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Student Teaching

August 4, 2014

My niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for the next couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. I open this series with a recollection of one of my first experience in the Philadelphia School System: student teaching:

My mother was concerned for my safety.

“I’ve been watching the news and it looks like there are riots going on every day at West Philadelphia High!”

My wife and I looked at each other knowingly. Neither of our parents were happy with the idea that we lived in a marginal neighborhood in West Philadelphia and both were convinced that we would regularly mugged en route to jobs or, in my case, on the job.

“I’ve driven past the school lots of times and been there for orientation and there is no rioting going on despite what the news wants you to believe”.

There was a controversy at West Philadelphia High School involving a white teacher, Dr. Fishman, who was teaching a course in African American History, an area he was unquestioningly credentialed for. Indeed, his dissertation was on that topic and he had been a solid if not beloved member of the faculty at West Philadelphia for several years. His problem was his race: we was not black and in 1969 there was a belief among community leaders that a white man was NOT qualified to teach African American history because he had not lived through the experience of being black. That message resonated with many students and parents and a handful of faculty members and the result was large and noisy demonstrations in front of the school on a daily basis.

When I arrived at West Philadelphia High for my orientation as a student teacher in the English department there were no protesters in front of the school and the halls were quiet and orderly. At one point I commented on this to my teacher-mentor and he explained that near the end of the day or during lunch periods when students are free to leave the campus. Whenever community activists have lined up media coverage, they orchestrate “demonstrations”. He thought the media were making a much bigger deal out of this than his colleague deserved.

During my three months at West Philadelphia I taught a unit on Romeo and Juliet, a unit on poetry that focused on African American poets, and a unit on 1984. By the time I got to the 1984 unit the “Fishman case” was resolved (I forget the outcome but seem to recall it involved assigning him to a central office curriculum development position) but the juxtaposition of Orwell’s writing with the media’s exaggerated coverage of “the crisis” stays with me to this day. The “Fishman case” became an inkblot people could interpret any way they wanted to… and the language used by those interpreting was full of Newspeak.


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  1. December 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm
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