It was a long day, and I was glad to be home. It started with a van load of college students, fresh from their dorms, and it ended in the barrios of Chicago. Before I get into the details, let me say that my day job is teaching classes in Spanish and Latin American culture. I began my career as a specialist in the humanities, but over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that most colleagues have the heads stuck so far up their ivory towers that they have lost touch with reality. That is, if they were ever in touch in reality to begin with. Since publishing a couple of books on transvestites and other freaks, I have drifted a bit, getting away from the simile and metaphor business, and wondered aloud about what makes up an undergraduate experience. Is it all about books, libraries and papers, or does it have something to do with late nights, binge drinking and waking up in a strange apartment naked. Come on! We’ve all been there. You go to the bathroom, trying to remember the name of the person in the bedroom, look into the mirror and see the fear in your own eyes. It’s all a part of growing up and learning to take responsibility. But insanity and unprotected sex aside, what is an undergraduate experience? Isn’t it about leaving home, discovering a world beyond you own, and developing abstract skills that will carry you toward the rest of your life? I know for sure that an undergraduate experience is not about being the embryo of some new PhD. Only a select few go on for an advanced degree: the few, the (terribly) proud, and the very, very weird.
A long time ago, I came to the conclusion that a lot of learning doesn’t take place in the classroom. Fifty minutes a day, three days a week is just not enough. So, breaking out of the passive-receptive mode has to happen someplace else. So, this is what my teaching is about these days. I put students in situations in which they have to adapt quickly. I throw them into the deep-end and tell them to swim like hell before they sink. It works, too. My ideal study abroad program would begin in the desert where I would abandon students to their wits. They would have a list of places they would have to visit by a specific date, and if a few didn’t make it to the end; I guess they just weren’t really cut out for the major. Life can be hard and fast, so it’s better to get with the program.
The College of Education at my university received a large grant from the federal government to develop future teachers in areas of high need. The architect of the program, a guy who bears the same name as an old confederate general had a vision that entailed developing a relationship between the largest Mexican enclave in the City of Chicago, and the university. The purpose was to provide specialized curriculum for future teachers, as well as support and mentoring for them once they took their first positions in urban areas. This project would also establish partnerships for student teaching and placement, and organize high school teach clubs to encourage students from the community to become attend the university, become teachers themselves, and then latter return to the neighborhood. It was brilliant!
I became involved in the project early on. I received a request for proposal to develop components in my class that would cover part of the urban experience. Hispanic immigration, bilingual education and cultural adjustment were natural fits. The grant proposal also included funding for site visits, which would put my students in schools that were 99.9 percent Hispanic. Most of my students are from the affluent Western suburbs or down state, so the idea of venturing into the barrio troubled some of them. One told me that he thought I was taking them to hell.
The first round went pretty well. They first trips were the typical meet-greet-eat sessions. We needed something that brought my students into active contact; we needed to have learning experiences, not just a walk through. During one of our visits to a partner school, the principal asked for volunteers to assist with Parent-Teacher conferences. A lot of the teachers don’t speak Spanish, and the parents don’t speak English. What was happening was that the munchkins had to translate for their own parents and for teachers. Needless to say, there is something savagely unnatural about ratting yourself out. And, the little buggers were smart enough to know that if they tell mom and dad that they’re failing math and reading, they are going to be up a creek.
So we started sending translators to make sure that parents got the message. And, it worked! The activity was a smashing success. Not only were parents and teachers communicating, but my students got front row seats to watching how veteran teachers handled the parents, which can be a tough group if you don’t know what you are doing. Like sharks, if they smell blood in the water, the new teacher is a sitting duck.
In any case, what I do a couple times a year is fill a university van with students and drive them up to Chicago. We were up at the schools this week right after the Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday that celebrates the ancestors. The children decorated their schools with altars and sugar skeletons. It’s a great time of the year. Most of the students have never seen this neighborhood, so I avoid driving them past Cook County Jail and take the more scenic route to the schools. Then, I assign them to cooperating teachers in three different schools. My kids provide simultaneous interpretation from eleven o’clock in the morning until six in the evening. It’s a long day and they bear witness to the success and struggles of this generation of America’s immigrants. It takes us all back to a time when we were all just wops, krauts, and micks. It is a harsh welcome to the New World.
The students see it all: men and women trying to good parents, mothers undergoing chemotherapy and, as sick as they are, can’t miss the meetings, children dealing with learning the language, reading above and below their level. Some of the kids need more help and some just come to show how much they appreciate a teacher who actually cares. My students see it all: learning disabilities, behavior problems, and the shining stars. They see the success stories of undocumented students, who, while living in gang-ridden neighborhoods, dream about college and the future.
And, then it happens: the undergraduate kids I drop off in the morning become the adults and future teachers. I can see it in their faces: they get some confidence in their abilities as speakers of the language and their abilities as a future teacher. They are not accomplished translators; they make a mistake or two, but they learn fast. It’s sink or swim in the deep end. But, the task is not insurmountable, either. The vocabulary during the parent-teacher conferences is pretty repetitive, and even if a student crashes and burns in the first attempt, there is no time to obsess about failure. The next group of parents arrives a minute later. Life goes on, and by the end of the day, my students they can do it. I spend the day shuttling between schools, observing and checking on their progress. So far, I have only had to pull one out of action. After six o’clock, we head to a restaurant to eat, relax, and share stories while the traffic thins out. We are usually back on the road by eight.
On the way home we had the radio on, and we heard news about another report about how schools and teachers are failing. In light of the political smear campaigns and the attach ads this fall, it seems like just another self-appointed group out to bash teachers. If they really had the cojones to do a study, they might find that parents need to take on more responsibility to validate and reinforce what goes on in school, rather than blaming teachers for not being supermen and women. After all, anyone can be a parent: you don’t have to go to the university, study hard, take competency tests, develop a portfolio, meet standards, and successfully complete student teaching. Maybe parents should be certified before they can reproduce?
In any case, I will have to look at the report. It just doesn’t jibe with what is going on in my field. The students that we graduate in my department, according to the standardized tests, are top notch. With the right amount of support, they will be ready for their own classrooms. I can’t say the same for parents.