What do I know Fo’ Sho’? First Year Lessons of an Urban Teacher

Dec 16th, 2010 | Category: Research in Education
By Dara Soljaga

The smiling faces solemnly lined up for eighth grade graduation practice cajoled, “You can loosen up now, Dr. Soljaga. We are graduating tomorrow. You did a good job teaching us and now let us teach you some more things—because you know we already taught you a lot! Well, now you’ve got to learn to talk like us, like we do on the street.” Another chimed, “Yeah! Fo’ sho’!” As my head reeled from how much they actually did teach me this year and how inadequate I still felt, I replied in my worst Valley Girl vernacular, “Yeah! Fer shur!” The roar of laughter was deafening as even I reveled in the mirth.

Over time, I have often fondly reminisced of, though have never been courageous enough to record, the event that propelled me into that school at that time and that taught (and continues to teach) me some of the greatest lessons of my life. As John Dewey writes, “A well-trained mind is one that has a maximum of resources behind it, so to speak, and that is accustomed to go over its past experiences to see what they yield,”(1916, 157). Though I do not purport to possess this well-trained mind, occasionally I am compelled, as we all are, to review and revise.

So, while teaching one of my first classes as an Adjunct Professor, I embarked on dazzling my graduate students with my command of the Foundations of Education, as befit my Big Ten degree. One session, a sage Chicago Public School teacher shared, “You know a lot about this philosophy stuff, but you don’t know what it’s like in my school, in the city, where kids worry about surviving each day.” Hailing from a nice suburban town in Ohio and attending a liberal Midwest university that sought to convey appreciation for social justice, I was taken aback by the comment though, I like to recall, I begrudgingly admitted defeat while encouraging her to share more. Thereafter, I instinctively sought employment in the Chicago Public Schools and my perseverance was rewarded with an eighth grade departmentalized science teacher position in mid-August.

My journey began as a freshly experienced suburban teacher and simultaneous adjunct professor embarking on a first year teaching in a very large, urban, predominately Latino elementary school, where 98% of students were identified as low income, a situation significant different from my previous experience. My sincere enthusiasm and extensive training had prepared me to craft insightful sessions for my students. What I was woefully unprepared for were the lessons my students would soon teach me, in this first year and for three more. Cognizant of Gloria Ladson-Billings work on culturally relevant pedagogy, I see now that I attempted to align, though not always successfully, my goals and lessons with her three criteria for culturally relevant pedagogy: “(a) Students must experience academic success: (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order,” (160).

Along with Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant pedagogy, I later connected much of my awkwardness in teaching in this urban setting with concepts Hinchey (2004) explores in challenging educators, especially White women, to understand our own thinking as educators and move toward developing critical consciousness. Hinchey writes “It is particularly important for teachers to ask how their particular backgrounds have shaped their thinking because as a group, teachers are strikingly homogeneous,” (23). In accepting the position, I starkly recall questioning my motives. Was I accepting this position to rebut my former graduate student self?  Was I teaching to help the children? If so, what would this help look like? Did it mean my students would eventually look and talk like me? Did it mean they would reconcile their experiences with my and society’s expectations? What would this mean? Would I be engaging them in the perpetration of false consciousness instead of developing critical consciousness? How would I navigate these quandaries?

Upon reflection, the answers to many of those questions remain elusive. My intention in authoring this work is not to establish methodologies or paradigms, but merely to add to the dialogue. I do not share these experiences to serve as a framework for teaching in an urban environment, nor to validate my practice or any pedagogy, per se. Rather, in response to Gloria Ladson-Billings charge, “For researchers …to know much more about the practice…for students who have been poorly served by our schools” (163), I write. Somewhere in that first year, I believe some hard-earned themes emerged. Lesson one: Engage the mind to secure academic success; Lesson two: Pursue success through accountability and strive to reinforce cultural competence; Lesson three: Acknowledge the good and the bad while nurturing critical consciousness. 

