March 2014 Archives

White Queerness in a High School on the South Side

Ian Schroeder is a graduate student at the School for Social Service Administration. Ze tutors at Hyde Park Academy. 

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I struggled to find a work study job that would work with my hectic and demanding schedule. For my first quarter I worked at a tutoring program on the north side, and started winter break determined to find something closer to my home in Bronzeville. I was ecstatic to find NSP and begin working at Hyde Park Academy (HPA), but I was thrown into my first day unsure of what to expect. As someone studying Social Work after several years serving street-based youth, I was a little disappointed to discover that I would be working only with the college-bound IB students. My favorite people to work with are young people that push back on the systems of oppression layered on their lives with so much force they often aren’t in school. My older sister and I were the first people in our family to graduate highschool, let alone graduate college. How was I going to relate to these young people who did their homework on time, took initiative to show up to school, and regularly followed HPA’s dress code?

In a conversation I had during my first week with my supervisor (who happens to be a rockstar advocate for her IB students on a daily basis), she apologized to me for the classroom etiquette of these young people. In this moment, I was reminded of the fact that people cannot see my roots in poverty when they look at me. I struggled through highschool, breaking all of the rules but falling in love with how learning took me away from the war zone in my neighborhood. While after years of experience with young people, I expect and enjoy the challenge and realness of building rapport with youth of color as a college-educated visibly-white boi. To this day, it still surprises me that other folks who serve this community in more structured settings (like after-school programs, highschools, support groups etc.) seem to expect me to be put-off by the behavioral expectations in these settings. In reality, I had never known anything different until I pushed myself into undergrad to escape an abusive partner.

In a recent English class at HPA, we were discussing Jane Eyre and whether there is economic equality for women today (there isn’t, in case anyone reading this was unaware). While my supervisor brought up the fact that there are a staggeringly disproportionate number of women vs. men students, I noticed that it was not mentioned that there are an even more staggering number of white teachers considering the student population of almost exclusively those of color. I was left with questions, as usual, about my role as a white person in fighting the racial injustices that structure our world. I was speaking with one of the students about this lapse in discussion after class, and this student looked at me like they were recognizing me for the first time. I will never forget her response of a simple, “Huh, yeah. No one has ever brought that up.”

That class and reflection moment made me realize that relating to young people who know they are college-bound was not going to be as difficult as I had thought. Even my whiteness and thus contribution to white supremacy seem to be a bigger issue to faculty and staff than to the young people (keeping in mind that we can never know how others feel unless they tell us). Rather, the assumptions of class privilege have been the hardest to overcome. I was deeply touched and surprised when it was clear that my trans*-ness wasn’t as much of an issue as I had assumed it would be in another discussion with my supervisor in which she inquired about my pronouns on behalf of the students. I have worked in many adult-only settings in which this question is never asked, and it always touches me that young people are much more wise, vulnerable, and caring than our society gives them credit for being. I move forward to continue wondering how my identities play into the ways I serve the students at Hyde Park Academy. I look forward to continuing to grapple with these questions and with my role as a NSP tutor.

Happy Finals Week from Erin

“Wanna see me write with my left hand?”

I’m not sure whether to smile or sigh. I’m supposed to be helping AJ add and subtract mixed numbers, but her fifth-grade brain has gone off on a tangent again. At this point, I’ve learned it’s best just to go with it for a bit before trying to focus back on 5 ¼ +2 ⅓.

Her writing is impressive, considering she’s right-handed. “Wow, that’s really good!” I say. “I’m terrible with my left hand.” I proceed to demonstrate on our mini whiteboard.

“You just need to practice,” AJ tells me. “That’s what I did.” She goes on to say that she wishes she were left-handed because everyone in her class is right-handed, and she wants to be different. Then it’s time to move back to the fractions, while I make a mental note to tell my left-handed sister what my student said.

At the beginning of this school year, I would not have envisioned having a conversation like this. In fact, my NSP experience overall has not quite been what I anticipated—but in a good way. I was expecting to be a teaching assistant, working directly in a classroom of 30 students, helping students with homework when they needed it but also grading papers and telling them to clean up their desks. Instead, I’m a one-on-one math tutor for fifth graders at Donoghue Elementary. I was initially unsure what to think of this assignment. Besides the fact that math is my least favorite subject, I was hoping to get classroom experience, since I’m considering teaching as a career.

But my doubts turned out to be unfounded, and I can now say I love the work I’m doing. I’ve been able to directly teach and plan lessons based on my students’ progress in ways I may not have been able to in another setting. I’ve become close to my students and learned to adapt my tutoring style to their (very different) personalities. I’ve gotten to see them improve, firsthand, throughout the year, and I’ve realized what an impact one-on-one tutoring can have.

And I’m not the only one to recognize this impact. Recently, I read an article in the New York Times about an initiative by the UChicago Crime Lab and Match Education. The program provided tutoring and mentoring to ninth and tenth grade students for six months. The students’ test scores jumped multiple grade levels, the students failed fewer classes, and they were far more likely to be on track for graduation. *

When I first read this article, I was thrilled. The tutoring I’m doing through NSP is not nearly as intensive as that described in the article; I’m only with each student for one 45-minute session a week, and the amount of material we cover in that time isn’t huge. But it’s not just about how many fraction problems we did that day. It’s about giving them the personalized attention that many students, especially students in large, urban schools, lack.

My own education background is in small schools. From preschool to eighth grade I attended a 200-student Montessori school (my middle school graduating class was 11, which remains the largest in Brookview history). My high school was 1,000 students, which I always thought was big but have now learned is nothing compared to the 3,000+ enrollment schools of my peers. And even in my largest high school classes, I felt like my teachers knew me well.

Why am I telling you this? Because when I look back on my education, I realize that one of the most important aspects of it was individualized attention. I remember not just specific lessons but also specific conversations with my teachers. My teachers knew my personality and learning style, and I learned better because of that.

So maybe I’m only with my students for 45 minutes a week. And maybe, from an objective standpoint, I’m not doing much. But when I’m breaking down the steps of simplifying fractions for Tyler or playing Subtraction Bingo with AJ, I know that it’s not all about how much of the worksheet we finished that day (not that that isn’t important, because I’m pretty proud that Tyler can now add fractions like a pro). I’m giving these students the one-on-one help and attention that, in a hectic classroom of 30 students, can’t always be provided. I’m listening to the stories they don’t always get to share. I’m showing them that someone is sincerely invested in their success.

And I’m also learning that I should really practice writing with my left hand.

*Link to article:

Erin Hart is a first-year in the College, majoring in English. She tutors at the Donoghue campus of the University of Chicago charters schools.