Student Writers Living In Poverty
In the many years I have spent in the classroom, I have been through several modes of thought as a teacher and most of these modes were originally brought on by the way I was raised.
I grew up in a home with parents who did not graduate from college but who had a high work ethic. My dad worked in a factory for 28 years and my mother did odd accounting jobs until ending up at the University of Oklahoma as an accountant for the School of Drama. I suppose I had a good childhood, and my folks never divorced, but I always did my classwork, showed up to school even if I didn’t feel quite well, and graduated with aspirations for college. I attended college, but went on student loans of which I am still repaying at age 42. I didn’t think I lived in poverty conditions, but I was close to it, and even though I never really thought about it at the time, sometimes my mother’s meals were hamburger helper or tuna helper.
The truth is, my folks did such a good job of loving me and providing for me that I never really knew the difference.
Over 70% of the students in my school district are on free or reduced lunches. One short car ride around the bumpy roads of our district is all it takes to notice the level of poverty in the community. If one were to jump in a car and follow one of the busses on a route, one would see the kind of places our students call home. There are double-wide trailer homes without any metal skirting, shacks with wooden paneling on the outside that is grey and weathered, tall dead grass growing up through old tires and other scrap metal, and chickens that run in and out of open trailer house doors because its easier to collect the eggs in the house. It is no wonder some of my students fail to turn in writing assignments.
As an English teacher, it is difficult to assign work without assigning some of it to be done at home, but I try. Sometimes I need to gather student responses that require more time than the 48 minutes per day I am with them. Recently I have been rethinking my original opinion about students who consistently fail to turn in work or who sleep or act out in class. Sometimes this is because the student stayed up all night playing video games or surfing YouTube, but then many of these students are dealing with extreme poverty, horrible home lives which in turn create incredible stress.
Students who live in extreme poverty situations are living in survival mode. Poverty students are sick and miss school, but then do not have a doctor’s note to excuse the absence. They are sick more often because they may not have clean water or bathe as often or are surrounded by unsanitary conditions. Poverty students are sometimes irritable, defiant of authority, sleep in class, or act out in class because the extreme stress of their home life causes these natural reactions. It is up to teachers to recognize this and to act quickly to help these students succeed. Should a student be penalized in class for where they live? In nearly every case, when I pull these students aside and ask them if I can help them with their academics, and they see that I genuinely care about them, they warm to me and genuinely want to do well in school.
One of the best ways to get these kids to respond is to have them write about their ordeal. As I have stated before in previous posts, writing is very therapeutic for those suffering from nearly any mental anguish. I have read some of the saddest things from students when they know that they will not be judged for what they write. This takes time and effort on the part of the teacher to make the student understand that they will not be criticized or “felt sorry for” by a teacher. If you genuinely care for a student, showing this through your body language and words, that student will always respond positively.
Give poverty students a voice through their writing and you will give them a key to their future.