Matt Ward ’05 - My overall impressions of Chicago are very similar to what I experienced during our brief visit at the end of March; the students do not seem to be the problem with Chicago Public Schools. It is the lack of money, effective administrators and passionate teachers.
The lack of money if evident from the first moment you walk into the school. The entire infrastructure of Benito Juarez Community Academy is aging (even though the school is less than 25 years old). The administration, from what I have experienced personally, has been close to useless; they did not plan very well for our arrival. When the Asst. Principal saw us on Day One, he gave me directions to my classroom and tried to head me off by letting my host teacher know I’d be there before I got there (and he failed, for I totally saw and heard him). Finally, although my host teacher has been the best I have seen in Chicago, there are other Spanish teachers here that make me want to cringe as an educational professional (I finished student teaching two weeks ago); one teacher, for example, taught a grammatical concept by reading the notes on the grammar directly from the book to the class. The follow-up activity was to copy the exact same notes into students’ notebooks. A third teacher I observed “taught” students about Ecuador by spending 30 minutes reading the notes in the book about Ecuador to the class. It has been pedagogically depressing (and somewhat thankful that I had the cooperating teacher that I did while student-teaching).
Much of the culture in Chicago I’ve experienced thus far has dealt with the overwhelmingly impersonal nature of the city. No one makes eye contact on the street with other people; you just keep on walking. I have noticed — being Anglo in a Hispanic school (and especially since I started walking with a cane again) — that some people are into staring, though they will not often make eye contact. I find this most interesting, especially when their eyes look to my cane before they look up at me. I often look them in the eyes as if to say "Hey! I’m up here!"
Big city culture is nothing new to me, however, having grown up in Indianapolis and having studied in Europe. I am rather accustomed to living anonymously, to the extent that living in a place like Crawfordsville is unnerving, because I will likely see people I know in public when I’d much rather control the context of when and where I meet people.
Although machismo is (unfortunately) a big part of Hispanic cultures, I have noticed that my female teacher is respected; students, especially the young men, rarely back-talk or disobey her. And she’s not even strict or mean; she maintains a friendly, positive rapport with her students that I envy (and hope to achieve with my future classes).
Interesting for me is how Hispanics respond to me when they hear me speak Spanish for the first time. Many assume I’m just another gringo without language skills — even the students in the classes I have been observing were unsure! Even after I told them (in Spanish) that I speak Spanish and such, one young man in particular spoke to the host teacher about me; my reaction was, again in Spanish, "Don’t be afraid to talk to me directly." Was this a cultural difference or merely this one student feeling unsure of what to do?
Although these students seem very similarly in general behavior to those I had while student-teaching, the school and neighborhoods are much poorer. From the computers that are all old and often broken to the classrooms that look like glorified closets, this is a depressing place to be for me (perhaps because I was used to the relatively new CHS building). The security guards that yell at students in the hallways can be unnerving (but very polite and friendly to me as a fellow adult); even the faculty bathroom looks decrepit.
Technology in the classroom is a bit of a joke here; my host teacher’s overhead is VERY difficult to read from the back of the room. Finally, although teachers have their own rooms, they often share them with other teachers during homeroom or prep times.