Professional Development

Urban Odyssey

By Catherine Gewertz — October 06, 2004 12 min read
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A program run by Outward Bound helps teachers examine their beliefs and biases.

Twenty teachers hefted 40-pound packs onto their backs and stepped uncertainly into a summer night’s drizzle.

Walking single file under a rusty railway trestle, past honking cars, these explorers were embarking on what would be an exhausting and exhilarating weeklong foray into urban America, but more importantly, into their own hearts and minds. They came here from city, suburb, and small town, from the coasts and the heartland, to be part of an expedition designed to make them better teachers by examining their beliefs and biases.

Trekking through four of New York City’s five boroughs, they were immersed often 15 hours a day in activities as diverse as visiting a Sikh temple, talking with students, learning salsa dancing, climbing a ropes course, and handing out sandwiches to homeless people in a park. They slept communally on the floors of community centers, an office, a leaky ship.

Gil Rosa, who teaches social studies and English to students from low- income families at an alternative high school in Rochester, N.Y., says he was surprised at how much he found he had to learn, not only from the students he met, but also from working together with the other teachers to answer the challenges of the trip.

“I grew up in the inner city, so I walked in saying, ‘Man, I got it, I know what’s going on here.’ But I learned a lot about myself that I need to work on,” Rosa, 27, reflects after the course has ended.

“I’m a pretty open- minded person, but I saw I have my own stereotypes, and I judge people before I really get to know who they are. I saw that I’ve misjudged my own kids because they have different personality types than me. Without a doubt, this will affect how I go back to teaching.”

Rosa’s realization is just the sort envisioned by the trip’s organizers, from the New York City office of Outward Bound. The national group, based in Garrison, N.Y., has been leading wilderness and ocean expeditions for 60 years. It also operates 125 schools with a hands-on, expeditionary approach to learning.

The participants in this “urban expedition” come from schools that have contracted with Outward Bound to convert to its expeditionary model. Contracts include a limited number of slots for this and other Outward Bound activities.

Driving all Outward Bound ventures is the notion that great learning happens through leaving one’s safe, everyday environment and taking on new challenges. And the teachers on this trip confront new experiences hourly. They must work in small groups to navigate their way through Spanish Harlem. They remove their shoes to enter a Sikh temple, where they listen to the Sikhs’ stories of discrimination since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They screw up the courage to try lamb’s head in a Greek restaurant.

Even the simplest of those things is deliberately designed to put participants in unfamiliar situations with little idea of what will happen next. The thinking is that by risking failure or discomfort to open themselves to new things or overcome obstacles, the teachers will develop more empathy for their students, who are being asked to do that every day.

The experiences are also meant to lure participants “out of their comfort zone” and enable them to see their jobs and their beliefs with fresh eyes, says Alex Yarde, one of four Outward Bound instructors who led the July trip. He sees climbing the 60- foot ropes-and-poles tower in Brooklyn as an apt way for teachers to examine their practice.

“What do you do when you have a problem student? The same thing you do on the tower,” says Yarde, 36, a Bronx-born teacher whose parents come from Barbados. “Do you give up? Figure it out? Get advice from others? Do you need quiet to think it through? These are things you have to figure out while teaching, as well as dealing with your own personal issues.

“You come into the room as a teacher with every hat you’ve ever worn, your politics, your bias. Being aware you’re coming in with those things, knowing how not to belittle anyone or do any harm, making a safe space for students, means checking your own stuff. It starts with trust and communication. It means putting yourself out there and facing your fear, and that’s what we do when we climb.”

Rossi Ray-Taylor, the executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a group of 21 school districts that work together to understand what causes racial and ethnic performance disparities, says teachers who understand the lives of their students are better able to interpret their behavior and build relationships that provide a safe and encouraging platform for good learning.

“If we have a chance to get into our kids’ neighborhoods, see their lives, recognize the obstacles they face, see how they try, then we can recognize and appreciate the effort they put forward,” she says from her office in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It encourages teachers to meet them halfway.”

Long before the climbing began, the teachers, back at Outward Bound’s Long Island City office, in Queens, were plunged into activities to spark their thinking about behavior and assumptions that color their teaching.

