Steinberg, Shirley and Kincheloe, Joe. (Eds.) (2004). 19 Urban Questions: Teaching in the City. New York: Peter Lang

Pp. Xii + 296
$34.95 (Paper)     ISBN 0820457728

Reviewed by Michele Knobel
Montclair State University

April 16, 2004

One of the best things about 19 Urban Questions: Teaching in the City is that it lives up to its name, posing 19 difficult questions about urban education and challenging alike long-term urban educators and newcomers to the field to think and think again about what urban education is within current times, who urban students are and what are the roles and responsibilities of teachers who work in urban schools. One of the other best things about this book is that it makes no glib promises to deliver neat, quotable answers to the gritty questions its authors ask. Indeed, many of these authors clearly wrestle with urban education issues they face within their own work lives as teacher educators, cultural workers, teachers, or student teachers and their frustrations with not being able to bring about the positive changes in the lives of urban students and educators they aim at as quickly or as completely as they would like. This makes for a book that is imminently suited to sparking rich dialogue within university classrooms, staff lounges or departmental offices in schools, within community-based organization offices and meetings, and so on.

Despite a rich history of urban education books that critique mainstream American practices within the education system that serve to marginalize and disadvantage urban students, Joe Kincheloe reminds readers in the opening chapter of the book—and which poses the first question, “Why a book on urban education?”—that none of the issues raised by urban education researchers and commentators working in previous decades have gone away. Issues such as teacher shortages and inadequate funding remain pressing problems, while at the same time, urban schools are now facing new issues associated with increased and high-stakes school and teacher accountability that involve many urban schools in trying to downplay if not hide a welter of problems their teachers and students face on a daily basis (e.g., high dropout rates, special education needs, counseling issues).

Kincheloe rightly points out how the term “urban” has all too often become a signifier for poor, non-achieving, non-white and often violent students living in bad neighborhoods with crumbling buildings and weak family values. While 19 Urban Questions does engage with the dark side of urban education, it also works dialogically to challenge pessimistic conceptions of urban students and urban education and celebrates successful approaches to classroom practice and programmatic changes in urban schools and community contexts.

The book can be divided roughly into 3 categories of significant issues or dilemmas: the complex nature of urban education and the complex make-up of urban students, subject area teaching in urban contexts, and community concerns and urban education. Ten of the 19 chapters in this book, in addition to Joe Kincheloe’s introduction, focus on conceptualizing contemporary urban schools and their students. Philip M. Anderson and Judith Summerfield ask, “Why is urban education different from suburban and rural education?” in their chapter. Their main argument is that schools within the U.S. are a “battleground for defining the nation” (p. 38) and they set the scene for examining this claim by critiquing faux nostalgia for an idealized past rooted in rural America and its schools. In so doing, the authors challenge claims that suburban and rural schools should be used as the “norm” against which to measure urban schools, or that urban schools have necessarily or essentially “different” problems to these “other” categories of schools. They disrupt conventional mindsets on urban education by showing how states like Arizona and Texas actually have a larger proportion of students in urban schools than do states like New York. They confirm that violent crime—including serious violent crime—in urban schools is decreasing while at the same time it is increasing in suburban schools. Anderson and Summerfield also use statistics to challenge widespread assumptions concerning high teacher-student ratios in urban schools (showing instead that urban, suburban and rural school ratios are roughly similar), and so on. This chapter will certainly cause many educators—including those whose work centers on rural and suburban schools—to critically rethink assumptions about urban education that are grounded in myth or outdated data rather than current information.

Florence Robinson asks in her chapter why there are so many urban school dropouts and what can be done about them. She points to some of the difficulties associated with reading and analyzing national and state-level statistics concerning drop-out rates in schools. Key issues associated with these data are the use of different definitions of “drop out” status categories used to collect data, the absence of students younger than 16 years in much of the data, and interest-serving inaccuracies in district and state-level reporting of drop out data. Despite often conflicting statistics, it remains clear that dropout rates remain significantly higher in urban schools than they are in suburban schools. Robinson argues that there is an urgent need for sustained academic and social support from preschool onwards, and not just in high school only, for groups of students who historically are over-represented in dropout demographics.

Rebecca Goldstein poses the question, “Who are our urban students and what makes them so ‘different’?” in her chapter. She argues that the category “urban student” is a sociopolitical category used to maintain social and economic divisions among different groups. Goldstein uses lively anecdotes from her own teaching experience to underscore and challenge the ways in which urban students are erroneously construed by non-urban students, teachers and others as academically apathetic or as a threat to personal safety.

