Benito Juarez Career Academy Getting my fire back

Growing up in a small suburb of Rockford, Illinois, and then attending college downstate, I haven't had much experience in urban school settings. Because of this, much of my knowledge of urban schools, and Chicago Public Schools, in particular, had been influenced by the media and outside perspectives. The schools were supposedly failing and the students were struggling; after all, they were "urban schools," a term with specific and mostly negative connotations. Although I had visited Chicago, and even Pilsen before, I had concerns about visiting an urban school.

Would I be able to relate to the students? Would the students be able to relate to me? Was I just an unwanted outsider?

Even the idea of having to walk through a metal detector to enter a school was foreign, and at first, reaffirmed my parents' concerns about Chicago and the dangerous environment that it is often thought to be. Overall, I was nervous about what kind of classroom community I would be entering.

Upon entering the school, I was immediately surprised and overwhelmed by the beautiful art adorning the walls. I felt the impact of the community upon the school, centering education as an integral part Pilsen's flourishing artistic environment. As expected, the student body was primarily Hispanic, which, after years in white majority schools, was still surprising to see. Luckily, the urban community itself serves as a true asset to the school and to these students, providing creative and cultural support.

Seen in Pilsen, the neighborhood in which Juarez is situated
An indication of the community within Pilsen

What I hadn't expected to see, however, were so many dedicated, intelligent students, using technology to engage in investigative, exploratory work. My cooperating teacher held class in the "Juarez Writing Center," a room outfitted with laptops and a SMART Board.

The Juarez Writing Center

Because the student body is fairly homogenous and the school specifically serves the neighborhood, group cohesion is high, making it the perfect environment for answering probing questions and hashing out real-world concerns. Although my cooperating teacher indicated that attendance was sometimes an issue that slowed progress, most students were extremely invested in classroom projects, such as the one shown in the background. After studying visual rhetoric, students were required to pick an issue that appealed to them, crafting a compelling argument through their posters. This project required intellectual and creative effort, drawing on student's real-life concerns.

What was clear to me after my day at Juarez, however, was that urban schools can be moderately similar to any other school. Although the urban setting carries its own unique challenges - like attendance - and assets, the students themselves have the capacity for great creativity, compassion, and achievement with the right guidance. My main take-away from this visit was a reminder that classrooms, especially urban classrooms, are successful as long as you are appealing to student interests and letting them shape conversations.

Sights from Juarez

Understanding the cultural (and often linguistic) background of these students allowed for more enriching instruction and a mutual respect between the teacher and students. My cooperating teacher used Spanish and English throughout the day, relating issues in the class to issues in the students' daily lives. Because this teacher often allowed students to choose their own essay topics, students were also fully invested in communicating about an issue that was relevant to their lives. I read essays about machismo culture, intersex inclusion, the exploitation of women in dance, and one girl's experiences training for the Marines. Validating and encouraging students to discuss and explore the issues that are relevant to them can often lead to fuller participation and a window into a student's cultural background.

Some incredible pieces from the National Museum of Mexican Art

This experience was truly eye-opening; it provided me with a new understanding of urban schools, allowing me to immerse myself in a vibrant, interesting community. I now see just how important an understanding of the neighborhood and community within which a school is situated can be.

Street art in Pilsen
Literacy in the streets of Pilsen
This panaderia changed my life.

However, on a personal and professional level, this trip also reenergized my love for teaching. During conversations with my cooperating teacher and my interactions with the students, I was reminded of why I love teaching. As a preservice teacher, it is so easy to feel like you are constantly messing up and will never be a good teacher. My cooperating teacher was an incredible role model; I saw his passion for his students through his investment in their success and his commitment to innovative pedagogy. He left me with some words of wisdom that acted as a salve for my discomfort and concerns about teaching - words that will undoubtedly carry me through student teaching and beyond:

Teaching is messy. Everyone has a rough first year, but it takes practice, and suddenly, you're there.


Maddie Blackwell

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