First of all, I want to be clear that I understand poverty crosses over into many, many lives. I live in an affluent town. A town with a food pantry that is routinely emptied. People in this town are foreclosed upon, bankrupt, lose homes to tax liens.
But what I know is the environment in which I work. Last week we had to serve lunch in the classroom because the cafe-gym-atorium was being used for a play. I had 22 students in attendance that day. Twenty-one qualified for free lunch. One child qualified for reduced lunch. Zero pay full cost. What’s the poverty percentage for that 21 of 22? Ninety-five percent. If you’ve never seen the income requirements for free and reduced lunch click here.
Poverty and the trauma that results in families is a complicated thing. I am not an expert, I am an observer. And from what I observe some very vulnerable beings, 9 year olds, thrive – or try to thrive – under some very appalling conditions.
Ruby Payne has written an exemplary book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I read it over and over to try to get a handle on the cultural differences, the hidden rules of poverty, of the middle-class, of wealthy people. Each time I do, I uncover something more to think about, some way I can be more effective, more understanding of the challenges facing my students – 95 percent of whom are well below the poverty level.
It is a book I recommend to educational colleagues. Understanding is power.
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.
Junia Yearwood is quickly becoming one of my favorite Boston Globe reads. The article, “If Only Visitors Could See My Students“, provides insight into an urban classroom — and warns of the dangers of believing what one reads or learns via the fifth estate. So, here is what visitors might miss in my classroom.
The quiet girl who transferred in about 2 months ago. Homeless, her family had been living in a local hotel until recently. She is an accomplished reader and is becoming an accomplished writer; a sadness envelopes her most of the day. She write poetry and song lyrics in her native Spanish – and then translates them for all of us to enjoy when she musters the courage to open herself to sharing. In her journal she writes about her father who died suddenly in hospital. If a classmate is in trouble, she is the first to help or provide support. While her mother works the night shift, she watches over a school-age younger brother and 2 twin babies. In her eyes you can see the strain of having to be responsible beyond her chronological years.
Engaging and social, nearly always the center of things, the student sitting next cannot read. Oh he tries, but the brain connection between what he sees on paper and what he is able to do disconnects. He has no IEP, yet struggles to read at a beginning grade 1 level. The process for getting him evaluated for special education services may take an entire year of data collection. Meanwhile, he and I do the best we can to make the connections.When he is working with me, he is serious. He wants to learn to read but is terrified his friends will find out that he can’t.
The next student is a better-than-average third grade student with the potential to be brilliant. He has told me he wants to be a scholar and a scientist. He is a big boy – as wide as he is tall. Though he is often in someone’s personal body space, he cannot help himself. Oh how I hope he comes back to visit when he grows to be comfortable with himself! And how I hope he’ll hold on to that dream of becoming a scholar and a scientist even when so many temptations surround him that would take him off the path to his goal.
Another nearby student exasperates with his absent-mindedness. His brain is working all of the time, though, and when he expresses an insight into reading, it is mind-blowing. He is convinced he is bad and talks about how his “bad” alter ego needs to take a hike. He is the only student I’ve ever taught who was convinced he was on Santa’s naughty list – and gave detailed reasons why and how he was planning to change the situation. Here is child who is used to people who expect little of him. He hoards food from our breakfast program and from the cafeteria at lunch. Is his family unable to put food on the table? My guess is yes.
So many hardworking, complicated students. It is not simply the academics in an urban classroom. As Junia Yearwood points out, a visitor would witness the will of the human spirit to overcome what life has dealt. It is the spirit of my students that inspires, that keeps all of us coming back to work another day.
It’s really easy for me to get wrapped around the axel over lack of parental support in a school where poverty is pervasive. I’ve had 3 teacher assistant team meetings for one child so far this year. The parent never attends and never responds to the meeting invitations. This parent continually writes nasty notes about me, the school, and the classroom. My frustration over no-shows for meetings to remedy this, to conference about the student’s progress, or anything else that might involve a little parental effort is only exceeded by the daily interruptions to our afternoon to change a dismissal routine (and I know routine as applied to this student is an oxymoron). This is only 1 story in this classroom. The other 21 can be just as interesting.
Or not. Yesterday offered a glimmer of hope that by inviting parents in, we can forge a working relationship to benefit students.
My class has just finished writing our small moment narratives and we put each students’ writing into a book which we “published”. Yesterday, the half-day before Thanksgiving break, students invited a parent or loved one in to read our inaugural book, to be complimented on their contribution. Knowing some parents may not be able to leave work, I had prepared students whose parent might not be able to come that I, too, had been a working mom — and offered to be their parent for the celebration. Being third graders, this of course led to some hilarious moments as classmates considered themselves “brothers” or “sisters” — if only for an hour.
But, back to the topic – getting frustrated with the status quo can lead to lowered expectations. Yesterday, however, helped me to realize that maybe I am focusing on the wrong things. I met so many parents – sometimes both parents AND a grandparent – who were able to come, to hear their child read their thoughts and writing. One parent offered to help me pass out the apple juice we were offering, another stood in to read with a friend of her own child. And our school administration – Principal, Assistant Principal, and Literacy Specialist – all graciously read with each and every child in the room.
The energy, the enthusiasm was right there. It could not be missed. Something special transpired yesterday and not just for the students. On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for the administrators who support me.
And I am most thankful for the parents of my students who are willing to share themselves and their child with me.
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.
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.