Lesson One: Engage the mind

As a science teacher, I was always most enthralled by the lab work and experiment portions of those classes. Using the Scientific Method to develop hypotheses and follow through with testing merged my love of science and research and I was happy to share these experiences with my students. So, when I was finally settled into Room 301, I was temporarily thrilled to find the newly purchased textbook was essentially a lab manual. Much to my chagrin, I later discovered that not only was there no lab, but there was very minimal equipment.  Nevertheless, I proceeded to plan for weekly experiments on Thursdays, to instill a love of inquiry and to increase motivation.

By assigning clearly defined roles to small groups of lab partners, purchasing and soliciting necessary supplies and providing scripted experiments or exploration activities, I was able to engage the students at least tentatively into experiential learning. Fortunately, after the first activity where students cut up an onion (with plastic knives), peeled away a transparent membrane, dyed it with iodine and analyzed it under a microscope for a unit on photosynthesis, their curiosity flowered and began to take root. Experiment Thursdays were the days we all eagerly awaited, as students experienced academic success.

Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were devoted to addressing content and building background knowledge to translate into Thursday activities, which were then evaluated on Test Fridays. Daily instruction involved lectures, small group discussions and, mostly on the part of the students’ suggestions, innovative applications. For example, instead of more traditional ways of demonstrating mastery, students suggested creating comic strips, which quickly became a class favorite. Though at first wary, I was awed by the students’ ability to use visual media as a means of presenting scientific information. The level of mastery of content and aesthetic design was heartening. This instance may connect to “cultural competence” as one of Ladson-Billings propositions, as the students were maintaining their cultural integrity in the arts, or as they called it “tagging” while in pursuit of educational excellence.

Unfortunately, every attempt at promoting cultural competence and academic excellence did not result in similarly resounding successes. The students’ suggestion that they author raps about genetics should have forewarned concern, especially when despite the caution of adhering to a G-Rating, the lyrics caused me uncharacteristically to blush and strictly censor them. Perhaps I should have concluded that unit when I stated, “if you have any brothers and sisters, when you go home, check their earlobes to see if they are dangling or attached,” only to be corrected by male student, who as Ladson-Billings writes, “possessed social power,” (160). He solemnly intoned, “We are Mexican. We have lots of brothers and sisters.” I tentatively encouraged him to assess the entire sample and report tomorrow.

This exchange, like several other seemingly innocent ones, was unsettling to me. Hinchey writes, “Only when something they’ve always considered normal comes into open conflict with what they experience as real do Whites generally become conscious of their race,” (30). I felt my Whiteness, though the particular reason for discord was challenging to identify. Was it because I was still unfamiliar and most likely would always be tentative with the norms, mores and traditions of my students? Or was it because I was, as Hinchey writes, “enacting someone else’s cultural agenda,” (25)? Was I going to connect with my students and truly engage them in learning, in the fullest sense of the term?

While eventually I like to believe we did progress, I was often overwhelmed with the lack of structure and accountability rampant in my classroom. By the toll of the bell, every 40 minutes, five groups of approximately thirty students circulated into my classroom for science instruction. Frustratingly and practically, we would lose ample time settling down, opening books, locating journals and preparing to learn. A weekend after Halloween, I determined it was time to raise the level of expectations and eventually honed our procedures. Again the concern for cultural relevance was aroused although I forged forward. For, despite my best intentions, we probably lost a month of instructional time and regrettably, I am not even certain we studied every subset of the Science Standards in the IL Learning Framework in great depth. But, in terms of engaging the mind, I venture we achieved some competence.

Lesson Two: Pursue success through accountability

My post-Halloween overhaul came in the form of basic classroom management design. What did this mean? School procedures for behavior involved the completion of a Discipline Referral Form that was forwarded to the overtaxed Disciplinarian for resolution. The form was a full-page front and back, I believe, that besought very detailed information. Often I would complete one form only to have a situation necessitate another. I began with The Week of the Warning Card. That week I instituted an abbreviated version of the Discipline Referral Form. Misbehaving students were presented a blank index card on which they (as mature eighth graders) were to accept ownership of their inappropriate choice. Students were to record their names, the date and time, a brief description of the infraction and their signature. I carefully explained that these cards would be stored for one month and should anyone have the misfortune to accrue three cards, a meeting would be scheduled with his/her parent in the principal’s office.

