The Series on Cultural Interchange

Preface to the Series
Titles in the Series
About the Authors

Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman

Between Home and School: Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor




“It’s the Company Why Crab Don’t Have No Head” — Leo

“If I Don’t Have God, I Don’t Have Nothing in My Life” — Gisela

“I Wanna Have It All” — Benjamin

Leo, Gisela, Benjamin, and Their School


  View in PDF format

Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu

Grappling with Difference
14-minute video
Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor


The creation of a school’s culture is a complex interlayering of the values and ideals of those within the school community: principal, teachers, students, and support personnel. That culture is shaped in part by people outside of its space: state school policymakers, school district administrators, community institutions, and parents (Sarason, 1982). To some degree, schools shape, and are shaped by, people both within them and outside them.

Cultural interchange is about the degree to which schools and their students shape each other. To what extent does a school leave an indelible imprint on a child’s way of thinking and looking at the world? To what extent does a child leave the same imprint on the school? Does cultural interchange help children learn while also helping the school to adapt and shape its practice to meet the needs of the children it must serve?

These are some of the questions examined during my observations at Central Bronx Academy (CBA),1 a high school located in the Bronx, New York. During the year spent in pursuit of answers to these questions, I made numerous visits to CBA to observe classes, staff meetings, and school functions; I talked with teachers, students, and the principal. For the purpose of the case studies presented here, I specifically focused my observations on three children and their families. I had studied the school early in its existence for another project and assumed by now that I would find teachers and students learning from each other—part of CBA’s commitment was centering its curriculum around the realities of its students—but I wanted to see the form that such learning assumed and the places and spaces where it occurred. I believed that these observations, as well as the study of these three children, would elucidate the “points of intersection,” the places where CBA connected, or did not connect, with the children.

What I expected to find in the way of cultural interchange at CBA centered around the school’s creation of an intellectual culture—that is, how it taught its students the nature of learning, what learning looked like, and the ways it changed one’s life, one’s patterns of thinking. I wanted to see how building such a culture could affect students’ attitudes about learning, about knowledge, and about themselves as participants in the world of knowledge. I also wanted to see if, in the process, what the school learned from its students could change the school itself.

What Is an Intellectual Culture?

It is never acceptable, I have always believed, to leave a situation exactly as you entered it. Every experience is an opportunity to encounter disequilibrium, to “get knocked out of your space” in a way that helps you see the world as you have never before seen it. This, I feel, is just what schools should do to (and for) children. When I think about the work of schools, I find myself continually returning to such terms as disequilibrium, shake up, make your brain hurt,2 and my favorite, disturb.3 Schools should disturb children. Schools should never be content to tiptoe around children’s assumptions and ideas. Schools should not be afraid to make children’s brains “hurt.”

What I am not speaking of is the form of cultural vandalism in which adults behave as if children, particularly those from “deprived backgrounds,” bring little to school worth preserving; that what they enter with must be thrown aside in favor of something “better,” much as one exchanges a filthy garment for a clean one. There is nothing in such an approach that whets a child’s appetite to learn, to engage more deeply with her own ideas and the ideas of others. Such attitudes, more likely than not, foster resentment and a blanket rejection of anything the school might have to offer (Fine, 1991; Kohl, 1994; Fordham, 1996).

What I am speaking of is an atmosphere in which children and adults perpetually challenge each other to readjust the lenses that they hold up to view the world. An atmosphere in which disequilibrium is sought rather than avoided. An atmosphere in which questions are not always things to be answered as quickly and as painlessly as possible by the person who “knows the most,” but, rather, are springboards into the unexplored terrain of unfamiliar ideas or points of reentry into familiar areas that bear fresh investigation. An atmosphere in which answers are not always hard-formed things, like cooled lava, but things that grow, change, and respond to new insight and information. An atmosphere where teachers and students learn not to be afraid of encountering notions that may upend those they already have.

Ideally, schools are places where it is understood and accepted that growing and learning are things that not only students do, but they are the business of the entire school community. If learning is indeed what schools are all about, then a closely attendant duty of the school must be to forge an understanding of the nature of learning—to figure out, and to help children figure out, what learning looks like (or does not look like) and how one goes about it. Therefore, the school must continually seek opportunities to model the kind of learning that reflects that encountered outside of the controlled environment of the classroom. It is the presence of this type of learning that underlies what I call here a culture of intellectualism—that is, a school culture where ideas are things to play with and to be shared among teachers and students. A place where students are free to express their thinking around a subject and know that their peers will receive their views respectfully, even if they do not agree with them. A place where in each class, as math/science teacher Nick McFadden puts it, ideas get “the majority of the air time.”

An important element of intellectualism is an appreciation for complexity and delayed closure. Important questions often fail to yield quick answers, no matter how diligently the questions are pursued. Solutions for the most enthralling dilemmas are often elusive, and tremendous patience and persistence may be needed to unearth anything resembling answers.

