Philadelphia Urban Seminar program as rewarding as it is demanding

Jim Carlson
July 08, 2015

Each year Jeanine Staples oversees dozens of College of Education students who participate in the Philadelphia Urban Seminar and each year the overall favorable reaction she hears from them is a story that never gets old.

“Typically, students call it transformative. They say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done in their career as students,’’ said Staples, assistant professor of education in language and literacy education and African-American studies.

The two-week, three-credit CI 295A/D class allows at least 40 Penn State students and more than 200 others from 11 other colleges to work with children and teachers in the Philadelphia Public School System as well as perform community service and experience some of the city’s abounding culture.

Staples believes the positive response is due to multiple factors. “The fact that it’s an immersion course helps a lot in that we are immersed in the content, immersed in literature and reading, we are meshed with each other — the students and me and the [teaching assistants] I take with me 20 hours a day, every day for two weeks,’’ she said.

Maria Murawski, one of this year’s Urban Seminar student participants, went a step further. “I most definitely think anyone who wants to teach should attend the Philadelphia Urban Seminar,’’ she said. “The Seminar gives you such a unique perspective on people and education in general.

“You witness an environment that is special and very different from what you may have seen at home or in your own educational experience.’’

Staples has taken as few as 25 students and as many as 60 during her involvement with the program. They are housed at LaSalle University and dispersed at about 50 schools within the Philadelphia Public School System by program organizers from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).

IUP officials coordinate the program for about 250 students from 12 colleges including three from overseas. Participants are teachers/observers by day, students for a couple of hours when they return to LaSalle in the afternoon, and both tourists and members of community service teams by night.

The schedule is as rigorous and taxing as it appears. Murawski said a typical day began at 7 a.m., with six or seven hours of observing, collecting data, assisting a mentor teacher or teaching lessons. That was followed by large-session workshops at LaSalle and a couple of hours of Penn State classwork.

“I will admit that the days were extremely long and tiring, but they were definitely worth it and I wouldn't have them any other way,’’ Murawski said. “By staying continuously physically and mentally active throughout the day, I pushed myself and accomplished things I never thought I would be able to.’’

Staples does not downplay the difficulty of the students’ responsibilities. “It’s really hard,’’ she said. “There’s a lot of intellectual rigor, there’s emotional pressure and there’s physical strain involved with the program.

“Not only are we busy with activities and the placement sites are full, the readings are challenging for the course and the assignments are challenging for the course.’’

Despite the brief duration of the course, Staples and the TAs also delve deeply into controversial topics with the students, she said. “We talk about race and racism, gender and sexism, and disability and ableism very explicitly,’’ she said.

“I help students to facilitate methods for negotiating those really hard concepts personally in relation to school and in relation to society.’’

Students must complete about five “one-pager” journals and from those Staples discovers what they think about the course content and sees an increasing maturity level. “Their level of growth … the difference between the first journal entry and the last journal entry is night and day,’’ Staples said.

“It’s all worth it,’’ she said. “The outcomes are phenomenal in terms of the level of growth that students can come away with if students invest themselves.’’

The Philadelphia Art Museum, Constitution Center, Reading Terminal Market, King of Prussia Mall and the Mutter Museum are a handful of tourist sites, Staples said. They also visit the North Square Community Project – ‘’a beautiful community center in a Puerto Rican neighborhood’’ -- and the Guild House, a retirement village, to perform community service, Staples noted.

Speakers who have enlightened the group at LaSalle include the city’s mayor, the superintendent of the school system, heads of parent-teacher organizations and veteran teachers as well as advocacy groups who talk about available resources to teachers.

Staples noted that the variety of speakers made available to the students is to give prospective inner city teachers an idea of the types of resources that would be available to them.

Murawski said there are “some amazing communities in inner city Philadelphia’’ working together. “I think it is essential for pre-service teachers to experience this not only for themselves but to better serve their students in the future,’’ she said, adding that the most rewarding part of the process for her was learning to create a critical consciousness.

“I learned to take what I was observing and then process it in a correct and healthy way,’’ she said. “This program has changed the way I take in new information and how I see the people and institutions around me.

“I take time to investigate, I question and wonder why the student or person acted the way they did. I dig deeper into situations I can’t see fully and work toward not making assumptions.

“This is beneficial to me not just as a teacher but as a member of society,’’ Murawski said.

  • Penn State's Philadelphia Urban Seminar participants

    Penn State's Philadelphia Urban Seminar participants.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 09, 2015