The thinking is that by risking failure or discomfort to open themselves to new things or overcome obstacles, the teachers will develop more empathy for their students.

With two sociologists, the group— about one-quarter of its members black, Hispanic, or multiracial, the rest white—discusses racial identity. They examine the prevailing practices and beliefs of white American culture, from family structure to communication style, and reflect on how those things might influence their teaching, and their students’ learning.

The Outward Bound instructors lead the teachers through an uncomfortable exercise designed to illustrate the effects of judging and categorizing students. One evening, they pass out a “cultural literacy test” that—unbeknownst to the participants— was bogus, and say the results will be posted the next morning.

The teachers rise early, troop up to the rooftop overlooking Queens, and form a circle, where instructor Louie Hernandez leads them through slow, meditative tai chi movements. He opens a tiny volume and reads aloud: “The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.”

After a moment of silence, the group goes back downstairs, where a huge sheet of poster paper proclaims the “test” results. Half of the group members’ names are listed above a red line, and half below.

In a serious tone, Yarde says those below the line “would need some work.” They stay downstairs, eating dry bagels, fruit, and water, awaiting as-yet-undefined work orders. The others go upstairs, where they share a breakfast of eggs, fruit, coffee, and Danish on comfortable couches while music plays.

The “below the line” group is instructed to gather backpacks and other gear from the basement and deliver it to the “above the line” group on the fifth floor. On several trips up and down the stairs, they snipe about the upstairs group’s better treatment. One teacher quips that she “likes the dumb kids better anyway.” They wonder if the exercise was a joke, or a real division based on the test results.

Yarde and Hernandez repeatedly confer about the downstairs group’s progress, commenting quietly, but still within their earshot, that they are slow and disorderly. “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Yarde says to Hernandez. “Patience,” Hernandez counsels.

On their trips to deliver gear upstairs, the “downstairs” group members see those teachers making lists of all the things they do well on a big board, laughing and congratulating themselves. The grumbling and sniping from the “downstairs” group increases. Some members swipe bits of food as they leave the room.

Finally, late in the morning, the two groups come together for a debriefing. Those who had been downstairs say they felt resentful, worthless, uncared-for, and “pushed aside,” even though most of them had covered those feelings with laughter and sarcasm.

Judy Caligiuri, 54, a counselor at a small, alternative high school in Edwards, Colo., says she felt “very unliked, and it wasn’t a very good feeling to have, and all because of how I did on a test.” Karen Rothert, 28, from Dubuque, Iowa, says her group was “frustrated because we felt as if we had no control over how it was divided.”

Those who had been upstairs seem not to have enjoyed it either.

“I was angry because I didn’t ask to be put there. I didn’t want to be better than anyone else,” says Linn White, 52, from Minocqua, Wis. “And I’m angry that I went along with it, too.”

“I felt bad about how hard it was for them,” says Heather Brempell, 27, a high school teacher from Tucson, Ariz.

Hernandez asks the teachers to consider how their students might feel if similarly categorized, and what behaviors they might adopt in response.

The teachers spend a morning at Junior High School 117, where Hernandez, 52, is a guidance counselor, in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood where he grew up. They observe the teaching of their New York colleagues, and talk with students about many things.

In Deanna Keller’s 8th grade reading class, students speak of the frustration of being misjudged by teachers. “If you come in with your clothes baggy, you’re a bad kid,” says Jonathan Pabon, 14. “But they’re not bad. They just dress that way.”

Chris Diaz, 13, says some kids misbehave because of peer pressure and the need for attention lacking at home. “Sometimes, someone does something and everyone laughs, and you want people to laugh, so you do the same thing,” he says.

An Outward Bound participant asks the teenagers how they’d like school to be, ideally. More fun, with more games and working in groups, one boy says. More breaks and interesting projects, says another. Teachers who are “down to earth, like cool teachers who understand you,” Jonathan adds.

Chatting one-on-one with the visiting teachers, the students talk about their lives in housing projects, their experiences with racial discrimination, and their favorite music and sports teams.

