Today, 30 students from a public middle school called West Side Collaborative came to sit in on an upper level undergraduate course I teach, called "The Worker in American Life,." brought by their teacher, Victoria Thomas-Rahiman, who was once my student. I was concerned that they would not be able to participate in the class discussions- which was on Wal-Mart's labor practices and role in the American economy- without a lot of guidance from me. But after a five minute lecture to get them oriented, I leaped directly into the class I had planned, beginning with two music videos which dramatized the travails of low wage workers in the US, and when I asked for comments, the students from West Side Collaborative raised their hands as much as students in my class, and offered remarks which were at times startling in their insight and depth. My students were both stunned and excited by their contributions and the class became the focal point of an incredible discussion of what it means to be part of the working poor in the United States, something which the West Side Collaborative knew from personal experience far more than my wonderful Fordham students. It was also clear that economic inequality and economic justice were issues they had discussed in their classes, and at times in their families, and they had strong opinions about this that my own students found myself listening to intently.
What made the whole experience so remarkable was not only the difference in age between the two groups, but also the difference in background . My Fordham class is about 2/3 white and 1/3 students of color, with many coming from middle class and upper middle class families. The Manhattan Collaborative group was probably 80 percent students of color ( in every possible variety) and included some students who came from working class families and/or lived in public housing. But there was no intellectual or cultural barrier between the two groups. Whatever stereotypes my Fordham students may have had about NY City public school students quickly dissolved from the moment the West Side Coillaborative students began speaking. It made me think that students like this should have more of a presence on the Fordham campus on a regular basis, but it also made me realize how much great teaching and learning is taking place in New York City public schools.
One final point. West Side Collaborative is NOT a charter school. It is regular public school staffed by union teachers. Who have somehow trained middle school students to hold their own with upper level undergraduates at one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges
Food for thought, isn't it?