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Professor Creates 'Abbott Elementary' Course, Delves Into a Critical Look at Urban Education

One assistant professor of elementary education and literacy at Illinois State University was inspired by Abbott Elementary to create a course that focuses on students thinking more critically.

Professor Sara Jones created the “Public Education’s Possibilities and Predicaments: Exploring Portrayals of Critical Issues in “Abbott Elementary” course, which teaches students to take more of a “critical and nuanced look at education," according to Newsone.

Jones was motivated to create the course thanks to Abbott Elementary, which sparked conversations among her peers pertaining to funding inequities, teacher shortages and charter schools.

“I began thinking about how the show integrates commentary on these critical issues into its lighthearted 'mockumentary,' style, simultaneously entertaining viewers and inviting them to consider their own perceptions of urban public schools.”

Inspired by a Black female teacher and created by a Black female writer, Quinta Brunson, and led by mostly a Black cast, the show highlights an urban school in a way that captures the humanity of students, teachers and communities who have been portrayed negatively elsewhere.

"I wanted to design a course that would use the show as an entry point to critical conversations, connecting the issues in each episode to research and policy,” Jones said.

Specifically, the course will introduce education issues by reading selected academic book chapters, as well as research articles. The class will explore how folks have seen this issue portrayed in news coverage, television shows and movies. Jones said the class already began by looking at racial demographics of teachers and students, particularly in urban schools.

Only 7% of public school teachers are Black as opposed to 80% are white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In other statistics, only 12% of teachers are Black in urban schools, while 69% are white. And in public schools with more than 90% of racial minority students, just 20% of teachers are Black, while 43% are white.

The course also looks into the portrayal of urban teachers in movies.

“The teacher-heroes of these films are generally white, middle-class outsiders,” Jones said.

“They are new to the school – or teaching, in general – and, through individual effort and a positive outlook, are able to transform a group of troubled students whom all the veteran teachers had failed.”

Jones said the course also explores “relevant episodes to explore issues such as gifted programs, the charter school movement, school discipline," among other topics.

To culminate the course, students work together in groups in an effort to pitch and develop a future episode of Abbott Elementary that addresses issues that haven’t been delved into.

“Public education affects everyone,” Jones said. “Education policies, such as what should or should not be taught in schools, and school voice initiatives, including increasing the number of charter schools and providing vouchers for students to attend private schools, continue to be at the forefront of local, state and national politics.”

With that in mind, students will be able to take a more critical and nuanced look at education thanks to integrating the pop culture perspective of Abbott Elementary with interdisciplinary scholarly perspectives.

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