For the school year that just ended, I worked as a new faculty member at one of Philadelphia's endangered accelerated schools, where students -- ranging from 16-to-21-years-old -- are given an opportunity to earn their diplomas, and make up for time lost due to every conceivable circumstance. Sure, there are kids (I call them kids, even though I'm only three or four years older than most of them) who show up just to collect a SEPTA transpass (a trizzie in their parlance) and do little else. But the level of determination and commitment shown by many of these pupils is staggering. These are kids who, for the most part, had dropped out of school at some point, but now are working to turn negative aspects of their lives around. Many are just a few steps away from college, a career, and a healthy, satisfying, and long life.
One of my proudest personal achievements at school this year involved a literature class based on my own experiences as a college student. I decided the class would take the same seminar-style form as the classes I was enrolled in as an undergraduate and graduate student. The idea was that students would be given a text in advance, read it on their own, and then come to class to discuss. We would then sit around in a circle with our reading and converse. I would take a minimal role by asking opening questions, keeping the flow of the class going, and taking attendance. That would be all.
My goal was mainly to help the students develop critical thinking skills. Rather than teaching them about narrative styles by introducing terms like 'third-person omniscient' or whatever, I would just let them read the story and then ask something like 'Why should I trust the person telling the story?' My optimistic theory was that this particular format could work equally well for middle-class grad students and inner-city youth.
The idea was admittedly far-fetched. While the laissez-faire form of the class would be easy on students, to say the least, the newness of the form would be a challenge. Could I really count on students to read independently? And if they did, would there be any guarantee that they would understand the material? Or want to discuss it? But, I was determined to try it, believing that the same gumption I saw students demonstrate personally would help them academically, as well. Then a blow came in the form of TABE test results, which concluded that not one of the students in my class could read beyond an 8th grade level. It was too late to change course, though. I knew they could keep up with more demanding work, pushing themselves when necessary. Or at least that's what I hoped for.
The first class was an unmitigated disaster. I explained the way the class would operate while the students sat around with dull, confused faces. They had no questions and I had nothing left to say. I handed out the first assignment, Somerset Maugham's classic "The Appointment in Samarra" and then, perhaps heeding a lesson from the story, let the rest fall into fate's hands.
Thankfully, the students approached and engaged the text dutifully. They may read at an 8th grade level according to the tests, may lack the vocabulary and sentence construction skills to be taken seriously by most of the professional world, but they certainly can read, discuss, and understand Albert Camus or Wiliam Faulkner or Toni Morrison. As the year went on, the class slowly and adroitly analyzed poets such as Ezra Pound, Wiliam Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I even had them write Imagist poems based on the busy intersection where our school is located and they did a wonderful job. They used dictionaries to discover and define words, gained better writing and communication skills by reading and talking about some of the greatest writers ever, and, hopefully, gained a real sense of pride in the work they are doing.
Just as 45 minutes has never been enough class time, the year ended too soon. Even though I should be pleased, I was saddened that we had just finished reading The Great Gatsby and now there was nothing left for me to hand out. But I don't need to worry about these kids and the others like them. Despite the shortcomings of our urban school systems, the dire prospects facing even the youth that do graduate, and the harsh day-to-day life that so many of the students I worked with face, the class renewed my faith in Socrates' credo that the only certain good is knowledge and the only true evil is ignorance.