Urban Teaching & The Wire
I just finished cramming in Season 4 of HBO’s acclaimed The Wire, which focuses on public schools in Baltimore City. The Wire is hailed for its gritty, realistic depictions of our city. Hence my query: is this depiction accurate? Though schools are but one part of a complex storyline, my students generally feel that this season effectively conveys the systemic injustices impacting many children in the Baltimore City schools.
I’ve been teaching teachers at Loyola since 2002, and I’ve heard quite a few Baltimore City teachers’ stories. The stories they tell most often illustrate the limited resources with which they have to work. They describe with frustrated passion how diminished their effectiveness can be due to frequently imposed changes, like ever-shifting curricula, new grade- level responsibilities, and differing assessment procedures. Most profoundly, I hear them tell me how expectations are often so low, the odds heavily stacked against them and their students, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I notice that these teachers hunger to understand the larger, systemic issues. I rarely notice incompetence, despite how often it is attributed to teachers in Baltimore City. More often, I see teachers like the show’s Mr. Pryzbylewski who struggle to “make a difference,” and I see teachers who say “amen” to the analyses we provide in classes showing how ongoing racism and classism continue to dampen opportunities for urban youth. I encounter teachers who refuse to see their students as incapable and stupid. Quite the contrary, I see teachers who recognize intelligence in their students, even those unable to read, write, and calculate like their peers in the suburbs.
Public school children occupy space—simultaneously—in many different social worlds. The literature, for example, places them in the center of many concentric circles representing social realities with family, friends, community, and so forth. In the case of some children in urban environments, we often see the direct circle surrounding them as fragile with one parent absent, in prison or elsewhere, and the other struggling with his or her own deprivation. As a result, we see peer circles as more prominent. This, too, is often tenuous due to the larger circles of influence surrounding them, a result of poverty, violence, and the pervasive illegal economy.