Engaging Education: Facing History in Urban Schools

Monday, October 29, 2012 - 3:00am

MEMPHIS –Steve Becton, who helps lead Facing History and Ourselves’ urban education initiatives, spends his days bringing quality education and learning opportunities to inner-city students and teachers. Since joining the Facing History staff in 2001, Becton has worked with students, educators, and administrators on issues of race, class, and cultural difference. He teaches in classrooms, visits schools, and leads professional development opportunities for educators. “I truly believe that for inner-city youth, the most important factor that determines success is a well-prepared teacher who’s creating a highly-engaging classroom,” he said.

But for Becton, who grew up in a single parent home in Memphis, Tennessee, improving inner-city education is more than just a job. It’s a passion born out of a lived history.

Memphis 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 immigrants and first generation American citizens, children of low-income or single parent households, and members of marginalized groups. Memphis has among the highest current and historical economic segregation of any city in the country and among the highest overall poverty rate. It has the second highest violent crime rate.

“I left home with a real sense that education was the only way to overcome obstacles,” said Becton, who came to Facing History as a program associate 11 years ago and today is the senior associate for urban education and organizational initiatives. Becton’s mother worked multiple jobs to support the family and emphasized the importance of education early and often. After graduating from high school, Becton, a first-generation college student, enrolled at the well-regarded Rhodes College in Memphis. “Very few kids like me – very few kids from my neighborhood – would have the chance to go to Rhodes,” Becton said.

At Rhodes, Becton’s peers were very different – culturally and economically – from the kids he had grown up with. Adjusting both socially and academically was a challenge, but one that opened Becton’s eyes to the power of education. “I began to realize that, even though I did not have the same opportunities as my Rhodes classmates, I could achieve just as much as they could and the key was education,” Becton said. “I began to see education as a great neutralizer. I began to see it as a social justice tool.”

After college, Becton earned his master’s degree in education and began teaching in Memphis classrooms. One summer, he attended a professional development seminar on the Holocaust and Human Behavior. It was run by Facing History and Ourselves. The seminar, one of 346 professional development opportunities Facing History offers both in person and online each year, was an “aha!” moment for Becton.

“I had always believed that one of the things that keeps us, as a society and as people, from moving forward is not having a deep understanding of where we’ve been,” Becton said. “This seminar was reaffirming to me in that way. I had always thought of teaching as a very student-centered activity, and of my classroom as a place where students should be able to grow and think critically and contribute to their learning. Facing History just really gave me more tools with which to do those things in more effective ways.”

When Becton joined the Facing History staff after a decade of teaching, he knew he would miss the classroom, but saw the opportunity as a way to spread the types of quality education and learning he cared about most passionately. “I could only be so effective in one classroom,” he said. “Here I had the opportunity to impact more and more students by helping other teachers use Facing History’s resources and approach. I saw the multiplier effect.”

After five years as a program associate for Memphis-area students and educators, Becton began to focus his work more specifically on urban education. He began to explore how Facing History could bring its content and teaching methods more deeply into inner-city schools and the ways in which inner-city youth and educators could benefit from that. “Facing History has always worked deeply in urban schools,” he said. “Facing History says all students can do critical thinking, all students can lead. Every voice in the classroom matters, not just the AP student, not just the student council representative, but every kid. This approach is important in any learning environment, not just in urban education. But if we continue to fail to educate our most vulnerable children, the consequences are very grave. We have to reach these children.”

Today, Facing History works with schools in inner-cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and around the world in urban areas like London, Kigali, Toronto, and Mexico City. The organization has active partnerships with schools of education at universities like DePaul in Chicago and New York University. And in November, 2012, Facing History hosted “Engaging Education: Rethinking Learning, Teaching, and Achievement in Urban Schools” a full-day conference. Held in Memphis, the conference brought together practitioners, scholars, students, families, and community members and included a keynote address from Dr. Claude M. Steele, a preeminent social psychologist and dean of the School of Education at Stanford University whose research focuses on race, identity, education, and achievement. The conference also included a Community Conversation featuring activist and actress Sonja Sohn from HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire.

The conference is part of Facing History’s Urban Civic Learning Lab, an initiative launched in 2012 with a generous grant from the Rita Allen Foundation. The aim of the initiative is to engage in meaningful discussion and exploration of the history and future of urban education. Drawing from Facing History’s existing work with small schools, its Digital Media Innovation Network, district-wide partnership initiatives, and robust community programs, the initiative will analyze successful learning methods and academic interventions in historically underserved urban schools in order to best support and revitalize educators and engage students in rich, relevant learning opportunities.

“By exploring the historical connection between race and academic achievement, the impact of it on educational policies and practices today, and rethinking the ‘questions’ traditionally associated with the achievement gap, we can reshape the conversation and deepen the opportunities to address it more effectively,” Becton said. “Eleven years later, Facing History is still the best place to come to work to do just this. Throughout our organization, despite the differences between us, the thing that really ties us together is a sincere desire to see the world as a better place and the key belief that education is a critical tool to accomplish that.”

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Learn more about our work in Memphis.

Facing History’s Julia Rappaport wrote this article. For questions or tips on what Facing History is doing in your community, email her at Julia_Rappaport@facing.org.