Review: Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom.
New York: Teachers College Press, 2008
Upon reading Brian Schultz's Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom, I was reminded of a comment of W.E.B. DuBois: "If and when [black children] are admitted to [public] schools certain things will follow. Negro teachers will become rarer and in many cases will disappear" (DuBois, 1960, p. 195). What we have today is about an 83% white teaching force across the U.S (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007-08, Table 2). The question arises: Can a white teacher empower, inspire, teach, guide, and meet the needs of minority students and do it successfully? If so, how? How can white teachers inspire intrinsic motivation in black students? As Brian Schultz (2008) asked himself, "What would happen if [he] really provided space in the classroom to allow for the images of education advocated by John Dewey, L.Thomas Hopkins, Paulo Freire, and Joseph Schwab..." (p. 15).
When teachers consider the needs of the learners, their interests, passions, and the things that they care about, and when teachers put those ideas as the place to begin, students want to learn and feel that the learning is valuable. For white teachers who work with ethnically diverse students, one of the challenges is creating a curriculum that is relevant to the lives of the students and their culture and experiences. Banks (1994) argues that "one of multicultural education's important goals is to help students acquire the knowledge and commitment needed to think, decide, and take personal, social, and civic action" (p. 8).
Brian D. Schultz, a white teacher, accepted a teaching position at Carr Community Academy in the Cabrini Green neighborhood of Chicago. He was curious if he could engage a classroom filled with African-American fifth grade students in meaningful, inquiry-based learning that would empower them. He wondered if he could truly make his classroom a learner-centered environment and use the knowledge he gained from "reading material on social justice-oriented teaching in [his] doctoral studies" to help rethink the curriculum (Schultz, 2008, p. 11). Schultz wanted the fifth graders to have opportunities for rigorous, interesting and relevant learning. He hoped that the "African-American students could make their voices heard through purposeful action and determination" (p. 10). Together, Schultz and his students demonstrated "spectacular things can happen" when teachers place the learners at the center of the curriculum.
Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom is organized to take the readers from the beginning of "Project Citizen," (a way of engaging students in community service projects that are student-centered), through to seeing the final results and implications of their work. Chapter one opens in the middle of class as students are listing problem after problem in their neighborhood and in the school as Brian Schultz, author and classroom teacher, quickly writes on the board the students' ideas. Once this list was generated and the fifth graders determined that the school building itself had the most problems, students worked to document some of the issues with the building. This included taking pictures of the bathrooms, writing articles about no gym, library, or lunchroom, and putting together a survey that other elementary students would take to see if others in the district thought that they needed a new school building.
In chapter two, at a point early in the "project," a teacher came in to work with a couple of the students and commented, 'I have never seen you guys so excited about school work' and a student retorted 'this ain't no school work, this is important!' (p. 29). This moment was pivotal for Schultz because he wondered if "students could be engaged in something creative that they wanted to participate in, rather than feel they were being forced" (p. 29). The rest of chapter two includes the context of his work with these students including information about the process the students used to collect research about the building problems.
Chapter 3 focuses on "Project Citizen" and memorable moments when students became engaged, excited, and energized in the project for the class. In fact many of the sub-headings in the book come right from the students and their comments during the project. A section that illustrates the cooperative learning and shared decision-making that Schultz incorporated and used during "Project Citizen" is entitled, "When are we going to do work?" This section title comes from a question asked by Artell, a student in Schultz's class. Schultz states that "initially [I was] puzzled by his question, I [then] realized he was referring to the usual routine of worksheet, memorization, and rote learning" (p. 61). Schultz concludes that, "[Artell's] comment was a startling revelation of the educational methods that are actually used in most schools today" (p. 61). The sub-headings used throughout the book symbolize Schultz's commitment to shared-curriculum and shared-authority in his class. His choice of sub-headings, like the curriculum and authority, are shared efforts.
