Teachers: M.I.T. Graduate Follows Conscience to the Inner City
When he was in college, Bennett Brown spent a lot of time pondering what to do after graduation. But he had more options than most of his peers--with a 5.0 grade-point average while majoring in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he could virtually take his pick of careers.
At one point, he was excited about doing research on artificial intelligence or nuclear physics, but he also was intrigued by the summer he had spent doing cancer research.
Today, two years after graduation, Brown pedals his bike to work on Chicago's South Side, past boarded-up houses and through the long shadows cast by the high-rise Robert Taylor Homes project.
Bennett Brown, 24, is a Chicago public school teacher.
He stores his bike in the back of his classroom at Du Sable High School, across from the Taylor homes, and putters around assembling glass beakers and bunsen burners for an experiment.
Brown teaches two chemistry and three physics classes a day. In between the chemistry classes, he takes down and sets up experiments and wolfs down a brown-bag lunch. After school, he does paperwork, plans lessons, helps students who have missed labs catch up on their work, and dreams up new ways to make science come alive for Du Sable students. Last year, he ran an after-school science program for gifted and talented 4th graders.
He figures he works 60 hours a week.
"I wanted to come here,'' Brown says. "I wanted the toughest assignment I could get.''
Du Sable is, indeed, a tough assignment. Its 1,400 students, all African-American, live in or near the project. On any given day, only about 70 percent show up at school. When they do, they are frequently late to class.
Academically, Du Sable ranks near the bottom of Chicago high schools, but it's considered to be on its way up. Charles Mingo, its energetic principal, uses the word "reclaiming'' to describe the turnaround. Not so long ago, he says, the attitude was "anywhere but Du Sable.''
Mingo says he's thrilled to have found Brown, Du Sable's only physics teacher. But even without Brown's stellar academic record, his presence at the school would be noteworthy simply because he's certified to teach physics and chemistry. The probability that an inner-city high school student will be taught by a certified mathematics or science teacher, according to recent estimates, is only about 40 percent.
"He comes up with very creative solutions, and he bonds with the kids well,'' Mingo says. "He has a unique ability to pull out of them things that you don't find other people are able to do.''
The young teacher presides over a spacious, well-organized laboratory with an office, equipped with a telephone at one end and a storage vault at the other. Along the sides are wooden cabinets with carefully labeled drawers. Brown shows off his room proudly, noting the science-textbook library he compiled, pointing out the view of the school's landscaped courtyard, and demonstrating how to use an electrical-circuit game he devised one weekend.
He opens a cabinet and takes out a resistance box for the physics course. It dates from the 1940's, the teacher says, just like the ones he saw in M.I.T.'s museum.
"Some of the physics equipment here hadn't been touched,'' he explains. "This is vintage.''
'Changing Balance of Power'
Brown considers his work a form of political activism, although he harbors few illusions that one slightly built, novice science teacher with a mop of curly brown hair can do much to stem the economic, political, and social forces that shape Du Sable students' lives.
"We live in a country where atiny fraction of the population owns a huge majority of the wealth, and the economic class you become as an adult is defined by who your parents are. Economic mobility is predominantly a lie,'' he contends. "I was born with quite a bit of privilege. I feel I have an opportunity to spread that privilege. Just by teaching, you give back. But if I were to teach in a wealthy school, who would I give back to? I'm acting to change the balance of power--even though that's impossible.''
Brown grew up in West Des Moines. His mother is an English professor and his father is a businessman who spends much of his time doing volunteer and civic work. While at M.I.T., Brown says, he "drifted among majors,'' studying an eclectic mix of subjects until he finally majored in physics because he had taken all the necessary courses.
While he had always planned to teach high school at some point, Brown says he hadn't planned on making teaching his first job. But he became certified through an exchange program with Wellesley College and got hooked on working with inner-city students in Cambridge and Boston.
With a brother living here and a girlfriend in medical school at the University of Chicago, Brown scouted around for teaching jobs on the city's South Side. And Mingo jumped at his chance.
"I interviewed him, and then I put him in front of a class to see if he could teach,'' the principal recalls. "Education is a 'people' kind of thing, and if you can't teach, I don't need you.''
Brown not only had brains, the principal decided, he also could translate his knowledge for students and infect them with his enthusiasm for science. His first year of teaching, in fact, Brown did so well that Mingo nominated him for a first-year teaching award sponsored by the Student Loan Marketing Association. Brown was one of 100 new teachers honored by the association.
One reason that Brown felt free to be creative last year, departing from the prescribed curriculum, was that he regarded himself first as a science teacher. So if he found a newspaper article about the discovery of a cancer-linked gene or a giant meteorite crater, he clipped it and launched into a discussion with his students. "My students needed to learn basic science, period,'' he says. "What difference did it make whether it was a physics or chemistry class?''
In that spirit, Brown took his students to visit a planetarium and arranged for Hazel Johnson, a resident of a housing project in the city who has led a movement to rid inner-city neighborhoods of pollutants, to speak to his classes.
Despite the praise his teaching won him, Brown says he felt "lost, disorganized, and like I lacked structure in my classes'' last year.
Then, over the summer, he had an experience that changed his mind about what his students needed to learn and why. Mingo asked Brown to become a mentor for a Du Sable student named James who had been admitted to college but needed practical help in getting himself there.
The teacher threw himself into the task wholeheartedly, driving James and a friend to Illinois State University and even taking the same tests that James was given for placement. And when Brown saw how difficult those tests were, how undemanding James's freshman schedule would be as a result of his scores on them, and how easily he could get lost in the unfamiliar university world, he decided to switch approaches.
"I realized it was not fair to my students to say that what's important to teach in this class are things they can apply to the real world,'' he explains. "I can't sacrifice the college-prep curriculum.''
That doesn't mean he expects students to be able to plunge right into science. Before he teaches physics, Brown first covers basic algebra. He is constantly aware of one of the most striking differences between Du Sable students and middle-class children: "Students not only lack information, they lack access to information,'' he says. "If you asked them to find out how many gallons of water the city uses in a day, a large percentage would not know that that is public information, and that someone gets paid to answer those questions.''
To expand students' horizons, Brown applied for and received a grant to take a group of students and teachers on a camping trip to explore astronomy. "Some of these kids have never been out of the city, or even downtown for that matter,'' he says.
Noisy, Busy Classes
Partly by default, because so many students miss classes, Brown encourages students to help one another with their schoolwork. He pairs students who have mastered a lab experiment with those who need to make it up. "That requires a lot of social skills,'' he notes, "and it's difficult in a school like this.''
Despite shortened class periods that make it difficult to complete lab work, Brown insists on doing lots of experiments. His students measure the speed of marbles rolling down the school's hallways and separate water and alcohol with bunsen burners. The classes are noisy, busy places with students constantly shouting Brown's name, asking for help and encouragement.
In the face of the din, he stays calm, raising his fist silently in the air when the noise gets too overwhelming. Discipline, he says, remains his greatest challenge.
"He needs to be more forceful,'' advises Darnisha Donaldson, a student, "because kids in here will try to run him over. You know how teenagers act? Using slang words? He uses them, too, and it trips us out sometimes.''
But the students seem to appreciate Brown's diligence.
"He's nice,'' Darnella Jackson, another student, says. "He has
patience. He makes his class fun to be in.''
Vol. 13, Issue 14