Teaching in Urban Schools (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 27, 2009

Teaching in Urban Schools – Katya Denisova – Science Coordinator, Baltimore Public Schools.

This was a talk about factors to consider when teaching science in schools with high poverty levels.  Baltimore has a large poverty rate (30% of kids under 18 live in poverty if I understood her statistic right, though that seems high), and a large African American population.  Many students move during their high school career, and only 63% of seniors will graduate.  Wow.

How can we teach physics to this student population?  How do we help teachers with good content knowledge develop the pedagogy to teach effectively in this environment?  Of the 34 teachers with a certification in physics (compared to 214 in biology), only 12 are actually teaching physics, half of which are in magnet schools.  And 21 of those teachers are from the Philippines, and only 7 from the U.S.  This is a somewhat bleak picture — there are not many physics educators in the school, there are not many resources for teaching physics, parents are not involved in students’ science learning,  students are not motivated and teachers are not qualified.

The “pedagogy of poverty” is a style of teaching that keeps kids under control with a lot of didactic teaching and directed activities.  It’s not necessarily that effective at helping kids learn, but the kids are well organized.  It’s typical of urban settings.  Below is from Haberman’s article of that same title:

“The teaching acts that constitute the core functions of urban teaching are:
giving information,
asking questions,
giving directions,
making assignments,
monitoring seatwork,
reviewing assignments,
giving tests,
reviewing tests,
assigning homework,
reviewing homework,
settling disputes,
punishing noncompliance,
marking papers, and
giving grades.”

Here’s a blog post from a teacher who seemed to have a bit of an epiphany when she read that article.

“Miss C, do you know everything?” “How come you’re so smart?” … And though I usually kept a straight face (with difficulty), I was delighted at this response. I thought it was cute that they thought I was some kind of omniscient being, instead of just a teacher. … But through the lens of this article, I can see that all the dispensing of knowledge on my end intimidated my students. How could they hope to know as much as I do? Teachers are for telling you things, interesting and boring, and students’ jobs are for listening and behaving.

Some studies have been done on how to teach effectively in an African American classroom.

  1. Students have low academic self esteem SO make a warm fun accepting learning environment with low competition
  2. Students like tasks with human issues SO use scientists’ biographies and stories
  3. Students like kinesthetic and visual learning SO use hands on appraoches
  4. Students are vocal SO encourage them to talk about science
  5. Students believe that people and things are connected SO teach the Big Picture of science (and include religion)

Though, of course, I balk when I hear someone say “People in X group are Y.”  Still, these generalizations can help direct our teaching strategies.   She’s found that students really have fun doing hands-on activities, using card games, motion analysis programs, balloon rockets, etc.  They’re going to try adopting Physics First… which should be an interesting experiment.


Tom Satter July 27, 2009 at 7:05 pm

I teach at-risk kids in Boulder, CO. Boulder does not have the demographics you talk about for Baltimore, but our particular school matches up very closely with what you have written. Classroom control is easier with a “pedagogy of poverty” teaching style as you list, but it does not make students see the beauty in science, it just gets all of us through the day. Teaching in full inquiry/hands-on mode takes far more preparation and energy, and that is not always available to the teachers, but it does engage the students much more fully.

sciencegeekgirl July 27, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Thank you for your comment, Tom, it’s very interesting to know that these trends are something I can see in my backyard (I’m also in Boulder). I wonder, is there some way to help support teachers to do some more interactive teaching to help students enjoy science more, within the constraints of getting through the day with limited time and energy for preparation?

Tom Satter July 28, 2009 at 5:29 am

Teaching is my second career – after engineering and computer programming. This is my fourth year teaching and this will be my third year at this school. Part of the problem has been that we have a three year curriculum plan and that I am the first science teacher who has stayed at the school long enough to even consider creating and following a three year plan. This means that when I started at the school I was a fairly new teacher and there were 1) absolutely no science supplies, 2) no books or other resource materials, 3) no money to buy full curriculums and supply sets, and 4) a culture of getting science teachers to leave the school. The students were actually placing bets on how long it would take to get me to leave when I started. The severely underestimated my stubborn streak :-).

So I have spent these first three years doing the following: Developing a three year curriculum plan from scratch that covers all state science standards; Developing new curriculum and lesson plans for differentiated 7th – 12th grade classes for different subject areas each semester; Trying to create labs and hands-on work for the students that costs nothing or almost nothing in supplies; Doing 5 1/2 hours of instruction every day; Trying to keep up on grading and student feedback. I have seen the “Pedagogy of Poverty” at work in my school and in my own teaching. It is very alluring – if I put up a powerpoint lecture with a lot of note taking in it, the kids definitely sit quietly and take notes. Some even ask good questions. It looks very good and as a teacher it seems like things are going well. However, the comprehension and retention is not there. On the other hand, I have had times where we have done projects or labs that seemed totally disorganized and chaotic, but where the students have remembered a lot from the exercise even two years later. The problem is that coming up with good, hands-on, interactive lessons is not something I can do real-time and keep up with the teaching and grading and other duties. I think that after I start repeating any subject (physics, in fall 2010!) it will get a bit easier because I will have some curriculum to build upon.

It surprises me how little is out there for teacher resources. There are many curriculums that I can buy if we had a lot of money, and there are a lot of sites with free lesson plans, etc, but they are very, very spotty on quality and usefulness.

Maybe a good grant project would be for at-risk science teachers to get together and start creating a set of low-cost, effective, and highly interactive lessons to share with each other.

Jill C. October 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Mr. Tom Satter your comments are insiteful and have made me curious. I would like to have a discussion with you. Contact me please sjaijcarroll at msn dot com.

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