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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

Helping Poor Kids—From One Who Knows

When I was 23, I thought I was the greatest teacher in the world. I knew everything there was to know about similes, metaphors, personification, and—my all-time favorite—onomatopoeia. I could teach my students to find themes, decipher irony, and figure out any word's etymology.
I thought there was nothing missing in my skills bank. I was knowledgeable in my subject area, and I would work my tail off to prepare for my lessons and engage my students every way I could. I even differentiated my lessons before it was the cool thing to do.
I only had one problem. I had no clue what it took to give every student a chance at success.

Enlightenment Comes

I first learned about Ruby Payne and her research on poverty during my last two years as a teacher. I was dreading going to another useless inservice training where I would have to listen to someone preach about how to be a better teacher. But when the presenter came on stage and started to speak, I was mesmerized.
This woman was talking about me! She discussed why poor kids fight. I was very poor as a kid, and I wanted to fight all the time when I got mad. She talked about why people in poverty sometimes buy things they can't afford. I always liked expensive clothes that I couldn't afford. Now that I had a real job, I loved Ralph Lauren, and I wouldn't buy anything if the brand name didn't show prominently so everyone could admire it.
The presenter also talked about how middle-class people were different from poor people. That was my wife. She had grown up in the middle class. She wanted to save money, use coupons, and cook at home instead of going out to eat. She didn't care about brand names as an adult and was already thinking about our daughter's college fund! Our daughter was only a baby, for Pete's sake!
As the presenter went on, I laughed and smiled and nodded as I thought back to everything I'd experienced growing up poor. For the first time in my life, I wanted to scream out, "Amen, sister!" I had learned a great deal about myself and actually intended to put some of these things to use.
Fast forward a few years. Now I was a school principal. In the interim, I'd begun to remember why I hadn't always wanted to go to school when I was a kid. We couldn't afford new clothes, and what I wore back then made me feel self-conscious, frustrated, and angry. Being the object of ridicule was not something I wanted to face, so I skipped school every chance I had.
I'd also begun to understand that I was doing little for my students who came to school socially and emotionally unprepared to learn. As a principal, I met with parents who were addicted to drugs, who lived in poverty, and who had no means of meeting some of their children's basic needs. It didn't take long to realize that I needed to do more to make a difference in my students' lives.
I wanted to make sure I made no more mistakes. I'd already experienced too much myself as a poor kid in school. The kids who needed me most were those who hid in the back of the class, said nothing, and were allowed to fail. They were also the ones who used every outlandish coping skill they had to make sure no one knew how they struggled inside.
I slowly began to realize that it wasn't enough to just care for and love my disadvantaged kids. It was going to take something more.

There's a World Out There!

Although my parents were poor and struggled to raise five children, they also tried to provide us with as many life experiences as they could.
I was 14 the first time I saw the Gulf of Mexico. My entire family was packed into a rented passenger van, and because there were seven of us, my youngest brother sat on someone's lap the entire 14-hour drive from Wood River, Illinois, to Biloxi, Mississippi.
For the first time in my life, I could see myself somewhere on a map that wasn't within a couple miles of my hometown. I was walking on the edge of the United States! I had many firsts on that trip: the taste of salt water, the feel of sand squishing between my toes, the smell of seaweed, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. I saw a real ship and palm trees and exotic wildlife. I learned what life was like for my counterparts as I saw children my own age digging for clams and catching fish to take home to their families. During those four days, I experienced a different culture and way of life.
Once home, I went straight to the local library to study life on the bayou. Would I have had this need to learn if my parents hadn't taken us to explore the beaches of Biloxi? No. Experiencing a life outside the refinery town of Wood River gave me an understanding of different environments that many of my classmates had experienced every single year of their lives. I'd gotten something from a summer vacation that I'd never gotten before when I spent the summer exploring my backyard.

The Case for Social Capital

The social capital I earned on that trip to Biloxi has lasted a lifetime. Much like entrepreneurs, students use such social capital—their understanding of a variety of cultures and social norms—to help them function in the real world. Because of their socioeconomic status, poor students usually aren't afforded this knowledge.
In the world of education, we often overlook social capital and its influence on a child's ability to think critically. It's simply a fact that the more a child experiences, the wider his or her scope of the world. I'm always amazed at how advanced military children are when it comes to the cultures and beliefs of the different states and countries they've experienced while moving around the world with their families. Although we can't send all our poor children on trips around the world, we can ensure that each child has the opportunity to engage in enriching social experiences. We need to help students travel outside the narrow confines of their neighborhoods and their daily experiences to get a taste of the world beyond.

