidated buildings. They cannot do it without maintaining strong expectations for their students. However appalling the conditions, perhaps these teachers are not the miracle workers that we think. Maybe they just work hard and seek better ways to get their teaching to work for their students.

The Setting

My fourth grade classroom looked a lot like the classroom described by Kozol. I was in a basement room without the benefit of any windows. Part of the room was even caged so that students could not go near the dials and controls for the many pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling. There was the constant noise of the ebb and flow through those pipes, but neither the students nor I sought the answer to what flowed through them because we were afraid to know. Into this room made for eight, we crowded fifteen students. These students came from a neighborhood similar to that described by Cartwright. Across the street from the school were three abandoned houses, one of which the city finally knocked down in the late fall. The neighborhood was dotted with these abandoned homes, which invited all varieties of crime and criminals to dwell within. Our class had two large tables and one working computer with which to enter this twenty first century as readers and writers. Others within the building considered these students advantaged because I had removed them from their normal classroom upstairs where the class size was over thirty in each of the two classrooms. This allowed those classroom teachers to work with twenty or so children in their own classrooms.

Getting Started

First I centered on self-efficacy to try and get my students to believe in themselves. My inspiration came from the training and the stated mission of the Efficacy Institute (www.efficacy.org):

"Our mission therefore is development. We work to release the inherent intellectual capacity of all children, and to affirm their right to learn. We commit ourselves to break the cycle of underdevelopment that afflicts far too many children, especially children of color and the economically disadvantaged. …

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