Rethinking American Education
Students in special topics class grapple with the complex challenges of public education
July 16, 2012
Nothing engages students in robust discussions and compels them to action like a provocative subject connected to hands-on experience. Such was the case with Rethinking American Education, a special topics course taught by visiting lecturer Nathan Snaza in spring 2012.
“Rethinking American Education is a course for any UR student interested and invested in the future of democratic education in the United States,” Snaza wrote. The course comprised a historical survey of 20th-century American education with a focus on schools’ relation to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and political power.
But Snaza, who obtained a master’s in education and taught in Minneapolis inner-city and suburban schools prior to obtaining a doctorate in comparative literature, wanted his students not only to study public education, but also to experience it.
With the help of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), Snaza embedded community-based learning into the course, requiring his students to work in the classrooms of two urban public schools through Build It, the CCE’s Northside Richmond community-engagement initiative.
Snaza solicited ideas from the students about topics to study and discuss.
“Students came to this class with a diverse set of investments in education,” Snaza said. “Leadership studies students approached it from the perspective of the teacher as a leader.
“Other students came with a desire to learn about how public policy and law affect education. Two students were enrolled in teacher-licensure programs.
“They also came from a variety of educational backgrounds. One student came from an under-served school in the South Bronx, while others came from elite boarding schools.
“Their own school experiences became a way of talking about a lot of other issues in the U.S.—history, geography, urban planning, law, class, race.
“The question of what you talk about during class gets shattered. Nothing is off the table. What is justice? What is fairness? What does equal opportunity mean? What is going on in education today reflects what is going on in democracy today.”
Students contextualized their volunteer work in public school classrooms by reading education case studies and literature on education theory and policy.
“I am particularly interested in the cultural and social foundations of education and in culturally relevant teaching,” Snaza said. “Are there cultural and social aspects that affect students’ performance that have nothing to do with their IQ? What cultural values are being taught in the classroom and how do they relate to the cultural values of the students?”
Snaza’s students presented their research on specific topics, such as teacher tenure, charter schools, student tracking, and socio-economic disparities in schools, at an end-of-semester education symposium attended by members of the campus and Greater Richmond communities.
“I didn’t want the students to come out of this class with easy answers, like it’s all about bad teachers or disengaged students,” Snaza said. “They left with an understanding of the complexity of the issues.
“Some also left feeling more committed to changing education but also more realistic about how to go about making change.”
Three of Snaza’s students—Phylicia Hoyt, Shanelle Bobb, and Cheleah Jackson—graduated in May and are now working in under-resourced city schools as a New York City teaching fellow, a Teach for America corps member in Atlanta, and a school counselor in Richmond, respectively.
“Dr. Snaza's class solidified my interest in becoming a teacher,” Hoyt said. “Many schools throughout the U.S. need teachers who are rethinking the current state of American education, teachers who know changes are necessary and are ready to act. Every student deserves a quality education and a teacher who believes in them.”
Snaza will be teaching British and American literature this fall and hopes to have the opportunity to work across both the English and Education departments in the future.