Teaching and Reaching Kids in Poverty

I sat in a meeting last week. It’s May. Week one of two weeks of testing. Kids are tired. Teachers are weary. We read an article called “How Poverty Affects Classroom Engagement.” Not surprisingly, the discussion fell flat. It’s not like we haven’t heard this information before–we teach in a Title I school, 74% low SES. The subtitle of the article read “Students from low-income households are more likely to struggle with engagement.”

 I quote the teacher next to me: “Duh.”

 According to the article, there are 7 reasons for struggling engagement:

1. Health and Nutrition. Doesn’t every human listen better, learn better, FEEL better when they are well-fed and well-rested?

2. Vocabulary. It’s not hard to figure out that kids from affluent or even not, print-rich families will know more words than kids who don’t. No surprise they struggle with reading.

3. Effort. If the student likes the teacher, he’s more likely to work for the teacher. Pretty logical.

4. Hope and the Growth Mindset. Encouragement, positive feedback, hope all lead to better student input and output. Pretty much like for every person everywhere: make me believe I can do it, I probably can.

5. Cognition. Teach cognition. Sometimes you just have to teach a kid how to think. This point above all the others is the one most overlooked. Don’t most teachers assume students know how to do this already?

6. Relationships. What matters most to the child is the relationships that make him feel safe, comfortable, cared for. Positive comments result in much more compliance and movement toward success than continual negative ones.

7. Distress. We all feel it at some point. How can we work effectively when we are stressed to the max? Remove the stress. Have more fun. Kids will respond, and hey, achieve more.

Yeah, tell us something we don’t know about our kids.

 After we read the article, we chunked it and added a few testimonials of how these things impact student achievement. Then we left.

Really? We talk and talk and talk about recognizing the issues that smack us in the face when we try to help our students, but how often do we take action on creating solutions? Yes, the article offers some, but nothing that the best teachers are not already trying. Trying doesn’t always work even for the best. We have to decide to do something more different.

 Ironically, I had a rant session (you know you have them, too) with a colleague earlier in the day, and we discussed these very things– except we made a list of our own hopes.

photo by Mike Bitzenhofer

Here’s four ideas we hope to get put into our practice next year:

1. Whole school read. I’ve heard of this done in communities and schools. I know that Dallas ISD is supporting Read Across America with their DALLAS Reads program and wide reading of The Lorax. I’ve heard of whole grade levels reading something as wonderful as Wonder. Other places engage in One City One Book programs where the whole community is encouraged to read the same book. Imagine the talking points!

So what if during the first quarter of the new year, every student and every teacher read the same book? This could be done in Advisory classes (30 minutes every day set aside for administrivia and silent reading). And it could be complemented with paired readings, analysis, and writing in English classes.

Of course, we are open to suggestions, and purchasing the books might be an issue (my grant app is open in another window), we think something like Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers would be a good pick. They don’t have organization skills; they don’t have study skills; they don’t have strong work ethic. How could these seven things NOT help our kids?

The 7 habits

1.    Be Proactive

2.    Begin with the End in Mind

3.    Put First Things First

4.    Think Win-Win

5.    Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

6.    Synergize

7.    Sharpen the Saw

2. Expand the walls of our classrooms. Have you ever heard of a Mystery Skype? I’ve only read about it on Twitter, but this is something that needs to happen–one classroom making a connection with another classroom, sometimes on the other side of the globe. Teachers arrange it. Students prepare questions. Skype connects the classrooms. All students participate in a guessing game of “What is your Country,” or “Where are you from”? Or, something like that. Sure beats learning about Spain or Tanzania from a textbook or lecture.

Other ways to expand the classroom include field trips–real and virtual, and even walks to the nearby elementary school. My 9th graders can read with your 1st graders if we take a little time to coordinate that. The DART station is less than a mile away. We can walk a group of kids there and travel to downtown Dallas for a mere $2 per kid. Oh, the Places We’ll Go: art museum, newspaper office, JFK Memorial, Holocaust Museum, Dallas Theater Center, aquarium, and the brand new George W. Bush Library.

“Most of those things cost money,” you whine. Yes, but we have a BUSINESS COLLEGE on our high school campus. Shouldn’t the business college be about creating businesses–that, you know, make money?

I read an article that I have to hunt down. It said that the best way to raise kids out of poverty was to teach them entrepreneurship. Yes, let’s.

 3. Real-life projects. Take fundraising for example. What if students hosted a design contest for t-shirts?  Every student, and most teachers, wear some kind of t-shirt with some kind of design on it at least sometimes. We could have a contest–or several. The winner’s design gets imprinted on tees that are sold, and the money goes into the field trip fund. Or, instead of t-shirts it’s wristbands or backpacks or pencils for heaven’s sake. Kids will buy things if they are cool, and contrary to what some may think: many kids from poverty have cash in their pockets.

YouTube videos. Somehow, someway there has to teach Language Arts by connecting students’ craze for YouTube with the standards they are supposed to learn in class. I’ve started watching more, and there’s some great stuff out there that requires lots of literary allusion, knowledge, and know-how. One example that made me laugh: Paint

4. Guest speakers. The most animated I’ve seen students be about reading is when Simone Eckles, author of the Perfect Chemistry books, spoke at our school. She was warm, funny, and engaging. She talked about her books and her writing process and ideas. She showed book trailers, and had our kids cheering about reading opportunities. The librarians had won some kind of contest, and the prize was this author visit. The books are still a huge hit, especially with our reluctant Hispanic readers. We need more home runs like this. Fortunately, we have one author visit lined up thus far:  Matt de la Pena, author of We Were Here, Mexican White Boy, and others will be on campus in September. His story mirrors that of so many of our students:  poor, hates to read, loves sports. We need to bend the ear of someone and make sure there’s money to buy multiple copies of his books for many classroom libraries.

Maybe I’m an idealist. Maybe it’s the end of the year, and I’m just tired and wondering if all I’ve done with my students this year has done a bit of good. I’m not hopeful that they’ve done well on their standardized tests. The gaps in reading and writing are too wide for a fix in such a few short months.

Maybe I need to believe that next year I can do things better. I can focus less on a test and more on what tests life will hand these kids. I can give them opportunities to explore and question, and just maybe I can give them hope– because while it is #4 on that list at the top, I think it’s number 1. Without hope. . . well, there’s kind of a big fat nothing.

I get it.

Do you have ideas that might help? Please share!


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