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Composition Forum 15, Spring 2006

Johnson, Lauri, Mary E. Finn, and Rebecca Lewis, eds. Urban Education with an Attitude. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005. 224pp.

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Daniel Collins

The attitude espoused in Urban Education With An Attitude, edited by Lauri Johnson, Mary E. Finn, and Rebecca Lewis, is decidedly democratic, emphatically hopeful, and uncompromisingly local. While more for scholars and practitioners of both urban education and teacher preparation of urban educators, this collection of essays will nonetheless speak to compositionists interested in exploring community- and placed-based pedagogies and curricula.

Growing out of “Urban Education Month,” a month-long series of lectures sponsored by the Urban Education Institute at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education in March 2001, the text documents how problems in education reflect larger socio-political questions and struggles—and more importantly, how these problems can be remedied through the development of connections between urban educators and those lived environments affected by their policies and pedagogies.

The book is broken into four sections or themes: “Call to Action: Promoting Educational Equity in Urban School Reform” explores how social and economic disparities impact the quality of urban schools; “Linking Urban Schools to the Communities” argues for making curricula more community-centered; “Reforming Teacher Education to Improve Urban Education” calls for preparing teachers by immersing them in the communities that they will serve; and “University Partnerships for Parent Empowerment” proposes ways to connect post-secondary educational institutions to the public schools in their communities. While no overwhelming original ground is broken—the power of collaboration between educators, administrators, parents, neighborhood organizations, and students for the sake of education is well documented— Johnson et al. lay down their democratic attitude forcefully in their Introduction, arguing that “authentic urban school reform requires educators to work collaboratively with parents, neighborhood activists, policy makers, and community development specialists to alter the power relationships between urban schools and the communities they serve, and to create relevant, student-centered curricula and teaching methods” (1). The chapters that follow dissect particular alliances and agendas across this designated coalition and coalesce around one resounding theme: commitment to education requires a commitment to the communities served.

Essays in the first section of the text document socio-economic hurdles to more equitable educational experiences. This framework acknowledges, up front, both the social forces and the social inertia that advocates for educational change are up against. While many chapters throughout the text are written by idealists—something that I like—their idealism is not clouded by romantic notions of change. Shifting the paradigms of contemporary education to visions of teaching for social justice will not come easily, and the authors understand the necessary battles. Thankfully, these authors are not undone by the challenges of such changes; on the contrary, many of the essays are quite optimistic.

For example, from the second section of the book (“Linking Urban Schools to the Communities”), Greg Farrell and Michael J. McCarthy offer an interesting essay on expeditionary learning. Farrell, currently the President of Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound, attended an Outward Bound course in the 1960s, and the experience forced him to reconsider education according to their hands-on, learn-by-doing approach. McCarthy is a principal of a school founded upon the principles of Outward Bound. Together they argue that schools based on expeditionary learning alter the meaning of education for parents, teachers, and students: from one of detached and rote learning to one of participatory ownership through authentic learning projects and critical reflection on the learning process. Expeditionary learning requires that instructors gradually give over their courses to students, if learning is to be effective. Such an essay has value for teachers of writing: clearly, task-driven, self-reflexive writing plays a major role in such an inquiry-based, project-oriented curriculum.

As a pedagogical project, Urban Education With An Attitude expresses the need to see our communities as something to be valued. We teachers and students should be active in our neighborhoods because of the significance they (can) hold. Our neighborhoods tell us a history of people and places, and they forecast a future, one of which we can play a more active role, provided we channel our energies appropriately.

Ann Marie Lauricella, to provide another example, documents an attempt to expose a group of suburban pre-service teachers to the urban worlds of their students. Centered on an experience called the “Community Walk-About,” Lauricella reinforces the importance of including community members—those who live and work in close, physical proximity to schools—in the preparation of urban teachers. Lauricella argues that teachers and students tap into vital and intricate social, political, cultural, and geographical contexts of urban schools when they learn the histories of their communities. Simply put, the more nuanced our understandings of the neighborhoods in which we teach, the more present and productive our pedagogies can be.

The city of Buffalo, NY, plays a prominent role in the book, with at least five essays focusing on the ways in which schools have worked in alliance with community leaders in the interests of making Buffalo a better place. I get encouraged reading these essays about Buffalo, where I grew up, moving from away in the late 1980s, after graduating from the University of Buffalo. The city of Buffalo has a tough reputation. Because of its dwindling population and dismal economy, contemporary Buffalo needs its supporters. Positive change in beat-up places is often a losing battle. The economy offered little incentive to stay, and warmer climates beckoned, although I still have family there and return annually. Judging by the thoughtful work documented in this book, the future of Buffalo seems more promising than the times that sent me packing.

Anchoring the text is an essay by Patrick J. Finn (author of another SUNY Press text, Literacy With An Attitude ), Johnson, and Finn. This essay documents the authors' struggles to make a particular community in Buffalo more politically active. Over a two-year period the goal was to work from small-scale problems such as the quality of school cafeteria meals to far weightier issues such as curricular change. Although the elementary school used as the hub of organization was closed because of dwindling student population and resources, the authors deem their experiment a success simply because disparate groups of parents came together to use their literacies in the service of community change. Acting as agents, parents worked together to negotiate issues affecting their children. This essay provides a working blueprint for educators interested in developing similar projects.

Other essays (those by Arnold Aprill, Mathias J. Schergen, Suzanne M. Miller, and Suzanne Borowicz in particular) stress the importance of the arts in the schools—not just as a marginalized content area but also as a way to build and maintain long-term relationships between schools and their communities. Each essay stresses the making of meaning as an empowering act when using the local community as one site of primary investigation. Learning becomes a potentially transformative experience for all involved parties, reverberating out from the classroom, and into the streets beyond. From this perspective, the text offers compositionists interested in service-learning insight on specific projects in particular neighborhoods. It offers models to consider when seeking to make community contacts and build unions and alliances with community members and organizations.

Composition faculty will be most interested in the degree to which this collection revolves around working with the marginalized and giving voice to the disenfranchised. The text asks us to consider the power of our writing classrooms against the backdrop of the historical disconnect between university communities and the (urban) schools in their vicinity. In what ways can those of us concerned with the making of meaning in specific situations—situations increasingly seen as inherently rhetorical as well as geographical—direct our literacy lessons to understand and improve the composition of those lived-in environments immediately outside our comfortable classrooms and well-stocked computer labs? How can we coordinate a place-conscious education to strengthen our communities? These questions reflect ongoing challenges, and context-specific proposals and programs are discussed throughout the volume.

From students to student teachers, concerned parents to caring principals, all concerned parties must work hard to forge alliances for better education. Urban Education with an Attitude documents both the vitality and the possibility of such collaborative efforts. While not all contributors speak to the concerns of the writing classroom, each contributor reinforces how much work needs still to be done for a disembodied curriculum to become sustainable.

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