I don't have a car. So when my friend, Ms. J, agreed to let me observe her art class at Liberty School, I immediately map-quested the location. IT'S WHERE? I asked myself when the map pulled up Cicero, IL. I found it would take me two trains and a bus to get there. But I had been a Chicagoan for a year, I could handle it.
The morning of my first visit, I got off the blue line Cicero stop and waited for the bus. The stop was by the notorious Cottage Grove neighborhood, a place I had seen on the news for murders and drug violence many times before. Also by the stop was two police cars, carefully watching everyone who walked past.
Now I consider myself someone who has been constantly around multicultural situations. I went to a very diverse high school and later lived in Memphis, TN a city where the population is 80% African-American in the urban area. Still, the unfamiliarity of the area and being the only "white" girl admittedly made me nervous. Why did I feel this way? As I got on the bus to the school I came to the conclusion that I wasn't completely nervous about my well-being, though it was a high-crime area. But instead I felt awkward and out of place because I was different. Mainly, I was shocked by the poverty. The streets were run down and most people on the bus looked homeless. In my safe bubble of downtown Chicago I had never seen such a run down neighborhood. Sure, there was homelessness/poverty in the loop, but it seemed masked by rows of tulips and pristine streets. The cleanliness of the loop had always given me hope for the city; for humanity. In this neighborhood, it all just looked...sad.
As I got off the bus and walked to the school, the neighborhood changed from an African-American to a predominately Latino neighborhood. When I saw loving parents saying goodbye to their children in the schoolyard I felt hope again; a feeling that children often install in me.
I walked to Ms. J and her colleague, Ms. K's class. They were griping about their "resource" period. What should be a free time for them to plan, had recently been changed to the time where they substitute taught or helped administration. Budget cuts had caused a shortage in staff and current staff (especially the "specials" teachers) were picking up the slack. Another gripe, I heard right off the bat was that my friend Ms. J had to teach off an art cart, a cart that she wheeled around to the classes she taught. While there was a main art room, Mr. K mainly used it while Ms. J took supplies from the room that she needed for the day and loaded them on her cart.
While I walked with Ms. J to her first period, she told me the school's demographics: 97% hispanic and 3% other. Two of the three classes she taught in the morning were Spanish-English speaking classrooms and her first class had three special education students who were integrated for specials.
Over the next two Thursdays I had the opportunity to observe the same three classes. I when to Ms. J's first class, Ms. K's secondly and then back to Ms. J's for third period. Ms. J's first class consisted of 3nd graders with the number of boys a little larger than the girls. They were making plaster casts of their hands and if they were finished, thinking of pictures to put on the cast that represent their identity. Ms. J gave the example of drawing something about your cultural background (where your family is from) or possibly a hobby (e.g. Leggos). The classroom was cluttered with different posters listing sentence structure advice, multiplication tables and famous authors. The class had about 25 students. The desks were arranged in groups all facing each other. Each group consisted of eight desks. Of course, the rowdiest group of boys were placed together, constantly talking and distracting each other. While Ms. J had excellent class management skills, answering each individual questions and keeping it fairly quiet, the students were still all over the place. There were students by their lockers, students reading comics and students trying to work but not succeeding because of the distractions. Because Ms. J came to them, they thought of the class as a break from work vs. Ms. K that had an actual room that set the tone that actual artwork would be completed. With twenty-five students I was shocked that Ms. J had to handle the entire class alone. What she could have done with a teacher's assistant that could of helped with the execution of the actual project. Unfortunately, what I've heard from my friend's who teach in public schools, 25 students and no assistant is the norm.
Second period on Thursday's were a little bit quieter. Ms. K had a smaller class of second graders in her room. Unfortunately, Ms. K was unhappy with her lessons for those two classes. The first, the students were required to make paper flowers for the school dance. This was something administration had thrown on the Ms. J and Ms.K a week before the decorations had to be completed. The second lesson was "what career can you have as an artist?" The classroom seemed calmer as Ms. K spoke with a low voice calming the students down as well. This is not to say that Ms. K was better than Ms. J which was not the case. In fact, I had never been so impressed with Ms. J's classroom management skills. The fact was, the classroom was smaller and the class was smaller. When talking about their careers, most students said they wanted to do what their parents did, which mainly involved working in the food industry. Since most of the students had not been outside their community, it was very hard for them to visualize what an artist could do. For example, they could not understand the concept of design. To them, an architect was a construction worker or someone that designed cars actually worked in the factory. The reference they did understand was fashion designer which is a career constantly shown in television and magazines. Overall, the kids were more focused and excited about art when they were in a smaller class, in an actual art classroom. Ms. K however says she is looking for another job as administration affects her daily teaching practice in a negative way.
The last class I observed was Ms. J's 3rd grade bilingual class. The desk arrangement was similar to the first class but the students were a lot quieter. Ms. J had told me previously that most of the students in the class spoke English but that there were a few that received help with translating Ms. J's English from fellow students. What I observed from the two session was that this was the most inquisitive class. They marveled when Ms. J showed them how to make colorful butterflies for the school dance. During the second class, they were in awe when Ms. J or as they call her, "teacher" was explaining aboriginal art. I noticed that there were stand out characters in this class. There was one child who constantly cried when his artwork didn't turn out perfectly, the child who had an anger problem or the child who needed constant approval from "teacher". Ms. J again exhibited her wonderful classroom management skills giving individual attention but at the same time keeping the class on task.
Overall, I had a positive experiences with the teachers and the students at Liberty School. It was interesting to experience the student's culture through their stories I overheard. There were gripes about the administration but I can't say I was surprised. I've heard too many teachers complain about the lack of communication in their public school.