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Perspectives on Urban Schools - Part 2 - Pictures of Urban Schools


by Linda Powell - November 21, 2000

(Editorís Note: This is a transcript of the lecture delivered. The text is not revised.)

Linda Powell:

Fair enough. Let me tell you what I'm thinking about. We are going to do a little work together to build more of a lattice of what all of us mean by that and I will also then talk a little about my leadership course, how we understand the problem of urban education and what this hopelessness is about. I am going to at many points this evening use the notion of microcosm, which is that the way we will be thinking and talking and working together is a microcosm, a small piece of people who are interested in education in the country. If we watch our dynamics, if we watch what we do and don't say, if you watch the things that you won't say in public but you will put in your brief, if we pay close attention to our own experience, my work suggests that we get info about the larger system.

So for example Solomon Cytrynbaum at Northwestern has written about what he calls the politics of despair that very often urban school systems are caught in a process where they do essentially meaningless or punitive things, more metal detectors. Like we could make that list, right? But Cytrynbaum argues that the politics of despair need visible interventions that people can touch and read about in the newspaper and that they are a first order change that then must be followed by something more adaptive, but I'll come back to that in a second.

But so what some of you may feel at the end of class is what the culture is feeling. This is my microcosm argument. What the culture is feeling about public schools and to the extent that you can find ways to leverage that in yourselves, that's a hint. Whatever are the things or the times where you leave where you are left hopeless or more hopeful, more optimistic, those are things that may give you hints about policy work.

I am not going to give you a laundry list of things that work although I am going to talk about the paradoxes of a study that we just did, and we can play around with the impact that has and has not had on policy. But, okay, I have a sense of what I'm going to talk about. I'm going to talk a little bit about problem definitions, we are going to talk a little bit about urban schools and the code language for that. I'll talk about the small school study. We will see where we are. If it's 9 o'clock we'll either ask some more questions or we'll, I don't know, God forbid, end early. We never do that. Okay? Anything else you need to tell me, that I need to know before I start?

If you would put everything away, all you need is a writing surface and a pen. Brian, if you would pass out a sheet of white paper to everybody please.

Okay everybody cooking? You should have nothing else in your hands but this piece of paper and the writing instrument. If you would, Brian we need one more, somebody? If you would please do whatever it is that in very California language centers you or more practically what we have to do with young people is bring yourself fully to this moment. Don't be in 9 o'clock and don't be in what happened today. But as much as you can at Teacher's College. Bring yourself fully to this moment. And let your mind freely create an image of the words "urban school". And please draw the image.

_______________

Drawing

_______________

If you would take 20 seconds and finish up. And as you finish up if you would turn into threes and if you are willing take a minute, no more than a minute, and show your drawing and say what you make of it. You are not required to, if you are not down for showing your image you don't have to

_______________

Group Work

_______________

Okay. Has everybody who wanted to had a chance to show their drawings? It's great; the good conversation gets stirred up. It's also the Bain of Linda's existence to cut off good conversation. Everybody had a chance to show their drawing? Anybody want to volunteer their drawing or volunteer someone else's drawing? Something you thought was particularly interesting or quirky or meaningful? Please?

Student:

Well I thought it was interesting that two of us actually started with the same concept and that was the grating on the windows. The fact that there was no, that every window on the school had grates on it and the doors had no windows and the fences have barbed wire on them and that there is blockage everywhere no matter where you go. And both of us came up with that concept independently.

Linda Powell:

Did other people have similar closed windows, grates, doors closed? Thank you. Other images, thoughts? Please?

Student:

My picture I just have,

Linda Powell:

Show it so people can see it.

Student:

It has an intersection, stop lights and cars and it has your basic necessities of a convenience store, laundromat and an apartment building, a small park, a parking lot and then the school at the very little corner. But when I was speaking to my classmate here, I was telling her that it doesn't necessarily mean it's in a bad neighborhood. It's just urban in a city, and I also want her to share hers because I thought hers was nice.

And my other point is that I remembered, and I completely forgot and just remembered that I had gone my first year of high school in San Francisco. And it was in the city but there is no, you know, grates anywhere, it was just in the city, a beautiful area. So I think it really depends upon how you want to classify urban education. Urban to me always has meant just city, not necessarily bad and not necessarily good and in my opinion all cities have their dangerous sides to them. New York in particular may have different sections of it that may be more bad than other areas or more dangerous, but overall my first very instinct when I heard urban education, urban schools, is just that it was in the city with the hustle and the bustle.

Linda Powell:

And that's what you drew essentially of community.

Student:

Right and I want Courtney to share her…

Linda Powell:

You have been volunteered for, Courtney.

