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June 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 9

The Violence You Don't See

A teacher in an inner-city school set out to understand the obstacles to learning that her students experienced, only to find that she was one of them.

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EquitySchool Culture
"I want to color the rectangles," Ariella stated.
"No, I'm doing that," Stacey insisted.
"Then I want to decorate the outside," Ariella demanded.
"There's no decoration on a graph," Stacey corrected.
"You did the first part! Let me do this part!" Ariella cried out.
"I'm doing it!" Stacey shouted and pushed in front of Ariella.
Interactions like this happened every day in my 4th grade classroom. They interrupted learning. As struggling learners, my students were neither motivated nor engaged.
For years I had taught successfully in the suburbs at all levels. Principals had singled me out as a teacher whose students excelled. Student work had blazed on walls, door frames, and windows. My classrooms had hummed with students working. But not here at Clearview Elementary. I had come here because I thought that I could make a contribution. But in this inner-city school in an impoverished area, only a chirp here and there signaled students on task.
Before the school year began, I decorated my classroom. Pictures of snow-covered wolves and splashing dolphins camouflaged the classroom's dingy walls. Blue, sparkling print on a banner proclaimed, "Math, the language of nature!" The classroom reflected who I was. I thought it reflected who my students were as well.

From There to Here

Poor student behavior characterized Clearview Elementary School. Disruptive students crowded the main office. They sat in the chairs, lined the walls, and waited their turns with the school disciplinarian. Regular reports of students bringing in knives and guns, even at the kindergarten level, spread through the school. Classroom management dominated as a key issue. As a result, a worksheet culture prevailed: Sitting in desks in straight rows, students completed worksheets as their teachers patrolled the aisles. "The students don't care about education," the veteran teachers informed me.
It will come as no surprise that low achievement also characterized Clearview. Fewer than half of the students scored at the basic level on standardized tests, reflecting the national averages for impoverished, minority students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).
A few teachers, mainly in the lower grades, strayed from the worksheet culture and embraced constructivist instructional practices that promoted learning centers and group work. Like them, I had always believed that students achieve more when social interactions and discovery accompany direct instruction (Cunningham & Allington, 2006; Delpit, 2006). I wanted my students speaking, listening, reading, and writing. I wanted literacy to empower them so that "social good and relative freedom" (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993) characterized their lives. But at Clearview, I wasn't achieving these goals. In spite of my efforts, I couldn't find the spark that would motivate my students. Besides, the classroom disruptions extinguished my attempts.

Coming to School Angry

The social nature of teaching and learning demands that teachers have an understanding of their students to build culturally appropriate classroom climates (Gay, 2000; Smith, 2003, Webster, 2002). But I really didn't understand my students. New to the city, I was a white teacher in a mostly black school. I was also a parent, had owned and operated my own day-care center, and had taught in private and public schools at all levels. I expected that my life experiences as a middle-aged woman would prepare me to teach anywhere. Until I came to Clearview.
A student I'll call Jenny loved to learn and consistently earned A's on the work that she handed in. The problem was that she only turned in work that she thought was perfect. If she made an error while working on a math problem or writing a paragraph, she crumpled up her paper and started over again, getting more frustrated with each attempt. No amount of encouragement freed her to use an eraser. Eventually her frustration mounted to a fever pitch, forcing her to quit. She spent the rest of the time sitting amidst a pile of crumpled papers with her arms folded on her chest and her face flushed in anger. She struck out at anyone who even looked her way.
The rest of the class had learned to give Jenny plenty of room. They were used to her eruptions. She began most mornings with one. Arriving late, she would burst in with fire in her eyes and slam the door shut. Finding a nearby spot on the wall, she would slink down to the floor, dropping her coat and book bag. For 15 minutes, she would sit there sucking her thumb.
Gradually the frustration would lift. She would get up, calmly hang up her coat and book bag, walk to her desk, and begin her day.

