Mind the Gap

The inspiration and exasperation of an inner-city schoolteacher. This is a new column by a teacher in the South Bronx. It will appear every...

The inspiration and exasperation of an inner-city schoolteacher.

This is a new column by a teacher in the South Bronx. It will appear every Friday.

After class the other day, I sidled up to a student of mine. He had struggled earlier in the year, but had lately shown signs of getting back on track. Today, however, he hadn’t turned in his homework.

“Shawn, what happened with your homework today?” I asked him.

“I didn’t take my book bag home with me yesterday,” he replied. I raised an eyebrow—why wouldn’t he take his book bag home with him?

“I gave it to Xavier.”

“And why’d you give your book bag to Xavier?”

“Because I had to go fight.”

“Oh.” At this point, I reached a fork in the conversational road. Part of me wanted to thank him for sharing this information with me and to inquire as to why he was fighting, who he was fighting with and whether or not he was okay. But in this unscripted moment, my teacher self took over, and my thoughts reverted to the message I received over and over again during my teacher training—maintain high expectations.

“I’m sorry to hear you were fighting, Shawn, but you’re still responsible for getting your homework done, regardless of the circumstances.”

Shawn looked at me like I had four heads, then nodded his head in agreement.

“I know, Mister.”

Had I just proved to my student that I take his education seriously and expect him to do the same? Had I just been a total jerk and missed an opportunity to build an authentic relationship with my student? Or, had I done both?

Welcome to the confounding world I live in as a teacher in an inner-city school. My days are filled with alternating moments of exasperation, like the one outlined above, and inspiration, when my students prove to me that anything really is possible.

I’m starting this blog to share my experiences as a teacher, hoping to contribute to a more accurate understanding of what it's actually like to be in a classroom every day.

My kids are just like kids anywhere—beautiful people, full of energy and ambition, deserving of a high-quality education. At home, at school and in their community, many have received a raw deal. They learned too little when they were young. They had too few effective teachers as they got older. They encountered too few positive influences along the way.

I come from a vastly different world than the one in which I teach. I’m from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a comfortable Philadelphia suburb where the median household income is $87,248. I teach in the South Bronx, an impoverished area with a median household income of $19,389.

My tony hometown borders Camden, a city known for being named among the most dangerous places in America. The school systems are vastly different, too. It has always struck me as absurd that neighboring towns could offer their residents such different educations (and, as that follows, such different life prospects). (Author Jonathan Kozol found the disparity absurd, too— he included the Cherry Hill-Camden dichotomy in his classic treatise, Savage Inequalities.)

In college, I discovered Teach for America. While I recruited fellow students for Teach for America during my senior year of college, I never thought I'd actually participate in the program. I didn’t think I would be particularly effective, unable to build relationships with students whose backgrounds were so different from my own. (I had, after all, seen Dangerous Minds.)

I changed my mind after volunteering at a daylong workshop, where in a few hours' time, I developed a remarkably close bond with a group of teenage students. Over the course of an afternoon, we built more trust and mutual respect than I had imagined was possible.

And so I applied to Teach for America and a year-and-a-half later, am eager to share my experiences. I don’t remember them all —last year was marked by intense sleep deprivation—but I look forward to sharing those I do. I sincerely hope you will engage with me, even suggesting topics you would be interested in reading about.

Keep in mind, my experiences are my own and are not necessarily representative of other teachers in my school. And they are certainly in no way representative of Teach for America or the New York City Department of Education.

These posts are simply a reflection of my efforts to mind the gap, to pay attention on a macro-level to the educational disparity that pervades this country and on a micro-level, to the different abilities of my individual students.

(Please note: The names of students have been changed.)

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school. He will be regularly writing for GOOD about his classroom and his kids.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less