Courtney:

Actually I teach in Harlem, and it's a private school in Harlem, and it's tuition free so I consider it public for various reasons. I don't know, I can talk for hours about this school, there is no curriculum, there is no ... or nothing…

Linda Powell:

Your drawing.

Courtney:

Oh. I don't know how I passed the 1st Grade. But I drew a picture of a row house basically. And my favorite part about teaching in Harlem is the end of the day where the school is built in a series of row houses and at the end of the day is, it's so interesting to me. I mean there are grates on the windows, but I never realized that until you said something. And I teach in one of those rooms, and I sit at the end of the day on the steps and I watch the neighborhood go by. I watch the kids come out of the Catholic school. I watch them come home from the public school. I watch our kids leave, and it's phenomenal. I mean it's such an amazing community. And all these horrible things happen, and sure but, I don't know, the family feeling that you get is amazing. This is my picture; that's my row house; those are my steps.

Linda Powell:

Everybody got Courtney's picture?

Courtney:

I don't need that really, I'm beyond that.

Linda Powell:

But your picture is critical based on the story you told us, and we'll come back to it in a second. Thank you very much. Anybody else? Step right up. Please.

Student:

I have absolutely never taught in an urban school. I have grown up and always lived in suburbia happy land, but the one positive thing of urban schools I thought was so diverse. I mean I went to school with no different people, everyone was white and exactly like me so I think that's a real benefit of being a student in an urban school. And we also talked about how, and I hear this all the time, urban schools there is no books and I found out that people who taught in suburban schools almost discredit that argument because we were told if you use your textbook then you are not creative. So I had 130 brand new $40 apiece textbooks for every student. But if I over-relied on it, I was considered a lazy teacher so when I hear people complain about not having books, it took me a while to understand that there is more to it than just saying we don't have books. But at first, I'm like, what do you need all these books for. Like we never wanted to use them or you were considered a bad teacher. So I just thought that was interesting to learn that there is a deeper than they don't have books. You know I used to be, like what's the big deal with the books. But now I'm beginning to understand. But I thought diversity is something that gets ignored a lot.

Linda Powell:

And so you have children of differing colors?

Student:

Asian, black, white...

Linda Powell:

Other drawings?

Gary Natriello (running across the room to take the microphone to the next student):

Now I know why Oprah makes the money.

Linda Powell:

Oprah makes the big bucks for just this reason.

Student:

Well my school, I was trying to draw the school that I worked at in Oakland, California. Just the building and I was trying to put a lot of people in each window because there is a lot of people per classroom and then just trying to, I'm not a very good drawer, but just no paint, just I don't want to call it graffiti but just tagging, just no play area, no trees, just blacktop and a lot of people, a lot of kids just kind of hanging around and just angry stuff just coming out of the school and just ... which is the main two gangs that was they ruled the school and the community so that was a big deal. And not...because everybody except for the teachers looked pretty much the same.

Linda Powell:

And what were the teachers?

Student:

Teachers mostly white and the kids are 50% Latino and then black and then Asian and a few Bosnian kids.

Student (Commenting on Gary Natriello running with the microphone):

You really are earning it tonight. We are doing this on purpose.

So my picture is just of a very stressed out, very upset and very anxious teacher who is kind of broken hearted there and the student as well is very upset and very anxious and also very broken hearted, and I multiply it by 30. And yes there is not too much, there is the blackboard in the back with just the word "quiet" written on it with an exclamation point to imply that not too much else is going on.

Student:

Well my picture is a row of chairs all standing in line with the teacher at the front and they all look exactly the same. I don't have a ton of experience teaching in urban schools but I recently got together -- I just graduated in May so I haven't had the opportunity to do anything else but go to school -- so all my friends are teaching in urban settings, and I did work a little bit in Harlem. While there is a lot of diversity, I think that there is a lot of conformity and a lot of emphasis being placed on sitting down and keeping your head down and being quiet, and I'm going to read to you from this text that is supposed to be the curriculum. And that -- I student taught in two places -- and that was my biggest problem, is in the suburban school I had to get used to the chaos and like that there is a certain noise level that is productive, and I want them talking and I want to kind of have a sense of them having more control in their little groups than I do. And then to go to an urban setting where it's, I read from the script and you sit and you be quiet and no extra conversation. And I'm trying to get a teacher who is my supervising teacher to agree to let me do a more collaborative project with these kids and for her to get used to the noise level. That's what I just think of when I think of urban education is kind of just stifling, whatever the creativity these poor kids have.

Linda Powell:

Thank you and we might, if we had time, wonder why that difference might exist.