Violence Unveiled

My students were bright. Most of them bought groceries, cooked dinners, and supervised their siblings while their parents were out of the house. But when they came to my class, they slumped in their seats and tuned out or became aggressive with one another.
I realized that I had to study my students to gain the insights that I needed to help them learn. To discover the strengths and weaknesses of their social dynamics so that I could build a better learning environment, I investigated six questions: What actions do you think are violent? Do you think that words can be violent? How do you handle constructive criticism from peers? How do you build mutually satisfying relationships? Do you touch one another affectionately? How do you perceive consequences?
We discussed the first two questions as a whole class. Afterwards, students wrote their reactions in their journals, which I collected.
In response to the first question, What actions do you think are violent?, students suggested a wide gamut of behaviors, from hitting to stabbing to just being grouchy. In response to the second question, which asked whether words could be violent, students called out the words they considered to be violent. I filled the chalkboard with these words. Visibly pained at the sight of them, the students fell silent. Their journal entries revealed later on that they feared the words, even if they didn't know what some of them meant. One student wrote, "What's a bastard? Am I a bastard? Nobody better be callin' me no bastard!"
To get an idea of how they handled positive criticism from their peers, I observed the students as they worked on projects in groups, and I took notes on their reactions to suggestions. Instead of coaching one another, students generally responded to constructive criticism with something like "Don't go changin' anything! It's fine!"
To see whether the students had ways of building satisfying relationships, I observed their interactions during free time and recess. Rather than saying, "Can I play with you?" students generally pushed their way into games and activities. On one occasion, a student politely requested to join a game. The other students ignored her. Those who established themselves as leaders gave orders; the others feebly protested, but then complied.
Although students rarely touched one another affectionately in the classroom, they regularly did so in the hall as they were walking single file, reaching out to stroke the hair of the child in front of them or rest a hand on another's shoulder. Perhaps the limited view of the single file provided them with a temporary escape from their apparent commitment to a tough persona. The students had a real problem with the last question, How do you perceive consequences?
Their responses revealed a deep ignorance of human interactions. One episode was particularly illuminating. One student approached another who was visibly upset by a previous incident and asked whether she could use her markers. When she didn't get a reply, she decided to take them. In a flash, the two girls were in a fight. Afterward, when they had settled down, I asked them how we can tell that someone is upset. "Their heart be beepin'," one student told me.
I asked her whether we could see a beeping heart. "No," she said sadly and shook her head. As students responded and told their stories during the six weeks of my exploration, a change occurred among us. We talked as a whole class, in small groups, and one-on-one. We ate lunch together. I walked with students to classes and talked with them out on the play area during recess, always watching, questioning, and listening with the six-question template in mind.

A New Kind of Caring

Without planning it, I noticed that a kind of free zone had sprung up around us. Assured of my care for them because of my more obvious interest in their lives, students let down their guard. They were also free from my constant grammatical corrections. I didn't even think to correct them as I began to delight in the richness of their language. I released myself from the pressure to teach and allowed myself to let them teach me about their values, needs, and beliefs. I saw them spring to life.
Everyone wanted to tell his or her story. As they told them, I watched their slumped postures transform like just-watered trees after a long drought. One by one, they spoke to me and listened to one another. They watched for my response. I listened deeply, struck by the difficulties of their lives, inspired by their resilience.
I learned how one student watched an aunt die as a former boyfriend beat her, and no response came from dialing 911. Another student shared how he climbed up on his kitchen counter and pummeled an intruder with a baseball bat. The children spoke about their fear of drive-by shootings and robberies.
Layers of my unconscious assumptions lifted and fell away as I learned more about their lives. Their former lethargy in my class had called to mind images of a people paralyzed in life circumstances with little self-efficacy. Their stories depicted the opposite. I saw the students dealing head-on with what came their way—they were fierce, determined survivors. Their power shone. I felt raw, open, and more zealous than ever to learn how to teach these children. I wanted to discover the barriers to their learning.

The Role of Violence

The violence of the neighborhood in which my students live often seeps into the classroom. Poverty, racism, neglect, unemployment, and substance abuse plague the neighborhood surrounding Clearview. Not even the normal community machinery of police patrols and trash removal exists there.
Violence plays a central role in my students' lives. It is not a last resort when people are frustrated or angry, but a primary instrument to negotiate human interactions. How tough one is and how well he or she can fight distinguishes one student from another. If my students do not engage in violence, they lose respect among their peers and imperil their own safety. Anderson (1999) calls this the "street code—it is better to be feared than to be loved" (p. 102).
The street code also supplies a kind of hope. Hope in its proven way of acquiring material goods. Hope in the connections woven among the toughest. Hope in the sense of self in a place that is not conducive to self-worth. Someone tough knows who he is and what he has to do. Knowing who you are and what you have to do in school, with its markedly contrasting culture of academic achievement, is another matter entirely. The school broadcasts that its ways and merits count, but the students believe differently.

