Thursday, September 22, 2011

Teaching with Poverty in Mind

I'm having lots of thoughts while reading this book: Teaching with Poverty in Mind. It's excellent, by the way. If you're a teacher in a classroom with low SES students, I HIGHLY recommend getting this book.

It talks a lot about the emotional under-development of children who come from high poverty households and how they need to be taught how to process emotions and proper reactions to them. I never thought about that at the high school level, but it's very true. And it explains a lot of the disruptive outbursts we see in class.

Right now I'm thinking about the high level of chronic stressors present in the lives of high poverty students. Growing up with chronic stress actually impairs the development of most aspects of the brain biologically. It's fascinating stuff. Chronic stress is the cause of their constant impulsivity (their lack of being able to think before they act or speak), because impulse is a survival mechanism they've used all their lives to stay alive and have their immediate survival needs met. The book says, "Our students don't wear signs around their necks that say 'Chronic stress lives here'..." but they don't have to. So many times you can see it in their appearance. And I'm not limiting myself to just judging a book by its cover here, but when you see a student that may or may not have bathed in the last few days, dragged a comb through his/her hair for a while, and you're pretty sure they were wearing those same clothes the last time you saw them, as indicated by that unforgettable spaghetti stain from the lunchroom, you pretty much know- that kid, and probably his/her family, operates in survival mode. You can almost perfectly predict classroom behavior at that point- at least to varying degrees.

What I really enjoy about this book is that it urges teachers to EXPECT these "negative" or survival responses from their students. It's the way they live their lives. Why would we expect anything different right off the bat in our classrooms? We have to create safe classroom environments where they can watch us model the correct responses to stress and in return teach them a healthy way of functioning in the world.

I have hallway duty the last 30 minutes of every other day, and without fail, every time I have to listen to a teacher, behind his closed door, scream at the top of his lungs and say some very berating and hateful things to his last period class because his class is out of control and he's been pushed over the edge. He doesn't know he's being counter-productive. And it doesn't seem to register with him that his screaming tantrums aren't fixing anything, because he still has to do it every single day. I want him to read this book-- it's laying on his desk. It would make his life so much easier if he would just breathe and have the patience to model and teach correct responses instead of escalating the stress in the room by hatefully screaming at the top of his lungs. Everybody is in survival mode in that room. Even the teacher.

I understand his frustration. I do. When a kid mutters EFF YOU, Bitch, under his breath about ten times in a class period, it's very hard to stay positive and have any desire at ALL to teach him ANYTHING- let alone how to act like an intelligent individual. But then that's our job, isn't it? Isn't that what we signed on for? To teach?

I did, anyway.


Nancy Largent, from Colorado said...

Sounds like a very good book. I think I need to read it, since I teach in a 100% free lunch school. The problem is compounded when the students are learning a new language and face constant frustration to perform at school and all the choas at home. We cannot possibly imagine what they are going through. Demands our utmost patience.

Ashly said...

I think we're in the same boat, Nancy. Last number I heard we were at 90 or 95% free or reduced lunch. Bless you for teaching the ELL's! I don't have many, but I do have 35 Sped kiddos.