David Forbes responds to the question, “What is the role of counseling in urban schools?” in his chapter. He argues persuasively for an holistic, wisdom-based and compassionate approach to school counseling that includes the entire school community and which challenges traditional approaches to school counseling that cast students as “raw material” (p. 69) for the workforce. Forbes uses a synthetic but highly effective scenario to model his conception of an effective high school counselor within an urban context.

Luis Mirón asks ‘How do we locate resistance in urban schools?’ and contextualizes his response within a rich discussion of globalization and current formal and informal labor economies operating within urban contexts, and the escalating inequalities associated with jobs paying minimal wages. He draws on a 5-year ethnographic study of inner city schools—including magnet schools—to develop a call for a “new urban pedagogy” (p. 95) that accommodates urban students’ needs by providing a rich, culturally relevant curriculum that is tied to immediate community concerns as well as to more global concerns. This new approach, Mirón argues, should also foster and mobilizes students’ racial/ethnic identity and pride as well as their knowledge of others’ cultures and identities, while at the same time emphasize self-discipline and provide caring, yet non-paternalistic learning environments. He justifiably calls for a more sincere and active recognition of urban students’ voices in curriculum and other school decisions.

In his chapter, Haroon Kharem turns the more conventional question concerning gang membership as a problem to be solved by (white) adults on its head by considering gang membership from a young person’s point of view, and asks “What does it mean to be in a gang?” He uses his analysis of what makes gangs attractive to urban young people to emphasize the importance of ensuring that urban students’ sense of self-worth and dignity—and respect in the eyes of others—remains intact. Kharem draws powerfully on his own experiences as member of the Tomahawks in 1970s Brooklyn to explore white fear of black males (which he evocatively terms, “negrophobia”) and to underscore what can happen when urban students, and especially young black males, have to fight for respect. He also provides a fascinating historical overview of gang activity in Brooklyn that has seen the roles of gangs shift from protecting family and the neighbourhood to one of drug running and other underworld transactions. This chapter reminds educators everywhere that gangs are far from homogenous and gang membership is complex and ameliorating problems associated with both requires much more than patronising “just say no” campaigns.

Eleanor Armour-Thomas asks about the nature of evaluation and assessment in her chapter, while Judith Hill poses questions about standardization and scripted learning within urban education contexts. Armour-Thomas calls for urban teachers to be aware of the ways in which pre-packaged assessment tools can disadvantage students due to “non-equivalence” of life experiences (with suburban experiences often assumed by test content), different discourse patterns of speech and writing, variations in acculturation and belief patterns that interfere with accurate assessment of learning and knowledge, and so on. Hill proposes a rich, alternative approach to urban education by way of cultural organizations’ involvement in schools. In her own case, this includes bringing artists from the community into schools and engaging students in non-conventional ways of learning and expressing knowledge using dance, visual media, music and the like. Art appreciation classes, for example, can engage students in learning social and political history, while music and dance can be used to explore and interpret concepts and current events. Her analysis offers sound advice for urban teachers. For example, she argues convincingly for the role artists and cultural groups can play in challenging one-size-fits-all commercial learning programs in schools serving urban students and sees these people and groups as uniquely placed to resist or circumvent limiting policies because they operate outside mandates to adhere to these policies.

Joe Valentine focuses on the field of disabilities education and inclusion practices within urban schools—an area often overlooked in the research literature. He argues eloquently for a shift in teacher mindsets away from conceiving students as either “able” or “disable” to a mindset that conceptualizes student ability as falling along a continuum. He calls for teachers to practice an “engaged pedagogy” that is grounded in critical self-reflection and a very real commitment to being an agent of change within the lives of urban students.

Bilingual education issues in urban schools are addressed by Alma Rubel-Lopez in her chapter. She calls to task education university faculties that claim a critical theory orientation for their programs, but which do little or nothing to promote equitable education for students who do not speak standard school English. Rubel-Lopez argues that for too long universities have focused on bilingual education as a set of instructional methods when they should instead be focusing on the “social, cognitive, racial, and economic forces that impact on and result from thee use of two languages” (p. 147).

The second category of issues addressed in this book focus on urban students and subject area teaching or classroom-related issues. This category comprises 5 chapters. Elizabeth Quintero asks in her chapter, “Can literacy be taught successfully in urban schools?” while Winthrop Holder poses the question, “How can urban students become writers?” in his chapter. Quintero argues for teaching critical literacy via authentic, Freirean problem posing activities in urban classrooms. She defines critical literacy as “a process of constructing meaning and critically using language (oral and written) as a means of expression, interpretation, and/or transformation through literacies of our lives and the lives of those around us” (p. 158). For Quintero, teaching urban students to write should begin with their own lives and experiences and be supported by texts written from a rich array of worldviews. Quintero spans the school grades with concrete and highly accessible examples of problem-posing pedagogy and critical literacy activities that readers will find extremely useful.

