05 August 2012

Poverty Adaptations for Individual Teachers

Apparently this Unicef report says that America has the second-highest child poverty among developed nations. This blog post claims that despite the dismal news we're bombarded with, our educational system is, in fact, not to blame, but the poverty level is. And here's another big fancy article about it (I have to say I really don't like The Huffington Post for the most part and therefore cringe and linking to it.)

Correlation ≠ Causation
So maybe poverty and poor academic performance are correlated, but any educated person should realize that it doesn't mean one causes the other. Even so, I am a teacher, not a businessman nor politician in any position to do anything about child poverty.

Additionally, it might not even be poverty that's correlated, but something that comes with it. I am no expert on poverty, but I'm still going to take a stab at this idea through a bulleted list:

  • Maybe if both your parents work, you do poorly in school.
  • Maybe having stressed parents (money being one of the highest causes of marital problems) translates to stressed kids and poor academic achievement.
  • Maybe being hungry leads to bad test scores.
  • Maybe a fear that other kids won't like you if they find out you're poor causes less participation in class.
As much as I enjoy bulleted lists, I found myself wanting to cross-pollinate the bullets too much. Basically, the main factor I'm speculating about is stress. (This Radiolab podcast beautifully illustrates just how bad stress can be.)

It's Still the Teacher's Problem
Back to the basic correlation of poverty and academics. As I mentioned, I'm a teacher. I can't fix these underlying stresses these students may or may not be having at home. Nevertheless, it should still be my main goal to help all students succeed, regardless of background.

(Do I need to point out that free public education, in my opinion, is the most important part of a free society that allows people to emigrate their socio-economic situation? And as a soldier in the educational trenches, it's my duty to give each student their fair shot at success in life.)

So how do we, as teachers, overcome poverty? Especially those of us who deal with technology. Here are some ideas I've quickly considered (another bulleted list!):

  • The class should eliminate all but academic stressors. (The previously mentioned Radiolab episode also talks about good stress.)
    • At the risk of babying these junior high kids, I want to minimize any and all ridicule that might happen within my four walls. A culture of mutual respect should be cultivated by a strong teacher example.
    • I want the subject/software/project to captivate them so deeply that they forget their other worries and engage in the problem.
    • I want to challenge and encourage and praise (in that order, and repeat) so they feel victorious and successful in some small way.
  • If their situation is such that they have limited parent time, I want to provide for them a similar figure within the bounds of my classroom. Such a figure would first know each individual student to some degree, and secondly be genuinely interested in each student's progress.
  • Some students may have very limited access to technology and therefore be at an automatic disadvantage in the class among peers who have access to everything. Assignments and projects can be tweaked either through due date or expectations in order to allow these students time to get more comfortable with the technology. (I claim to have solved this problem with my new fancy Project Based Learning rubric. Students can earn good grades by showing improvement and hard work, despite a lack of skill.)
Students Aren't Projects
It's time to counter-argue my own logic. The fact is, people can tell when you make them a 'project.' People know who will likely be the 'project' to those teachers that get into that sort of thing. I was lucky enough to grow up in a stable home, so I often went ignored by teachers and other leaders because they just figured I was fine, until I had one leader that seemed to be oblivious to the pigeonholing we all tried so hard to maintain. He treated us all with equal amounts of respect and interest.

My point is, yes, we need to make accommodations for students coming from poverty (or broken homes, or even the opposite of over-stimulation and parental indulgence), but they should be invisible, even to those being accommodated.

That's Just Good Teaching!
During my lengthy days of undergraduate studies, I read an article entitled "That's Just Good Teaching!" or something like that. Every new educational theorist seems to basically simply invent a new term for one of the many things a good teacher instinctively does. In reality I'm sure what a good teacher does is continually learn about his/her own field and slowly build up a 'natural' style that seems to engender good, researched teaching practices, in addition to the learning that happens simply by reflection. The poverty problem fits into that idea. The strategy to counter-act poverty in the classroom simply looks like good teaching: genuine interest in students, culture of mutual respect, adapted expectations, etc.

It's just good teaching.

Just Google "poverty in american education" and you'll find some good articles about it way better than my blog.

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