Academic Year 2008 - 2009 Team Report

NYC Team Report

 Title: "Complicating NYC schools: Reflections of some rural, small town, and urban pre teachers on their work in NYC schools"

Dennis Parsons

EDU 381 Schools and Urban Society, fall/winter 2007-2008 


Fifteen pre teachers descend upon three NYC urban schools for a two week winter practicum in January, 2008. This paper shows how they impact the urban classrooms, effect student learning, and, in turn, learn and grow as teachers. Public school learning in these journals is more specifically noticeable through the pre teachers' ‘giving back' projects. For example, with the college orientation trip, 35 eighth graders were escorted on a fieldtrip to Baruch College. The group of 5 pre teachers who planned and coordinated the entire trip, and the school liaison/coordinator and other teacher-escorts note how these eighth graders demonstrate concrete knowledge about the process of preparing themselves towards college. Moreover, they note how this long range goal translates into mediating the short-range goal of staying in school. Another academically-focused project emphasized study skills and test-preparation. This project was timely because of the upcoming standardized tests in English and math. Four pre service teachers, together with the coordinating school liaison analyzed school G.R.O.W. reports, created a study skills needs assessment, which they implemented and analyzed for its effectiveness. Two other projects were borne out of the need for discussions on differences and bullying and each employed literacy skills, such as oral communication, effective listening, and writing process. In each of these projects, pre teachers noted a decline in aggressive behavior towards fellow peers, an increase in acts of kindness, and demonstration of peer empathy, and a willingness to include ‘outliers'  in social and academic activities.

 PS 188 The Island School

Fifteen pre teachers participated in EDU381, Schools and Urban Society, seven Adolescence, eight Childhood majors, and all pre teachers from a range of concentrations and fields of study. As one teacher, Lori Silverstein, helping to supervise at PS188 reports:

 First of all, they were all actively involved in their classrooms.  The teachers that they worked with reported that they made great connections with the students and that they were very helpful in the classrooms.  As you know, that is a hectic time of year in schools as students return from winter vacation and spend three short weeks gearing up for their state ELA exams.  It was great to have your students there as extra support for our middle schoolers.  In fact, they were extremely helpful in the extended day program, working with small groups to help them prepare for the test. 

We met together several times over the course of their two week stay, and I hope that they recognize the difference that they made for our students.  We spent a lot of time talking about our students and the lives that they lead and what a teacher can mean in their lives.  I think that they left our school with a better understanding of how schools work, the politics behind a lot of decisions made in schools, and what our students really need most from us. 

 Ms. Silverstein was especially positive about the performance of the "giving back project," where Oswego students make a contribution to the urban school or community. Five Oswego pre teachers plus two PS188 teachers supervised thirty-five eight graders on the college orientation field trip to Baruch College. Ms. Silverstein relates how she and her colleagues for three years "have been trying to get together a program to start taking our students on college visits, with hopes that by showing them some of the ‘perks' and advantages of going to college, we will pique their interest and help them gain the confidence and desire to stay in school." She relates how these pre teachers made the trip a success: 

 Actually planning the trips has always been the difficult part because it is time consuming and of course there are a lot of details to address.  The Oswego students took on the task of planning the trip and every detail involved.  They contacted several schools throughout the city and we all agreed that Baruch, of the CUNY system would be a great place to start.  They contacted the admissions department, and in spite of the fact that they do not usually give private tours, arranged for our students to get wonderful, small group, guided tours of the campus.  Our middle school students got to see everything from the cafeterias to classrooms and lecture halls.  I think the gym was the biggest hit for everyone.  They could all see themselves playing basketball or swimming for a college team someday. 

 The intents of this giving project align well with our previous four-year Empowering through Education (ETE) mentoring of eighth grade urban/rural students ETE. As Ms. Silverstein suggests, while the ultimate long-range goal is college-bound, the short term focus is on getting these youngsters to stay in school. Silverstein comments on how these pre teachers took charge: 

The Oswego students shared the responsibility for planning the trip and then did the majority of chaperoning.  Of course the school teachers were there (including me), but we were able to step back and watch our students interact with both the Baruch people and the Oswego group.  They got to ask questions of everyone and they really ended the day enlightened about college and some of the possibilities that lie ahead of them.  They also got information on scholarships and applying to school. 

 One pre teacher, Joshua Culver, reflects on the benefits of the trip and the ways lengths they went through to ensure full participation:

 The students were supposed to bring in a note from a parent, however to ensure maximum involvement students were allowed to call from the school to gain permission to go. 

 Culver notes how the questions these youngsters asked tended to focus on personal autonomy, which undoubtedly reflects their experiences and feelings about being a middle school student. Joshua Culver notes how "during several of the question and answer times some great questions were asked.  The students asked a lot of questions about personal freedom, can I have a cell phone, what happens if I skip class, do I get to pick when my classes are...etc.  I think they got a grasp of the idea of the freedom gained through personal responsibility.  I think they realized that accepting personal responsibility for certain things means they are given freedom to plan their own schedule, and pursue a major of their choice."  According to Silverstein, "all of the students who participated said that they not only had a good time but learned something too." Silverstein waxes philosophically on the unseen, yet to come, outcomes of endeavors such as this giving back project: "I have been at the Island school and seen some wonderful give back projects that have had a great impact on individual classrooms, but I have never seen a project that will follow the students far into the future.  We may not see the impact of this great program today, but I am confident that for some of our students, who rarely leave their neighborhood, that trip was the beginning of something great."  I will ensure in any way that I can that this college orientation trip gets reprised each year.