What Schools Can Do

So how do we give kids these things? Schedule field trips. Provide opportunities for students to go to museums, civic events, local colleges, theaters, and so on. Never take anything for granted as a valuable, teachable topic. Teach students what you know about banking, investing, how the stock market works, art, music, poetry, and local government functions.
Be proactive. If you can't take students to the state capital, bring the capital to them by inviting local government officials into your school. Host a blood drive, form an after-school fitness program, provide meeting spaces for local organizations—and have students volunteer at those events. Establish a voter registration committee and involve students in the process.
Create a volunteer program. Involve students in a community garden, a recycling program, a service project. Get students involved in community activities, such as local theater, sports, community organizations, and politics. Giving students a looking glass into a future outside of poverty may be just enough to inspire them to achieve their heart's desire.
Offer teachers good professional development on poverty and on its effects on students. Before poverty training, some teachers may think that a student who hasn't completed a homework assignment is simply lazy or stubborn. After poverty training, these same teachers will come to understand that poverty isn't brought on by apathy, low intelligence, and lack of effort—that discrimination, educational disadvantage, and low wages are powerful causes. This understanding can produce educators who search for ways to fight the effects of poverty and who create an atmosphere that promotes learning for all students, regardless of their backgrounds.
Foster an appreciation of diversity. Promote a schoolwide understanding of—and appreciation for—different learning styles so teachers can differentiate instruction to give all students an equal opportunity to do their best.
Work to lower suspension rates and be proactive in finding interventions that keep students in school, engaged, and respectful of the school environment. Find time to regularly analyze data related to referrals and suspensions to see where the school isn't meeting student needs. This will uncover unproductive rules, problems with routines, and can even help those teachers who may be using punishments to excess.
Promote positive talk about students among teachers and administrators. Support teachers as they fulfill their roles as advocates for students. And help teachers thrive as they help all students succeed, no matter how difficult the process.

Can It Work?

One area in which poor students are particularly vulnerable is homework completion. Unlike more affluent students, poor students often can't do their homework because of difficult home lives or pressing out-of-school responsibilities.
Take Daniel. He lived with his grandmother who worked full-time because his mother couldn't take care of him and his siblings. Daniel's home life wasn't conducive to doing well in school. It was all his grandmother could do to keep him clothed and fed. There wasn't a lot of time for extra homework help for a struggling 8th grader who saw no benefits to doing well in school.
Daniel was a repeat visitor to a new program we'd just implemented—Zeros Aren't Permitted (ZAP)—which guarantees that all students have an opportunity to complete their work and learn. Students must complete any missing assignments during lunch. With a little guidance and support, students finish all late assignments during this time and receive credit for completing the assignment.
On many occasions, Daniel would huff and puff his way to the ZAP room and complete his homework, angry and frustrated that he was going to miss an exciting game of touch football or tag at recess. In order to participate in those games, he had started to change his no-homework habit. Several times, I spotted him trying to finish his assignment before school as he waited for the morning late bell to ring.
This was something I had never seen Daniel do before ZAP. Up until then, Daniel didn't see the point in doing homework because his only dream was to join the military when he got out of school. He saw school as just one more hoop to jump through before he got to do what he wanted.
When Daniel's teacher gave him his first quarter report card—it was the first report card grades he'd received since participating in ZAP—Daniel looked up, startled, and said, "This is the first time in my life I haven't gotten an F on my report card!" He added in a whisper, "Maybe I'm not stupid!"
For the first time in Daniel's life, he wasn't allowed to fail himself. We didn't allow him to make that decision. This was the first time he didn't hear a teacher say, "Well, fine, I can't make you do your homework. If you want to fail, I guess that's up to you."
Would society allow children to determine whether they were going to take driver's education before getting their license? Can you imagine someone saying, "Well, fine, I can't make you learn how to drive a car. If you want to go out and drive without knowing how, I guess that's up to you." We would never allow children to determine their fate on the road—but we do allow children to determine their fate in school.
Can providing our students with enriching experiences change the way they experience school and help them create a vision of life outside of poverty? Yes, it can. I've witnessed it myself as a 14-year-old seeing the ocean for the first time. I've witnessed it while watching young children stare in awe at a beautiful painting in the St. Louis Art Museum. I've witnessed it at graduation ceremonies in which 8th grade graduates—who, as 6th graders, had told me, "You don't get it. My family is poor. It just don't matter what I do"—proudly walk across the stage and tell me about how they made it into advanced algebra for their freshman year of high school.
Level the playing field, and see what can happen.

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