City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row
reviewed by Megan Hopkins & Jacqueline D’warte - October 07, 2008
Title: City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row
Author(s): William Ayers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Gregory Michie, and Pedro A. Noguera (Eds.)
Publisher: New Press, New York
ISBN: 1595583386, Pages: 384, Year: 2008
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Putting forth a call to action, the City Kids volumes ask educators to engage in a collective struggle to build a system that encourages citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy (Ayers & Ford, 1996/2008, p. XI). In contrast to an education based on elitism, hierarchy, and competition, the editors advocate a liberating, humanistic education for urban youth. The first volume, originally published in 1996, sets the call in motion, and the second volume, published twelve years later, reveals how the struggle has been pursued over the years, even with massive shifts in educational policy. Both volumes contain a unique collection of works that offer a much-needed glimpse into city life, allowing readers to explore the experiences and strengths of urban youth, to appreciate the passion and perspectives of teachers, and to critically examine the complexities and contradictions of urban schools and communities. Education texts rarely present such wide-ranging topics that raise fundamental issues about the challenges and possibilities of urban education, and City Kids does so in a way that provocatively summons both celebration and action. The multiple perspectives embedded in each City Kids volume will be of interest to like-minded scholars and practitioners and particularly to teacher educators and current and future teachers.
After brief introductions, both volumes open with sketches of the lives of urban youth in sections appropriately titled City Kids. Readers journey through Southside Chicago, Harlem, Newark, Los Angeles, and the Bronx, where poetry, memoirs, and narratives provide a guide through the lives of Luis, Nelson, Lourdes, Sampson, and others. These opening sections add tremendous depth to the works, offering the voices of those who are normally silenced, but who are often struggling to be heard. Seldom are the experiences of urban youth shared in such detail, and clearly the editors purpose is to convey the assets these youth bring to the classroom assets that are often overlooked or viewed as deficient. Unfortunately, voices of triumph and hope are missing from these sections. With the best of intentions, there is a danger that these sections provide only a portrait of damaged, broken individuals and a resulting hopelessness for urban youth. As such, it is crucial that they are coupled with thorough discussion that reiterates the great creativity, ideas, knowledge, skills, dreams, and resilience that city kids possess and the authors seek to celebrate.
The second section in the newest City Kids collection parallels the third and final section of the 1996 text, both entitled City Teachers. These sections probe the on-the-ground work of teachers in city classrooms, taking the reader into a kindergarten class, through middle schools and high schools, and even to a juvenile detention center. The reader can unpack and critique the images of teaching and learning that are traditionally displayed in popular culture. William Ayers provides an assessment of the depictions of urban teachers in films such as Blackboard Jungle (Berman & Brooks, 1955) and Lean on Me (Twain & Avildsen, 1989) in the 1996 text, disapproving of representations that show teaching as merely controlling students. The evolution of these portrayals is explored in the 2008 book in the City Teachers introduction, where Gregory Michie celebrates the newer films Half Nelson (Boden & Fleck, 2006) and The First Year (Schachter & Guggenheim, 2001) that greatly contrast the earlier depictions of urban teaching. These films present teachers who are committed to knowing their students and who strive to work within the system while challenging it at the same time.
Indeed, the more recent representations of teachers demonstrate what these sections of the book strive for to show that, the work [of teachers] is more various and beautiful than anything anyone has ever said about it (p. 59). The essays and articles contained here explore examples of model urban teaching and outline effective practices that can be taken up by teachers. The exploration of culturally relevant and critical pedagogies seen in the 1996 volume are pushed further in 2008 by providing more specific examples of teachers in action, from the building of a classroom community to advocating student activism, and even delving into sex and gender education. Volume ones City Teachers section contains James Baldwins A Talk to Teachers, a speech originally delivered to teachers in 1963. Here, Baldwin exposes how race and class impact the lives of students of color and urges teachers to pursue a pedagogy that empowers students to examine and question their surroundings. This compelling piece serves as the prologue to volume two, thus providing a powerful frame through which to view all the voices and dimensions of city school life. Taken as a whole, the City Teachers sections are an affirmation that teachers can affect change in the education system, if they take up the challenge. They thus serve as valuable resources for both current and new teachers, making them arguably the strongest sections for this audience.