The focus of the EDU 381 is to expose pre teachers to both urban life and urban teaching. Culver, for example, relates how the experience was great "because I was able to not only learn about the school I visited, but also about the context in which this school exists."  Culver expresses how, despite living in India and in Africa,

 I have never been to a place where I seemed to possess an equal part in a large cultural pie.  It was a very unique experience. It helped me see as an educator how many different social groups can work together to form a successful greater unit.  This will help me in the classroom to facilitate a diverse group of learners into a cohesive classroom. 

 Culver unreflectively speaks to the process of gentrification that is underfoot in the lower east side, where PS 188 is located: It is a weird area.  Not nearly the same place described in the book "Honky" that we had to read.  The projects are still there, however much of the crime is gone.  I was told by the teachers that it gets a little worse at night, but overall it is not the crime-ridden area it once was.  Because of the projects, most of the people living on Avenue D are still very poor.  However, during the day the people occupying the streets seemed to be from a great spectrum of social groups.  There were business people, homeless, merchants, youth, and tourists.  I saw this close interaction between varieties of social groups as a good thing.  The isolation of the area compared to times in the past has greatly rescinded.

 Culver's writing turns more critical as he compares his experiences between PS 188, as compared with either the local magnet school or with his experiences in Syracuse urban schools: There was also another school right down the street [which] I was told housed excelling students.  I think it was some sort of magnet school.  It was kind of strange to be able to look out the window of P.S. 188 and be able to see a school with few or none of the problems this [PS 188] school had.  I guess the name "the Island School" is quite appropriate. Inside the school I encountered a wide range of attitudes from faculty and students.  In Syracuse city schools many of the teachers have either given up, or are just waiting to leave the city.  I expected to encounter these same attitudes among the teachers at this school.  However, most of the teacher's at the Island School are relatively new to teaching.  They said the reason there are not older teachers is because the burnout rate is quick in the city.  Many of these younger teachers had a decidedly positive attitude about teaching at this school.  In Syracuse I got the idea that many of the teachers were there because there was no other place they could go.  Here I feel many of the teachers have a desire to be in this area, even though it is tough.

Culver casts his students into three groups, always-, sometimes-, and never-achievers. He noticed that most students he experienced fell into the middle group. He laments how "it was maddening to see them screw around for three classes in a row, then see them buckle down one day and complete the work for that day.  It was hard, because these students could learn if they wanted to learn.  Finding successful motivating tools for these students was clearly very tricky." Culver applies a cost-benefits analysis to the workings of the school pupils: "the marginal benefit to class grades of helping this student for a given amount of time was less than other students in that same amount of time." While Culver does not "blame my teacher for this philosophy, because I spent hours with this students and still could not get him to do anything," he wished there could have been some other intervention taken to help these students get to the place where they believe they can learn.

 Culver offers an unsolicited connection between this experience-based practicum course with the principles of its alternative required, "Culturally Relevant Teaching."  Culver finds that, many of the students I observed absolutely had no idea how the course material was relevant to their lives.  They were often disinterested, and needed motivation.  Based on my experiences I have come to the conclusion we are not teaching these students the wrong material, but we are generally not making the information relevant to the students. . . . That was the reason our group decided to take the students on a college tour for our culminating project.  The students need to see that the knowledge we are giving them could transfer to them living in a dorm room with their buddies, playing basketball on real hardwood, going to classes of their choice...etc. I do not think the job of assigning relevance to their subjects in school will be easy, but it is necessary.  The discussion needs to continue, and more importantly translate into action on the part of administrators and teachers. 

Culver is beginning to see the need for cultural relevance between the public school curriculum and the students who must comply. More will be needed for him to begin to critically examine the power relations between culture and institutions in order to more fully understand and make impacts on how student resistance works in response to institutional pressures as they strive to maintain their own cultural identity.

 Zach Tartell initially suggests a more coolly impersonal and detached approach towards teaching, a position which he has since reneged: "The kids will come into my room, learn Spanish for a half hour or eighty minutes or whatever, and then leave. No attachment, no unnecessary things. I'm a teacher, they're my students." Zach comments that his cooperating teacher was their third teacher in just the one half of a year, which he understands as contributing to the lack of classroom focus. According to Tartell, "adolescents, more so than any other brand of children, seem to smell doubt and almost feed on it, if I might get a bit poetic. I observed that kids don't want to do busy work, ever. But for every infuriating idiosyncrasy of children, there are just as many redeeming values."

 Zach admits to having a limited "relatively sheltered life," which "may have formed some pretty skewed paradigms about minorities, city folk, and New York City in general." He expected "outrageous, unmanageable" kids. Tartell's expectations of their abilities, was, itself considerably lacking and divisive:

These kids, while not great, certainly weren't anything like I expected. I had bright, vivid students who stood out from the mundane circumstance that fate had afforded them. The only problem was that these gems were surrounded by their lesser peers at all times in ridiculously large class sizes, dulling the sheen of their intelligence. Maybe I took the metaphor a bit too far, but it still kind of works. I met smart kids at PS 188 - the problem was that they didn't know that they could do better than just being rowdy and fighting all the time.


