Emory Report

April 13, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 28

Obidah's class stresses the
context in which students learn

A graduate seminar in the Division of Educational Studies is preparing future teachers for the very real challenges of urban schools. "The Sociocultural Context of Learning" deals with "the hard issues in education today," said Jennifer Obidah, the assistant professor of educational studies who teaches the course.

Teachers in urban schools encounter many problems including poverty, low parental involvement, violence, overcrowded classrooms, limited resources and students who are inadequately prepared for the educational process.

Better teacher preparation has become a crucial issue, Obidah said. Her course represents "an effort to really discuss the issues." For instance, in many urban schools the faculty is primarily white and students are primarily minority-Asian-, Hispanic- and African-American. So seminar participants discuss the racial and cultural differences between teachers and their students as well as social class distinctions and changing teacher practices.

"In the past when people talked about urban schools, they would say 'these kids have all these problems, so we're going to send the teachers to fix them,'" Obidah said. "What I like to do is ask teachers to think about what they're bringing to the process as well." For example, although seminar participants discuss discipline and classroom management, they approach it from a philosophical perspective, trying to find more effective ways of dealing with classroom issues.

The seminar looks at students' problems but also at how teacher-student dynamics affect teaching and learning in the classroom. Students discuss how teachers can change courses to make them more relevant to their students' lives.

Obidah's students also look at the roles of schools in promoting equality or inequality and the role teachers play in helping change school practices and policies. "We examine deep-seated norms about race, class, culture, and language and how these issues influence social opportunities for students," she said.

For one assignment Obidah had her students interview family members and write the family's educational history, including information on how they were educated, the highest level of education attained and their educational aspirations. If grandparents and great-grandparents did not attend school, Obidah asked her students to find out what obstacles hindered educational opportunities. "They then can begin to see how different historical and social contexts influence education and thus get some insight into the different backgrounds of the students they might meet in urban classrooms today," Obidah said. "That's what transformative teaching is about."

Other seminar activities include writing reflective papers about text, film and topics covered in class; looking at cultural diversity in the United States from a historical perspective; and discussing disabilities and various kinds of special education.

Obidah came to Emory in the fall of 1996 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. She and a former colleague from UC, Berkeley-where Obidah received her PhD-are currently writing a book about negotiating the boundaries of race and culture in urban classrooms. Both became interested in the subject while teaching at a school in San Francisco's East Bay area. The colleague was having discipline problems with her students and asked Obidah to observe her class. Obidah discovered the discipline problems stemmed primarily from racial and cultural differences between the teacher and her students.

Obidah's other research interests include the teacher-student relationship, violence and educational policies, urban schooling and multicultural education. "I come very much from a grassroots perspective in terms of making changes in society," she said. "The work I do is not only for research but it's to really create change in education."

-Linda Klein

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