The story told about urban education today is all-too-often bleak – soaring teacher dissatisfaction, low student engagement, high drop-out rates. But another story is unfolding, quietly playing out in urban schools, communities, and districts around the world. It is an uplifting story of educators, parents, researchers, policy makers, and organizations working together creatively to develop meaningful practices and real improvements that will make a difference in the lives of young people.
It is a story of action.
In November, 2012, Facing History and Ourselves brought close to 400 key scholars, teachers, administrators, students, and reformers from across disciplines together to discuss the realities of urban education and share solutions at “Engaging Education,” a full-day conference held in Memphis, Tennessee.
The conference, which was free and open to the public, mined from Facing History’s more than 35 years of work and results in urban schools. Since its founding by two public school teachers in 1976, Facing History has had a commitment to school systems and students in urban areas, which represent over 60% of the schools with which the organization partners.
“Across our nation, schools are challenged to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in academics, work, and life. Teachers often feel unsupported. Disengaged students drop out at alarming rates. The consequences for the nation include dramatically increased risks for unemployment, poverty, and incarceration,” Facing History Co-Founder and Executive Director Margot Stern Strom said in an op-ed published in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis this fall. “The need is urgent and the challenges are formidable. But the good news is that teachers can receive the support and resources they need to engage students in powerful, life-changing ways. Education can foster greater understanding and respect for others, academic engagement and positive civic participation.”
The conference’s panels and keynote address focused on sharing best practices and equipping educators, parents, students, and community members with the tools to rethink how we approach learning, teaching, and achievement in urban academic settings.
The city of Memphis, where Strom grew up, typifies the challenges of educating students in an urban environment. The city is home to 209 schools that serve approximately 110,000 students, of whom the vast majority are low-income, according to information from the Memphis City Schools department. Eighty-six percent of students in Memphis are African American, 6% are Hispanic, and 7% white. Like in many cities across the country, the student population is made up predominately of first generation American citizens and immigrants, children of low-income or single parent households, and members of marginalized groups.
Facing History opened an office in Memphis in 1992 and has since forged deep relationships with the schools and the greater community, reaching over 111,900 middle and high school students to date throughout the state of Tennessee. Today, all students in the Memphis City and Shelby County school districts receive Facing History education as part of a mandatory social studies curricular unit in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and 28 high schools offer a semester-long Facing History elective course.
“Memphis is perhaps a place that needed the introduction of Facing History and Ourselves more than any other place,” the city’s mayor A C Wharton, Jr. said in remarks that opened the conference. “There’s a lot of learning, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and I can think of no better time for us to really appreciate the role that Facing History and Ourselves can play. This is a royal opportunity.”
The conference began with a keynote address from Dr. Claude Steele, dean of the Stanford School of Education and author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. A social psychologist for over 45 years, Steele’s work focuses on how identity can impact individuals’ experience and performance, and the profound implications negative stereotypes can have on racial, social class, and gender achievement gaps.
“I think this is how history visits us on a daily basis – through stereotypes,” Steele told audiences, citing research that historically marginalized groups like women or black students tend to perform worse in situations like math classes or on the SATs than their peers who do not experience similar negative stereotyping. “There are oceans of kids being lost,” Steele said.
But there are actions educators, parents, and community members can take to combat these outcomes and help drive engaged learning and improved student performance. “Facing History is facing these stereotypes and the impact that they can have in peoples’ lives on a daily and ongoing basis,” Steele said. “And these are things that have to be addressed if you ever want to have equality of performance.”
Following the keynote address, conference participants attended breakout sessions on topics including the relationship between race and achievement, effective teaching, the future of digital learning in urban education, and the relationship between school culture and achievement. Panels featured Facing History staff, teachers and administrators from across the country, and Facing History students.
“We talk a lot about how to make it safe for kids to take risks. We need to do the same for teachers,” panelist Meredith Gavrin, a Facing History educator and co-founder with her husband of the small public high school New Haven Academy, told attendees of “Rethinking What It Means to Be an Effective Teacher and a Successful Student.”
Panelists at Rethinking the “Relationship between School
Culture and Achievement” considered questions such as, “How do we create a positive school culture in urban schools?” and “What are the stakes if we do not succeed?”
“We are not teaching teachers how to teach urban [education]. We have to be patient, compassionate, and tolerant if we are going to reach urban kids. We need to stop stereotyping and labeling urban kids,” said panelist Dr. Willie J. Kimmons, a career educator, author, and consultant. “They need positive role models. Adults need to give back. Save our children – don’t give up on them.”
After a panel on perspectives on education in Memphis today, the conference closed with a Community Conversation sponsored by The Allstate Foundation that featured actress and activist Sonja Sohn, founder of the nonprofit organization ReWired for Change and a star of the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Wire.
“I believe people are born with ways of being and our jobs as teachers is to help find that way for every single student,” said Sohn, whose organization works to empower youth and families in underserved communities through education, media, social advocacy, and intergenerational programming. “No one entity working on its own is the answer. It is all of us working in concert that matters, working to put all beings ahead of our own self-interest – or maybe because our own self-interest is advanced by all working together.”
“It is gratifying for us that you don’t have simple answers,” moderator Steve Becton, Facing History’s senior associate for urban education and organizational initiatives, said to Sohn after hearing about her childhood experiences as a student in the urban education system. “There are none. We at Facing History are trying to create safe space in classrooms around the world so that kids can address these complex questions without simplifying them.”
In a question and answer period that followed, Sohn addressed issues of equity and offered her own advice to students in urban schools today.
“Find a mentor or teacher if you can,” she said. “Every adult that comes into a child’s life who brings a little bit of light or positivity does matter. Just the fact that there were teachers thinking I was smart was enough to keep me going.”
Attendee Tonjua Woods, the assistant principal of the Shelby County Schools, reflected on her experience at the end of the day. “We get so caught up in our issues and we need to step back and realize that we face issues that others are also dealing with,” she said. “We can learn from and help each other.”
Jenny Monroe, another attendee and a resident at the Memphis Teacher Residency, had an inspiring takeaway.
“This conference helped refuel me as a teacher,” she said.
Read more about Facing History’s work in urban education
Find out how you can attend a Facing History event in your community or online today!
This article was written by Facing History’s Julia Rappaport. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.