On the other hand, Robert Denney III makes connections between the management skills he is taught in his teacher education curriculum, such as calling the class to order through clapping, a process with an element of "forgiveness." He relates how "one teacher used the ‘if you can hear me clap your hands once, if you can hear me clap your hands twice' method," which "had mixed results." Many times these claps would repeat three, sometimes four times, until eventually the teacher resorted to trying to yell above the din of the classroom. Denney opines that "a much more respected and more efficient technique seemed to be used by the 7th grade math teacher. . . . he had instituted a rule where he will clap a pattern out and the class would join in. The students could not ignore this method because the noise would get gradually louder and drown out all conversation. If students continued talking at this point it was obvious they were breaking rules and ignoring the teacher.

Denney comments about another points-based management system, which also has different results depending on the students.  "The negative points would eventually become writing ups after a certain amount, and eventually a call home. Inversely enough positive points earned school dollars, or a positive call or letter home.  It really gets students who want to keep their parents happy, or who need a slight grade boost silent, while trouble students who don't get parental discipline and don't care about their classes just continue being obnoxious."

The NYC experience convinced Denney that he would prefer not to teach in an urban classroom, what with their "challenging attitude towards teachers. ... Fighting, screaming, swearing, and running around during class were common place in the classrooms. Many students had no respect for teachers, or concern for schools. Many of these students are obviously only in school because they have no choice. I'd rather teach kids who are more manageable and at a school that has a higher percentage of students who care about their classes." Unlike Culver, who sees problems in the school system and curricular relevance, Kenney assigns blame to "parents who have no control over their children. . . . "I don't think I want to be cooperating with parents who don't have any interest in their children succeeding in school." I am fine with having Denney teaching outside of an urban classroom. I am gravely concerned-inasmuch as we teach the relationship and tensions between culture, power, student apathy and outright resistance as reflections of power struggle-and yet, such a position as expressed by Kenney, unreflectively spreads these myths about urban children and their parents.

Patricial Koh, was aware of the unfounded, although typical preconceptions and trepidations about venturing to an NYC urban school, and so immediately brushes them aside to comment on the physical plant of PS 306, which is located in the W. Tremont section of the Bronx. "The inside of the school was well decorated with student art work" which she believes "just made the school look more livelier making kids more willing to come to school." Koh comments on her teachers experience as compared to many of the teachers in the building, and sees a connection to classroom organization, management and positive student behavior. "Most of the teachers were very young and I thought that was great but also wasn't sure if it was the best place for them to start out in because the students in urban settings often come from homes where parents aren't always around to give them educational support. I feel that older more experienced teachers should work with urban children because they know how to handle kids and manage a classroom."

Koh acknowledges the complexity involved with teaching in urban classrooms, and links success with wisdom and experience. I wonder whether cultural differences between the young white teachers, and the students of color who are in their charge, further complicates the work of urban teaching. And yet, Koh suggests that she does "not see much of a difference in an urban classroom from any other classroom, kids are kids and learning is learning," and concedes that "the only difference in some classrooms is that there may be a majority of black and Latin American students and the amount of parental concern." Unlike Denney, who was placed in the same school, Koh believes "it is not always the guardians' fault," citing Compton-Lilly to explain that "there can be many factors contributing to the fact that they aren't always their to mind their children's needs because in urban settings parents or guardians are usually working late hours or trying to maintain multiple jobs."

Koh recognizes the disparities within the classroom, "the only one who never had a snack, and encouraged others to share with her. She is aware, however, that there might be other reasons why this child has no snack; factors such as working parents with frenetic schedules, which belies a sense of the economic struggles of the working poor. She notes that "the child is somewhat suffering because she also stays extra hours after school for other after school programs." Patricia Koh relates how she "grew attached to the kids in Mrs. Pearson's kindergarten class" and formed "relations with each and every student" and "was kind of sad to leave so soon when I just started to grow closer." Patricia emphasizes how she wants "to be able to make a difference in children's lives so that they will grow up to fine young ladies and gentlemen. I feel as though the experience children have in the early years of their education will mold and influence in choosing their life's path." Clearly, Ms. Koh has absorbed the urban experienced in positive ways: "I have taken notes on the way Mrs. Pearson manages her classroom as reference to when I am starting my own class. There are so factors contributing to the hidden curriculum that I hope to be able to fully unfold and gain the experience and knowledge in order to have a successful classroom and to become a successful teacher."

Like so many other students who participate in this urban class, Jina Lee, also with a 306 placement, uses the course to "rid my assumptions about urban life, urban teaching and urban children."  She "thought that the children would be very mischievous," would care little for what was going on in the classroom, wouldn't listen to the teacher, and that the "teacher wouldn't care about what was going on in the classroom." She imagined a bad surrounding environment, with graffiti, garbage, worn down houses, and shabbily dressed students. Lee, as did Koh, took in the ubiquitous artwork, which was respected and not shabby or worn down. Lee was surprised at how welcome she was treated, given that she was an outsider to the school staff and children. She expected to be treated "as an outcast, since I was an outcast." She witnessed some telltale signs of poverty, such as "worn down shoes or holes in their shirts," although the "one thing that I thought right was the fact that they weren't able to eat proper meals.  There were some students who didn't eat at home and complained of stomachaches when they came to school.  I also knew that money was an issue."