How do you teach children that answers to the most important questions they will deal with, both inside and outside of school, do not always duly appear as a timely reward for “trying your best”? Such answers will rarely yield themselves in the neat, predictable ways that they might within the domesticated atmosphere of the classroom. Real-life problem solving can be a messy, untamed, “one-step-forward-two-steps-backward” process that occasionally fails to surrender to logic or to the most Herculean efforts.

This is some of the thinking I entered CBA with that year as I tried to figure out what the school was attempting to teach its children about learning itself, if and how that knowledge changed the children, and how the things those children brought to the process changed the school itself. I could not assume that CBA shared my definition of an intellectual culture, or that creating such a thing was at the heart of the school’s intent or even the intent of A House.4 Yet the assumptions that each school holds (whether or not these assumptions are clearly spelled out) about learning and what defines an “educated” child are enacted through its practice. What did CBA understand about the nature of knowledge, of what learning looked like?

I chose this Bronx high school for my study because I believed it would be a “disturbing” place. I had met the director, Audrey Hogan, some years before when an influx of alternative schools was starting in New York City. In my role of documenting the birth of some of these schools, I encountered Ms. Hogan and the school she had founded, Central Bronx Academy. I now recalled the painstaking care with which she had assembled her staff. I remembered the kinds of questions she asked the teachers she interviewed. I remembered hearing her talk about the things she wanted to see those teachers bring to the children they would serve. I spent time in her school that first year sitting in on classes, meetings, and talking with teachers and students; I saw the things that Ms. Hogan and the teachers asked of their students. From what several of those students told me, CBA was a place where a lot of children’s brains hurt.

Central Bronx Academy

CBA is a relatively small high school (just under 400 students) located in a predominantly Latino section of the Bronx, New York. The staff, which was multiracial, consisted of about twenty, young teachers. CBA’s student population is about two thirds Latino and one third children of African descent. There are no White students at CBA.

Ms. Hogan, a young African-American woman in her early thirties, has a clear, unequivocal vision of CBA’s mission to its students and community. She began her teaching career as a science teacher in a large comprehensive high school—a place that showed her, as she related to me in so many words, what she did not want her school to be:

It seemed as if people accepted the fact that kids were going to misbehave and didn’t demand any better of them, which was frustrating. Not everybody, but there was a general tone that some inappropriate behavior was acceptable....There was a bit of emphasis on sports. And I love sports, but one of the years I was there, the football team and the basketball team won their championships in their leagues, and every time I looked, the principal was over the intercom, announcing these kids’ names. And I said, we have some kids here who are going to college and getting scholarships—you’re not announcing their names over the intercom. Obviously, we’re sending the wrong message...stressing football and basketball as the thing that’s important seemed a little warped to me....

I found myself blaming the kids. I’d go into the teachers’ cafeteria, and everybody would be complaining about how horrible the kids were, and I’d be there with them. And finally I had to snap out of it and realize that was not the way to go. So I ended up eating in my room by myself, and trying to reassess what exactly the issues were, and realizing it wasn’t the kids, it was me, it was the teachers, it was what we were demanding of them. But I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that this wasn’t right. It just wasn’t right.5

Ms. Hogan’s burden, as assessed by the teachers I spoke with in my study, as well as her own admission, is rigorous academics. Children are required to assemble and defend portfolios. They are provided, in advance, with the guidelines against which their work, and their defense of it, will be measured. Classwork, projects, and portfolios generally draw on “Habits of Mind”—that is, guiding questions that help children analyze the issues and organize their own thinking. These issues are concerned with such things as evidence (“How do you know what you know?”); perspective (“What would happen if the situation or part of the situation were to change?”); and initiative (“What can I do with what I’ve learned?”). The Habits of Mind are prominently posted in many CBA classrooms and are frequently referred to by both teachers and students in their discussions of student work.

Every weekend there is Saturday School, which allows students to come to school to get extra help from teachers—an option that Ms. Hogan encourages the teachers to let students know is not really “optional.” The distinct message that success in academics is what really matters at CBA is not lost on its students. Several times I have witnessed the “crush” to complete and prepare to defend portfolios at the end of each grading period; the tension is palpable. In the words of Leo, an eleventh grader:

Once March comes, boom! Everbody’s on their toes. Everybody’s like, “Portfolios are coming, oh, I have to get this project done,”—after school, Saturday school—“basketball practice, whatever practice, I’m cutting it.”...They do a lotta things like that. After school, Saturday school, they come over teachers’ houses—they’re constantly working; constant, constant. They know once that portfolio time comes, you just gotta be tight....

Portfolios make my head hurt...when portfolio time comes, you can’t be like, “Uhm...uhm”—you gotta know your stuff, you know?...They give you questions about your work—see if you really know, see if you were really paying attention. They like to hear details....

