A New School of Thought

A student teaching assignment at an urban high school prompts Casey to rethink reading instruction. She's impressed when she observes a teacher use hip hop to teach Shakespeare, but her university peers aren't all receptive to this unorthodox teaching strategy.

Casey’s first day student teaching at Carver High School proves to be an eye-opening experience.

Casey has mixed feelings about teaching at Carver.

Never before had Casey more clearly recognized her own “whiteness” than while walking through the main doors of Carver High School. She was the only white person in sight and she struggled to remember a time in her life when this was the case.

In four years of college, Casey had never visited this part of Washington, D.C. Last month, after learning about her student teaching placement at Carver, she’d spent the whole afternoon on the school’s website, digging through demographics and achievement data, and trying to envision the urban high school environment.

Carver High School Demographics

Though she didn’t complain about her placement, Casey was a little disappointed she wouldn’t be student teaching at Maryvale High School, which was much closer to her apartment and in the same neighborhood as her university. Two of her freshman hall friends had attended Maryvale and often raved about the number of National Merit finalists that emerged from its ranks each year, including each of them. Carver and Maryvale seemed worlds apart despite their four mile distance.

After signing in at the visitor’s desk, Casey maneuvered through the hallways looking for Room D-243. It had been a while since she was in a high school. So far, her education program had only required her to visit elementary and middle school classes. But she felt a connection with high school kids and thought this experience might make or break her decision to pursue a Secondary English certification.

As she watched student after student beeline into classrooms, Casey’s mind was full of questions: Would the students like her? More importantly, would they respect her? Would she know how to make a photocopy in the teacher workroom? Her palms felt sweaty as she unfolded her schedule to check the room number again.

When she found the classroom of her cooperating teacher, Marcus Calloway, Casey slinked in, stood at the back of the room, and waited to be acknowledged. Because she would be observing a self-contained class, she wanted to stay under the radar. She watched as the teacher greeted each entering student.

“Morning, Jose… Nice game last night, Tony… Hey Shakira! I’m looking forward to reading your final draft later.” The personal connections Marcus made with his students were genuine and seemingly effortless.

When most desks were filled, Marcus motioned for Casey to take the empty seat next to Shakira in the back row. Casey shyly waved to the class as she took her seat.

“Mr. C., who is that?” Jose called from across the room. His teacher shot him a glance. Casey looked to her cooperating teacher as he began her formal introduction.

Casey reflects on the night before as Marcus begins his lesson.

Casey had been up late the previous night ensuring everything was perfect for her teaching debut, despite the fact that her first day would simply be an observation. After scouring her closet, she eventually settled on a black suit and comfortable flats, and spent the rest of the evening reviewing the massive curriculum binder Marcus had loaned her when they met last week. At the meeting he had described his class of self-contained English class for students with special needs ranging from emotional disorders to severe learning disabilities. He’d explained to her that many of his students read below grade level and that one of his year-long objectives was to motivate his students to read more. Casey loved a challenge, and as she listened to Marcus describe his students, she was scared and excited at the same time.

Casey had always loved reading. She could trace the important moments of her youth by the book she was reading at the time. Throughout their winning soccer season in the sixth grade, she and her friends were sharing a tattered copy of The Babysitter’s Club. The summer she worked as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool, she read The Scarlet Letter every day on her lunch break. She survived her first break-up by reading about an even greater pain in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Casey reveled in the idea that she might inspire students to love reading as much as she did.

Marcus’s booming voice brought her mind back to the present.

“Inclusion Pros and Cons”

Marcus Calloway checks in with one of his students.

“Okay everybody. We’re going to read some Shakespeare today,” Marcus prepped the class, offering two thumbs up and an overly forced smile as if he knew this directive would conjure up more than a few groans.

“Then I’m outta here,” a student called from the back of the class. He pretended to pack up his books and waited with a smile on his face for some response from his teacher. Marcus did not disappoint and darted to the door, melodramatically blocking the entrance with his sprawled-out body, and joked, “Et tu Ramon?”

Casey laughed out loud.