Lee compares her experiences with children at 306 with her reading of one of the course texts, Compton-Lily's Re-Reading Families. Through Compton-Lily, Lee comments how, the children are very focused on each other.  They love learning, which is another assumption that has been proven wrong by this urban experience, but they also love their friends.  They talk to each other constantly and they get in trouble because they don't do their work.  The teacher tries to separate some children because of this or because of fighting.  There also have been some times that parents come into the classroom to talk to the teacher before class about keeping their child away from other children.  I guess they think that this is for the best.  However, I feel that socializing is just as important. 

Ultimately, Lee reflects on how "this experience has better educated me and given me new skills and knowledge to help me in the future.  I think that I am able to be a better educator because I won't have the stereotypes about urban schools.  I feel that I won't give up on children as easy as some teachers do.  I feel that my faith in children and their ability to accomplish tasks has gotten to be greater due to what I have seen in my practicum classroom.  I have seen these children so eager to learn despite hardships at home.  It actually gets me angry that the media portrays these children to be bad and lazy from the start.  I think that this stereotype causes people to give up on these children before they truly get to know their capabilities.  This class has taught me so much more than I had expected when I started." 

Like some students who take this course, Lisa Ojeda's journey was a return home. The experience taught her that, while she wants to continue to do "good works" for her community, she discovered that the path she was on would not include classroom teaching. She comically expresses her realization:

The idea of staying in the same room the whole day kind of freaked me out at first. I was thinking more of behind the scenes kind of work, where I was moving around, helping out different people and not feel so confined with a bunch of beady eyes staring at me the whole day.

Ojeda argues on the importance of ultimately coming to her decision not to teach by immersing herself in the classroom. Moreover, she critically reflects on the merits of 306 without overlooking the work that still needs to be done. She celebrates the message that having an artful environment sends about teaching for the whole child. "So to walk into PS 306 and find that the school is full of colors, shapes, and artworks shows that these students are heading in the right direction." Yet she expresses awareness that "some of the students seem to go unaffected by it." Ojeda speaks to the tracking that is taking place even within the classrooms, and to the family or community pressures to maintain status quo:  Some students seem to not care about their education whatsoever, while other haven't been given the opportunity to learn because of their behavior. I have heard teachers say that they have given special treatment to those that do better academically than other students. Special treatment such as use of computers during centers time, is great but puts the other students who may be at a disadvantage because of their behavior. Now how are those kids going to learn from the experience? I have also heard students say that they are not going to college and that their parents said that they don't have to go to college.

Ojeda emphasizes the need for "their teachers to help them along," where "even in a 1st grade classroom, the students are unable to do it alone."

Bethany Briggs takes a personal approach to her essay's opening to demonstrate the curiosity of the students in her 306 placement. In this way, she emphasizes the presence in the lives of these students, and how they factor into the multicultural encounter. Like others, Briggs describes initial trepidations, quickly allayed fears, and the surround of student artwork. With her cooperating teacher, she witnessed a firm hand, a strong figure who "made sure they were respectful," but also that in their teacher they had a friend. Disruptiveness was not an uncommon occurrence, but she, Ms. Briggs got accustomed to the classroom culture and "began to focus on what they were learning and how each one of them had their own special character."

Ms. Briggs used the course readings to ponder over the issue of parental involvement. "I realized that parents may be involved due to legitimate reasons.  I had just assumed that parents don't want to be there but I realized that they may truly be busy working to survive and care for their families. The readings and articles," according to Briggs, "have opened my eyes to many things.  I feel that it was necessary for the class to require readings that discussed assumptions and attitudes towards urban city schooling.  The reading helped me open my eyes to the urban society along with actually being there."

While most pre teachers make subtle impact on the classroom, either in small groups or teaching one-on-one, a good many take the opportunity to "take the reins" of the classroom reins. Bethany Briggs describes the day she got to "the show:"

Through all of the days observing, I ended up finally getting a chance to teach.  This day was hectic and very unusual but it was the day that I planned to do my giving back project.  On this day there was a substitute teacher that did not know how to manage the class or follow the directions that the teacher has laid out.  I ended up controlling the class and teaching them their ELA and math for the day, along with keeping them quiet and under control.  This was the day when I learned the most.  I had at that point, realized that I really can do this.  I can have my own classroom and make a difference in their lives.

Briggs was proud of her accomplishments, not only teaching the whole class, but having to do with the overall experience.  "It was the best thing I could have done for myself.  Going into this assignment, I felt nervous and unprepared.  I began with an unsteady feeling of not being able to learn and adapt.  I was very wrong and glad to be so.  I learned how to be a part of a class and make a relationship with the students.  I learned how to mange students and say stuff so that they would understand.  I also learned some of the third grade curriculum.  I believe that now I will be better prepared to do my student teaching.  I finally feel capable of being in the classroom and teaching.  I know I still have much more to learn but this experience was the most beneficial part to my pre-education career thus far.   