The third and fourth sections of volume two, City Classrooms, City Schools, and City Issues: Beyond the Schools Walls, correspond to section two of volume one, City Issues. The reader will likely prefer the placement and organization of these sections in volume two. This volume moves naturally from the poetic to the pragmatic; it shifts from a micro to a macro view, from childrens lives to the multiple dimensions at work outside of schools, rather than moving back and forth as volume one does. Furthermore, the massive City Issues section in volume one runs the risk of overwhelming the reader with the myriad issues it presents, which is perhaps why in their second book the editors divide these essays into two sections.
It is in these sections that the reader has the opportunity to delve into the influential works of many leading educational scholars, even more so in the second volume than the first. Articles and essays appear from Deborah Meier, Martin Haberman, Lisa Delpit (who also has an essay in City Teachers volume two), and Bob Peterson in the first volume, and in volume two from Pedro Noguera, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Jonathan Kozol, Ernest Morrell, Angela Valenzuela, and Jean Anyon, among many others. Several of these works have appeared in other forms and in other publications; however, in concert, these theoretical and practical pieces interpret the existing rhetoric around urban schools while exploring the teaching and learning paradigm in real ways. In City Classrooms, City Schools, critical issues in affecting change in the learning, teaching, and administering of urban public schools are outlined, and in City Issues: Beyond the Schools Walls, the larger social, economic, political, and cultural context is explored. A critical tone weaves throughout these sections, in addition to a constant reminder of the importance of valuing urban students and their lives outside of school and working in solidarity with urban communities to combat the inequities that exist. The 2008 volume also addresses the shifts in policy since 1996, namely the No Child Left Behind Act. Several pieces suggest that demonstrations of competence and accountability do not acknowledge the complexities and uncertainties that exist in practice. Overall, these sections offer an engaging dialogue between urban schools, cities, and policies. Taken on their own or in concert with one or two others, these articles provide a springboard for critical analysis of the state of affairs in city schools and would thus be particularly useful in teacher education courses.
The City Kids collection takes a deeply passionate and committed view toward urban schools, students, and teachers. Additional pieces focusing on parental advocacy and the ways in which parents are successfully involved in urban schools would strengthen the volumes, yet as they stand, the City Kids series gives both breadth and depth to the current and evolving conditions, hopes, and dreams of urban education. What volume one lacks in specificity, volume two makes up for in its numerous descriptions of effective pedagogies and practices and in its vast contextual analyses. The call for collective action in volume one is answered in volume two, which delves into the conscious and continuing struggle enacted by teachers and students. Yet volume two also discloses the limitations to achieving the revolution Ayers calls for in volume one. Volume two is a reminder that poor communities of color are often still blamed for the circumstances that have befallen them without acknowledging structural and economic problems and inequitable conditions. This reminder makes the revolution ever more important, and these works can certainly inspire action among their readers. For novices to the field, however, rich discussion should be carefully combined with the reading, so that the voices of students and teachers are celebrated and not lost in the challenges outlined by the authors challenges that will certainly be faced in the struggle ahead.
Ayers, W. & Ford, P. (Eds.). (1996/2008). City Kids, City Teachers: Reports from the Front Row. New York: The New Press.
Berman, P.S. (Producer), & Brooks, R. (Director). (1955). Blackboard Jungle [Motion picture]. Los Angeles, California: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Boden, A. (Producer), & Fleck, R. (Director). (2006). Half Nelson [Motion picture]. New York: THINKFilm.
Schachter, J. (Producer), & Guggenheim, D. (Director). (2001). The First Year [Motion picture]. Los Angeles, California: Teachers Documentary Project.
Twain, N. (Producer), & Avildsen, J.G. (Director). (1989). Lean on Me [Motion picture]. Hollywood, California: Warner Bros.