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Old 03-28-2008, 03:43 PM   #46
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This article reminded me of Sherry's posts in this thread.
One Class

By Will Okun
New York Times, March 27

The average Chicago public school freshman misses 20 school days a year and fails more than two semester classes. At my high school on the west side of Chicago, attendance trumps intelligence, work ethic and economic background as the most important indicator of achievement versus failure. In this case, Woody Allen is correct: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” In most communities, students attend school every day because they are convinced that educational achievement is essential to their future success. For many unfortunate reasons, however, this expectation does not exist for most low-income students in Chicago and other urban areas. How do we improve attendance at low-income schools where the current incentive of “a better future” is not sufficient?

According to high school junior Mark Hill, “One special class can make the difference. I know people who come to school just because they are involved in a sport or a certain extracurricular program or they have one great class that they are interested in.” When rap superstar Kanye West explained the purpose of his education foundation, he stressed that music production classes could inspire “at-risk” kids to attend and remain in school in the same manner as athletics often do. “We have to involve kids in their education,” he told the reporters. “Kids will go to school if they have the opportunity to study something they love. Right now, they are not motivated by the curriculum.”

In my own nine years of teaching, students enrolled in my photography class boast a 90% daily attendance rate while students enrolled in my English classes maintain a daily attendance rate of only 70%. However, an even better example of the positive effect of a single class is Jeff McCarter’s Free Spirit Media video production program at North Lawndale College Prep. McCarter’s students produce the insanely popular television show Hoops High, which features play-by-play game coverage of Chicago high school athletic events. The students are responsible for all aspects of production: they shoot, edit, and announce all of the action themselves. The students even conduct sideline interviews. “Everything you see is us—we’re doing it all,” brags freshman Daryl Jackson. “Most kids’ programs are run by adults where they control the final project, but here we are in charge.” The final product is telecast every Saturday night on public access TV (CAN-TV) and is one of the station’s most popular shows with over 70,000 regular viewers. Students and faculty at my own school regularly watch the telecast. “First of all, they shoot all the best games, they know which games we want to see. But also, the announcers know what’s going on in the schools so you get all these side stories about the players and the fans,” explains student Lazzerick Allen.

...The crew of Hoops High speaks about their duties and responsibilities with an excitement not normally associated with high school students on the Westside. “In a lot of classes, the males act like they are too cool to even try, but here it’s the other way,” explains Mark Hill, who is an announcer. “This is all about being hands-on and working together as a team.”...In one of Chicago’s poorest communities, McCarter has provided the knowledge, support and technology for his students to succeed, and they have thrived. His students have won more video awards than the Coen brothers. “School does not have to be fun, but it should be interesting,” opines McCarter. “All these students have potential; we just have to figure out how to spark their interest. I think there is a great need for us to show these young people that we respect and believe they are capable of achievement. We should encourage them to express themselves and listen to what they say.”

While extracurricular and technology classes are normal fare in affluent schools, engaging programs such as Hoops High are in short supply in the Chicago public schools. Too few students are offered the opportunity to explore non-traditional academic resources and curricula beyond their core academic classes. Clearly, a major reason for the large number of absences in the Chicago public schools is that many students have little or no interest in their studies. One major reason schools are hesitant to initiate extracurricular programs like video production or photography is that these classes do little to address the administrators’ chief concern: test scores. While most everyone agrees that such cultural and technological programming is essential to the development of a child, activities that do not directly increase test scores are considered extra. In addition, there often exists an underlying sentiment that urban kids should not be wasting time on holistic programs and non-academic achievement when so much improvement is needed in basic reading and math skills.

A larger obstacle, however, to the implementation of extracurricular and technology programs is the usual lack of funds.
Already this year, Chicago Public Schools are $180 million in the hole. Individual schools that desire innovative and engaging programs are often forced to rely on funding by private organizations. For instance, Jeff McCarter finances Hoops High primarily through private fundraising.