Like others, Laurie Manfrates, expresses the virtues of doing over learning how to do, but she is quick to show how this seemingly contradiction position between theory and practice is especially ramped up in an urban context:

When you sit in a classroom learning how to teach, you think you understand and know what it is like to be a teacher.  In an urban setting you realize how much more there really is to teaching. I honestly think that this experience shaped me as a person and as a future teacher. Not only did I grow as a person I learned so much about different schools in different locations and how schools located in an urban setting work.

In her reflection, Ms. Manfrates contends with the developmental contentiousness of being a fifth grader, comparing the urban experience with her own identity crisis as a nine- or ten-year old "trying to figure out who you are as a person.  Authority figures for fifth graders are hard and they don't want to listen to anyone.  My fifth grade class was no different.  They fought me on everything and refused to listen." After the first week of her urban placement, she made a breakthrough to a point where "they got use to me and listened to what I had to say." She laments on how "some students did not know how to add or subtract and they had trouble doing basic things that all fifth graders should know," suggesting that these students were getting "shuffled along through the grades."  Like some of her colleagues, Manfrates noticed what she believes to be upstate vs. urban differences, where "so many more students in the Bronx school did not care about their education." Without family pressure to attend, Ms. Manfrates feel these students are more prone to disengage, either silently or outwardly resist. She worries:

When I told them I was in college they all seemed confused and some even said that they would never go to college.  In fifth grade, they already know they don't want to go to college?  That seemed really sad to me that they already felt that way. 

Ms. Manfrates also writes openly about what she believes to be the potential for teacher burnout or high teacher turnover rates: I know that spending my day yelling at students and trying to get them to care would be draining.  There are a lot of young teachers and they find other teaching jobs and they move away from the urban schools.   I felt that in my classroom that my teacher rarely taught lessons because she had to constantly reprimand her students.  She seemed very burnt out and jaded by the whole situation.  For the teachers it isn't as much about as making a difference as it is just getting by.

Manfrates notes how "so many teachers teach right to the state tests," which is not exclusive to urban settings.  Laurie contends that "they spend all their time trying to get these students to pass these tests that they miss the whole point of teaching.  The students do the state tests and then forget everything they learned because they aren't really being taught anything." Manfrates feels the emphasis on state tests in the third, fourth, and fifth grades robs them of any potential joy they might experience learning in school. Moreover, math and English are emphasized at the expense of science and social studies. Manfrates explains how "seeing the students struggling with simple math and hearing them get discouraged really made me want to be a teacher even more."  Ms. Manfrates ends her essay with the observation that she had to prove her strength and resilience to her students. Once she won over their respect, she commanded their attention. "I know that I will miss the school and all the students I worked with.  I could not say that two weeks ago because those fifth graders were getting in my face screaming at me but now that I showed them I would not back down they really respected me.  The students in 502 affected me as a person and as a future teacher."

PS140 Nathan Straus

Tracy Vessell, at PS140, reflects on how the "teachers seem blind to an outsider's view of their school." Comparing her experiences with a school in the city of Auburn, she expresses how one Auburn teacher had a limited perspective on how their school was "in need." "They had a laptop cart in their room with a laptop for each student. They also had 7 desktops in the room. She had loads of games and the room was filled floor to ceiling with boxes of classroom materials. In Parish, the highest needs school I've ever seen, the school is beautiful. They got a million dollar Reading First grant and really spruced that place up." Vessell comments further, however, on specific travesties visited on these small city individual children in terms of lice infestations, parents with substance abuse, and physical and mental abuse visited upon these children.  However, Vessel suggests that her NYC cooperating teacher had shown signs of similar blind spots, but in this case, in her opinion, underestimating their needs. "She talks about the school as if they have everything. She talks about the students like they're spoiled (and truly, some of them are) but I don't think she realizes how poor her school is. I think I can see a broader view because I've experienced varied situations, but she was raised in the community, she works in the community, and she has only her own past experiences (from the community) to compare her present experiences (in the community) to. ... The school is poor, but the kids, in general, are kind of alright. There are some issues. One kid is living in a shelter with his mother and one kid knows zero English, but those are the worst scenarios in the room.

Even though Vessell's comments simplify the material conditions of these children and their school teacher, her reflections suggest the benefits of having experiences as both insider and outsider of the culture, which supports the need for an urban school immersion experience, even or especially when these pre teachers will not go on to apply for positions in an urban school. Still, she commends her cooperating teacher for seeing positive elements in a school that looked dire compared to other of her placements.

Amber Harrington felt that she was prepared to openly embrace the urban experience without expectations as "a whole new experience for me." Amber, and her fellow Oswego colleagues who were placed at PS140 in the lower east side, immediately discovered that the students were steeped in the midst of "facing ‘high stakes testing.'" Moreover, Harrington and her peers found out that, on the heels of a mathematics test prep, the math teachers were put pressure upon by the principal "to have those scores rise by the time the next practice test came."  Amber concludes that, "although I do feel tests are a way of examining students' understanding and growth of the material," she also expresses concerns "these tests as you can see can put pressure on the students and the teachers to succeed." To help ameliorate the situation, at least in the short run, Amber and her three Oswego colleagues put together a giving back project that offered test preparation and test-taking strategies for the eighth grade students at PS140. From the hallway, so as not to disturb the momentum or the high tenor of the classroom conversation, I witnessed this class to be attentive and engaged.

