Students at the elementary school level in New Haven bring to the classroom a myriad of problems that reflect the intricacies and complexity of life in the inner-city in the United States. The setting is New Haven, and because the environment seems to be so powerful in the lives of school children, we are compelled to speak about this stage where the drama of our students takes place. In short, to be a student in the classroom in New Haven, as well as in countless of cities in the United States, is to be at a disadvantage in terms of the resources and opportunities that students in suburban schools have at their disposition. We propose a curriculum unit dealing with the language of the law as a means to increase the understanding of the problems of the every-day life of the student. Our question is whether the laws enacted and the milieu are in the best interests of the children.
The core of students of the inner city are Hispanic and African American constituting in this way a chronic segregation from the suburban population. Twenty five years ago or so, students from high schools in the inner-city, Hillhouse, Wilbur Cross, would speak proudly in the hallways of universities in Connecticut and elsewhere about their alma mater. These where white urban young men and women who knew New Haven in a different light. At present, these high schools offer great programs and many opportunities to students, but there is a schism in society. m is historical situation is not in the best interests of the children. This is an indication that socially and economically, these two ethnic groups, if things remain the way they are, face a very uncertain future for their children, in a world continually specialized and complex. If any gains are to be shown in the student body they are in spite of all these adverse circumstances and crude realities. Violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, lack of opportunity and a sense of isolation are some of the obstacles that youth in New Haven have to overcome in order to get an education.
In the classroom this reality of New Haven is all too familiar. It could be felt directly or indirectly. But the more the student becomes aware of the power of learning, the closer he or she gets to questioning the meaning and power of education and society. It seems that this is only natural. One of the consequences of learning is the creation of aspirations and goals of the highest degree. Another is critical thinking and the ability to articulate and make sense of the world around. Soon the student is going to realize the dynamics of an oppressive situation. It is the beginning of hope and a transformation of the spirit—higher dreams and visions of a possibility of a future. But right here, at this point, where one comes to foresee a possibility for the future is where the realization of great contradictions in the education in New Haven become evident. Students in the elementary schools come with very few skills and burdened with all kinds of social and economic problems. The city itself is not able to provide science laboratories, media centers, simple libraries, to name a few items, evenly throughout the system.
On the other side of the educational spectrum in New Haven we have Yale University. It seems that the outstanding deeds and achievements of great people have come and gone, passing through this invisible periphery around Yale, into the world. We must stop and think about why we are mentioning this state of affairs. It is our conviction, and it is a sociological fact, that the life of a city is just that: of a city, and not just of a segment of the population of that particular city. In this sense the presence of this polarity in New Haven contributes to exacerbate the social problems of a less fortunate segment of the population: the children of the poor neighborhoods. Because of its unique position, New Haven’s population of the Public School System and their problems stand in sharp contrast to the realities of another segment of the population who are attending one of the most prestigious institutions of learning in the world. What goes on with one segment of the population has something to do with the rest of the city. A city is a living organism, and it is not a rational medical practice to chop up a leg in order to cure an infection. As absurd as it might sound the latter seems to be the case in New Haven. The problems of a great part of the population of the city is treated in isolation, as if something inherent in these people would keep them in that state.
Somehow, Yale University has realized this problem and, wisely, has put to work some of its resources in order to change an image and to try to alleviate the burden.
It is interesting to note that Yale University supports the Yale Child Study Center, a center dedicated to psychological research of children of the inner-city. Lawyers from Yale University School of Law give, through another program, pro bono legal representation to children who cannot afford their own legal protection.
This is an example where legal services are intended to be in the benefit of the children. In this sense, all legal services are intended to be in the best interests of the children, no matter who is paying for it. Whether this actually happens in the courts or not is a questionable issue, and one that goes beyond our objectives and purposes.
It is of utmost importance in this curriculum unit to set certain parameters of thought that would enable students to think critically for the purpose of learning about their rights and, also, to create the channels for students to continue to learn in the future about the possibilities of defending their rights in courts and in the tribulations of daily life. Let’s take the example of the 24 elementary school students from Seattle, Washington who participated in a class of government and went to the state capitol to do hands-on work with their legislators. m e students were successful in changing the course of history after some hard work, lots of support from teachers and parents and the realization that children could actually have rights of their own. On April 6, 1993, A bill abolishing corporal punishment in public schools was passed. “Governor Mike Lowry signed the bill into law, assuring that by fall 1994, physical punishment would no longer be permitted in Washington’s public schools.”
In mathematics we have a concept that permeates the standards for teaching and evaluation. This is called math sense. It indicates a state of mind, a way of thinking, where a student is immersed in mathematical thinking with a sense of direction.
It is our premise that students who know the language of their rights would grow in the knowledge of respect for themselves and for others. This respect means less violence and more time for positive thinking. To have an understanding and command of language is to have language sense.
It increases the possibility of an understanding of the world around and, indeed, of oneself. In this context learning the language of the law is a beginning in the exploration of a deeper understanding of language sense and, even more important, for the student, it is one of the possible first steps in the defense of their rights and in the realization of the inherent responsibilities in society.
When we take a closer look at a sector of the population of New Haven some of these problems stem directly from the dynamics of the nuclear family; other seem to be a result of present economic and social situation affecting particular neighborhoods and ethnic groups. The latter in turn affect the family. Clearly there is a lack of opportunity in the neighborhoods of the city. All of the problems brew in a sense of isolation. The Hispanic and the Black population of the community seems to be riddled with a series of problems stemming from violence in the family to the incarceration of relatively young members of the community. “My brother went to jail yesterday...” is one of the casual lines in the ever present litany uttered by our students. “Mister, come outside, I want to tell you something! I couldn’t see my father this weekend...because the police said that he killed someone...I don’t have the homework!” Words that come out through mouths of pupils whose teeth are still growing, and whose sad and glassy eyes foretell an inexorable chain of events that have been in their making for generations. The social and economic make up of the city is not in the best interests of these children. Being things the way they are, children in general do not have a clear voice under the law, this is a historical fact.
But the children of the neighborhoods in New Haven are in an even worse position due to the sordid and cruel landscape.