Can You Teach Chemistry in a Juvenile Detention Center?

June 15, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Posted in Content Area Literacy, literacy, Technology | 3 Comments

Authored by Rachel Gee
(Each student in GMST 525 has written their own post for our class blog.)

Last year, a weeklong conference on “Teaching Math and Science in an Urban Setting” impressed upon me not only the tremendous need for teachers in city schools, but also the stunning possibility of physical danger. “Why not teach at Industry?” a friend asked me. (Industry is a juvenile detention center located in sourthern Monroe county.) “There are multiple ‘sentries’ in every classroom. You’d be a lot safer.” A seed was planted.

The seed has grown—especially when I read articles like the editorial in last week’s Democrat and Chronicle, “Invisible Learning Disabilities Visibly Scar Youths” that as many as 80 percent of jailed juveniles have learning disabilities. Or another perhaps not-so-suprising statistic, in Marylou Streznewski’s Gifted Grown-Ups that gifted people (i.e. with IQs over 130) form a “disproportionately larger portion of the prison population, perhaps as much as 20%. This is in contrast to the 3-5% of the general public who are gifted” (p. 164).

I have felt a strong pull to help these children, but what teaching strategies could I employ to make a difference?

This semester’s MST Literacy class has gone a long way to answer many of the questions I’ve had about how to raise interest in my content area (chemistry, math) by the extensive toolbox of reading and writing strategies I now have at my use. But lingering questions remain:

  • How can I ‘build community’ in a classroom where more than half the students are members of opposing gangs?
  • How can I make use of the extensive Web 2.0 tools on the internet, when NY State controls/limits Internet access to students and forbids email accounts?
  • How can I teach chemistry when lab exercises seem all but impossible because of prohibited use of chemicals and most supplies?


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  1. At the tutoring center where I work in Rochester I have worked with a few young men who are gang members. They come by their own volition and they have shown respect to the tutors. These students are generally good about staying on task, and it helps that they are getting attention that is unlikely to happen in school. While I am fully aware that an after school center with personal attention is a wholly different environment from a classroom of 20 students, I nonetheless feel that classroom teachers should make an effort to show attention to those students who are gang members. If we ignore some students merely because of their gang affiliation, we are doing them a great disservice and giving them a reason to tune out and maybe even drop out.

    One way that teachers may build a better classroom community is by making certain that students, especially those who are known to be gang members, are actively involved in class. Although written in the late ‘90’s, Greg Michie’s reflection on dealing with gang members in the classroom still seems relevant today. Now a professor at Illinois State University, he taught for many years in Chicago’s public school district.

    Schools should make an effort to keep gang members form “representing” their gangs in school while recognizing that tensions between rival factions exist in the school. Student engagement and involvement could make a classroom more harmonious. Yet, in addition to making sure that gang members are involved in class, should we develop a rapport with the students who are gang leaders so that they might facilitate the involvement of the other class members?

  2. Sorry, that link should be here.

  3. George–thanks for the reference to the website. That was an interesting (and long!) article (blog?) on gangs. I think it is a good idea not to ignore the students who are gang members, but also to give the other students an opportunity to express their ideas about the existence of gangs in their neighborhoods/families/lives. I also think that if gangs didn’t fill some deep-rooted need in some youngster’s lives to feel like they belong to some kind of ‘family’ that they wouldn’t exist. It just seems tragic that violence seems to be a primary form of expression for this deep-rooted need. But perhaps that is an inevitable result when our primeval needs go unmet.

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