“Shakespeare?” Shakira blurted out. “Mr. C, get real. That stuff is for rich, old white people.”

Casey felt her cheeks flush. She looked to the teacher. Without missing a beat, Marcus lifted his arm, rolled his sleeve up to reveal his dark skin, and deliberately looked down at Shakira.

“Let’s let everyone decide that for themselves,” Marcus said with a grin. “Because no way am I gonna give up one of my favorite authors just because I’m black. Now old and rich? Well, just give me some time.”

The kids burst into laughter as Marcus continued with his lesson.

Casey speaks with Marcus about the class and his teaching method.

Marcus wrapped up class, informing his students that their homework assignment was to listen to the radio or watch a few music videos that evening and record five instances of figures of speech.

“You will need it to tomorrow for a group activity, so make sure you help make class tomorrow a success,” Marcus explained. The students diligently wrote down the assignment in their agendas. The bell rang and Marcus stood at the door, saying goodbye to each student with a sincere handshake.

“I don’t know I could ever get that creative with Shakespeare, Mr. Calloway” Casey confessed as the last student exited the room. “I would never have thought to make the connection between Shakespeare and hip hop. Those H.E.L.P. workbooks really seemed to capture their interest, too.”

“You’ve got to connect whatever you’re teaching to the kids’ lives,” Marcus grinned. “My kids love hip hop. They need to understand Shakespeare’s style of writing. It’s really a no-brainer for me. I just do what I gotta do. By the way… you’re a professional too, now. Please call me Marcus.”

The two continued to talk throughout most of their twenty-minute lunch. And although she felt like a huge nerd doing it, Casey took notes.

With about ten more minutes before their next class, Casey excused herself and headed to the cafeteria to grab some food.

After lunch, Casey talks to Shakira about English class.

Shakira did not always like school.

Casey ate hurriedly, anxious to get back to see Marcus’s next lesson. She was inspired by the idea of using hip hop in an English class and the H.E.L.P. materials seemed to be exactly what would put her at ease if she did ever attempt it. Her Methods course had mentioned the use of music as a strategy to engage and motivate students, but she had never seen a workbook of materials. Finishing up her tossed salad, Casey dropped the Styrofoam tray in the garbage, and moved toward the cafeteria exit. Up ahead in the hallway, Casey could see Shakira from Marcus’s morning class. Casey zig-zagged through the sea of bodies to catch up with her.

“Hi Shakira,” Casey said. “What’s up?”

“Chillin’,” Shakira replied, not overly interested.

“I really enjoyed watching your class today. Mr. Calloway seems like a great teacher.”

“Mr. C.? Yeah, he’s a-aight,” Shakira shrugged her shoulders. “He makes English better than most teachers.”

Casey decided she would ask Marcus if she could take some of the H.E.L.P. materials home with her to get a closer look. She had a seminar that evening and wanted to share the curriculum with her classmates.

Opinions are mixed at Berry School of Education.

Small group discussion of their observations.

“So how was the first day, everyone?” Professor Richards prodded the group of fifteen teacher education students. “Does anyone know all the kids’ names already?”

One opinionated student jumped right in. “I am just amazed that the kids don’t listen to directions. And they will not stop talking, even when my cooperating teacher requests silence.” This comment led to quite a few side conversations about each student teacher’s day, general classroom chatter, and nervous feelings about whether or not a different set of rules would lead to a different outcome.

“What kinds of instructional strategies did you all witness? Did you see cooperative learning? Did any teachers implement an inquiry lesson? Did you observe your basic chalk and talk lesson?” Professor Richards rattled off question after question. “Break up into your groups from last week and informally discuss what you witnessed today.”

This was just what Casey had been waiting for.

Though she was somewhat discouraged by her peers’ comments, Casey was determined to try out these H.E.L.P. workbooks when she took over Marcus’s classes next week. She tuned out from the current discussion on classroom management and thought about completely restructuring next week’s grammar unit. She’d been working on it for weeks in it’s current form, but if the kids respond so well to it, she thought, maybe using some hip hop lyrics could ease the pain of identifying adverbial phrases. Casey jotted down her ideas as the lecture continued.