urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

the jury is out (and they ain’t coming back)

As I mentioned in my bio & post from a few weeks ago, I’m working on my senior capstone project for Urban Studies concurrently with my internship at CUP. Here’s the abstract for my project so you can get a handle on the topic:

Monument to Change is a community-based project that seeks to empower youth through hands-on engagement in the investigation of their communities. The intended learning outcome of this project is to empower youth with the knowledge of how to create change in their communities through participation in the civic process. To accomplish this, students will investigate a mode of change and historically how change has been made and continues to be made in their spaces (both figuratively and literally), whether that be a neighborhood, their school, or more widely in their city.

After a few weeks of working on these projects, I’ve had to start thinking about my fundamental goals for the project and how my project differs structurally and idealistically from the CUP model.

At CUP, the teaching artists do most of the teaching on youth ed projects. The benefits of having an artist as a central part of the project is clear in the beautiful and amazingly educative materials that are produced through CUP projects. These tools make sure that the information lives on as a resource for students and teachers.

TA dillon & students from ichs on set of Now Boarding!

Some of these artists come into the program with teaching experience and that’s preferred, but some of them don’t have any teaching experience. I would pile myself into this category of untrained or informally trained educator, since I have not gone through a teacher training program. Because of this, the process of curriculum design and revision is pretty intense, and most of the revision is done by CUP staff. Christy, the Youth Ed program director, taught art for 10 years at a public high school, and is absolutely incredible. Her edits on the curriculum are invaluable, and her feedback to teaching artists after observation is truly transformative on their teaching. Urban Investigations are primarily after-school programs and the work is more centered on creativity and observation than critical content research. Because of this, paired with the strong mentorship and feedback mechanisms from CUP, I think that the use of a non-teacher educator works well in this context.

For my project, I’ll be teaching in a classroom during the normal school day, as part of a required academic class. My curriculum is based in a lot of critical content research and texts. And recently, I had to confront that some of the mechanisms for feedback and co-creation of curriculum that I had tried to establish at the onset of my project were now falling through. Now, that is an entirely different monumental can of worms.

There are some pretty strong views about classroom teachers in this country. There’s this widespread narrative that our teachers are failing our children in America. Many people who have watched Waiting for Superman think that our school system is failing because of the tenure system, and that the solution is to fire 80% of the ‘underperforming’ teacher workforce and hire new educators. Some people say that we should fill these vacancies via the Teach for America model, which says that with a strong undergraduate education, a few weeks of training, and bright youthful energy, you too(!) can be a great teacher. (Are my politics showing yet?) There’s an overwhelming narrative that teaching is something that anyone can do.

To me, herein lies the problem. Great teachers and those on track to become great teachers, have years of specialized training and education on teaching. They learn the complete pedagogy of teaching in their subject area – the ins and outs of what educative activities look like, fair assessments, how to structure a lesson plan, how to lead a discussion… the more I learn about teaching, the more amazed I am that I have had teachers who make it look effortless. They have a unique and specialized skill set, in the same way that other professionals do. Not just anyone can teach.

To put this in context, would someone let me function as a pediatrician before attending med school? Would I be able to practice law without passing the bar? And yet, I am let in front of our most malleable minds, to teach them how to see and exert their presence in the world, with basically no credential at all. In fact, people often applaud me for this act.

I am guilty. So why did I even embark on this whole thing in the first place?

I often call myself an ~educator~ in a really nebulous way when probed. Really, that’s my way of saying i have no idea what i’m doing but i guess i’m doing it anyway. It’s my way of dodging the question about what my presence as a 20-year-old-with-no-teaching-credential means when I’m in front of a classroom. For those of you tapping your chins, don’t worry – I, too, call this hypocrisy.

Here is my truth: we have textbooks that fail to illustrate the immigrant experience, that hide injustices under rhetoric of democracy, and conveniently leave out the ways in which the struggle is still ongoing, the ways in which the history in the text has shaped the experience of those reading it. If there is failure in our system, it is with standards of success that are rooted in systems of oppression and too often fail to prompt meaningful civic engagement in students after they leave school.

Justice. Empowerment. Resistance. Those are the values at the root of my project and at the root of what I believe makes an education go from useful to transformative. My students deserve to know how to stand up for themselves when they are denied their rights. They deserve to feel like they matter in the eyes of their government. Above all, my students deserve to know how to seek justice for themselves.

Despite how much I have thought through my impact, I understand that I still may do more harm than good. But so many teachers are overworked and underpaid. They have a million people to please, between parents, administration, and the ever critical public. Must they bear the complete burden of this as well? Maybe it’s my place to be the outsider who focuses on this issue and pushes, just a little bit, because I have been afforded the privilege to do so.

I don’t really know. The jury might always be out.

In the meantime, I’ll get to work.

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