The first week, students gleefully recorded indiscretions like, “I called the teacher an “effing (sic) b*tch (sic),” until the first accumulation of three cards by a male student with social power.  At our Monday morning meeting, the Assistant Principal, the student, his mother, and I reviewed in his handwriting – complete with illustrations – his distressing warning cards. The shock and dismay of the parent and – as accountability struck home – the ensuing blow to the student solidified the yearlong success of the warning card initiative. He vehemently dissuaded future infractions by sharing his plight. While the increased responsibility in my classroom was welcome, morale suffered as eighth graders cowered before the casual wave of a blank index card. Again, I was plagued with the question, is this management or conformity?

Desperate to salvage my sanity and a positive, though at this point not necessarily culturally relevant, learning environment, I regrouped and indignantly decided to default to behaviorism in offering incentives for positive conduct. The reward manifested into raffle tickets which were signed by the receiver on the back and transferred to a paper bag with each class’s homeroom number. Every Friday (and they would persistently remind me), after the test, I would randomly select one ticket per bag to choose a prize. Very unscientific and shamefully non-nutritious awards of candy and chocolate bars were the favored bounty, which carried a sweet reward for me as students quickly entered the classroom with textbooks and journals open, ready to learn. Was this enough to balm the incongruence with the development of critical consciousness? That first year, I did distribute two full rolls of raffle tickets, with students storing their weekly accrual in wallets exclusively purchased for that purpose. Unbelievably, I witnessed students trade help with homework and favored trinkets for a raffle ticket earned by another student to have a sole chance at being the lucky one that week. 

Once accountability reigned in Room 301, I like to believe the pursuit of academic success gained viability so much so that an occasional student would stop on his way out and proudly share portions of his journal entry for the day. Those students’ demonstration of academic success, Ladson-Billings’ first criteria for culturally relevant pedagogy, spurred the institution of the exit pass. To encourage the celebration of learning (while adding another layer of accountability) students were asked to highlight one portion of their daily journal entry to quickly share upon their exit from the class. This concluding activity encouraged students to hold themselves accountable for their learning and provided me a speedy gauge for future instruction.

Deferring to my constructivist training, I reveled in the authentic use of journals to record our daily progress. Ironically in bold defiance, however, I instituted Friday tests, which were originally based on short answer and essay questions, but due to my quickly deteriorating weekends of grading, devolved into multiple choice tests with Scantron sheets accompanied by only one short answer question. My justifications for Friday tests ranged from justifying that it would be good student practice for the ITBS to assuaging the need to accumulate quantifiable grades in my grade book. Perhaps the most significant development of the test was not determining any level of student mastery, but the fact that the tests eventually highlighted a glaring deficiency in micro and macro levels of accountability.

One Sunday evening while grading the short answer question, I noticed that one particular student, Jose (a pseudonym), merely recopied the question complete with my typo of the word “the.” While the recopying was suspicious, it seemed to be an intermittent trend with this low-performing student, though the transcribing of “the” as “the” in his handwriting was a concern. Monday morning, I requested that he confer with me in the hallway. As I flashed a copy of the test in my hand, Jose charmingly admitted defeat with the promise he would improve. Possessing ample social power, he charismatically denied my request for him to read his written response aloud. I became insistent at which time he boldly confronted me, still refusing. Eventually, he complied, bravely and tearfully sharing that he was, in fact, unable to read. My surprised, and now in retrospect unintentionally insensitive response was, “of course you can read, you are in eighth grade.” Upon further examination, I concluded that he was unable to decode basic high-frequency words, including the word “the.” The admirable coping skills he honed: sitting next to a high-achieving student while relying on his engaging personality and developing strong listening comprehension skills, unknowingly contributed to swindling him out of much-needed literacy support. I shamefully bore the remainder of the burden, as I made this discovery only in December and was unable to arrive at a positive resolution, ultimately cheating him of eighth grade graduation at the very least and most likely much more. The painful lesson of success through accountability was evident to my classes the following year as they, often somewhat perplexed, were asked to read short passages aloud to me in the hallway.