Holder is a high school social studies teacher. In his chapter on writing, he draws on his extensive experience working with urban students to produce a student-generated journal or magazine at his school. He makes use of compelling examples and vignettes to underscore the difference it makes when students are able to work within a community of writers and have a real purpose for writing (and are not just writing for an audience of one in the shape of their teacher). Holder also emphasizes the value to be had when teachers not only equip their urban students with the mechanics of writing well, but also with the urge to write and to write powerfully. He uses his observations of students gained from working with them on the journal to critique college writing practices that lock students into formulaic and often meaningless text structures. Teaching urban students at the tertiary level is under-reported in the research literature and Holder’s chapter will no doubt cause many college-level educators to pause and reflect on the ways in which they accommodate the writing and knowledge strengths of urban students in their classes.

Vanessa Dominie addresses questions concerning technology and urban education in her chapter and rightly critiques “magic bullet” claims about the potential of new technologies to ameliorate the education woes of urban students. The heart of Dominie’s chapter is her argument that the value of new technologies will be realized in urban schools when they are used to strengthen local communities through well-planned uses of communication technologies such as email, web page development, chat, discussion boards, and so on (p. 213). Dominie’s “ecological” approach convincingly warns teachers against attending only to urban students’ physical access to new technologies and emphasizes the importance of attending to students’ (and community members’) quality of use of new technologies.

Teaching science in urban settings is the focus of Koshi Dhingra’s chapter. Dhingra opens with a thought-provoking critique of the traditional “scientific method” by citing the then unconventional and highly intuitive approach to gene research taken by Barbara McClintock and for which she was awarded a Nobel prize in 1983. In his well-crafted chapter, Dhingra draws an elegant distinction between three types of scientific literacy that pre-service and in-service teachers alike will find useful. These are: (1) practical science literacy, which refers to knowledge resulting from scientific research that is immediately applicable to practical problems; (2) civic scientific literacy, which enables citizens to be more informed about scientific research developments and applications; and (3) cultural science literacy which is concerned with science as a major human achievement (p. 220). He also draws a useful distinction between modernist approaches to science teaching that emphasize developmental approaches, single truths and fixed procedures which he contrasts with a much more inquiry-focused approach that more authentically mirrors what real scientists do (and which includes mounting persuasive arguments for particular interpretations of data and so on). Dhingra concludes with practical suggestions for teaching science to a range of students in urban schools and which include collaborating with local natural history museums and using science on television to teach key concepts and principles (spanning everything from examining the science reported or practiced in science documentaries through to popular fictional series such as the mystery-genre X-Files and the hospital-based drama, E.R.).

It is heartening to see a book on urban education insisting on the importance of teaching or enhancing urban students’ aesthetic appreciation. All too often urban schools are beset by funding cuts to the arts in schools, heavy investment in commercial “education” programs, test preparation regimes that take up weeks on in-class time and the like, with seeming little time left for artistic endeavor or appreciation. Roymieco A. Carter asks the provoking question as to whether indeed there is room in urban schools for aesthetics. Carter argues convincingly for the need for teachers to recognize the aesthetic practices already in place in their urban students’ everyday lives—spanning everything from appreciation for a well-crafted hip hop track through to street galleries of high-quality graffiti. Carter offers elegantly theorized and immanently practical suggestions for developing a “critical aesthetic” sense in students that goes far beyond simply examining the techniques of an artist in an artwork, to identifying the ostensive and the ideological purpose of each piece, what each piece assumes about the “receiver”, and the construction of a relationship between the artwork, the receiver and local and global contexts.

The final three chapters pull back a little from a close focus on urban students to include reference to urban communities and issues faced there. This viewpoint is an important inclusion and one that is often missing from books on urban education. Leah Henry Beauchamp and Tina Siedler focus on asthma as a focus case within a range of under-reported health issues that beset urban communities and examine the ramifications asthma has for children and their families. The authors remind teachers that parents in low-paying jobs cannot afford to miss a day’s work to stay home with a sick, asthmatic child and may be forced to send the child to school instead. Asthma rates tend to be higher in urban areas due to concentrated amounts of air pollution and dust, poor ventilation in apartments, and so on. Beauchamp and Siedler recommend a range of practical strategies teachers can use when they have an asthmatic child in their class. These strategies include not using perfume and spray-on adhesives, not having pets in the classroom, working closely with parents to learn how to recognize sings of an asthma attack, and knowing what to do in the case of an emergency.

