Regent Park. This is where I teach. Originally, this east end Toronto neighbourhood was a planned garden community, with a mixture of mid rise and high rise rental apartments; originally, a place meant for parents to raise children. What has happened over 60 years in Regent Park is that it has become isolated, closed off from the surrounding city, a place where poor and new immigrants have made homes. The community has had its share of issues common to many big city neighbourhoods such as drugs, gangs and crime, but Regent Park is not a community made up of big city issues, it’s a community made up of diverse people!
When I tell people I teach in Regent Park, I encounter those who are shocked that I haven't been shot yet. People are often surprised to know that I chose to teach here, and I wasn't forced here by my board against my will. I often go to workshops and meet teachers who look at me not with disdain, but rather with sympathy as if I have been placed in some sort of educator purgatory by teaching in Regent Park.
"No, I actually wanted to be here." I often say non-challantly, as if I had to defend my decision.
The stereotypes associated with working in Regent Park, and no doubt, in other inner city schools run the gamut, but the common theme that seems to run through is that particular communities like Regent Park are not worth teaching in; that students in inner city communities are not worth teaching - they are only trouble makers who will never succeed. Rather than seeing inner city schools through a lens of strength and resilience, people often assume a lens of deficiency.
The real Regent Park is a community of communities! People from all parts of the world have congregated, speaking different languages and bringing different cultures into life in the neighbourhood. And though Regent Park is by no means a perfect community (and really, what is?), I have seen children who have a strength and resilience from enduring so many internal and external barriers ranging from living in poverty, to experiencing blatant racism. (The stories my Muslim students tell me about being called terrorists while shopping at the mall are enough to sicken!)
For myself, one cannot harness the strengths of students unless a classroom community is created that is safe, and allows students to be creative and to take risks. From the beginning, I strive to build a community with my students through drama activities, community building games, and consistent routines and expectations. The first part of the year, there are a number of surveys and questionnaires I use to get to know my students, and their interests. Multiple Intelligence surveys are key to finding out the different abilities of students, and also a great way for students to reflect on what type of learner they are. Differentiated instruction strategies also allow students the chance to present work through different formats and mediums depending on what their strengths are.
I teach students who range in strengths and abilities, some whom may not be the top of the class, but they bring an enormous amount of wisdom and street savvy to my classroom. Many of these students turn a critical lens on the outside world because they know how they are perceived as “other” to them, and they are willing to bravely challenge that dominant narrative. These are students who are street artists, intellectuals, athletes, dancers, spoken work poets, activists, actors, change makers! I have grown to understand that I don’t necessarily just teach in Regent Park, but rather, Regent Park teaches me!