Low-income urban students know they attend substandard, second-tier schools that lack the technology, resources and extracurricular programs commonplace in schools of more affluent communities. And yet we continue to expect these students to prioritize education when budgetary and funding inequities demonstrate that urban education is neither a local, state, or national priority. Why should students on the west side of Chicago not have access to the same resources, technology, and programming that is certainly offered at our nation’s “Top 100 High Schools”? Engaging technology programs like Hoops High demonstrate that attendance and (thus) academic performance will greatly improve in urban schools that are able to offer a range of exciting extracurricular classes directed at both the needs and the interests of the students.

Will Okun is a Chicago school teacher who traveled with [NYT columnist] Nick Kristof in June to central Africa, on the win-a-trip contest. He blogged and vlogged as he went, and you can see his reports at Two for the Road. He teaches English and photography in a Chicago school with many students from low-income and minority homes.

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Old 03-29-2008, 07:53 AM   #47
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I appreciate that more than you know, Yolland.

Here's a recent post from my blog on similar topics. (http://teachforpeace.blogspot.com)

Another Brick in the Wall

A conversation with a couple of colleagues, both of whom I like and respect, got me thinking yesterday about some of our most basic philosophical assumptions about education and why we do it. We're providing certain skills that we judge to be critical to getting on in the world--reading, writing, a understanding of how one's own government works, and so on. Kids need to get into college, because they need jobs that will actually allow them to support themselves and a family. In the specific context of the Detention Center, how and what we teach is revealing of what assumptions we make about these kids and where we think they're headed. Will they be teaching? Fixing cars? Checking people out at Target? Nurses? Doctors? Working in an office? Back in jail? Running an office?

I don't think the role of curiosity, self-expression or problem solving in education can be overstated. This brings me back to the chat with my colleagues. One colleague and I were in agreement, it seems, that students can produce a variety of "products" to demonstrate a certain skill. In art, it might be a painting, or a sketch. It might, in English, be an essay, a journal entry, a skit, a thank you letter to a visiting speaker, or participation in a debate or discussion. These are all assignments my students have produced. Another colleague seemed to express that if a product wasn't "computational", it might be nice and fun, but was not necessarily actual learning. As I understand it, memorization as a means of building the capacity to concentrate and focus play a role in this classroom. These are necessary to learning, of course, but to my mind this beg the question of what one then does with the facts one has memorized or to what end one applies such focus. The argument went that life is full of unpleasant tasks and students need to learn to focus on them and do them anyway.

The underlying assumptions here about what's worthwhile and what isn't fascinate me. Thought processes, by their nature, can't be 'seen'; when expressed they can be read or heard. Is loving a poem a "product" of a quality education? What about the kid who was in my class for a few weeks as we were reading The Diary of Anne Frank, the one who was released before we finished it? He returned to us a couple of weeks later and asked me if Anne and Peter had gotten together, and did she survive? Where's the role of inspiration in our classrooms, of excitement about a good book because it's a good book? Isn't that what being "life long learners" is about? Or do we view that as an extra, great for the kids who have passed their standardized tests but not a priority for kids with low skills who still struggle with the basics. I am, of course, arguing that creating that excitement is necessary to raising those basic skills. I believe human beings are hard-wired to want to learn. Every society has had art, music and stories to tell. Every single one, period. Do we believe still, in the 21st century, with our industrialized, standardized schools built to suit kids for jobs, in the joy of learning? This approach is counter-culture today indeed.

Now, don't misunderstand. Learning is work; knowledge, like anything worthwhile, is earned. And clearly, an important job of our schools is to prepare kids for the jobs they'll have. In the midst of all the worksheets and testing, curiosity and problem-solving can be tough to quantify. Yet I believe, I insist, that an education that is not centered around powerful, resonant themes (my classroom's theme is telling your story) does not serve a democracy well. After all, what else are those critical basic skills for?

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