Roadblocks to Learning

From my conversations with my students, I expected to learn about the meaning that violence held for them, as well as about their social dynamics. I expected that I would then design new teaching strategies or include social skills as a curriculum piece. But the study held a surprise for me: It pointed out my ignorance of my students' lives, cultures, and values. I had assumed that my students were more like me than they actually were.
The first revelation came while administering a standardized achievement test. I read the title of the reading section: "Cross-Country Skiing in the Hills." I almost dropped the booklet. I felt like a traitor, encouraging my students to do their best while presenting them with a Sisyphus-like task: to score proficiently by grasping the nuances of an unfamiliar activity. Skiing was as foreign to them as navigating rough city streets would be to me. I looked at them, poised at their desks with sharpened pencils, ready to take the test, and I felt ashamed. Despite their intelligence and eagerness to do well, the deck was stacked against them. They would do poorly. Worse, they would be blamed for it (Ryan, 1971).
Later one of my students asked, "When are you gonna start teaching us?" Flabbergasted by her question, I asked her why she thought that I had not been teaching. "We ain't got one worksheet yet," she replied. The students were accustomed to teachers offering them content that called for brief, right answers and that was easily transmitted, easily answered, and easily graded. This focus nullifies school as a place for the kind of learning that strengthens identity and prepares students for a full and satisfying life.
Everywhere I looked, I saw roadblocks to student learning. Instead of snow-covered wolves and splashing dolphins, pictures of cultural heroes and artifacts should cover my classroom walls. I read the titles of my favorite read-aloud books: The Great Gilly Hopkins, Freckle Juice, and The Bridge to Terabithia. Little in those books reflected my students' lives.
In the faculty lounge, some staff members ridiculed student speech patterns. Moreover, a walk through the school halls showed that the only student work displayed there was written in Standard English. The school seemed to ignore the potency of the students' home language, inadvertently sending a message to the students that their culture was inferior.

A Surprising Complicity

I initiated my study because my students were not learning, and I didn't understand why. I expected the study to confirm neighborhood violence as the main culprit. Given my history of classroom success as well as my effort and commitment, I was shocked to find myself complicit in perpetuating my students' alienation from school.
As my students told their stories, I learned to listen with a better awareness of and appreciation for their diverse views and with a greater receptivity to their values and behaviors.
During a project that required the students to build a small model of a room with balsa sticks, one student placed three sofas in the room. When I asked her why, she replied, "One is for Uncle Leroy, the other is for his cousin, and the last one is for us." Other students talked about their families' commitments to family reunions, how they would sometimes travel across country either by bus or packed in their or their friends' cars. Their sense of community and sharing startled me.
Discussion has always been key in my classroom, but the "free zone" discussion that took place during this time awakened me to who and what the students were. I feel freer now to invite my students' lives into the classroom. The study also interrupted preconceived notions and such inhibiting behaviors as continually correcting student speech patterns. For example, Jesse Jackson's notion of cash English enables me to teach Standard English grammar in formal writing exercises as a skill the students need to put "cash in their pockets." Their home speech patterns work just fine elsewhere.
Now the students trust me more. They're sure of my commitment to them and their learning. Their trust is reflected in a new peacefulness in class.
The same dialogic listening extends to the students' parents. As I visit their homes, the parents tell me about their children. We share our concerns and expectations, and I explain my teaching and grading styles. The parents also attend classroom luncheons just to chat, and I call each student's home monthly to maintain the connection.
To combat the cultural mismatch that exists between the school and students, I created thematic units with authentic purpose and audience. In one unit, students developed a survey that they administered to several 4th and 5th grade classes, which investigated possible changes in Clearview. Student representatives organized the data, wrote up a report, and presented it to the principal. "We hope you read it," they said.
Not only did the principal read it—he also made the requested changes. Visitors to Clearview now wear I.D. badges. The restrooms have soap, paper towels, and doors on the stalls, and a custodian cleans these facilities more regularly. The school halls now have trashcans.
There are other changes as well. I now regularly look to drama, art, music, video productions, and tape recordings as means to effectively assess my students' learning. I more frequently model explicit think-alouds because my students need to familiarize themselves with the processes that good readers use to comprehend texts. My read-aloud books include such culturally responsive texts as Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy (Thorndike Press, 1999), the story of an orphan on the run from abusive foster homes, and, by the same author, The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Thorndike Press, 2000), a story that deals with events surrounding the burning of Birmingham's Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church.
I provide more practice time and construct more shared vocabulary in content areas to bridge academic speak and home speak. I display my students' work in both Standard English and their home language. And I've replaced the snow-covered wolves and splashing dolphins with pictures of African American heroes and cultural artifacts.
As a result of my conversations with students, I learned about the role that violence plays in their lives. But I also learned that cultural nonresponsiveness, which both the school and I perpetuated, causes another kind of violence, an invisible kind. This understanding—and the personal transformation that it led to—is helping me fulfill my commitment to my students.

Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Cunningham, P. M., & Allington, R. (2006). Classrooms that work: They all can read and write (4th ed.). San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon.

Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom (updated ed.). New York: New Press.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lankshear, C., & McLaren, P. (Eds.). (1993). Critical literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. New York: SUNY Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). The National Assessment of Educational Progress: The nation's report card.

Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Pantheon Books.

Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable acts: Unnatural practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Webster, J. (2002). Teaching through culture. Houston, TX: Artco Publico Press.

End Notes

1 The school name is a pseudonym.

Grace L. Sussman has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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