MACTE - Michigan
Monday, December 10, 2018

Jennifer Lewis's 2014 EDTalk

According to Dr. Jennifer Lewis, associate dean of the School of Education at Wayne State University, culturally sensitive education demands knowledge of one’s specific clientele, from awareness of the unique community resources to which kids have access to simply knowing what it takes for a kid to get to school every morning.

That’s the impetus behind Wayne’s new teacher education program called TeachDETROIT, a surgically specific approach to education that trains candidates - both undergrads and postgrads alike - to work solely and effectively in Detroit schools.

“We are training teachers specifically to teach in Detroit Schools. Not to teach in Monroe or West Bloomfield or in Grand Rapids - just Detroit,” Lewis said. “We think they need specialized training to appreciate the resources and strengths Detroit kids bring to school, but also to contend with the challenges of working high poverty schools with people of color.”

Lewis, director of the new initiative, admits that most people tend to think first and only about the challenges of working in Detroit schools, but she says the real key to working successfully in the city is recognizing the unique strengths the people of the city bring to education. She cites families - not just mothers and fathers, but grandparents and aunts and uncles - and churches as huge advocates for their children’s education, but working long hours and child care often prevent many Detroiters from being able to directly participate in the schooling.

By changing the traditional recipe, Lewis said, and creating a number of new avenues by which parents can show up - methods as simple as hosting parent-teacher conferences later in the evening instead of during the workday, offering childcare, and an annual family math night at the school - they have seen a remarkable turn out.

“[Detroit families] so badly want to support their kids’ educations. If we were only looking for the traditional kinds of support, like parents who can volunteer in the classroom or go on field trips or attend parent-teacher conferences during the school day, we would not have seen this resource.”

Partially funded by the Skillman Foundation, the professors at Wayne designed TeachDetroit as a highly immersive, 15 month program which takes place almost entirely in Detroit schools, not in the university. Candidates aren’t learning in a theoretical vacuum, says Lewis, but really encountering DPS culture and, with the help of their professors, developing a framework for how to apply the theories to these specific kids.

Prospective teachers are given extensive training in teaching academic subjects, with special emphasis on literacy and mathematics, using methods designed specifically for Detroit schoolchildren.

And unlike most programs, TeachDetroit doesn’t conclude after candidates graduate and begin their work as educators in the city. Lewis says the program also includes two years of close mentoring for teachers working in the city.

“We know teachers leave high poverty schools with greater frequency, so we want to make sure teachers have the support and keep connecting back to why they are there and what they need to do to be successful so we can keep them,” Lewis said.

Part of the appeal of the program, according to Lewis, is being real about one of the most unique aspects of Detroit: race.

“Detroit is 85% African American. So if we could just get really good at teaching African American kids, that would have a lot of purchase for our candidates, which I think would take them very far.”

However, while lauding it as a necessary intervention for such a unique circumstance, Lewis admits that the program’s culturally sensitive precision might restrict candidates, and not just in the sense that they are trained exclusively to teach in Detroit.

“The specificity of the program does limit our candidates in a general sense.” Lewis said. “For example, I hope our students get really good at knowing how to reach African American boys, in particular, because they are very under served in our current system, but it doesn’t make me feel good that we are not going to be giving enough attention to white girls. We just have to place our bets on what makes the most sense and what is the most urgent, but there’s always a trade-off.”

Cognizant of this and other potential issues, Lewis maintains that the program is what’s needed to answer the deficit of lasting, professional teachers in the city. She cites some Teach for America corps members as evidence.

“Part of the impetus for this program came from what we were seeing with TFA in Detroit,” Lewis said. “We have these amazing candidates - people who really want to teach and are extremely idealistic and have really strong academic backgrounds - and they are being put in really difficult environments for which they do not have adequate preparation.”

Lewis notes that TFA’s philosophy of putting academically successful leaders in places where they are most needed and their emphasis on cultural competence resonates with TeachDETROIT’s, but says that the programs diverge on the level, length and rigor of specific training and continued support candidates need in order to stay in the city long term and really make a difference.

While Lewis says that the unique circumstances of Detroit at this point in time make such a specific educational adaptation feasible, the culturally sensitive core of TeachDETROIT remains applicable to all teacher prep programs and schools. It's imperative that teacher candidates have thorough knowledge of how to teach academic subjects. In addition, who and where you are teaching matter, says Lewis, and simply knowing “stuff” about the community and the kids who live there is one step towards giving those kids an authentic education.