Lesson Three: Acknowledge the good and the bad

That same December, I discovered the dual significance of the Star of David, also identified as a six-point star. As I collegially visited with the language arts teacher one blustery afternoon, I complimented her Christmas trimmings, while encouraging her to add Hanukah decorations in the interest of student cultural relevancy. She laughingly dismissed my appeal by stating, “These kids are Mexican. They do not celebrate Hanukah.” Baffled, I asked a passing student if she was Jewish. She dismissively replied, “No, I’m Catholic.” As I inquired about the Star of David charm dangling from her necklace, she quickly tucked it into her shirt, noticing the reprimand of my colleague, and shared nonchalantly, “Oh, I just like it.” Well, it seems that star, also happens to be the local gang’s symbol, emphatically banned from school and yet, proudly displayed around the necks of a majority of my students who I misidentified as being Jewish for months.

In addition to the sign, I eventually learned that the gang’s colors were black and tan. Previously, I was always ironically amazed that my outfits in these hues garnered compliments from the most unlikely students. Because of the historical significance of colors, the school instituted a navy blue and white dress code policy which stood unquestioned for several years. “Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order,” Ladson-Billings writes. In our instance, this consciousness evolved into a petition asking eighth grade teachers to also wear navy and white uniforms signed by nearly all 150 students. As the signature circulation ended after lunch with my homeroom, I was dutifully presented with the document. I assured my students that I would share the request with the other four teachers and have a response by the end of the week. Our failure as teachers to reach consensus negated this challenge to the status quo and caused a valiant effort at developing critical consciousness to be aborted. What could have been the most empowering resolution? I still remain uncertain though I observed that teachers (myself included) quietly declined to wear uniforms. We avoided wearing ensembles in those colors.

Nevertheless, the development of critical consciousness emerged in other incidents throughout the year. For example, my typically engaged students began inserting a novel into their textbooks and journals, hungrily devouring it instead of our textbook. I would observe them reading in the hallways, outside the school and in the lunchroom. While my literacy training applauded the high-interest reading, this atypical behavior generated enough concern that I approached a student and probed as to the reading material. She quickly stuffed the book into her backpack, though I was later able to identify it as the story of a former gang member. Only later, years after I left the school, did I read the book and fully grasp its furtive appeal. This story resonated with my students because it was the story of their lives: not an unfortunate, victimized portrayal, but an empowered narrative of survival.

Final Recollections

My hope is the lessons my students taught me‑as situated in possibly compatible theoretical works‑contribute to the dialogue regarding urban education, however marginally. In contextualizing opportunities for academic success, maintaining cultural competence and providing opportunities for critical consciousness, I moved toward understanding my own thinking and took a step closer to developing critical consciousness. When at a parent-teacher conference, a father admonished his son by sharing, “We risked everything to come to this country, so that you can have a future, a life, and this is how you repay our sacrifice?” I felt that familiar sense of disquiet, but a connection too. We shared a vision of success for that boy, and though the definition may have varied based on our experiences, we both knew it was attainable.

One thing I know fo’ sho’, as my students would say (and so would I now upon occasion), is that our toils that first year, imparted at least some wisdom that transcended the Illinois Learning Framework and all my years of higher education. I hope they graduated at least vaguely aware of the engagement of their minds, the potential of success through accountability and the lesson learned from acknowledging the good and the bad. I know I still have more questions than answers but am, nevertheless, content. For, as my students stood adorned in their caps and gowns, proudly singing Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at commencement, I knew that, “the hero [really] lies in [them].”


Dewey, John (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.

Hinchey P (2004). Becoming a Critical Educator: Defining a classroom identity, designing a critical pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Theory Into Practice, Volume 34, Number 3, Summer 1995.

Author Information

Dara Soljaga, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department Curriculum, Language and Literacy, Concordia University Chicago. She can be contacted at dara.soljaga@cuchicago.edu.