What Is The City But The People?

Thoughts on reform in urban schools

Comments! December 2, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — rakowick @ 2:46 pm

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Goodbye blog?

Filed under: Uncategorized — rakowick @ 2:50 am

Well, the semester has flown by and I find myself faced with a difficult decision: I must decide the fate of this blog.  I could banish it from my life as punishment for being the cause of many a late night spent typing like a madwoman, but no.  That wouldn’t be fair.  I must take responsibility for my horrible habit of procrastination.  I guess I’ll keep it.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy getting to voice my opinions on a topic I really care about, even if those opinions were being voiced at two in the morning when I really just wanted to go to bed.  Blogging is a fun way to experience a new genre in writing and I think it’s something I would like to continue.  I’d be very interested in expanding the kind of topics I blog about, an easy task to take on thanks to the magic of Google Reader.  What an easy way to keep up with the world!

There are many things that this blog has done for me.  First and foremost, it has expanded my knowledge about something I love.  I’ve learned so many things about urban reform and gotten numerous ideas I want to put into practice when I start teaching.  It’s really made me excited to get out there in the real world and make a difference in these schools.  Blogging has also opened my eyes to new and different ways of writing, ways that I could easy incorporate into my lesson plans to get my students inspired to write on their own.  Also, blogging has made me more comfortable with people reading what I write.  True, nothing has been very profound or emotional but still, my thoughts were getting out there and I actually found myself eager to see how others would respond.

Overall, I’m very pleased with this experience.  Now my big question is what to blog about next…

 

Simple Things That Could Go a Long Way

Filed under: Education — rakowick @ 1:27 am
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I’ve said it before, I love the English language.  I love reading, I love writing, I can easily spend hours in a Library or Barnes and Noble just wandering around.  I think that’s why something in an article in the Providence Journal caught my eye.  The article started out by basically saying that instead of creating special schools (like Achievement First or the Global Communications Academy) to combat the educational inequalities we see in urban education, we need to find things that we can implement in all urban schools that will help them improve.

Panel offers plan to improve urban school districts
By Linda Borg
The Providence Journal, December 1, 2008

Rhode Island educators have been debating how to rescue the urban school districts for decades, so what makes this report different? Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the task force chairman, said that in the past, similar groups focused on the strengths of individual schools and programs, which have led to “isolated lighthouses of success.”

This report, he said, proposes broad-based partnerships and programs that are designed to lift urban schools as a whole out of the low-performance doldrums.

One of the biggest things the article says is important to make sure students in urban schools are getting a good education seems to be a pretty simple solution: make sure they can read.  Yes, you heard it, the solution to the problem of urban education is literacy!  Okay, maybe it’s not THE solution, but it certainly is a great place to start. 

According to current research, only one in three students in urban schools can read at their grade level.  One third.  I think one of the first steps we need to take in getting urban students caught up with their peers is to teach the other two thirds how to read.  When you think about it, reading is kind of the basic building block you need to learn anything else.  It’s like when you make a pyramid.  If someone on the bottom level decides to step out, everyone else is going to fall.  It’s the same with reading and education.  If a child can’t read, how can they learn history?  Science?  Even math would be difficult. 

Boosting childhood literacy is critical to continued academic success, the task force said.  By age four, the average child in a family receiving welfare tends to have a considerably lower vocabulary than the average child of a working class family, according to a recent study.

The report recommends that urban elementary schools offer 20 minutes of daily phonics instruction, set aside time every day for children to read individually and in small groups, and test students frequently to catch those who are struggling.  Schools should teach vocabulary early and often.  And when a child falls behind, that student should be pulled out of class for additional small group reading instruction.

As the Urban Education Task Force (how intense of a name is that?) seems to notice, too many of our students who struggle with reading are slipping past educators under the radar without ever getting help.  It’s good to know that the reforms they are looking to put into action plan on addressing that issue.

So students, get out there and read read read!  Read with your families, read with your friends.  Curl up in a cozy corner of your local library and dive into a world of fantasy, science fiction, or history!  Because a little thing like reading could make a big difference in the lives of everyone, especially students in urban schools.

 

More news about Hartford!

While skimming through all the articles on my newsfeed, I came across one with the name Steven J. Adamowski in the description.  This name is familiar, I said to myself, I feel like I’ve written about him before.  Imagine my suprise when I realized that yes, I have blogged about Steven J. Adamowski and his reform plan for Hartford schools in the post A Great Step Forward…I Think.  This is the same guy who’s helping start Achievement First in Hartford, you know, the school that creeps me out just a little bit.  Well, his latest addition to the reform plan is not creeping me out, in fact, I think it’s kind of cool.  Currently, Adamowski is working on bringing the Say Yes program to the Global Communications Academy. 

