Reflecting on Urban Education

Graham Nelson ’07 – Before coming to Chicago for the Urban Education Program I really had mixed thoughts about what I was going to expect from this experience. I really wasn’t too sure about how the students and the teachers were going to react to me. Even coming from a big city, South Bend Indiana, I wasn’t sure if my past experiences with diversity would help me to better integrate in a Chicago Public School.

I prepared myself by imagining the worst possible cases that I could come across in a CPS. I imagined kids with guns and classes so uncontrollable that classes had cops in them. Come to find out that these classes were totally opposite from that. The classes were almost a thing of beauty in that the teachers served as not only their teachers but as parental figures and guides for these children’s lives. The student-teacher relationships were so personal that you could tell that each had a genuine love and respect for each other. I am not trying to say that there wasn’t any clash in this relationship, but they were a hundred times better than I imagined them. I was really blown away how this relationship worked in the classes that I observed.

The school that I was assigned to is called Prosser Academy. It is located in west central Chicago about an hour away from where we are staying. To get there I have to take the Red Line of the EL, get off and take a 40 to 45 minute bus ride headed westbound on Fullerton. This was the first time that I was able to see just how diverse the city of Chicago really is. On the EL you can see the ethnic and racially diversity but you also can hear it. I overheard several phone conversations in languages I had never previously heard before. It shows how many different walks of life there are in Chicago.

Getting on the bus and traveling down Fullerton you first are surrounded by the bigger buildings and a more diverse population that you would expect. Then you start to notice all of the business names start to be written in Spanish and all you really see are Hispanic or Latino people. As the passengers on the bus got on and off you could start to see the difference about 5 to 6 blocks into the trip. At this point the only language you hear being talked is Spanish. Most of the time I was the only Caucasian on the bus. By the time I reached the end of my bus ride every business was a Hispanic run business. I couldn’t believe how a portion of the city could be so culturally dominated.

Once you enter the school you have to first go through a metal detector which I thought was a myth, but it’s true. Then I find my way to my host teachers’ office where she is preparing for school. She didn’t have a class first period so we had time to talk and discuss about her classes. Her first class was second period which was US History. The class was held in the music room. I thought that this was very awkward, but she later told me that every class except for two were in different rooms. I realized that this wasn’t by choice but by necessity. There just weren’t enough classrooms for every teacher to have his or her own room. This was the first instance where I realized that teaching in a CPS was hard work.

The class sizes weren’t that big usually 15 to 25 students per class. This was good because the teacher didn’t have to handle that many kids and that allowed her to get to talk to every student individually if she needed or wanted to. I believe that this is crucial because some students really need the extra attention in order for them to be successful. I was told that this part of town was predominantly a Polish community but from what I saw it was a Hispanic community. The makeup of the class was mostly a fifty-fifty mix of African American and Hispanics. I finally got to see some of the Polish students in her 3rd period when I over heard some students speaking Polish. But those 4 students were the only Polish students that I came across in her classes. I was wondering how this part of town is considered a Polish part of town but the community seemed to be predominantly Hispanic and the classes were a mix of both Hispanic and African American. I really don’t know how to explain the lack of Polish students and the lack of African Americans in the community but their presence in the classroom.

In conclusion, I think that there are ups and downs in working in the Chicago Public School system. I think that the teacher is in tough position because it places them in a role where they need to be their teacher as well as a mentor and a parental figure. The kids seem to need and want this from their teachers. They open up to them and it is hard for a teacher who sees and knows their story but also has to be the one who gives them their grades and more often then not it is a bad one. It just puts teachers in a really emotionally stressful situation. The kids seem to be well grounded despite the fact that they live in this very diverse and economically challenged area. I also believe that they understand more than the teachers give them credit for. All of the kids have the ability but most choose not to show it and it really bothers me because they understand that education will be the thing that can get them out of the bad situations that they are in but they just don’t care. I also know that not all of the students are in bad situations but more often than not they are.

I know that there is only so much you can do to try and motivate these kids and it is up to the students if they want to be successful or not. I guess I will end this by saying that despite all of these bad situations being a teacher here would be a challenge and a blessing at the same time. As an aspiring teacher and wanting to help students working in a CPS would be the best place to do so.

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