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Creating a Virtual Memphis

Richard Paige — Much of this semester has been about adjustments, and through those adjustments the virtual becomes real.

Like a handful of other classes, Michele Pittard’s EDU330 Urban Education class was supposed to include an immersion component. In May, the group had Memphis, Tennessee, as a destination to bring a semester’s worth of lessons to life.

Instead, Pittard altered the syllabus on the fly and has scheduled virtual meetings with nearly as many people as the students were supposed to meet on their trip. She now refers to this section of the class as “Virtual Memphis.”

If the class can’t go to Memphis, Pittard is bringing Memphis to the class.

The first guest was Daniel Connolly, an award-winning reporter for the Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ daily newspaper. Connolly spent five years chronicling the story of Isaias Ramos, a high-achieving Memphis teenager and an undocumented immigrant, in a book he wrote entitled, “The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America.

The text was a key part of recent discussions and served as a bridge to where the class was headed.

“Daniel kicked it off in a very nice way,” Pittard said. “To be able to bring people to the students in this way is huge.”

Pittard and Connolly led the students on a discussion that touched on immigration and education policies, student resources, socioeconomics, and the benefits of building strong relationships with students.

“It’s important for future teachers to understand that dynamic and to understand, too, that they can play a real role in guiding students from different backgrounds to a good educational outcome,” Connolly said. “It’s very important to have that relationship with kids.”

With the book fresh in their minds, there was plenty of back-and-forth between professor, reporter, and the nine students about the subject matter, including talk of identity and barriers.

“Identity can fuel a desire for success, especially the kids in the book who go to college,” wrote Nikko Morris ’21 in the class chat. “To be able to say they are college-educated Mexican immigrants in the U.S. for some people can be a powerful statement to make.”

While this class is essential to the understanding of the complexities facing urban schools, the impact of a missed immersion trip looms large. “It takes out the guts of the class, which is disappointing,” said Pittard, “but to bring people like Daniel in helps put the meat back on the bones of the class. I’m just delighted that we could start this.”