Rebecca Behrens books
Rebecca Behrens books
Rebecca Behrens books

Back in the day, I went to a large public high school in a small city. I’ve realized that most of the YA and MG books I (personally) read are set in suburbs or small towns. It made me wonder: what’s it like to be a teen in a larger city these days? I turned to my sister, who is a super-awesome, National Board-certified teacher and basically my hero. She agreed to answer some questions about the school she teaches at and her students. It’s a cool perspective on life at a large, diverse urban public school.

Tell us a little about the high school you teach at.
My school is a large, urban (some would say inner city) high schools with 3600+ students. Our school is diverse, like our city, with its majority of students Latino but also with many African-American, Chinese-American, Polish-American, Pakistani-American and Palestinian-American students.

What are your students’ biggest school-related concerns?
My students are stressed! They often feel like jugglers–they are learning to balance seven classes, which in junior and senior year are all college level, with other extracurricular clubs and sports and their service learning obligations. Most of my students have at least five hours of homework nightly, but many do not get home until 6 or 7 p.m. because they stay after school for activities like Physics study groups, History essay writing workshops, soccer practice, lifeguarding training, stained glass art club, or school musical rehearsal. Plus my students are under a lot of pressure from our school to improve their ACT scores!

What are some outside-of-school problems, issues, or concerns your students face?
My students live with a range of issues outside of school. Since our school is located six miles southwest of downtown Chicago, the surrounding neighborhoods have many socioeconomic issues common to inner cities. If you walk around our school’s neighborhood you see some boarded up buildings, both homes and businesses. You see tagging. You do not see many public parks, and our local library cut its hours recently. My students live among the problems of their environment: family money problems, parents working two jobs, high rates of unemployment and homelessness, gang violence and related drug and alcohol abuse. Yet my students balance living with these problems as well. ย They help their parents when take their little sisters and brothers to school, pick them up afterward and help them complete their homework. They walk around in small groups to stay safe, and scorn drug and alcohol usage. They even volunteer with our school’s urban ecology club to pick up trash in the neighborhood, and have been writing letters to local government officials to try to get more resources for our school’s neighborhood like green space, lengthened library hours and a community health clinic.

Is bullying a problem at your school?
I think that our school is somewhat of an urban oasis from bullying due to its large size. We are large enough that there is no one popular group– instead, there are the basketball players and cheer squad, the soccer team, the musical theater group, the dancers (we have a classical ballet program), the goths, the emo kids, the Key Club, the manga lovers, GLBT Pride and numerous study groups. Among freshmen, there is a tendency to verbally bully left over from elementary school, but teachers do NOT allow this behavior to continue. A big part of our Social Studies curriculum is to deter bullying by teaching social understanding and civic competence. This helps greatly– students learn that there is tremendous diversity among our school population in terms of ethnicity, religion and sexuality. Furthermore, they learn that discriminating against each other due to differences is NOT acceptable.

What do your students get excited about, in terms of academic subjects/topics, the news, music, pop culture, etc.?
My students pay some attention to the news and pop culture via the internet, but their passions really come alive for music. Some of them participate in after school dance programs where they learn traditional ethnic dances of Mexico, West Africa and Poland. Others just dance to their iPods at home:) In terms of academic subjects, in History class students really connect to learning about the Age of Exploration, the Age of Imperialism and the Holocaust. I think that a universal part of being in high school across cultures is that kids are defining themselves, and asking questions related to “who I am going to be?” History class lets them time travel and ask related questions about their values and identities: “If I were alive in 1519 when Cortes arrived in Mexico would I resist or collaborate with his conquistadors? In 1933 Germany, would I support Hitler or join youth movements against him?”

What things aren’t your students interested in?
Their homework?!? Seriously though, one misconception about urban students is that they are disengaged from their schoolwork as well as from communities. Based on my experiences, that is NOT true. My 60 graduating seniors last year earned $640,000 in college scholarships. If I asked them this question, they would respond: “drugs? reality television? doing chores at home?”

What is prom like at your high school?
Since our school is in a large city, every year our senior student committee chooses a downtown ballroom for prom. Students tend to choose a different venue each year, to personalize their graduating class’s experience. They choose a theme, like “Red Carpet Nights,” that ties together with the decorations, catering and favors at the hosting hotel. Prom begins with a formal dinner for all to enjoy, followed by dancing with a live DJ until midnight. ย  Professional photographers take formal and informal pictures of students throughout the night. As for attending students, some come as couples but many others come as groups of friends. Their fashion sense is the best part of prom night– many fashion forward girls design their own dresses and have them custom made by local seamstresses. Some make their dates get custom tailored vests and ties for their suits to match their dresses! We even have a prom fashion show to fundraise for the main event to see their gowns early. Also at prom, it is common for our goth and emo kids to show up wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars along with vintage dresses. Prom is awesome!

Do your students have time to read for fun? If so, what do they enjoy reading?
My students LOVE reading. They are especially captivated by manga, as well as fantasy and science fiction novels for young adult readers… especially the Hunger Games trilogy this year. They recently competed in a school wide trivia contest about Hunger Games, complete with parachutes. Since then the Katniss braid has definitely increased in popularity.

What makes you most proud of your students? What surprises you most about teens today?ย 

My answers to these last two questions are interconnected. My students’ strength, resilience and ability to be down-to-earth both surprise me and make me very proud. My students are often stereotyped differently, but in reality they are devoted to their families, friends and educations. They are facing numerous problems, both in their neighborhoods and the larger society, but are striving to overcome them. They continue to impress me daily with their diligence, perseverance and optimism about being able to make their lives and our world better.

I told you about someone else!