This was my second year participating in the Urban Education Initiative after a rewarding experience last January teaching at P.S. 24 in the Bronx. My interest in returning to the program was to further my teaching experience and continue to study the politics, policy and educational reform in the New York public education system.
I was generously welcomed into the home of Ruth Turner ’46, who allowed me to live with her during the program. Far more than just having a place to stay, I was given the opportunity to form a relationship with a truly impressive woman, who, 67 years after graduating from Smith, continues to have a powerful connection to the college.
For this year’s Urban Ed fellowship, I taught at Shuang Wen P.S. 184m, a dual language school on the Lower East Side, Manhattan. The school, founded in 1998, was the first public elementary school to offer an English and Mandarin curriculum. Part of the mission of Shuang Wen is to contribute to nationwide efforts to educate globally conscious, culturally diverse and multilingual citizens. I was particularly interested in working at Shuang Wen, a top-ranking NYC public school, because it is a Title I school, with more than 70 percent of its students living under the poverty threshold.
As a Title I public high school graduate myself, I have personally experienced the challenges of a school system struggling under chronic underfunding and lack of resources. My current interest in teaching is greatly influenced by the teachers and figures of support that have encouraged me along my own educational trajectory. Their dedication helped me realize the potential for all students to overcome racial, gender and socioeconomic disadvantages if given adequate support and encouragement.
As I shift from the role of student to teacher, I hope to be able to kôkua—a Hawaiian word, from my upbringing, meaning “to help” or “give back.”
My official role in the P.S. 184m classroom was as a student teacher, but my responsibilities required significant adaptability. Something that I admire about great teachers is their capacity to perform a diversity of tasks, including social worker, therapist, parent, mentor, friend, role model, custodian, secretary, referee and much more.
The Urban Education Initiative, launched in 1999, grants January Interterm fellowships to Smith undergraduates, who intern with classroom teachers in urban schools in New York, Boston, and
Springfield. Most fellows are placed in classrooms and schools of Smith alumnae—many of whom were introduced to urban teaching through their own fellowship experiences. The program was originally funded by a grant from Debra Gastler ’75, with additional funding provided by Alison Overseth ’80, Jane Cecil ’50, Jeanne La Croix Crocker ’45 and the family of Claire Abisalih ’12. “The generosity of our alumnae have enabled us to provide students with an opportunity to learn first-hand about great teaching, school reform, and the critical issues facing urban educators,” notes Urban Ed program founder Sam Intrator, professor of education and child study.
Urban Ed fellows lived with Smith alumnae in New York City while teaching at public schools in the city last month. Some of the fellows wrote about their experience for the Gate.
One of my charismatic 8-year-old students told me that rather than a “teacher” I should call myself a “T.O.S.H.A.C.,” his invented acronym for Teacher-Older Sister-Helper-Artist-Comedian.
While working with the co-teachers, Ms. Kahn and Ms. Michaels, in the third-grade ICT (integrated co-teaching) classroom, I found that grade level to be a year of many different types of learning. In addition to acquiring the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, third-grade students are developing their learner identity, sense of responsibility and awareness of the world.
As Ms. Michaels explained to me one day, “We as teachers are given the responsibility of helping to develop a full human being in a student.”
This can be especially challenging when the curriculum for these New York third-graders is heavily structured according to the h igh-stakes standardized English Language Arts and Mathematics tests. Administered every April, some critical information that these standardized tests will never be able to measure is student initiative, imagination, grit, kindness, curiosity and creativity.
Smith (in 2009) is among a handful of schools nationwide that have adopted SAT-optional admission policies, de-emphasizing standardized tests as a predictor of academic ability and potential, and acknowledging the correlations between race, household income and test performance.
The past two years of participating in the Urban Ed Initiative and teaching in two different third-grade public schools has taught me invaluable lessons about urban education and my possible future as an educator.
While it may have been my third year repeating the third grade, I hope it’s not my last.