It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Perhaps individual interviews and focus groups spring to mind when one considers qualitative methodology.  Certainly these are prime tools for gathering data on the lived experience of others.  However, the neighborhood walk is another qualitative research tool that merits attention, especially in education:  how well do schools serve serve the communities in which they are located?  Walking the neighborhood is a method more commonly used in health research with children; however, it can be a simple, yet powerful tool for urban educators, many of whom do not live in the neighborhoods in which they teach or serve.

Much has been written about the changing face of America.  Demographics are shifting and today’s school-aged child is much more likely to be a student of color, to speak another language in the home, and/or to live at or close to the poverty line.   At the same time that the nation’s classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, the face of America’s teaching population remains the same: most are white, middle class women.  If they teach in urban schools with large numbers of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, it is unlikely that they live in the neighborhood in which the school is located.  It may be easier for them to see the community’s deficits than its strengths.   Walking the neighborhood represents one way for educators to reach out to the people who live in the community and perhaps to gain an appreciation of the resourcefulness of children and families who live in challenging circumstances.

Recently, a cohort of aspiring school leaders ventured out in groups of two or three to walk the neighborhoods of the schools in which they are interning.  Among other things, they noted the houses, small businesses, parks, sidewalks, churches and community organizations.  They went into coffee shops and bodegas.  They talked to people, introducing themselves and explaining why they were doing what they were doing.  A couple of them were even invited to sit down for coffee and a chat.  Along the way, they began to see the neighborhood through the eyes of the students they serve.  They began, not only to catalogue missing resources, but to identify assets.  Perhaps most importantly, in talking to people and often experiencing a gracious welcome, they began to interrupt some of their own assumptions about families and the community.  They began to connect.  Altogether, not such a simple tool after all.

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