Student:

A lot of people have told me that the curriculum, this is the curriculum that potentially speaks to urban children in the way that they are brought up or a minorities and I don't understand that. I don't understand why, I mean, and so you have different resources and you have different parents and you have different ways of being brought up, that I don't see why that can be better for them.

Linda Powell:

The argument is also that for some students the provision of structure during the day is more critical to balance out more chaotic and unstructured family situations. There is little or no empirical proof of that. You can see what side of the issue I'm on. And there is also, we have some anecdotal sense of what you are training kids for, conformity. And that that's what children of color are being educated for. Now we are going to do two people who haven't spoken and then…

Student:

I want to share my picture...

Linda Powell:

You get to go last. I'm orchestrating hope so that will go last please.

Student:

I grew up in LA, but I was bused to the valley. So a lot of the students with myself were all people of color. And for us we were the color coming into the school, but even though there was diversity within the school, we were all segregated. Like the Chicanos and Latinos were here, the Asians were here, the jocks were here which were mainly white. So there was…

Linda Powell:

The Johns?

Student:

The jocks.

Linda Powell:

Sorry, my hearing.

Student:

And for me I drew the picture as if there was a small microcosmic view of society. There is a little society within the larger society and even within there we were segregating ourselves.

Linda Powell:

Show us please?

Student:

It was sort of like, I viewed it as if you were on top like a little bird looking down and I have the field and I have the students all segregated in the cafeteria and then the people of color coming in from the buses inside.

Linda Powell:

Terrific, thank you. Okay, one more bad one and then somebody who hasn't spoken? Please? I'm doing this for you, Gary, so you don't have to…

Student:

I just have to comment after the last person because I could have taught at the school that you went to, and it's very interesting to have the prospective that I had. So I have the field and the buildings and a few trees, but I have all the kids together. So it's just so interesting to think about the prospective of teaching there and thinking, appreciating the diversity because it was brought in and seeing it in a completely different way as someone who was brought in is very interesting.

Linda Powell:

It's a good comparison of experience, of experience. Adrienne Rich, the poet says what you see depends on where you sit. And that's a real reminder for all of us that we never have the whole story. Last? On a hopeful note?

Student:

Okay. Well I taught in Baltimore, Maryland, and I considered it the dread of how it was just awful; it was awful. And so like that was like part of my drawing was like this school house in hell with the cracked windows and the school in the center and just like nothing there. But then I also have the four little flowers like growing out of the ground because there was something that kept us there. And it may have been four little flowers. It may have been, you know, like seeing the light bulb go on once every two months, but yet still it went on and yet still it gave you strength to go back the next day.

Linda Powell:

Terrific, thank you. Last thoughts on this?

Student:

I was going to say that I taught in the South Bronx and my drawing was very similar in that I do have some of the stuff that really was incredibly challenging. But so sort of center on the picture really is a horrendous drawing. The center of the picture really is sort of the first thing that went in my head when you said what to draw, which is the snapshot of the moment of just a huge breakthrough with my class and so just bring me back to that moment, which is what brought me back over and over again and you know so.

Linda Powell:

Terrific. Thank you very much for this. In your classmates' comments you will make connections to other people's drawings or compare them or contrast them. Let me make a big comment about it. I've done 1,000 of these in the last three years with groups ranging from policy makers to superintendents to teachers to people who were in organizational training programs. So my research group and I are starting to have a pretty substantial random sample of these drawings.

What would you imagine is the most common drawing by far? Please?

Student:

Crowded classroom with the bars on the window. I mean just my sense of going around the room is also the media reinforces that so badly that that's what came to mind because I thought of all these commercials for like John Corzine, you know, like the only schools where teachers.... but that's what I drew.

Linda Powell:

You're close. The single most common drawing across groups is, who did barbed, that is the single most common drawing. I interpret these from a psychoanalytic prospective. The single most common feature is that there are never young people; there are rarely young people in the drawings. There are rarely young, there are almost never young people represented by full bodies. There are squiggles representing young people, and sometimes there are stick figures representing young people. But there are rarely young people with heads and bodies and potentially color.

There are rarely teachers of full body and the emotions expressed are either rage, heartbreak. There are also very rarely what we would call impressionistic or subjective drawings. People regress when you ask them about urban schools. People draw what is most immediate and kind of concrete. Our most dramatic sort of subjective drawings are things like guns, images of hearts breaking, some force working against another force scattered into disarray. But for the most part what I mean by we regress is when given this exercise about schools as opposed to corporations most people draw something not quite fully of their thinking but more of their strongest feelings. So the number of you who sort of critique your drawings before you show them, right, we are not proud of these drawings in part because we know they are not our full adult...

So looking at the drawings as a whole, we had one, we had a couple of positive drawings but part of what they embody were organic ideas. We get a lot of flowers, and we think that what that represents is the desire to plant a seed that may blossom even if you are not there but also trusting an organic process.

