Start Where They Are

The hardest thing thus far about teaching where I teach is contextualizing content for students for whom that context is a novelty.

This past Spring, I taught a course on Urban Education. I designed it in 3 parts: the context of urban living, recurring themes in urban schools, and teaching in urban schools. The purpose was to first provide some background information on who urban students are and what experiences they have outside of the classroom. We visited an urban area where there were 3 schools within 4 blocks of one another. They were required to create neighborhood maps to identify the types and locations of houses and businesses with reference to the schools (see where I am going with this assignment?). They did a wonderful job with it and wrote good reflections about the influence of the neighborhood on the functioning of the school. I was encouraged because so far, they were ‘getting it’.

On the third day of class, we watched a wonderful documentary entitled Interrupt the Pipeline. It’s a film about how gentrification in Chicago affects schooling and housing options for children at all levels. My goal in showing this was to first, introduce my students to the concept of public housing, and to second, allow them to see ‘real’ people for whom educational decisions are made by the powers that be. Ten minutes into the showing, I paused it to ask if anyone knew what ‘projects’ were or if they were familiar with ‘section 8 housing’ and ‘welfare’. One student raised her hand. The other 17 did not. I was instantly frustrated that instead of asking questions, my students were just sitting there watching a film and not understanding the content. I explained public housing and returned to the movie. Every twenty minutes or so I would pause to summarize main points and solicit questions.

At the end of the movie I knew they were no longer getting it. No one was moved. No one was outraged that these kids had been kicked out of school, unjustly arrested, removed from their classrooms, displaced from their homes. I was almost in tears. My one working-class student was almost in tears. The rest were just blinking at me.

That afternoon, I asked my one affected student to stop by my office. I chatted with her about what she thought about the documentary and why she thought her classmates were unaffected. She explained that to them, this is an ‘extreme’ example and in no way a common experience. I was astounded.

I spent the rest of that afternoon revising the entire course. I changed the readings, the order of content, and the assignments. I knew that I needed to scaffold their understanding of urban living, and undo what I’d done by giving them too much too soon.

One of my favorite professors in graduate school likes to say ‘start where they are, but don’t stay there’. I say this to myself before every class session.

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3 comments on “Start Where They Are

  1. Grace says:

    Thank you for having this blog! My friend on facebook linked one of your posts and now I’m hooked! Your unique perspective is challenging me to look at my own teaching practices in the Canadian elementary realm. Very soon I will transport myself into the American public (or perhaps charter) school system. I feel there is so much to learn! It’s a good thing I love school! Also, what do you think of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman”? Would you say the film paints an accurate portrait?

    • I’m so glad you are finding this blog helpful to encourage reflection about your teaching. That really is my only purpose in writing this (and as a sort of self therapy, lol). Maybe I should do a post on that documentary. I have some complex feelings about it. Thanks for the idea!

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