Possible Free College Education a Perk at City School
By Jodie Mozdzer
The Hartford Courant, December 1, 2008

The school is applying to become an International Baccalaureate program.  IB schools teach students from a global perspective, with two languages taught, starting in kindergarten, and a third offered for ninth through 12th graders.  Other international themes are sprinkled throughout the course work. 

For example, a kindergarten lesson on the weather might look at the differences between weather in Hartford and weather in Jamaica, said Principal Darlene Pugnali, who was the principal at an IB school in Mexico City before transferring to Hartford.  Details — down to the carpets, which are large maps of the continents — reflect the global perspective Pugnali says the school tries to create. 

Instead of having a typical curriculum, the school wraps its lessons around six themes: where we are in place and time; how we express ourselves; how the world works; how we organize ourselves; and sharing the planet.

Looking back on the education I’ve got over the years, I would have loved to have been introduced to international topics.  Personally, I feel like I don’t know as much as I should about the rest of the world.  Plus, I love foreign languages, so I’m sure I would have loved growing up learning them in school. 

The second part of the article, the part about the Say Yes program, is also important for students in urban schools.  Say Yes has teamed up with the Global Communications Academy to provide urban students a free college education at the college of their choice as long as they make the grades to get there.  I think this is a wonderful idea.  I feel like there are many students who feel like school is a waste of time if they can’t afford to go to college to continue their education.  But, tell a student that you’ll pay for them as long as they make the grades should certainly be inspiration. 

The end of the article included a quote from Connie Coles, the director for Say Yes in Hartford at the Global Communications Academy.  She said, “If you keep saying students can’t do stuff, they never will.”  I think this quote pretty much sums up how I feel about education, especially urban education.  When students grow up with an atmosphere that makes them feel like they can’t accomplish things, why would they try?  Give them the resources they need and I believe they can do anything they want.

 

Doing the math December 1, 2008

I’ve always been an English girl. Any subject that involved reading and writing was okay by me. Now, when it came to things like math and science, especially math, you could count me out. Throughout middle and high school math class was always the thing I dreaded most. The massive amounts of numbers and crazy Greek symbols made my head spin and my brain ache. Luckily, I had highly qualified teachers who were all willing to set up study sessions or give extra help in class, not that I always took advantage of these opportunities. The point is, they were always there for me if I needed them. This is why I can’t imagine having a math teacher, or any teacher for that matter, who is barely qualified to teach their chosen subject. Take this article, for example.

Math Teachers Barely Ahead of Students
Associated Press, Tuesday, November 25, 2008
MSNBC.com

WASHINGTON – Math can be hard enough, but imagine the difficulty when a teacher is just one chapter ahead of the students.
It happens, and it happens more often to poor and minority students. Those children are about twice as likely to have math teachers who don’t know their subject, according to a report by the Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group…It can be tougher to find qualified teachers for middle schools, especially in low-income areas, said (Ruth) Neild, who studied the problem in Philadelphia public schools.

Once again, we find urban schools lacking an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting a good education: certified teachers. The article went on to give two important facts. The first is that in high-poverty schools, two in five math classes have teachers without a college major or certification in math. The second was that in schools with a greater share of African-American and Latinos, nearly one in three math classes is taught by such a teacher.

I find this to be pretty shocking. I understand that when you’re at a school with a teacher shortage you can’t always get the most qualified teachers, but a teacher who isn’t even certified in the subject they’re trying to teach? That can’t be much help to the students. Granted, an under qualified teacher is better than no teacher at all, but it’s not going to help the kids live up to their full potential in regard to the subject. The article goes on to say,

Teachers should not be blamed for out-of-field teaching, the report said. It can happen anywhere there is a teaching shortage in a particular discipline. It can also happen where there is no shortage but where school administrators have planned poorly.

So kudos to all of the teachers who have stepped in in an attempt to make sure these students are at least learning something, but I really wish that didn’t have to be the case. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where we had highly qualified teachers all over the place who were just dying to go teach at schools in urban communities? That would just be ideal.

Maybe a step in the right direction is something like Teach for America, a program that sends college graduates to schools in low-income communities to teach for two years. Their goal is to eliminate the educational inequality that occurs in the U.S. For more information, check out their website at www.teachforamerica.org.

 

The great debate October 21, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — rakowick @ 2:10 am
Tags: , , , , ,

An important part of any school should be the activities they have to offer the students.  My high school had a ridiculous amount of clubs to join.  Seriously, we had everything from the food club to the native american club, the robotics club to the puppetry club.  You name it, we probably had it.  Clubs and activities are a way for students to feel involved in and proud of their school.  They also provide something for the students to do to keep them out of trouble when class isn’t in session.  Unfortunately, many urban schools aren’t given as many of these opportunities as suburban schools.  That’s why I was so happy when I came across an article about the Urban Debate League. 

