California Dreams in Southeast Baltimore:

Using Technology in a Challenging School Setting

 

Timothy D. Slekar

An argument exists that the primary purpose of public schools is to serve as a mechanism of socialization for the dominant culture.1 Through this mechanism, students are apprenticed in the expectations of the “real world,” and classrooms function as micro-communities shaped by the characteristics of society at large. A contrary vision sees public schools as potential agents of social change.2 In this view, students are independent learners and classrooms are places where students construct knowledge and become empowered to reform society.

Those who want schools to be agents of social change find that the actual structures and methods of schooling can make this goal elusive. Social studies materials are typically primers in societal norms that aid in the reproduction of the current society.3 A common complaint about textbooks is that the information they contain is culturally insensitive, racially biased, and sometimes quite outdated. The new information technology can be a powerful catalyst for changing all this. Wired classrooms can venture into places where unlimited amounts of raw information and myriad perspectives about the present and past are represented.4 Teachers who make wise choices about using the Internet can help students learn to become voices of change in their own communities.

This article looks at one powerful example of how schools can use the Internet to help students make meaningful connections between their classroom and their community. Teachers in the Baltimore City Schools are learning to harness the potential of the Internet through a partnership developed among the University of Maryland, the Discovery Channel, Apple Computer, the Baltimore City Schools, and several other organizations. This multifaceted outreach program is supported by a U.S. Department of Education Challenge Grant.

Two teachers from the program were instrumental in providing the impetus for this article. Peter Kannam teaches 8th grade social studies and Matthew Beyers teaches special education, also team teaching with Kannam in the same classroom in a full inclusion setting., in a middle school in southeast Baltimore. Ninety-eight percent of the students in this economically depressed area of the city receive some form of government assistance. Kannam and Beyers’ classroom typically contains 25 to 30 students. Most teachers would probably agree that this makes for a challenging school setting.

 

Making Learning Relevant

Observing Kannam and Beyers in action, one quickly gets a sense that something different is going on in their classroom. These teachers want their students to grasp the power of learning to change their lives, and they aim to accomplish this by making their teaching relevant. Here is an example from one unit of study.

An LCD panel connected to an Internet-ready computer projects song lyrics onto a large screen (see the box on this page). Students read the words on the screen, and Kannam asks whether they can name their source. Most of the students recognize the lyrics as coming from Tupac Shakur’s popular rap, “California Dream.” Kannam then moves to the computer station and brings up the website that hosts the lyrics (members. tripod.com/~Cubsrule/cali.html).

Meanwhile, Beyers has been using another computer to download and play the MP3 version of the rap, which the students join in singing. At its conclusion, Kannam returns to the screen and begins a discussion about the meaning of Tupac’s lyrics. Some students suggest that the rap is about pride in being from California. Beyers points to its title and asks whether it has any significance. Students answer that Tupac seems to feel connected to his home state. Beyers asks whether this feeling of connection is the same as taking pride in one’s community.

As the dialogue continues, the teachers guide the class in a language analysis of the rap’s lyrics. When they feel students have a good grasp of these ideas, they shift the focus to the student’s own local community in southeast Baltimore. They want to know if students feel any pride in their own community. It becomes abundantly clear that some of the students in the class are removing themselves from this conversation—exactly the issue that Beyers and Kannam want to address. They know from experience that too often, the distance that students feel from their community appears overwhelming, and some express hopelessness about how growing up in this community will determine their lives.

In class periods that follow, the teachers encourage their students to use “California Dream” as motivation for their own expressed desires to take pride in their community. They ask students if there is anything going on in the local community to improve homes and businesses. Some students mention that they have seen some construction, but they are unaware of the reason for it. At this point, Beyers pulls up the website of the Southeast Development Corporation (nmc.loyola.edu/sdi). Kannam and Beyers explain that this corporation is a government partnership developed to help the people of southeast Baltimore rebuild homes and businesses in the community. They show students a corporation web page that is set up to solicit ideas from local citizens on how to revitalize the community. They also provide students with an e-mail address.

What have Kannam and Beyers achieved up to this point? First, they have used technology as a device for gaining students’ attention and helping them to express their feelings about their community. Next, they have introduced students to an organization that is attempting to improve the community where they live. Third, they have provided an avenue for the students to become part of the revitalization process.

 

Activists for Community Change

In subsequent days, the teachers divide the class into five committees, each charged with the task of drawing up recommendations to be e-mailed to the corporation. Students are encouraged to express their own personal desires and visions of what an ideal community should be. They are also directed to some bookmarked sites on the Internet to use as starting points for gathering pertinent information. These include:

Bookmarking sites is a wise instructional choice since the vastness of the Internet is as likely to lead to frustration as to provide students with a sense of empowerment.5

When the committee recommendations are complete, the teachers add a new twist to the activity by asking students if they know of any way to help ensure a response from the corporation. This inquiry is met with silence. While students think about the question, Beyers walks to the computer center and uses the LCD panel to project the Maryland state government website (www.mec.state.md.us) on the classroom screen. Kannam explains that the committees can use the site to look up their local legislators’ e-mail addresses. The teachers’ plan is to have students send their committee recommendations not only to the corporation but also to their state representatives.

A few students ask why this is necessary and whether there is any point to it; Beyers responds by telling students that it is the job of their representatives to represent the concerns of their constituents. By sending a copy of each committee’s recommendations to their state representatives, Southeast Development Corporation may be more likely to respond and not to ignore them.

The committees go back to work, using the Internet to gather not only their state representatives’ addresses, but also the addresses of their U.S. congressman. When all the recommendations have been sent, some students still express concern and skepticism over the likelihood of a response from the Southeast Development Corporation. However, they do not have long to wait. An e-mail response from the corporation arrives in two days, expressing thanks and inviting further dialogue with the class.

In this author’s view, the teaching of Kannam and Beyers offers a powerful example of wise practice in a challenging school setting. These teachers made a personal connection with their students, helped them try to overcome feelings of apathy and cynicism, and demonstrated to them that they had the ability to be heard. At every step along the way, the teachers used the power of the new technology to help students develop a sense of pride in their community and an understanding that they do have the potential to become agents of social change.

 

Notes

1. M. W. Apple, Ideology and Curriculum (New York: Routledge, 1990).

2. J. Marciano, Civic Illiteracy and Education: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of American Youth (New York: Peter Lang, 1997).

3. C. F. Risinger, “Separating Wheat from Chaff: Why Dirty Pictures Are Not the Real Dilemma in Using the Internet to Teach Social Studies,” Social Education 62, no. 3 (March 1998): 148-150.

4. J. W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York: The New Press, 1995).

5. J. S. Eaton, “The Social Studies Classroom on the Eve of the Cyber Century,” Social Education 63, no. 3 (April 1999): 139-11.

 

Timothy D. Slekar is Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education in the Department of Education, SUNY College at Cortland, New York.

 

 

let’em recognize from Longbeach to Rosecrantz

Bumpin’ and grindin’ like a slow jam

it’s west side so you know the row won’t
bow down to no man.

Say what you say

but give me that bomb beat from Dre

let me serenade the streets of L.A.

From Oakland to Sacktown

The Bay area in back down

Cali is where they put they mack down

Give me love!

 

(from the song “California Dream” by T. Shakur, Dr. Dre, R. Troutman, L. Troutman, N. Durham, and W. Cunningham, 1996)