Chapters 4 and 5 take the reader to the end of the project and the product that the students' produced for "Project Citizen." Near the end of the school year, Ralph Nader was coming to visit Carr Academy and the fifth graders from Schultz's class. In preparation for this visit, the students worked on presentations that documented all of the research they had done that year regarding the problems with their building (Schultz, 2008, p. 121). They included the photographs, video clips of news reporters, and articles they had written. They wanted to show Nader all of their hard work on "Project Citizen." In effect, what the students were doing was making connections between current events, reading non-fiction, writing, math, data collection and entry as well as local city politics. The students also felt that they were making a difference in their school and community. Notice that they were not doing worksheets to prepare for upcoming state exams, but engaging in similar work through real-world examples. They presented their documents and findings about the poor quality of their school building to public groups such as the school board, city mayor, and newspapers. Their hope was that their data collection and evidence would convince city stakeholders and officials that they needed a new school building. In the last two chapters, the author spends suitable time discussing how he worked through a "justice-oriented" curriculum and concluded with comments about the students and the impact of this project on his teaching and his students' education.
One theme that was repeated throughout the book was "shared curriculum" (Schultz, 2008, p. 9). He wondered if he could truly make his classroom a learner-centered environment. Schultz shared a few of his early questions about "Project Citizen" with his readers early in chapter one. One of the questions, "Could we challenge the status quo to make the curriculum of, by, and for us?" ties into the goal he had as a teacher to create a learner-centered environment for his students (p. 9). Classroom teachers have many factors that influence the curriculum including state standards and state exams, stakeholders such as the community, administration, other teachers, and federal guidelines. Schultz's concern about putting students in a "shared curriculum" position means that difficult choices will need to be made. These are choices that teachers face when they want students at the center of their class.
Throughout the book Schultz discussed the theme of "shared authority" which is first mentioned on page 6. He asked early in the project, "could the curriculum be driven by student interest to meet situational needs?" (p. 9). Although this may seem to be similar in nature to "shared curriculum" and therefore somewhat redundant, the importance of this theme is that the students made decisions regarding the process of the project, the assessments, and the product. They also shared in decisions such as data collection for their community project and who, what, when, where, and how to involve community people and to what extent. Schultz's ability and willingness to share his evolution as a teacher is evident throughout the book.
As I contemplated my own teaching, I thought what Schultz accomplished and was able to do with these students was awesome. Admittedly, I am not sure that I would have had the courage to allow students this level of authority, but the results show that the effort produced amazing results. In fact, what Schultz was doing in room 405 with his fifth graders was what Freire (2005) argued in his sixth letter as being important for teachers: "Our relationship with the learners demands that we respect them and demands equally that we be aware of the concrete conditions of their world, the conditions that shape them" (p. 102). The fifth grade students were sharing their culture and their conditions with their teacher.
For these students it made a difference that their teacher, Brian Schultz, "[had] the predisposition to fight for justice and to be lucid in the defense of the need to create conditions conducive to pedagogy in schools" (Freire, 2005, p. 8). Fifth grade became a place where student voices and interests were heard, respected, and allowed to help shape the curriculum. As Maxine Greene urges, "Our classrooms ought to be nurturing and thoughtful and just all at once." (Greene, 1995, p. 43). The value of this book is that it illustrates a white teacher can meet the needs of Black and minority students. Schultz models the benefits of inquiry-based teaching that was truly learner-centered. For many preservice teachers and first-year teachers, the pressures of meeting annual yearly progress (AYP) and state standards can take the focus off learner needs and interests in the hopes that students will perform well on high stakes tests. Schultz's work is an example of one white teacher creating an environment that put minority student interests at the center of the curriculum while guiding and facilitating their learning. Schultz' journey was not easy, but certainly well worth the effort.
Banks, J. A. (1994). Transforming the mainstream curriculum. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 4-8. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership.aspx
DuBois, W. E. B. (1960). Whither now and why. In H. Aptheker (Ed.), The Education of Black People: Ten critiques, 1906-1960 by W.E.B. DuBois (p. 151). New York: Monthly Review Press.
Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2007-08). Characteristics of public, private, and bureau of Indian education elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2007-08 schools and staffing survey. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009324/ tables/sass0708 2009324 t12n 02.asp
Schultz, B. D. (2008). Spectacular things happen along the way: Lessons from an urban classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, ND
Carrie Jepma is currently a teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota, Morris and a Ph.D. student at the University of North Dakota.