Wendy Lee, 28, a social worker and preschool teacher who is now an Outward Bound instructor, hopes the conversation with students prompts teachers to reflect on their practice, including how they make sense of their own students’ behavior.

“There is a lot of misattribution of why students do things,” says Lee, who experienced stereotyping as the only Chinese-American student in her Florida high school. “We label kids because of the behavior we see, and the label doesn’t explain the behavior.”

That is just what Karl Ascher realizes during a morning in a mathematics and reading class for English-language learners at JHS 117. The teacher spoke Spanish and translated only some words into English.

‘I can understand now how a student could just shut down.’

“I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It was a role reversal, and it made me uncomfortable,” says Ascher, 32, who teaches computer science at a middle school in Wautoma, Wis. He thought a lot about the migrant Mexican students in his classes, and how they might have felt if a paraprofessional had not been translating for them.

“I can understand now how a student could just shut down,” Ascher says.

Later, over lunch, the Outward Bound teachers marvel at how similar the New York students were to their own students back home.

“They’re dealing with the same problems, issues, and stereotypes,” said Dave Manzella, 33, who teaches language arts and technology in an alternative high school in Edwards, Colo., a small mountain town.

Teachers take many lessons from their week in New York. Two of the most often cited are the importance of being open-minded and remembering how difficult it can be to risk learning new things.

“Getting up so early every day and feeling not able to focus, and having to overcome obstacles, I thought about how my students are going through the same thing every day,” Brian Berger, 26, who teaches 7th grade social studies in Wautoma, Wis., says by phone after returning home.

“Being a student again gives me a greater appreciation of how my students feel. Having to jump in and do new things and meet strangers all over the city, I think I can go back to my students and say, ‘I know you don’t have a clue what we’re doing on this project, but please just keep an open mind.’”

For some teachers, so accustomed to working solo, the trip teaches the importance of teamwork. Tony Saldibar, who teaches middle school social studies in South Phoenix, Ariz., says he struggled all week with the way the course kept him in the dark, knowing little of what was to happen, and with having to follow instead of always lead. What he learned from that, he says, was humility.

“I realized I can be egocentric and think I have all the answers, but that I need help from my peers,” says Saldibar, 51. “If you isolate yourself, you can lose one child [that] you could turn around. Now when I hit a wall [with a difficult student] I will reach out to a teacher and say, ‘What do you think about this situation?’”

For some teachers, so accustomed to working solo, the trip teaches the importance of teamwork.

For Judy Caligiuri, the counselor from Colorado, an encounter with a piece of public art taught a powerful lesson. As the teachers approached the artwork, a huge cube perched on one of its points, instructors gave them a simple order: Spin it.

“We said, ‘Yeah, right.’ Then we saw that they meant it,” she recalls later. “So we worked together and figured out how to turn it. It taught me you can look at something and say it’s not possible, and then with the effort of a few people, you go, ‘Hmm,’ and new ideas come up, and it becomes, ‘You know what? We can do this.’”

Visiting with Sikhs at their temple, with teenage mothers, and with activists who work with gay and lesbian youths opened teachers’ eyes to others’ difficulties and triumphs, as well as to some of their own discomforts.

Wyll Holloway, who teaches 6th grade at a Milwaukee charter school, says that as an African-American man, he thought he understood discrimination, but experienced an “eye-opener” as he listened to stories of how the Sikhs, the teen mothers, and gay youths are judged or treated differently.

His Christian beliefs make complete acceptance of homosexuality or unwed parenthood a struggle, he says, but he thinks that having heard those stories will help him be more supportive of students who bring those issues to him.

One of the most lasting and symbolic memories for Holloway was made at JHS 117, when he spotted a silent, brooding girl across the room. At a break, he made his way over to her. Reluctant to talk at first, she eventually spoke at length about what a bad day she was having, and all the struggles that led to her enrollment in summer school.

Holloway, 27, was moved by her willingness to open up to him. He saw that he could understand her behavior only by getting past her tough exterior to make a connection. And he saw that his students back in Milwaukee need the same thing she did.

“She just needed to someone to reach out to her,” Holloway says. “With someone reaching out to her, she can go far.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Urban Odyssey


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