Teaching With Poverty in Mind

Teaching With Poverty in Mind – Introduction and Chapter 1

The introduction was a quick, humbling three pages. Jensen goes straight into assumptions made about people living in poverty.

The thing that stood out to me the most was on page two where Jensen explains “theories” about why disadvantaged students underperform in school. “Their parents do not have high IQs, their home environment is substandard, their parents are missing or have moved, or they just don’t care.”

How many times have we, as teachers, said that a student or his or her parents “just don’t care?” How unfair is that?

Jensen defined poverty as “a chronic and debilitating condition that results form multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body, and soul” (page 6).

Jensen then describes several different types of poverty, including situational, generational, absolute, relative, urban, and rural. While I was reading through the types, I could quickly picture several different students and where they may fall in these subgroups.

The most interesting and thought-provoking part of Chapter 1, for me, was The Effects of Poverty section. I thought, going in to reading and having heard Jensen speak before and discussing this book previously, that I understood the effects of living in poverty. I was wrong.

First up: “40 percent of children living in chronic poverty had deficiencies in at least two areas of functioning (such as language and emotional responsiveness) at age 3” (page 7). AGE 3. Already, by age 3, kids show these deficiencies. How can we expect kids to bridge that gap and be successful in school?

Next, Jensen goes into all of the effects of Poverty at Home. The list just goes on and on:

  • low-income neighborhoods are likely to have lower-quality social, municipal, and local services
  • poor children often breathe contaminated air and drink impure water
  • households are more crowded, noisy, and physically deteriorated
  • kids living in poverty spend less time finding out about the world around them and more time struggling to survive within it
  • low-SES kids are more likely to rely on peers than on adults for social and emotional support
  • low-SES kids are more likely to come from single-guardian homes, and their parents or caregiver tend to be less emotionally responsive
    • single parent strain is directly related to poor school attendance, lower grades, and lower chances of attending college
  • low SES kids form more stress-ridden attachments with parents, teachers, and adult care-givers and have difficulty establishing rewarding friendships with children their own age
  • common issues include depression, chemical dependence, and hectic work schedule
  • overall, there is a negative correlation between adverse risk factors and academic achievement

Poverty at School:

  • high tardy rates and absenteeism are common problems among poor students
    • school can help turn children’s lives around, but only if the children show up
  • parents who did poorly in school themselves may have a negative attitude about their children’s schools
    • these parents are often unwilling to get involved in school functions or activities, to contact the school about academic concerns, or to attend parent-teacher conferences
      • I’m not sure about the use of “unwilling” here; perhaps a better word would be “intimidated”? Do it make it easy for these parents to come in? What are we going to tell them at parent-teacher conferences?

Action Steps:

Thankfully, Jensen says that “teachers don’t need to come from their students’ cultures to be able to teach them, but empathy and cultural knowledge are essential.”

My first thought about this statement was “HOMEWORK!” I don’t like homework (if you want to check for understanding, do it in the classroom and be able to quickly reteach or let a kid know they are doing things correctly), and I’m hoping that this part can be eye-opening for other teachers as well. It’s so important to remember what our students are facing when they go home; is your homework helping them master standards, or adding another level of stress to their already stressful lives?

Possibly my favorite part of any of the first chapters is this statement: “For example, some teachers perceive certain behaviors typical of low-SES children as ‘acting out’, when often the behavior is a symptom of the effects of poverty and indicates a condition such as a chronic stress disorder” (page 11).

I’m a huge advocate for understanding the root of any behavior, but how often have I just assumed a behavior was attention-seeking, when really it could have been related to Low-SES stress?

All in all, Jensen says that “the number of U.S. children in low-income situations is forecast to rise over the next few decades” (page 12). This isn’t something that’s going away, so we may as well embrace it and do our best to make all of our students successful.

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