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Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as City Slickers

City Slickers

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Intern James Heffron can't use English to teach the concept of surpluses in his 6th grade social studies class at Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston—half his students rely on Chinese as their first language. So, instead, he works with a currency known to nearly all 11-year-olds: M&Ms. A visit to the 27-year-old Heffron's class finds him distributing handfuls of the rainbow-colored chocolates to each child, encouraging them to trade with each other by pantomiming an exchange. Some of the students end up eating their stash, but others get his point, swapping oranges for reds and greens for blues.

Intern James Heffron can't use English to teach the concept of surpluses in his 6th grade social studies class at Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston—half his students rely on Chinese as their first language. So, instead, he works with a currency known to nearly all 11-year-olds: M&Ms. A visit to the 27-year-old Heffron's class finds him distributing handfuls of the rainbow-colored chocolates to each child, encouraging them to trade with each other by pantomiming an exchange. Some of the students end up eating their stash, but others get his point, swapping oranges for reds and greens for blues.

"It's been difficult," Heffron confides after class. "In all the activities, I have to use props. At first I relied on dialogue, but I quickly learned it doesn't work."

It may be a challenge, but Heffron, a student at Boston's Northeastern University, has a support system rare for teachers-in-training. Last fall, Northeastern decided to focus its teacher-preparation program exclusively on urban education. Classes now teach how to recognize and nurture racial and ethnic diversity, and prospective teachers are placed in exclusively urban settings throughout their college years to gain firsthand experience. Moreover, the school of education is building key partnerships with alternative schools and community groups that provide afterschool programs so that education students can practice their craft in a variety of forums. In return, the education school will provide essential services to the 63,000-student Boston district and the community organizations, including access to research and nationally known professors.

"We're proud of our standing as an urban university and committed to making city life better," says Richard Freeland, president of the university. "Preparing knowledgeable, gifted people to teach in urban schools is critically important: first, because the pupils deserve able, committed instructors; and second, because the health of our nation's cities is tied closely to the ability of our public schools to educate."

With its new mission, Northeastern joins the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin in the small group of universities committed to preparing teachers for urban schools, according to David Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, based in Washington, D.C. "What we have to do is to focus on...context-based teacher education," Imig says. "If your [university] is in a rural district in South Dakota, you prepare people for a rural district in South Dakota. If it is in Boston, you prepare for that."

"There are uniquely urban experiences that are extraordinarily challenging and frustrating," agrees Ed Joyce, an adjunct professor of education at Northeastern and assistant headmaster of the John D. O'Bryant High School of Mathematics and Science, a public school in Boston. "It does take a special mind-set, morally and professionally. Schools that focus on urban education at least prepare students for the dilemmas they'll have."

Introduction-to-education classes at Northeastern now mandate that students participate in community afterschool programs. "Many of our students come from suburban or small towns, so we really want them to go out into urban communities and simply not to be afraid," says Terry Haywoode, a Northeastern professor who teaches one of the introduction classes. "We don't want them to believe the mythology."

So far, students say they're pleased with the urban emphasis. "It's not that you need different tools," says Kimberly Frazier-Booth, a former journalist who enrolled at Northeastern to begin a second career in teaching. "It's realizing that I might have kids who come to school hungry. These kids have all kinds of issues."

Northeastern's new focus on urban teaching is part of a larger effort to reinvigorate its struggling education program. Recently, the university's college of education made the startling move of inviting professors from the arts and sciences faculty to help choose its curriculum, make hiring and tenure decisions, and conduct research. In time, it aims to anchor teacher preparation in the study of the academic subjects—math, biology, English, and the like—that ed school students will eventually teach.

This restructuring follows years in which many at the university saw the teacher-prep program as a dumping ground for weak students. The school's pass rate on the reading, writing, and subject sections of Massachusetts' test for prospective teachers was a dismal 17.6 percent in the summer of 1998—the lowest scores in the state, recalls James Fraser, dean of Northeastern's college of education. Two studies conducted in 1997 and 1998 also found that the university's teacher training had significant deficiencies.

After the studies, Fraser argued that Northeastern had to do a better job or get out of the teacher education business. "[The program] wasn't working," he recalls. "It was too decentralized, unfocused, and the quality wasn't what it should be."

—Julie Blair

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 15

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  • Northeastern University's School of Education is closely integrated with most of the other departments of the College of Arts and Sciences.
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