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Harvard's Teacher Program Moves to Urban Focus
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Students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education now step in front of a classroom before they sit down in one. By teaching in inner-city schools as soon as they enter the program, the Harvard students learn first-hand about problems urban schools face. Included: Graduate students speak out about the new program.

With the number of students in urban school districts growing -- and the problems facing those districts mounting -- faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently revamped their teacher-training curriculum. The new program focuses on urban school issues, increases the amount of hands-on teaching experience provided students, and has as its goal training teachers to be leaders in reforming urban education.

"We feel the problems facing urban education are so stunning that it's appropriate and imperative that Harvard focus its energies there," said Katherine Merseth, director of teacher education at the school.

The teacher education programs at Harvard's Graduate School of Education are committed to meeting the challenges of the new century, according to a report describing the reasons behind the department's new focus. "In bringing Harvard's resources and attention to teaching youth in our cities' schools -- by providing new teachers with an understanding of student and family diversity, developing skills to teach for deep subject matter mastery, making intelligent use of new technologies, leading within and beyond the classroom, understanding the challenges of second language students -- we commit ourselves where we believe new approaches are most needed," the report states.


Traditionally, many of Harvard's education school graduates take jobs in urban districts. Now, however, the faculty wants the program to make a definite commitment to inner-city schools, specifically by turning out teachers who have a passion for education reform. "We are placing [graduate students] in urban settings only," Merseth told Education World. "We are hoping they will assume positions of leadership" in urban education.""

In redesigning the program, faculty members included more immediate hands-on teaching experience, despite the fact that most of the graduate students do not have undergraduate degrees in education. "The Graduate School of Education wanted to get closer to the world of practice," according to Merseth. "We wanted to do a better job of integrating theory with practice."

The dual focus on urban school issues and practical skills were the main attractions of the program, several of this year's graduate students -- called interns -- told Education World.

Elizabeth Aybar, who taught in a charter school before going to Harvard, said she became interested in the program after reading about the curriculum revisions. "I thought they were changing in ways I wanted to see change," said Aybar, who plans to teach high school social studies. "One of the most exciting things about this program is that the faculty has bought into it and really supports it."

"Being urban-centered was definitely a plus," added intern Laina Jones, whose ultimate goal is to become U.S. secretary of education. "I have seen the savage inequalities between urban and suburban schools. I felt help was much more needed in urban schools."


Most of the 40 members of this year's graduate class got an early start to the school year. Working in teams of four, with each team led by a mentor teacher, the graduate students spent several weeks in July planning and teaching summer school classes in Boston area high schools. In the afternoon, the interns returned to Harvard for their own classes.

"At first, it was weird not to be in control of your own classroom," said Aybar of the team-teaching approach. "Then it was good to have that much support. Some [other team members] noticed things about my teaching that I never would have recognized."

Betsy Bowman, who taught in an independent school before enrolling in the Harvard program, called the summer teaching experience "fantastic."

"It was an opportunity to have several teachers in the classroom," said Bowman. "Some days I just sat and watched, which was a luxury. The experience of planning in a group was also something I hadn't done before. I had to refine my thinking, and sometimes that took a while."

The summer program also dispelled some stereotypes about urban students. "I thought they would all be tough, but some of the students were really brilliant," Bowman told Education World. "They had failed for a variety of reasons; some didn't connect with the teacher. Some were lazy, and -- in some cases -- no one had demanded that they not be lazy."


Another goal of the Harvard program is to provide interns with the opportunity to become familiar with a particular group of students and school. During the academic year, therefore, the interns follow a schedule similar to the one they followed during the summer program. Beginning with their arrival on campus in September, the graduate students spend from 8 a.m. to noon daily assisting in inner-city classrooms. In the afternoon, they pursue their own studies.

During the first semester, the graduate students are paired with classroom teachers, who help them develop teaching skills and learn how schools operate, Aybar told Education World. They learn how school committees work, they spend time with special education students, and they meet other faculty members. During the second semester, the interns student-teach in the same school. "This way, we get to know the students from the beginning of the year," said Aybar.

The interns are aware that plenty of challenges lie ahead. Jones, who did fieldwork in urban schools as an undergraduate student, said the inequities she saw in those schools -- such as poor equipment, small and decrepit classrooms, a shortage of resources, and a lack of such amenities as recess -- made her determined to devote herself to urban schools.

"Many of them are hazard zones," Jones said of inner-city schools. "But even if the whole school is dark, my room will be bright. I'm going to take my knowledge and bring it to inner-city schools."