But if you look at the ideas incorporated in your drawings, what has this got to do with policy?

Student:

I think it's an expectation. I think it's, this is the way it is, and this is how everybody views it. And this is how the public views it, and this is how people who really don't even care about education view it. So, I don't know, it's like you don't even have a higher expectation for yourself as a policy maker for that hopelessness that you may feel, and I don't know, that's where my hopelessness comes from I guess is that the fact that it became an issue is a problem in and of itself.

Linda Powell:

That it became an issue.

Student:

That urban and minorities problematic education became an issue is the problem and the fact that it became a problem is to me the worst part about it. And you know you view these pictures, and they are you know pretty depressing. But that's how people view it, and as long as that remains the norm, then, you know, how efficiently are we really going to try to change it and make it better as policymakers.

Linda Powell:

So let me paraphrase you and see if we're on the same page. There is something about the complexity of your drawing. Some of you drew media stuff; some of you drew your lived experience; some of you drew work experiences that you have had. But we sense that there is something even in the mix of them that's realistic, that is how the world sees urban schools. You have no idea how depressed you look at this moment. So one thing that has got to do about policy is that this represents the real deal. When people give you numbers and statistics and dollars, that's only part of the real deal. This, what we are feeling in this room right now, is what policy must also grapple with. And to the extent that policy doesn't, it is doomed to failure because what we are talking about now is very powerful. People vote this when they won't express it. You with me? You're nodding. I'm going to press forward. What else has this got to do with policy? What's expressed in these drawings? What are you worried about?

Student:

Well you said it before with rarely do you see faces or complete bodies, and if you don't put a face with it, what's the point. You know policymakers are sitting up there; we don't see those kids behind those bars, behind whatever so what's the point. They don't have to come face to face with it so they don't actually see how bad it is and so thus they do nothing about it.

Linda Powell:

One of the most profound aspects is how little time policymakers spend, and I don't want to blame, I want us to work on it in the room, but for the most part senior faculty and administrators and policymakers spend very little time in relationships with the field. And I don't mean that they don't go to schools, that's not what I'm saying. But being in real life relationships where they might get new feedback, it is a startling thing to notice how little time they actually spend with children or teachers and parents in relationships where they might get new information.

So one of the things that these drawings suggest is something about the lack of relatedness and how you can be in touch with a changing marketplace if you are not in a relationship with people. Anything else that strikes you about these drawings and policy?

Student:

One thing that I had ... those of us who drew about personal experience seem to have part of the picture that was positive, that there was something very positive whether memory or drew musical notes ... but all included the exterior and that whether it was hell or police or knife, rape, and I think that if those policy can suggest that okay we can do something in the classroom and the individual can do something but on the level of policy what can you do to change the situation of the truest inner city of where there is knives, ... and where it is a hellish situation.

Linda Powell:

So the question that the drawings raise is, given the complexity of the problem, some of which is in the classroom, some of which is in the community, what's the appropriate role for policy? So that's in your drawings as well?

Student:

Well I don't really know that they want to do something about it. I mean you had Brown versus Board of Education that was in 1954; it's the Year 2000, and it's not gotten better. And so once again you go back to the whole issue of institutional racism. Do you really honestly want to make this situation better because it's been awful for at least you know since 54, even further back because you know black people weren't even allowed to read when we first, so do you really want to do something about it, are you really even looking to change anything. And I mean I would say no. I honestly would say no because it's gotten to a point where it's just, you know, it's kind of like, well, where do you go.

Linda Powell:

Let me just check something. How many people in this room are 30 or under? Yikes. Let me nuance this just a little bit. I'm not recommending this book but if you are in the book store, pick it up. It's a book called Bobos in Paradise. Bobos. And he's a sociologist, but don't hold that against him. But the argument that he makes is after Brown this country had a moment, a moment lasting for about 20 years where equity and education really was pursued by both individuals and institutions and it yielded a generation of me. And that following what my generation did, that would say, oh no we don't want that. And the author writes quite compellingly that it's not like a one dry desert stretch since 1954, that there actually was a moment in 68 and 69 where the ivy league discovered my high school and came in, like sucked us all out. But then we went on to do unconscionable things against the certain systems so that our policy around education has actually been very sensitive and responsive around a set of values.

I'm not recommending this guy's book but read the chapter about how Harvard changed, which is like the second chapter, and the last chapter, which is about intellectuals and the roles of intellectuals, Bobos in Paradise.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 21, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10656, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 10:55:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda Powell
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Linda Powell is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Education. Her research includes group relations theory, urban school reform efforts, and professional development and graduate education for educators.
 
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