Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Sight" visit to Newark

Two days ago, I traveled to visit some schools in Newark, NJ, with the goal of gaining first-hand experience with education in an urban setting. Newark is under state control, meaning that the state of New Jersey has taken control of the district in attempt to improve the education system there. The first school I saw was an elementary school. From what I saw, the school was very nice. The school was in a nice neighborhood, and the faculty and students appeared happy and eager to teach/learn. Some of the school staff explained their experiences at the school, and as well as their recent trip to Japan. It was interesting to find out that some of the staff members had received a grant allowing them to observe some of how Japan's education system functioned. The disctrict I was educated in is an upper-middle class suburban district, and the staff in my district have never been afforded the opportunity for professional development in another country. The school also had air conditioning, which is a luxury my district has not yet enjoyed. In a first grade classroom I visited, there were fifteen students and three staff members in the classroom: a teacher, an aid, and an inclusion specialist. This ratio is a more ideal ratio than the classes in my town. The kindergarten teacher who was leading the tour for the group I was in showed us her classroom. The room had a few computers for the children to use, a teacher's computer, and it even had a small refridgerator. From my observations, this school's student body were being provided more than adequate resources for quality learning to take place.
I asked a student, who also lead the tour, what he had planned for his future, and he told me that he aspired to attend Harvard or Duke and study law. His answer demonstrated that there was a sense of agency in the school, that the students believed that they could achieve great things. As I have previously discussed, agency is critical to the success of students. Students could be provided with all the resources possible, and they would not be useful without the student's sense of hope.
The most valuable experience I had in Newark was on the second day, in another elementary school. The school offered the visitors a significant amount of time in a classroom with students and a teacher. I visited an eighth grade math classroom for approximately 35 minutes, and I was able to observe the workings of the class, ask the teacher questions and interact with the students as well. The teacher was very passionate about his class, and he explained that the state-mandated curriculum was called math connections. In this curriculum, the the students are given a problem and are required to work through the problem without being first instructed on the method. The method allows students to develop problem-solving skills, and now become reliant on memorizing procedures. It really requires the students to understand the problem, and what it is asking in order to be solved. The teacher assigns partners, which allows students to create a dialogue, and feed off of one another's ideas. The teacher told me that he paired students to complement one another's strengths/weaknesses. From what I observed, the students were doing well with the method. The method seems, at lewast in theory, to foster crtitcal thinking skills.


Ryan McGuirk said...

I saw something similar to your second-day math experience. I was visiting a 4th grade classroom and the teacher was doing fractions with the kids with the use of a manipulative. He was having kids identify various equal fractions and then construct sentences that illustrated what they knew to be true from the manipulative. Reading what you wrote about fostering critical thinking skills reminded me of this because I think in both instances, students are expected to stand on their own two feet and not rely on the teacher to force feed them information.

StangCobra said...

The first school we visited visited Japan, as you mentioned. They spoke about their trip, but it seemed odd to me that the one big idea that they took away from this trip was the implementation of uniforms. Other than that I was impressed with the first school and most of the schools for that matter. The students were very friendly, cordial, and courteous, much different than what I had assumed.