Eight grade math teacher, and Schools and Urban Society liaison at PS140, Dale Scofield, reports on the work that pre teachers performed in the building, with particular emphasis on the giving back project:

 We looked at Grow Reports 

  • discussed population, cultural and ethnic background and economic status, achievement history. 
  • discussed how Grow Reports and statistics can and are misinterpreted and misused.
  • With SUNY Pre-Service Teachers, analyzed the study habits and need for training in study skills...helped to develop survey which students took.
  • After determining the need, we decided which students would be receptive and would maximize this opportunity.
  • Developed assessment tool to determine success of program.
  • Created schedule to work with PS140 students which would maintain a minimum level of disruption for other subject teachers.
  • SUNY students also tutored students in Mathematics and co taught lessons

 Amber Harrington also assisted these students with their math during class time. She notes two overcrowded math classes, "each class that she had was close to thirty students," and one teacher, Ms. Scofield, along with several of the students had told us how thrilled they were to have Katie and me there for those two weeks. Several of the students had explained to me when they were working on mathematics problems and needed help, they found it difficult to receive help from the teacher because she was usually with another student." In deference to some literature on urban schools, Ms. Harrington avers that the administration at PS140 was attentive and "spend[s] more time with these students than any other faculty that I have seen." She notes, in particular, an fire alarm incident, and the vice-principal doing her part in speaking with the students about the dangers. At the same time, she was equally present in crediting and celebrating students for their "excellent attendance to be awarded and Ms. Fulford was the person handing out the certificates."

Harrington expresses how, from reading Dalton Conley's, Honky, an autobiography of growing up in the lower east side, allowed "me to understand and even see where and what he was going through. From his book and even from my own time spent in the city, I have learned so much about the urban school setting."

Amber Harrington and Katie Denny designed their study habits and skills project, because "Ms. Scofield, had explained to us that the students desperately needed to establish study habits. These students were not studying for their upcoming tests. Ms. Scofield felt that these students could benefit from having someone approach them with just how important studying is and ways in which they could study. Harrington writes how "our goal everyday when we met the students was to discuss with the students different techniques and ideas that they could use when studying. Just a few examples of the things that we showed these students were using highlighters to highlight key words, using note cards or even the best times to be studying." Harrington reflects on the merits of this project:

I think the concept behind this project was an effective way for students to see that you must establish study habits in order to succeed in your classes. Everyday we would sit with the students and discuss different techniques they can use and just how important it is for them to be studying. I know for me personally, my concern in school was that I did not know how to study for my specific classes. This is exactly what our plan was to do with these students. We wanted to give them the tools they needed so that they would know how to study for their classes.

She relates how they wanted a project that had both short- and long-term effects. Harrington and Denny wanted not just to "help students to succeed in school, but also for future students to succeed." Harrington describes a rippling effect that might fan out from their giving back project work. "I view this has a great opportunity for older siblings or older friends to pass on the positive ideas of studying and just how important it is in your education. It is a concept that can be passed on to future students, which will allow the school and community to grow as a whole in the values of studying and education." Despite feeling somewhat disheartened by students' candid admission to not studying at all, Harrington still remains hopeful. "We gave the students the techniques and ideas that are needed to be successful, now it is up to them to follow through with it. For me personally, this experience gave me an opportunity to review study habits of students. I find this information useful because I can apply it to my own future classrooms and with the students that I will be teaching in the future."

But even within a series of lessons on a topic as seemingly neutral if not banal as note-taking and study habits, there was fertile ground for seeds of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Harrington relates how "there might be extenuating circumstances in which these students are unable to study. For example, I talked to two different students about their school work habits at home. They both had explained to me that when they arrive home, they have to take care of their younger siblings. I have only known these students for a few weeks so, they could quite possibly be telling the truth as to why they can not study." Harrington relates how "it is unfortunate to know that these students themselves can not just be kids, but rather caregivers to their younger siblings if that is the case. I find it tragic because they are so young (These students being at the age of around 13)." At the same time, unwilling to have these students fall back on their perfectly valid reasons for being distracted from their academics, Harrington and her colleague provided some practical tools for empowering them.

Meanwhile, Denny used the experience of teaching study skills to question and even possibly revise pieces of her own academic autobiography. Denny relates how she "didn't have the best study skills in high school, and felt a little hypocritical telling them things that I didn't do," and worried over what might be seen as a hypocritical stance. But she realized she "wished that I had better study skills established" upon entering college, and believed that if "I could do to help these students then I was more than happy to do that." For her own research on project, she called her mother, a high school principal, who quickly faxed her a number of worksheets, which she and Amber Harrington sorted through in order to come up with the best materials.

The group decided to begin engaging the students by first getting to know them and "talking about the studying habits that they have or have not established so far."  They learned that math was an especially challenge subject for them, and so they focused their lessons on this subject. They also worked on time management skills with the group. They explored ways to budget time in order to raise awareness of how much time they were spending watching television, or on the computer. Some students anticipated that they would begin to concentrate more on studying as they entered high school, and when the curriculum became for of a challenge for them. "We tried to explain to them that although it may be true that they will have harder classes in high school the study and organizational skills that they establish now will stick with them through high school." 

