Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman


I came to this ethnography with a question generated by my previous research at Central Park East—how can schools bridge the cultural differences between students’ families and the school? In 1991, when I interviewed graduates of Central Park East, a now-famous school in East Harlem founded by Deborah Meier, most told me that this was not an issue, but a few argued persuasively that Central Park East had not fully addressed the gaps between their neighborhoods and the culture of the school. Furthermore, they told me, they had paid a price later on for this omission when their lack of a sense of cultural identity made it difficult for them to negotiate high schools and colleges, which labeled them “minority.”1

Although I was not sure how much these graduates’ memories of elementary school had been reconfigured by their later experiences, what they said spurred me to think about how little educational theory, with its psychological moorings, takes into account the cultural relationships between home and school.2

With the help of a colleague, Kathe Jervis, who was in the midst of studying the silenced dialog of race at a public middle school in Manhattan, I began to explore ways to obtain research support.3 By recruiting Kemly McGregor and Jianzhong Xu, two NCREST researchers, we assembled a culturally diverse research team, hoping that we would be able to learn from our differences and overcome the narrowness of our own perspectives as we observed and analyzed our data. Our first task was to draft a proposal to study what we called cultural interchange. Our proposal to conduct ethnographic research at four public schools in New York City was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

I decided to do my fieldwork at a “typical” urban school rather than one imbued with learner-centered pedagogy for two reasons.4 First, since virtually all of my education research had been about Central Park East, I thought it was time to move out of the rarefied atmosphere of the progressive network and look closely at mainstream public education. Second, I wanted to explore cultural interchange in a setting that did not make crossing the boundaries between home and school central to its mission and would enable our research team to compare what was happening at my site with the sites of the other three researchers, which I presumed were more committed to promoting border crossing.

I chose to study CES 518 of the New York City Board of Education, a school located in the Morrisania section of the southwest Bronx, within District 9 and in the poorest Congressional district in the United States.5 Its student body is more than 60 percent Hispanic and 30 percent African American. Sixteen percent of third graders are reading at or above grade level. I chose this school as my research site because I had heard it was a good school and because I had access to it through my brother-in-law, Allen, who worked in District 9’s central office, and my sister-in-law, Loretta, who was an assistant principal at the school. For years they had been telling me about their experiences trying to improve teaching and learning at what was once portrayed as one of the worst elementary schools in New York City.6

This seemed like a good time to see what was happening with my own eyes. With Allen and Loretta’s assistance, I secured the cooperation of CES 518’s principal in the spring of 1996, and as the fall approached, I eagerly prepared to begin my fieldwork. My plan was to spend two or three days a week in the Bronx while teaching my normal schedule of two courses each semester at Rutgers University, where I am Associate Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations.

Changing My Research Plans

When I finally entered CES 518 in the South Bronx in late October 1996,7 I expected to spend most of my time observing the interaction of a fifth grade teacher and her students while simultaneously typing my notes into a laptop computer. If you had pressed me, I might have told you that if the classroom teacher approved, I expected every so often to help a child with his or her schoolwork. Indeed, when I met with Mrs. Lynns to discuss how we would work together, I offered to help in this manner.

To my surprise, Mrs. Lynns, a tall, slim, always elegantly dressed African-American woman, with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and ten years’ experience teaching at CES 518, told me that she welcomed any help I could give, without restriction or reservation. At the same time, she made it clear that she did not share my belief that cultural interchange was necessary for effective learning. Later she would tell me, “Once I meet a child, my interest is, ‘you’re here to learn. Whatever I give you, that’s what I want you to do. I want you to learn.’ But anything other than that—I respect their culture, but I don’t make it a big issue.”8

Since Mrs. Lynns’ approach to teaching was quite different from mine, I wondered whether she really wanted me to help out in any way that was comfortable for me. I did have some doubts, assuming that Mrs. Lynns was like most teachers and really would not want to share control of her classroom. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure that I could help her teach and still do my job as an ethnographer. At this point, I expected to spend most of my time in the classroom sitting, watching, and typing.

Also, I worried that my stance as an observer would make Mrs. Lynns and the children uncomfortable, causing them to shield their true feelings, censor their tongues, and constrict their behavior. But Mrs. Lynns was ahead of me. She didn’t want me to be focusing my critical attention on her, and her suggestion that I teach along with her was a perfect solution. Once I was immersed in the struggle to help the children learn, it was hard not to be sympathetic to Mrs. Lynns.

When Mrs. Lynns introduced me to her children the first day, I made a spontaneous decision to present myself to the class as a whole person—a social, emotional, moral, and psychological being rather than simply as a university professor primarily interested in academic concerns.9 Pulling out my wallet, I took out a picture of my son and gave it to the children to pass around. I told them that I was a father, that my son was almost their age, and that one day I would bring him to class and they could meet him. After I explained my project for a few minutes (I don’t think any of the children had any idea what I was looking for), I sat down at a desk in the back of the room near an electric outlet, plugged in my computer, and began typing. The children accepted my presence as a sort of hybrid—more friendly than a teacher, too remote for a friend. They called me “Mr. David.”

Using a Computer—Inside and Outside the Classroom

Quickly it became apparent that my typing into the computer at the back of the room could not be ignored. It was not that it was noisy, but the children kept taking their eyes off Mrs. Lynns, who was usually the center of attention, to watch me. Whenever the children could find an excuse to get up from their desk to talk to me—one of the class “rules and regulations” was that students had to raise their hands to ask permission to speak or to leave their seats—child after child came up to me to look at what I was doing, to read what I wrote on the screen, and above all, to ask me how I could type without looking at the keys. Soon I was telling the children about how I had learned to type in high school, how I used my computer to write books and articles, and how my son used the programs and games I had loaded on the computer’s hard drive. Children asked me to let them type on the keyboard so they could see their writing on the screen; they asked to read what I was typing about them; and they asked me to give them the computer so that they could play Treehouse, Chess, Mickey’s Memory Challenge, and Reader Rabbit 3.