Katia Goldfarb asks, “Who is included in the urban family?” in her chapter. She begins with an tightly argued debunking of the widespread middle-class myth that urban parents do not love or care about their children. She sets in place a compelling critique of common assumptions concerning the moral bankruptcy of urban families voiced in the media and in other rhetorical forums, and examines some of the institutional violence done to urban families in the name of “helping” them. Goldfarb also discusses environmental health and wellbeing issues that beset urban families, and roundly criticizes “mainstream” family-values ideology that works against non-traditional families. Goldfarb usefully problematizes many urban teachers’ negative perceptions of immigrant parents’ participation and calls for strong school-family relationships to be established in order to best serve the learning needs of urban students.

Derrick Griffith, Keisha Hayes and John Pascarella draw on their own experiences as urban students, student teachers and classroom teachers to respond to the question, “Why teach in urban settings?” Griffith uses powerful vignettes taken from his own education in urban schools to underscore how important it is for urban schools to have teachers who can act as advocates on behalf of students who often live down to other teachers’ expectations of them. Hayes explains why she did not become an urban school teacher in a conventional sense, but found working in a grass roots Harlem-based community organization and after school program as a teacher provided her with the wherewithal to operate outside limiting institutions, and to work dialogically with students as both a teacher and as a learner. Pascarella deconstructs his own whiteness and explains how important it is to him to become a teacher who is also a cultural worker—one who values and builds on students’ cultural and community knowledge and experiences. Pascarella challenges widespread assumptions that urban kids need “saving” and argues instead for practicing a pedagogy of transformation in his own urban classrooms that construes himself and his students as simultaneously learners and teachers.

The book concludes with an afterword written by Shirley Steinberg, in which she explains the personal significance of “19” in the book’s title by way of referencing Line 1 and Line 9 (i.e., “19”) of the New York subway. For Steinberg, these lines that travel north and south from downtown Manhattan capture the grittiness, chaos, energy, darkness, and strength of the urban. Steinberg reminds readers that the 19 questions posed in this book really only touch the surface of urban education issues and responses.

Even though the questions broached by the authors in this collection are diverse and wide-ranging, the book has a satisfying overall conceptual and theoretical coherence by dint of its critical theory framework. It is refreshing to find a book that works so well dialectically—it refuses to shy away from the hard-edged realities facing urban students, their families and communities, while at the same time celebrates the funds of knowledge, achievements and rich cultural insights and experiences of urban dwellers. Foregrounding the complexities, paradoxes and contradictions to be found in urban education is imperative in order to ensure that current teacher education students at undergraduate and graduate levels are not seduced by the current climate of education policies that promote one-size-fits-all magic bullet approaches to classroom pedagogy in urban schools with promises that such programs will act as an easy panacea to urban students’ school achievement ailments. Indeed, this complexity is well-captured in 19 Urban Questions, with not all of the authors presenting the same critiques of the same topics, or even using similar data and claims to make the same arguments. For example, some of the photographs included within the text are somewhat problematic in that they sail close to presenting yet more stereotyped images of urban students (i.e., as students who sleep at their desks, who never smile, who are only interested in portable boom boxes), despite the book’s overall project to critique and challenge all-too-popular urban stereotypes. These points of difference only add to the usefulness of this book, however, in that they will provide teacher educators, in particular, with fruitful and motivating discussion starters for their undergraduate or graduate classes. Indeed, the topics covered in this book have wide appeal and while I can see it taken up readily in urban education courses at the university level, it will also lend itself to enriching classroom teaching methods courses, family studies courses, and school counseling courses, to name just a few.

The polyvocal nature of this collection will also ensure it has wide appeal, despite a general emphasis within the book on urban education within the north-east of the U.S. The authors themselves draw on a rich universe of experience gained in schools and in community groups. Including authors who are cultural workers, teachers, student teachers, doctoral students, teacher educators and others was an inspired move on the part of the editors, Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe, and pays off with a many-layered, thought-provoking and engaging book.

About the Reviewer

Michele Knobel is an Associate Professor at Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA, and an adjunct Associate Professor at Central Queensland University, Australia. Her research interests include school students' in-school and out-of-school literacy practices, and the study of the relationship between new literacies and digital technologies. Her recent books include Everyday Literacies, as well as New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Learning (with Colin Lankshear), Alfabetización en la Época de la Información, Perspectivas Contemporáneas (with Colin Lankshear), and the forthcoming Handbook for Teacher Research (with Colin Lankshear).

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