Denny relates how she "spent part of one of our study groups talking to the students about the important test they will be taking in their high school careers," including "the regents exams, the SAT's, the ACTs, and any AP exams that you may be eligible for." They discussed the cost benefits from not having to continue retaking exams in order to earn a better score. "We also talked about how the regents are one fifth of your final grade in a class, and will affect your getting into college." Denny believes that "this discussion really helped to reinforce the importance of studying to them."

Denny explains that the lessons also covered flashcards, highlighting, and note taking.  The group modeled and took time "going through the kids notes with them and highlighting the key ideas," out of which were drawn key concepts for the flashcards.  The class listened to a mini lecture, given by pre teacher Kris Staub on Al Capone, and students took notes. Discussion on the notes followed, and the group felt like the students "had a good handle on how to take notes from a lecture."  Ms. Denny relates their follow-up discussion on "the importance of reviewing your notes on a regular basis and how your notes are your best study tool." Ms. Denny joked with the class on how they could make good money with their excellent note taking. "In college you can actually get paid one hundred dollars per class for getting your notes copied!  This really got them excited about taking good notes.  Ms. Denny adds comments from cooperating teacher, Ms. Scofield, who said that "you were able to reach kids in ways that I haven't been able to.  Students were excellent in many ways, you both worked with skills, dedication and perception, beyond that which was demonstrated by your predecessors."  I hope that this project that we worked with them on is something that will help them in both high school and college.

More Giving back projects

Joyce Perez and worked at 306, where they bore witness to name calling and mild incidents of bullying, which could easily escalate. They designed a craft activity with the help of second grade teacher and former Oswego pre teacher, Ms Newmark, which involved a read aloud, response and art activity. Ms. Perez reflects on the skills employed and the learning, which involved "proof read[ing] their sentences" and "writ[ing] on the line paper that was the penguins belly." As collaborator Bethany Briggs relates, The goal was to develop their social skills and ethical responsibilities and to have them communicate orally, artistically and through writing." Perez summarizes the social benefits of the activity: 

During this discussion we talked about how each unique thing the student said made him or her a good friend and why he or she was important. This made them see that it was important to see differences and how special they are. I wanted to do this project because I noticed a lot of name calling in the classroom and how much the students needed to see that being unique was special and a good thing not something to make fun of or ridicule. They seem to get along very well that day and the days that followed so I felt like I gave them something special because now they understood each other better.  

Teaching the children was an amazing experience. They taught me patience and how different it was to teach for a whole day. I have shown me that teaching is my passion and it's something I can and want to do for the rest of me life.

Robert Denney III took on the task of doing background "legwork" to support what his classroom teacher in adolescent social studies:

Ms Islam decided to spontaneously teach her class about presidential elections because of all the news about primaries going around, and then to continue election updates every Friday. Because she did not know too much about elections she asked me to find information and help her teach the topic, because I had told her that I was keeping a close eye on the elections. I gathered information from some websites and helped explain the candidates and their ‘issues' to the students. These sites include everything from candidate information, tracking polls, convention and caucus information, and generally any kind of information you'd want about the candidates and the election. Using this information, and some she found herself, Ms Islam set up her weekly schedule with worksheets and charts about the candidates. She then centered daily discussions around these issues.

Denney III reflects on student outcomes: It turns out that most students claimed to be Democrats loyal to Obama or Hillary Clinton before learning anything about them. After reading and seeing the issues however half of them were more realistically republicans and many were polar opposites of Obama. However when all was said and done many still thought we should elect Obama, for racial purposes. So, generally, that was what my giving back project was about, and what it helped teach the students.  The students got practice and information about the election and politics, while I got some practice gathering data and teaching about a subject.

Tracy Vessell's giving back project belies the "sticky" work of "helping," which she used to reflect on issues of race and power, as she summarizes her project:

When I first set out to talk to my teacher about doing a Giving Back Project she looked a little offended. She rolled her eyes and said, "Like what?" I have no doubt she thought I had to do project where I talked about how sad and pathetic this colorful place was and what I could and would do as an interloping white person to correct their lives. 

I wanted to disabuse her of that thought as quickly as I could so I told her that the Giving Back Project was to act as a sort of thank-you to the classroom and the school that took me in. I told her that I wanted to help. If there was something she needed in her room, or some large project she needed done, then she could hand that responsibility off to me.

Ms. Norena, her cooperating teacher, soon decided that she could use help with constructing a "literacy box that the students could work from on an individual basis. It would act as filler for specific problems or gaps in individual student's literacy understanding." Ms. Vessell describes its contents:

The literacy box was made using an 80 page book of poems with assorted designations like "diphthongs oi, oy, and ow." For each of these--oi, oy, and ow--I thought up five words (which didn't rhyme, had the diphthong in different parts of the word, and wasn't already used in the poem). That bag contained 15 cards and was labeled according to page number and literacy lesson. If Ms. Norena notices that students are having difficulty with one reading skill or another she'll pull out one of the bags for them and give them the poetry book. They'll look at the bag to find the page number, read the poem, and then complete the exercise I've made for them. I created more than 60 lesson bags for that literacy box and it took up at least an hour of every evening of my New York stay to complete.