There was a computer in the classroom, but it was never plugged in. When I asked about it, I learned that only third graders at CES 518 were being taught how to use computers. The machine in Mrs. Lynns’ room was just being stored there, and eventually it was moved elsewhere.10 Since the children had no access to a computer in school, and I did, I decided to let them use mine when Mrs. Lynns was not teaching a lesson. Soon, children were begging me to let them take the computer to the cafeteria so they could play with it at lunch, and requests to use it in the classroom were so overwhelming that figuring out whose turn it was to use it was the biggest headache of my day. Complaints that someone was being a “hog” became a predominant classroom theme. Mrs. Lynns soon realized that I, a novice in the elementary school classroom, was letting the students’ desire to play with the new toy overwhelm me and disrupt the class, so she suggested that I post a sign-up sheet on the blackboard in the front of the classroom. Before long, everyone’s name was on the list, and the commotion subsided.

Still, I had to decide whether I should allow children to take the computer to lunch with them since I didn’t need it at that time. Because I spent lunch time eating and conversing with Mrs. Lynns and several of her colleagues in a cafeteria in the nursing home down the block, I couldn’t take notes there. In a way, letting children use my computer during lunchtime was less disruptive of my note-taking than letting them use it at any other time. However, was it safe to let it out of my sight? Could I trust the children not to steal it, or to let it get stolen? Could I assume they were responsible enough not to let it out of their sight, or responsible enough to make sure it didn’t fall and break?

I decided to try trusting the children. Children bringing the computer to lunch became routine, and for the lucky child who got to use the computer for an entire half hour, it was a real prize. Needless to say, the computer was never damaged or left behind. (Eventually I broke it myself but replaced it with an older machine that had no games.)

One day at the beginning of November, Nicole, a student in the classroom, approached me at my table in the back of the room and asked in a barely audible voice if she could try typing on my computer while the class did its silent reading. I had to decide: Should I interrupt my note-taking about which child was reading what? Would Mrs. Lynns approve? I followed my instincts, responding as I would to my son: it was okay with me, if Mrs. Lynns approved. (I always reminded the children that their teacher was in charge.) When Mrs. Lynns gave Nicole permission—after checking that it was okay with me—Nicole began writing in her file every day. Soon, she was using it as a diary.

The Ethnographic Present

Then disaster struck. One day, Jessica, one of Nicole’s teammates on the cheerleading team, opened Nicole’s file and read what Nicole had written about her in anger. (The problem was with a boy Nicole liked but who preferred Jessica). Nicole was devastated.

Believing that daily writing in the computer had become important to Nicole, I bought Nicole a little diary with a lock at the local stationery store. Once Nicole had her diary, all the children wanted one of their own. First, the bolder children asked me; Lisette may have been first, but soon all the children made it clear that they desperately wanted a diary.

Now, I had to find an inexpensive way to meet the demand. I solved the problem by visiting a local discount store and buying, on sale, blank, plastic-covered note pads. (The covers had various paintings printed on them. I gave diaries covered with naked angels to the children I believed to be devoutly religious. To my surprise, Nicole thought the picture was “nasty” and asked for a different one.) Soon, just about everyone was keeping a personal journal.

1See David Bensman (1995), Lives of the Graduates of Central Park East Elementary School: Where They Have Gone? What Did They Really Learn? New York: NCREST. return to text

2Several studies helped bring this issue into focus. The following works were especially helpful: Michelle Fine’s Framing Drop Outs (1991); Michele Foster’s Black Teachers on Teaching (1997); Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words (1983); Herbert Kohl’s I Won’t Learn From You!: The Role of Assent in Learning (1991); Gloria Ladson-Billings’ The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children (1994); and Mary Poplin and Joseph Weeres’s Voices From the Inside: A Report on Schooling from Inside the Classroom (1993). return to text

3See Kathe Jervis (1996), “Why Are There No Brothers on This List?: Hearing the Hard Questions All Children Ask,” Harvard Educational Review (66), 546–576. return to text

4Later, I discovered that CES 518 was undertaking efforts to become learner-centered, as are many other New York City schools. These efforts are made especially difficult because the school is so large; it has 1,600 students in two sites, the main building on the south side of the street and the annex on the north side. In an effort to make the school more manageable and to foster a sense of community, the principal has divided the school into four mini-schools, each with its own director, an assistant principal. I now wonder whether I can ever find a “typical” urban school, since each is unique. return to text

5The name of the school, its administrators, teachers, and students have been given pseudonyms. return to text

6This was a school whose principal was arrested for possession of crack cocaine in 1985. Since newspaper coverage of public education is sometimes inaccurate, I cannot say for sure that the school was as bad as it was portrayed. return to text

7I did not enter the classroom until October because my brother-in-law, Allen, died in early September. return to text

8From an interview with Mrs. Lynns conducted in February 1998 by the four members of the research team. return to text

9This formulation of a whole human being is drawn from James Comer’s School Power, 1993, p. 16. return to text

10The year I was in Mrs. Lynns’ classroom, CES 518 had computers in all of the third grade classrooms. The following year, all third and fourth grade classrooms had computers. In the school year 1998-99, all classrooms in the upper elementary grades had three computers. Capital Re, the school’s corporate sponsor, provided some of the funds to purchase these computers. return to text

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