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Understanding Urban Communities as Context and Text for Teaching and Learning

Editor’s Note: Professor Hollins inspired attendees of AACTE’s recent Annual Meeting in Atlanta during the Speaker Spotlight Session. (View a video recording of her speech here, and read another version in this Hechinger Report piece, which includes the video she played during her address.) To follow up on her presentation, we invited Hollins to explore her topic in a series of blogs for Ed Prep Matters. This is the second post in the series.

Teaching is an interpretive practice that requires knowledge of the community where students grow and develop, and where they are socialized. Students’ initial and ongoing learning happens within a particular community; is framed by the ideologies and practices of the community; is influenced by the experiences, interests, and values shared among members of the community; and is appropriated through the learner’s perception, which is developed within the particular community. The initial learning that happens within a community constitutes the intellectual, psychological, social, and emotional development of the individual person.

Why do teachers need to develop an understanding of this community context? Learning is most likely to be meaningful and productive when situated within the everyday life experiences of the learner, so an important aspect of teaching is interpreting and translating students’ everyday experiences to support formal academic learning. This means that the extent to which teachers understand the communities where students live influences their ability to provide access to high-quality opportunities for learning and has an impact on learning outcomes, especially for urban and other underserved students. And of course, the stakes are high: The quality of education students receive in school impacts the quality of life they provide for themselves and their families as adults, and the quality of their contribution to the community in which they live.

What aspects of the community context must teachers understand? Think in terms of the experiences, interests, and values of leaders and members of the community—historically and in the present—economically, politically, and socially. Teachers need to understand the leadership and governance structure (formal and informal) in the community, the interests and priorities for community development addressed by different groups, and the role of the school in supporting community efforts through the education of children and youth. Teachers need to understand the human and other resources in urban communities, including points of interest such as historical sites, libraries, museums, parks, and theatres. This knowledge is essential for planning and enacting meaningful learning experiences.

Using their communities as the context and text for teaching urban students can increase opportunities for meaningful learning. For example, the community can serve as the context for the study of science through collecting plant samples and photographing animals in their natural habitats, or studies of water resources and waste management. Another example might be engaging local community-based organizations such as the National Urban League or the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund as part of the text for studying the history of the United States. The key is to situate academic learning within the life experiences of students with an eye to the priorities and values held by leaders and other members of their communities.

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Etta R. Hollins

University of Missouri at Kansas City