Since Ms. Vessell wanted to do even more, she asked Ms. Norena for an additional project:

She took me to a closet FILLED with books and said she needed them sorted according to subject matter. This means that I had to read each of the books, label it according to subject, and then put it in the appropriately box. She didn't expect me to finish, I don't think, but I did. I also set up the listening center in the room.

Ms. Vessell put in about two hours each day organizing the library over the next two weeks. However, she now feels "they have a larger selection of books to ‘shop' from and I know it will be used and enjoyed for years to come."  Setting up the listening center went more quickly, because Ms. Norena had the equipment, but she had not books or CD's to play it on. So Ms. Vessell "found the literacy specialist and asked her to let me into the book room so I could find appropriately leveled books for the kids." She collected CD's for grade levels 1st through 3rd and "put like books with like and labeled them according to CD number, story number, and book title." Ms. Vessell relates how her practicum lasted just long enough for her to be able to stay and help "the first group through their first time. I watched them follow along in their books and I was proud to have been apart of that experience."

At 306, Jina Lee and Patricia Koh created a lesson on tolerance and against bullying. Lee reflects on students learning:

After we finished the lesson, I asked the children what they learned.  One boy said that we shouldn't call people names.  I asked him why and he responded because we are hurting them.  I asked the class if we could fully make someone the way they were before we called them names if we apologize and the whole class said in unison "no." 

I think that this project helped the children understand that words can be very powerful.  I think that this project was done at a good time also because that morning, one girl hit another girl in the face and gave her a bloody nose.  I think that this project taught the children to use their words wisely.  I think that this project helped the community because many of these children are surrounded by a bad environment.  I think that this project taught them what is right to say and what is wrong to say.  I'm hoping that this lesson will not be forgotten.

Ms. Lee relates how her cooperating teacher feels that "the children always fought and called each other names.  She said that she thought it would help them and also her because she could always refer back to it when they misbehave."

Patricia Koh implemented the same activity in her classroom placement. She reflects on how she connected the issue of tolerance and violence with content area knowledge about Martin Luther King, Jr. She also relates the urgency of this kind of lesson, because one particular child in her classroom was suffering from taunting, isolation, and name calling:

I told them that it symbolized his feelings and how they had made him feel. When mean words are said people often don't realize how it affects the other person. Words can often times hurt more than physical violence and I thought but having the cut out of Johnny it really helped the students comprehend the purpose of the activity. I then asked the students how Johnny had looked I asked them how they would feel if one of them was the new student in class and explained how they would want to be warmly invited and treated nicely. Because they wouldn't want to be treated badly and had gained an understanding of human feelings I talked about the importance of treating people the way they would want to be treated.

I felt like this was a great activity for the students to do because kids at young ages can be brutally mean with their words and educating them about the power and effect words have can be beneficial to them. Also the class had been learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he had fought for and I thought it went along well because this activity covered the issue of prejudice, and intolerance. I especially wanted to do this activity because there is a student in the class that no one wants to be friends with because she has a skin disease and she is socially awkward. Everyday I witnessed some type of prejudice against her. Kids would not want to hold her hand while when they were lined up, they wouldn't want to be partners with her when they worked in learning stations, my teacher Mrs. Pearson told me of an instance where a couple girls called her garbage. I can not even imagine how she must have felt and feels everyday when she is discriminated against by her fellow classmates.

After I had completed the activity I had definitely noticed some of the children making an effort to watch what they said. There were a few who forgot and in that case I just reminded them of how Johnny had felt and they would cover their mouths and say sorry. 


Information culled from these projects and final reflections provide feedback for this particular course and for our programs and initiatives in general. Student works show the efforts and impact of collaboration between a college teacher preparatory program and schools and communities as far off as New York City. Their project contributions can be summarized as follows: 

  • Lee and Koh's project on teaching tolerance and effects of bullying demonstrated change in classroom peer relations.
  • Ms. Vessell work in setting up her cooperating teacher's library and listening center helped to organize and make accessible a range of literacy tools, including phonics, phonemic awareness, and a center that incorporates multiple literacy modes, which she observed students successfully implementing.
  • Denney's project on elections helped expand students' understanding of the election process and candidates' political platforms
  • Culver, Tartell, Turetsky, Wojnoski's college admissions field trip provided real tools for helping them through the college entrance process, supporting 35 eight graders in believing that applying and succeeding in college was not beyond their grasp. Moreover, this long term goal helped to foster a short range incentive that would hopefully improve their middle school and high school retention rates
  • Harrington, Denny & Staub's study skills and test preparation helped instill good work ethic, time management skills, and demystify what it means to have academic ‘habits of mind'

Each student's reflections provide a small window into the delicate process of partnering with an NYC cooperating teacher, and getting to know, become involved with, and create an impact on young urban lives. Clearly more work is needed in the area of teaching for diversity and social justice. However, many students in their writing reflect their burgeoning positions as advocates for their students and these communities, even when they are foreign and unfamiliar to them.