During the New Teacher Orientation sessions with the New Haven Public School District, no one ever educates us teachers on the real issues we will encounter inside the schools. I entered my first day of teaching with excitement and a young passion for where my career would lead, but quickly realized I did not fit into the school I had been placed to work in. Why not? Because as the students entered the building, they spoke in a language I did not understand, they said, "Word to D Lover" over and over again, and greeted each other in ways that spoke loudly to those who knew what those signs and handshakes meant. I quickly faced the reality that these students are a part of the New Horizons community, which is divided into many small communities stemming from where they live within New Haven, and I did not fit into any of it. As I immersed myself my first year, so I could not only feel a part of the community, but to understand my students, I lost four students to murder and two to life-time jail sentences. My second year, I began questioning and challenging my students, but now in my fourth year, I feel more knowledgeable and able to ask my students to question and critique their communities further.
I teach under-credited and overage "juniors" and "seniors" at New Horizons School for Higher Achievement in New Haven, Connecticut. My students have been placed in our alternative high school for reasons of truancy, criminal records (court-ordered students), childcare issues, and serious behavior issues. Most of them live in poverty-ridden neighborhoods and find school to be their only "safe-haven," but fall way below their reading/writing grade levels, so schoolwork is difficult and frustrating. My job is to teach the New Haven junior and senior curriculum at an appropriate level, so none of my students feel over- or under-challenged, which is quite difficult when I have a class of fifteen students and reading/writing levels vary from "grade 2" through "post-high school." Another huge challenge is their truancy issues. In my class of fifteen I may only see the same three students every other day, so the units and lessons I plan cannot span over a couple days because I will only be forced to play "catch-up" each day with the students who walk into the classroom after three days of being absent.
The students of New Horizons unconsciously place a high value on community. They do not realize how much emphasis they place on the importance of their neighborhood community, school community, family community, and the communities they build for themselves. Currently, I have tried to focus on social issues (racism, sexism, homophia, etc.), which ultimately examined how communities are viewed and treated by people who do not identify with those communities. However, to better address my students' social (which become personal) issues, I need to understand how they interact with the people around them and what value they place on specific communities. Through my observations thus far, I recognize a need to examine the small communities with which they identify (i.e. New Horizons community and "neighborhood" communities (Hill, Ville, Jungle, etc.)). These topics will be both easy and challenging. The knowledge about these topics is already in the experiences of my students, but constructing a class for them to critique these structures will be challenging.
In order to effectively bring these issues into the classroom for deep examination, I must introduce material to my students where they can begin to research the structures of communities. Texts, such as, Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, Basketball Wives on VH1, Juicy by Notorious BIG, and The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy by Steve Stoute all highlight some of the issues I want my students to begin to question and criticize.
The overarching question for the unit will be does community truly bring unity? In order to answer this question, my students will analyze different texts, debate, pose questions, give out surveys, do self-reflection, and research their community. The end result of this unit will be an ethnographic representation of the communities my students identify with. They will be asked to enter into the community of their choice: their neighborhood, their church, their workplace, etc. and take photos. The photos they capture will tell a story. My hope is my students will conduct this research based on facts and allow the images they capture to tell a story all on its own.