How To Teach English in Low-Income, Urban Schools

A Guide for New Teachers When They Start To Panic About What the Heck They Are Going to Do In the Classroom Tomorrow

There are no words that can prepare you for stepping into the Title 1, urban school as a new teacher. When I started as an English teacher, I wish I had a guide to get me through each day. There’s so much around you that doesn’t make sense and it can be hard to focus on getting through each second. And goodness knows the other teachers and administrators are too busy to inspire you, educate you, or motivate you.

I got you. This is your guide.

Step 1: Get a folder and notebook for each kid

After all the bulletin boards are filled and the walls are covered, every student needs a folder and a notebook. You’ll be lucky if the school will provide these; if not, I suggest buying them for yourself. Sorry.

The folder can be a manila folder or another kind. The notebook can have spirals or not. It doesn’t really matter. Notebooks will stay in the folder in the classroom.

Step 2: Get a piece of text to read

Every day, there needs to be a piece of text to read. You don’t have to get them all at once in August, but you also don’t want to wait until the morning of to get each reading. Give yourself enough time to read it first.

Please, find something interesting for students. Great places to find culturally relevant nonfiction pieces of text are Newsela and CommonLit. One of the more off-the-beaten path places to get texts is The New York Times’ “Great Read Alouds” site. CommonLit also has fiction.

Step 3: Easy-to-make worksheet for each text

Newsela and Commonlit will do most of this for you. Anyway … once you know your piece of text, you make a worksheet that is 1-3 pages. Here’s how.

You pick some challenging words from the text for vocabulary pre-reading, then you come up with some text-relevant questions for post-reading, and then you come up with critical-thinking questions that will connect the text to the students’ lives. Usually these start with “What do you think about …?” or “How did … make you feel?” Always put a “Why?” in there.

Step 4: Pick your snapshot

I meant to say “snapshot,” not “slapshot.”

Pick one of the more general critical-thinking questions to be the snapshot (or bell ringer or whatever you call it) for the day. Or pick some other generic question that gets students thinking. Something like, “What song do you want played at your funeral and why?” or “What will the title to your biography be and why?” Post that somewhere, somehow. (I’m purposefully leaving this vague because I know some Title 1 classrooms will be equipped with nice digital projectors while others will have whiteboards with or without markers, and still others will maybe have a chalkboard with no chalk … or just chalk with no board, because that’s how Title 1 classrooms roll).

Step 5: Students Cometh; Snapshot Do-eth

When you first meet students, you’ll have to explain to them the process of getting their folder and notebook from the unsightly stack of folders and notebooks for their period (or, if you’re a neat teacher, you’ll probably have a better filing system). You will also tell them where they’ll see the snapshot question.

Students come in, get their folders, and respond to the snapshot question in their notebooks. The theory is that this will become routine and you won’t have to tell them to do this everyday.

After some time for them to write (and for stragglers to get their butts in the room), you tell them time is up and you ask for some people to read what they wrote. If they do, great. If they don’t, bathe in awkward silence and move on. Offer your thoughts on the question.

Step 6: Vocab, Read, Questions

Now that you’ve done your prep, you just have to entertain engage while going through the vocab and text. Hand out the reading you’ve picked out, along with the worksheet.

Give students dictionaries and have them look up the vocabulary words. Walk around and help.

Next, read the text aloud while they read to themselves. Yes, I said aloud. Even in high school. Even when they whine. In this era, you’ll probably have some students with IEPs or the like, so reading aloud is a must for them, but it’s also pretty damn helpful for kids who don’t “need” a text read aloud.

When finished, ask if the students have any questions. Then tell them to work on questions on the worksheet.

The students get graded on the questions based on some rubric somewhere.

It’s automatic, but it’s not

The best thing about this is that it’s routine and automatic, so students have the comfort and stability they need in their trauma-informed lives. Still, because you are choosing the readings and creating the questions, you get to make it ebb and flow as you will. You can also vary how you do the questions. Sometimes, I would do the questions as a class group, which gave me time to ramble about my beliefs on this or that. Kind of fun. Sure, everyone would get an A (except for that guy who fell asleep), but it’s about learning, right? Don’t do questions together all the time.

The students will likely complain about doing the same thing every day, but the students will complain no matter what.

I’m not saying this is the best way to cultivate knowledge within the young, poverty-stricken, trauma-informed minds in chaotic Title 1, urban schools. But it is a good way to get under-prepared, panicking teachers through their days.

If you’re that new teacher, please use this guide however it best benefits you.

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