At portfolio time, you can’t get any computers. Can’t get any computers! Saturday school is jam-packed like it’s a regular day! People are typing in the office, ask people to type for you while you get up. Usually I could get up and leave my computer, walk around the room. You get up [people ask you], “You gonna use this, you gonna use this?” That’s a stressful time. You see people throwing their papers, going wild; it’s wild, all the time.

Getting students to the point where they viewed schoolwork as real work, where they took responsibility for what they produced, and where they knew that the adults around them would also hold them to account was an evident aim of CBA. When I mentioned to Ms. Hogan how some students had made reference to their heads “hurting,” she responded:

I think you’re asking me what the purpose of school is....And the reality of life is that it makes your head hurt. So we want to do things with kids to get them ready for that.

Ms. Hogan demonstrates a firm belief that the primary objective of high school should be to prepare youth to make intelligent choices and to equip them for real options in life. She does not believe that all high schools do this; she finds, in fact, that there are high schools, such as the one she began her career in several years before, that seem to be interested primarily in keeping children busy, entertained, and out of trouble. For CBA, this is hardly a worthy objective. Ms. Hogan has said that she sees the role of this school as helping make children “powerful”; “I want kids to be powerful,” she once said. “In my mind, everything that we’re trying to do here is helping them work towards that.”

Ms. Hogan is fearless about placing high demands on her school and has few qualms about pushing students, as well as teachers, to attempt things they may assume impossible:

The biggest thing I’ve learned from the kids is that the things I’ve believed intellectually—that all students can learn—I know is true, as opposed to just rhetoric. And I know that if we push them far enough, they can pretty much reach anything we want them to.

When I ask her what has shown her this, she says:

Just the way they’ve been able to respond to a lot of what we’ve asked of them. We ask them basically to do things that many of them have never thought about doing before [such as] think about going to college. Think of themselves as intellectuals. Just opening themselves to different kinds of things that they may not want to do normally. Just imagine all kinds of new possibilities that they never imagined themselves.

From what I have seen, CBA’s focus is, indeed, heavily oriented toward academics and very lightly toward “nonacademic” pursuits, such as sports.6 This focus is not because Ms. Hogan and her staff deny the importance of sports to a well-rounded curriculum. Limited resources and the hard choices that necessarily attend such limitations have forced CBA to make certain compromises in its extracurricular offerings—and never at the expense of what it views as most important: rigorous academic demands for children who have rarely been subjected to them.

Yet there still is the dilemma that while they can sap resources needed to achieve the school’s core goals, these “extras” may provide hooks for less academically engaged children. As one teacher put it:

We should also provide a rich enough social and recreational atmosphere to kids that they want to be part of our school, even if their focus isn’t immediately academic. And we don’t do that. We’re political captives on things like sports teams, and we’re resource-poor. As a teacher, my mission should be the academic component. But our whole school should not be just about that. [Ms. Hogan] is a very academically minded person, but kids are not just academic beings, and the school should try to serve the whole kid. The center and the main thrust should be academics, and we should use this recreational/social life to hook them into doing some academics.—Mr. McFadden, math/science teacher

Although each school must deal with limitations of resources—money, time, staffing, for instance—it still makes its values clear by the way it chooses to allocate those resources. Ms. Hogan’s former school revealed what it valued in what it chose to emphasize, tolerate, or reward. What values does CBA reflect in its choices? How do these values resonate with those of the students and their families? Most importantly, how do CBA’s choices determine the ways its youth experience school?

Three Children

For several months during the 1996-1997 school year, I observed classes in A House at CBA before approaching any particular children and their families about joining my study. I had watched the children in classes for some time before selecting them. I had also explained my mission to the teachers of A House, and had consulted with them regarding which children might help to elucidate a few of the issues I wished to pursue. After teachers had suggested several names to me, I continued to observe classes, watching especially closely those children specifically mentioned by the teachers. In the end, I selected three youth on whom to focus my study: Leonard (“Leo”) Sallinger, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy of Caribbean descent; Gisela Urbano, an eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl; and Benjamin Duarte, a fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican boy.

1The name of the school and its director, teachers, and students, as well as most other identifying details, have been changed. return to text

2I borrow this phrase from a student I observed in a particularly charged humanities class discussion one afternoon. Her persuasively argued points had been gently demolished by the questions the teacher posed in response. At the end of the class period, no arguments left, I heard her say, “My brain hurts.” return to text

3The definitions of disturb that most closely approximate my meaning are "to trouble or upset the tranquillity of" and "to disarrange" (from Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1984). return to text

4CBA is divided into five “houses”: A House is composed of ninth and tenth graders. return to text

5Interview with Audrey Hogan, 1/23/95. return to text

6Currently CBA does have a basketball team and recently attempted to form a baseball team as well. In addition, there are some extracurricular activities pertaining to student governance and to AIDS awareness, as well as a club for Latino students. In the first year or two, however, no sports options had yet been created, something that a number of students complained about at the time. return to text

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