Secrets of Successful Urban Teachers
What they do. Why they do It. How you can do it too. 800-839-3073

QUESTION: What is it that drives your passion for your work?

ANSWER: I began developing teaching strategies and approaches many years ago as a new classroom teacher in a school with 100% African American enrollment. I was failing to teach, to any degree of excellence, my significantly underperforming students. I was determined to be a powerful force in their lives, so I studied, reflected, created, and experimented until I succeeded with all my students. I began to understand that the existence of large numbers of children that we are failing to educate — not just African American students — is “a problem that need not be.” After coaching other teachers in my school who then related their very positive results with student achievement, I knew I needed to continue to create teaching strategies and practices that help teachers turn around the academic careers of those young people who had already begun to internalize failure.

QUESTION: Your work supports and refers to studies of highly successful teachers of underachieving African American students and others whom our schools have consistently failed to educate to any degree of excellence. What is some of this research, and how does it connect to your work?

ANSWER: I put myself into the category of highly successful classroom teachers of African American and other students. I use the knowledge I have gained from my classroom experiences. This website’s bibliography lists books and articles related to research on successful teachers of African American and other students. As it turns out, these teachers, who are of various ethnicities, build their lesson content and educational practices (whether they realize this or not) upon the culture of their students. Their teaching is culture-centered.

QUESTION: How does the Intensified Accelerated (IASYS) phonics program differ from other phonics programs?

ANSWER: The Intensified Accelerated programs are designed to accelerate students who are behind. The phonics component features a holistic approach that supports the needed acceleration of decoding and fluency mastery. Many phonics programs are linear. The beginning stages revolve around a few “sight words,” and words with one of the short vowels; they then add consonants to make three and four letter words. This works well for many students, but fails too many others. It is a tragedy that we find so many students in upper grades who have not learned to decode with even medium levels of fluency.

In the IASYS program, primary and upper grade students are not limited to some “sight words” along with three and four letter words with regulated patterns. Instead, they quickly learn a larger set of sound/symbol patterns needed to decode large numbers of words of various lengths and patterns in a short period of time. This allows for an almost immediate use of higher level reading material that’s rich in meaning.

QUESTION: You urge teachers to “speed up the pace for low performing students instead of slowing it down.” Can you explain this?

ANSWER: Rhythm is such a dominant cultural theme in African American and many other cultures outside the European group. That’s why the often low-key impact and slower pace of lessons in traditional curricula don’t capture the rhythm that “touches the spirit” and excites intellectual curiosity in many underperforming African American students. When you speed up and enliven the presentation and communication, you utilize the rhythm and the dynamic aliveness of the culture, and thus make more meaningful teacher-student connections.

QUESTION: You speak of “teaching up” and not just rigidly rejecting curricula that is categorized as above your students’ grade level. How is this a developmentally appropriate practice?

ANSWER: Highly successful teachers expose their students of all ages to language, information, ideas, and concepts that students don’t yet have enough background knowledge and experience to fully understand. As parents we often “teach up” to our young children, using “adult” vocabulary and explanations to discuss the world around us, knowing that our children don’t yet fully understand our explanations and language, but get a glimpse of the ideas.

The brain takes in and stores everything that comes to it through our senses. This data is organized and gradually forms a strong foundation for language patterns and background knowledge about the world around us. It is often later retrieved when some experience provides a cue that points to this “stored” knowledge from long ago. The more knowledge, language, and experiences a child has stored, the more advantages they have as students in formal education.

Look at the books on our booklist about successful teachers of African American students dealing with multicultural issues in education. Then take a look at the popular series of titles by E. D. Hirsch. Browse through What Your Kindergartner Needs to Know; see the significantly above “grade level” history and geography recommendations and reflect on the kinds of learning to which academically advantaged parents expose their children. Hirsch states, “The goal in kindergarten, then, is less to explore historical events or ideas in depth than to orient the child to the past and plant the seeds of knowledge that will grow in later years.”

Portrait of August Mann

Photo credit: Mark Skalny

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