Thirty-nine education majors and minors recently left rural Houghton College and entered Buffalo, N.Y., schools for a two-week urban education experience.

Students had the opportunity to observe and engage in a more diverse classroom setting; discuss culture, poverty, privilege, and race and their relationship with education; engage in a service-learning project in the community; and explore Buffalo.

These students—spanning inclusive childhood education, inclusive/adolescence education, and music education majors—spent eight days in classrooms across the city. They observed and reflected on student challenges and assets, teachers’ responses to challenges, classroom management, and the role of culture in the classroom. Many students were given the opportunity to teach lessons and lead activities in the classroom, opportunities that they embraced with enthusiasm.

A large component of the experience involved community service and activism—in this case a Saturday service day. Students partnered with four different organizations in the community to come alongside and service for the day:

  • PATH (People Against Trafficking Humans): distributing bags with toiletries to vulnerable people on the street, praying and talking with anyone they encountered.
  • Five Loaves: working in a community garden that provides fresh produce to schools, farmers’ markets, and restaurants in the area, as well as a space for fellowship and community.
  • 716 Ministries: cleaning up the existing facilities of an outreach that seeks to empower those in poverty in Buffalo and revitalizes houses.
  • Grace Community Church: reaching neighborhood children through active games and a variety of activities.

The experience exposed them to the spectrum of urban education, one of the two areas hit hardest by the looming teacher shortage in New York State. The New York State United Teachers association estimates an increased enrollment of 61,000 public school students in the state in the next seven years, most of them in high needs urban and rural school districts. Urban schools across the country struggle to attract and maintain teachers, so early exposure to these unique classroom settings is vital in helping future teachers understand the needs that they can fill.

In a mere two weeks, Houghton students engaged in teaching, service, and reflection on the strengths and challenges associated with urban education, exposed to the diversity of lifestyles and cultures in Buffalo. In working with an entirely new set of students, they learned to recognize the assets that these children brought to the classroom, the challenges and rewards, and the changing face of education.

Andrew Doell ’19 walked away with a deeper understanding and respect for the diaspora of urban education. “I often used to think of American culture as the kind of culture I experienced: rural or suburban middle class white culture. I found out that culture not only differs from the city to the country, or between races, but it also differs even between families and individuals,” he remarks. Relating to students is crucial to teacher/student success—regardless of school placement or district.

“[This experience] showed me that, as an educator, getting to know your students and forming a relationship with them is essential, before you can even begin to try and teach them or put them out of their comfort zone.” After this time in Buffalo, Doell is considering requesting an urban district for his student teaching placement and even pursuing urban education after graduation from Houghton.