Douglas Crets


Giving Credibility to the Shadow Education System

A Teach for America for the Inside

bronx reading literacy online learning students freedom

from A kid stands in the Bronx

Wendy Kopp has done a remarkable thing with building Teach for America into an international enterprise. Graduating seniors, the bulk of whom come from Ivy League schools, give back to the world by serving as teachers in some of the poorest districts in America. Places like this in the Bronx (watch this video first):

To Be Heard – Trailer from Edwin Martinez on Vimeo.

TFA is missing something. I think TFA does amazing things, but I believe that in many cases the benefit of a young, smart teacher is too late for some of these students, and the things these well-intentioned teachers try to deliver goes sailing by and out the window of these classrooms. The delivery of school is heading the wrong direction. School is about a community. It is about a kind of family, and what you learn in school should be about what you need to learn for life, and in many schools in the poorest places in America, they are not training students for life.

Think about it: more than 6o% of people incarcerated in America’s prisons cannot read. That means that those people spent years, or maybe just months in a classroom, and gave up. Or they weren’t taught aggressively enough to reach inside and pull out what is inherently and originally theirs.

So what if we flipped the model? How crazy would it be to imagine a TFA from the inside?

What if there was a teaching program that not only taught things like writing, literature, extemporaneous speaking, but it also taught how to teach? And it helped cultivate the teachers it was teaching to become teachers themselves? Then school would not seem so much like a delivery of a divine grace upon the bent heads of students. It would come from inside. Let’s do a test, or a poll. Imagine yourself as a child in an urban classroom. What makes the most sense to you when it comes to reaching for your dreams? Or learning the mechanism that will make your dreams a reality?

Right now, kids who grow up in urban schools have, by and large, the idea that school as it is currently delivered is not for them. They see the world in a code that they have to perform and participate in; they live in a harsh environment, they have to act a certain way. School wants them to act in a very different way. They don’t see their own models in front of the classrooms. They often see people who seem to knock down the cultural practices that the kids think they have to use to get by.

But there is a group called Power Writers, headed by Joe Ubiles, Amy Sultan and Roland Legiari-Laura, who have had some success in teaching students to become teachers of writing, within their optional writing workshop once a week at University Heights High School in the Bronx. The backbone of this training and discpline is the motto: “If you don’t write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” They are learning to craft their own voice, within their own code, and to also bridge the divide between this Bronxonics, or Bronx-born mentality, and the wider world.

But the point is they are doing it from the inside. Nobody is swooping down on a spider web to rescue these kids. All of this ingenuity, practice and belief is coming from themselves. They are teaching themselves, by listening to each other, practicing their own writing, and raising their own voices. This is how TFA could run.


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