A hundred hands shape the lives of children. Outside school walls, there are the families who raise them and the community members who embrace them. Inside those school walls, there are the teachers who educate them — teachers who may see only a small part of a complicated picture.
“Teachers need to know who these students are. Who are
their families? What are their experiences? What opportunities have they had?” says University of Washington assistant professor Morva McDonald, a researcher who knows that closing the achievement gap is an issue of great consequence for our society.
“If these children are not doing well in a classroom, it’s irresponsible not to find other places in their lives where they experience success and learn from the people who mediate those positive experiences.”
That place may be an after-school hip-hop class where Louis, who never raises his hand in class, teaches other kids his hottest moves. It may be an afternoon kung-fu class, where Kai-Ying, so painfully silent all day at school, blossoms as star of the Lion Dance. Her English may be limited, but not her ability to express herself.
How can teachers search out these successes? How can they leverage them to help children learn in the context of their classrooms?
At the UW, McDonald examined those questions with the eye of a teacher educator passionate about classroom equity. What would help beginning teachers — most of them from middle-class backgrounds — think more broadly about children’s lives outside of school? How could they more deeply understand the role of community in educating a child?
With a team of six doctoral students, she launched a pioneering program called Alliance of Community Teachers — a program that puts UW students to work in communities before they ever step in front of a classroom as a student teacher. The program is designed to help the students see children in the context of their whole lives — to start filling in that complicated picture as the UW students develop into full-time teachers.
“This is a different way of learning to teach,” says McDonald.
UW students in the Alliance of Community Teachers program are placed in community-based organizations for six to ten hours a week in their first quarter. The organizations selected — arts centers, YMCAs, culturally oriented ethnic centers, Boys and Girls Clubs — all serve elementary-aged children in diverse, poverty-impacted communities. Many are in the same neighborhood as the partner schools where UW interns will be assigned to student teach.
“We tried to concentrate our resources so that we could have a greater impact,” says McDonald.
Working in teams of two or three, the UW students help children with homework, reading, arts and other activities. In the process, they meet children’s siblings, parents, grandparents, and supportive people in the community, establishing relationships that may carry over into their student teaching. “I expect this group of students will have a better idea that part of their role is to reach out to communities — to think ‘Who would I contact to support this child if I am having difficulty in the classroom?’ ” says McDonald.
The UW students also undertake projects that will be helpful to directors of the community organizations. One team of students created a welcome video for an organization in Spanish and English. Another gave digital voice recorders to children who were learning English, listened to the recordings and offered linguistic tips. “Giving back is crucial,” says McDonald. “You are in a community center, you are learning from them. It’s important to engage with them in things they want to happen, things that matter to them, not just to you.”
The community experience, which is integrated into multiple courses on campus, is mandatory for all students in the elementary teacher education program. “We were very explicit,” says McDonald. “We said, ‘If this is going to work, we have to have all pre-service teachers do it. And we need coursework that connects with the experience.”
In the field, directors of the community organizations welcomed the new program as a way to secure more one-on-one help and attention for their children. “I wouldn’t be able to undertake such a big reading project without them,” said one director.
On campus, faculty welcomed the program as a way to rethink what it means to connect with children. Research nationwide showed that teacher education students could pass multicultural courses and show a grasp of social justice principles, but still struggled when it came to implementing those ideas in classrooms — classrooms growing increasingly diverse across the country.
In 2005, minorities made up 33 percent of the United States population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In ten more years, that number will be almost 40 percent. White students could become a minority in U.S. classrooms by the year 2050.
The demographics are shifting. Disparities in educational outcomes are growing. Already, more than half of fourth-grade Latino and African-American students don’t achieve basic levels of reading. The new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has declared education the “civil rights issue of our generation.”
Colleges of education across the country have been addressing that issue with multicultural programming, diversification of student placement, training in teaching English language learners. Immersing future teachers in their students’ communities could be another major step toward increased understanding and increased access to an equitable education.
“The community-based organization experience gave me the opportunity to take time to meet children where they are and not where they have to be,” commented one UW student in the program.
The community-based program has been an eye-opener for the UW teachers-in-training who, as part of their campus coursework, may be assigned to “shadow” a child or create “community maps” that include not only neighborhoods surrounding community centers but also key players in those neighborhoods. The students report that exposure to new communities and cultures changes their views of children — and of themselves.
One student, working with English language learners, said that “Getting down and being raw with them and saying, ‘I do not know what you’re saying, but I want to know’ was a new thing for me…I really appreciated that, because I want to work in high needs schools and that is going to happen over and over again.”
Students may learn about cultures within cultures — the Cubans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans and Chileans lumped under the label of “Latino.” They may see how differently individual children learn outside schoolroom structures. They may learn about lives that differ dramatically from their own.
McDonald knows how illuminating such learning can be for her students. “I hear pre-service students say, ‘I had no idea kids were in pre-school at 6 a.m., then in child care until 6 p.m. That’s a 12-hour day. So if the kid at 10 a.m. is starving and I can’t give him food, what am I supposed to do?’ ’’
That 12-hour day may mean parents are working long hours on the job — or jobs. That’s a hardship beginning teachers might gloss over. “It’s very traditional for pre-service teachers to say ‘These parents don’t care,’” says McDonald. “If they work two jobs and don’t show up for a parent teacher conference at 3 p.m., does that mean parents don’t care? Or does it mean it’s not a good time of day, or maybe the school is not the right location?”
Learning about the home lives of children can help UW students respond appropriately to challenges in the classroom. Instead of immediately reacting negatively to a conflict in class, they learn to step back and ask critical questions: What is going on with a particular child that has led up to that moment in time? What are the options for dealing with it? “Kids come with a back story. It is my responsibility to learn that story and recognize that school may act as a refuge from an unstable home life,” said one student.
In surveys and interviews, students have been forthcoming with misgivings about the community experience, as well. Some were uncertain how they would ever leverage their community experience into teaching experience. National studies show similar projects generally have short-term effects on students, and that, without guidance, experiences can actually reinforce rather than revise interns’ misconceptions of high-needs children.
To measure the promises and pitfalls of the program, McDonald and her team are conducting a longitudinal research study supported by the Ford Foundation that will follow the UW students from their first community-based experiences through their first years of teaching. Data collection includes field observations, performance assessments, and interviews with the interns, supervisors, faculty, and organization directors participating in the program.
The researchers are cautiously optimistic. “We don’t know how the experiences will get taken up through the program, but my hope is that it will change the way our students view their role as teachers, and help them think about what it means to have a relationship with children,” says McDonald.
It’s a relationship that, given time, can work both ways. “All children know something,” says McDonald. “All children are good at something. All children can teach you something.
Recognizing that can help teachers teach in return.
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