The Urban Debate League is a program that puts debate clubs in urban schools, especially those that are made up of mosty poor minorities.  They then offer a debate for all the urban schools to come together and compete.  Creating debate teams in these schools not only gives the students a program to take pride in but it creates new learning opportunities.  The article states that at first, to get the students interested in debating, they asked questions such as “should uniforms or dress codes be required?” or “should high school students have more privledges that middle school students?”  These questions were things that the students could relate to.  Once they drew people into the debate team, they created debate topics such as the topic for this year’s debate, renewable energies. 

The best part about the Urban Debate is that the debate topics encourage students to educate themselves on certain social issues.  The article talked about how much intense research, planning and responsibility is involved in preparing for a debate.

High School Debaters in Training for Verbal Fisticuffs
By Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News
October 18, 2008

The debaters will continue to hone their research and debate skills on the same topic, renewable energies.  Their case file will grow to 24 files totaling more than 540 pages, with headings including “Nuclear Power negative” and “Social Ecology Critique affirmative.”

“The words might be big and I don’t understand them but I’ve got my trusty dictionary next to me,” Jessica said Thurday at Manuel, “and I’m looking up words and writing them down on a piece of paper like, that’s what that word means and that’s how you pronounce it.”

If research from other city debate leagues holds true, more than 75 percent of the Denver participants will go on to a four year college.

It’s amazing to me how debating has turned into something these students are passionate about.  Now they are taking their education into their own hands.  They are learning about social and environmental issues, learning how to work as a team, building their English skills and public speaking skills, and learning how to do proper research.  All of this is going to come in handy once they graduate.  Some may even have a better chance of going to college on debate scholarships. 

Hearing news like this is very inspirational.  I think the Urban Debate League has become very influental in the lives of these urban high schoolers.  It has given them something to work hard for and I can’t even imagine the pride and satisfaction they’ll experience when the debate comes and they can display all of their knowledge and debate skills.

 

All about Bill. October 20, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — rakowick @ 11:50 pm
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I think William Shakespeare is absolutely wonderful, I really do.  I discovered this my freshman year of high school when my English teacher had us read Romeo and Juliet.  I fell in love with it immediatly.  In fact, it was the only piece of literature I read completely in that class.  Normally, and as an English major I say this with a great amount of shame, I would Sparknote all of our reading assignments.  However, there were a lot of other students who weren’t such fans of dear old Will.  Seeing this and wanting to get them interested, our teacher let us watch Baz Luhrmann’s movie version.  Yes, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Being able to see Shakespeare’s words acted out in a modern way that related to our culture as opposed to that of  “fair Verona” helped lots of us to better understand exactly what was going on. 

I was reminded of this ninth grade lesson during Stephen Greenblatt’s lecture, “Cultural Mobility: The Strange Case of Shakespeare’s Cardenio“.  First, let’s take a minute to talk about Greenblatt.  Currently a professor at Harvard University, Greenblatt is the founder of “new historicism”, a specialist in Shakespeare, sixteenth and seventeenth century English literature, the literature of travel and exploration and literary theory as well as the author of many books including one of his most famous, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  His whole lecture was about how different parts of the world can adapt the same Shakespeare play to their cultures and while there can be many differences between the versions, they all have the same underlying story.  In other words, Shakespeare can move across cultures and still be Shakespeare. 

Since the lecture was focused on Shakespeares lost play, Cardenio, Greenblatt first gave us a quick summary of the plot using some very humorous powerpoint slides.  The crowd chuckled and the evening began on a good note.  He then went on to talk about how he and a fellow writer conspired to create a play based on Cardenio that was set in modern day.  After the play traveled to other countries, those countries then began writing their own versions of the play and Greenblatt was able to observe how differences in culture affected how different versions of Cardenio were created.  One of the examples I found to be the most interesting (and also one of the strangest) was a version that I believe was created somewhere in Asia.  I could be wrong, I forgot to write down the exact country, let me know if you remember.  Anyway, this particular country’s version of Cardenio took place in America and portrayed the American characters as members of some kind of motercycle gang.  Interesting.  I guess that’s what America is to some people.  We do love our motercycles. 

Even when we look just in America we can see many different adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.  Whether it’s Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, the version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke or even 10 Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, we’re seeing how Shakespeare is moving through culture letting millions of different people connect with him. 

I think I’m seeing a lesson plan that can be created from this…

Maybe my students could create their own plays, adaptations of any one of Shakespeare’s that could take place in any country or time period they choose.  They could even get into groups and act out their creations.

All in all, Greenblatt’s lecture was a pleasure to go to.  He kept me interested the whole time and even inspired me to pull out one of my favorite books, The Complete Shakespeare, and start reading again.