Faces of Poverty

If you look, if you don’t avert your eyes, you can see the effects of poverty and trauma on a person.

One of “my” parents happened to come to the classroom this week so I could confirm she was indeed the parent of one of my students. This was so that the student could be released early to her; the parent was not carrying a picture id.

On first glance, she looks older than me. Her shoulders and body frame seem stooped, she shuffles somewhat. This day, however, as we chatted, I noticed her face. Her skin does not sag as mine does now, her eyes lack wrinkles; those wrinkles are reserved for worry spots – the brow, her forehead.

She carries the weight of her family’s problems: her husband has been in a nasty public hospital since before Christmas. Her children are her world, all four of them – she lost a fifth child a few years ago to illness. The family’s new apartment, an apartment they recently found after living in a shelter, was recently the scene of a Keystone Cops-style criminal gun chase. To hear my student tell the story the police chased a suspect right through the front door and out the back with guns drawn.

Honestly, I don’t know how this woman holds herself together. The daily barrage of trying to survive in such a hostile environment would do more than make me look older. She must be one of the most resilient of spirits that I have ever met!

And she is a face to remember. A face of poverty in our land of plenty.

Everyday Lives of Students

Monday was our first day back from Winter Break — I suspect this is only a New England school vacation as I never experienced it growing up in northern Ohio.  A week-long escape is a welcome respite from the stresses of teaching – and yes, I am aware that I chose this profession – but it also serves to highlight the stress of teaching students in urban education.

Our Monday morning meeting brought forward three stories from my 8- and 9-year old students. Stories that are told in such a conversational way that they seem as normal as a visit to grandma’s. Again, Ruth Payne’s fine chronicle of trauma and poverty, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, helps me to see the events outside of my middle-class white Leave It To Beaver upbringing. For these children, life is what it is.

Story number 1: “my cousin was arrested with his pit bull.” Now sometimes “arrested” takes on a rather broad definition in the mind of an 8-year old. In this case it was true; I verified it by reading the local newspaper online after school: the cousin had been taken into custody after allowing his unleashed and unrestrained pit bull to lunge at people walking in the downtown area, had refused the request of a police officer to leash the dog, and resisted arrest.

Story number 2: brother – who the student had recently revealed was in jail – was rearrested.  This student reported on the event as if it were an everyday normal occurrence.” Had I seen X’s name in the paper? He’s going to jail.”

Story number 3: a tenant living in the same apartment complex as my third student triggered the SWAT team to swarm the building after said tenant threatened a cab driver with a gun. The student had lots of details and had obviously seen most of the confrontation – her details matched the newspaper article too.

Now several things come to mind here.  First of all, the traumatic distractions in these students’ every day life are unbelievable. Secondly, yes school is a “safe place” and expectations for what happens in school remain high. But the distractions and worries these children must overcome to even be close to ready to focus and concentrate are, most of the time, unimaginable.

This is what stresses out urban teachers.  We come to know the human story, the reality these children deal with.

CHOICES Character Education

In my school, we have been grappling with student behaviors, choices and what to do about them.  Our Green Team – the staff guiding us to a cohesive K-4 plan – is incorporating and blending ideas from Ruth Payne’s outstanding book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Linda Albert’s book Cooperative Discipline, and Responsive Classroom. As a staff, we are exploring this further in a graduate level course offered after school hours.

The deeper I delve into the topic, the more complicated things seem. A majority of our student come from trauma: financial, emotional, social, even academic. I am beginning to understand the role this plays in driving less-than-acceptable behaviors that appear in the classroom. Explicit and direct teaching and talking to children seems to be a key to helping students be and achieve their best. What does effort look like? What does it mean to work hard? What is a good choice?

This morning, I came across this resource. The CHOICES program itself may not necessarily fit with our school’s plan, but the literature lists for introducing and teaching character — making choices, honesty, integrity, caring, etc. seem to offer  some great ideas for creating a literacy link to classroom discussion.

For more information, click on CHOICES Character Education.