Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Doing What I Can

Written By: Anachan - Feb• 26•17

A couple of years ago, I went to a teacher in-service day regional training wherein each of us could select three sessions in which to participate. One of the sessions I chose was about Common Core standards in reading, which was, predictably, rather dry and not terribly helpful. One of the sessions was about integrating vocabulary into lessons. The thing which stuck the most from that was an increase in my awareness of “level 1,” “level 2,” and “level 3” vocabulary, leading to a choice to incorporate more “level 2” vocabulary into my daily student interactions. And the third session was about how poverty affects learning.

The last session was revelatory. I had never previously thought about what poverty was or how it might affect a student’s learning. After all, if someone is willing to work hard enough, he or she can overcome anything, right? While this is true, students in poverty–which means more than just having a low income–often find themselves in situations where they are always having to evaluate threat levels. This means that a student’s mind may be focused on more immediate tangible, physical needs, not always ready to operate on a higher cognitive level. It possibly goes without saying that if someone is constantly worried about the “here and now,” he may not be as concerned or focused on the big picture or the future, thus jeopardizing their chances to “work hard enough and overcome anything.”

I learned some good, concrete ways in which to help students with such issues learn writing skills, such as providing templates for thesis statements or essays, which I now incorporate into my lessons, with some success. But even more valuable, I learned that the mindset of someone in poverty differed so much with my own personal experience as to be almost foreign. When I approach lessons now, I remember this.

This lesson came to mind as I stumbled upon a blog post pertaining to the education crisis in America and poverty: “The Real Crisis in Education: An Open Letter to the Department of Education.” The author points out that the data used to measure the educational situation in the United States has many flaws. For one thing, American data is provided for all students, while data from other countries may only include those who are tracked as college-bound. For another, there is a relatively high rate of child poverty in the United States, yet all students are required to meet the same standards, even with the cognitive disadvantage poverty places upon students. When test scores of high schools are divided based upon poverty rates in those schools, they show that those with a low incidence of poverty–those whose students have the luxury of having developed more fully their cognitive abilities–the test scores are not bad at all, compared with students around the world. However, those schools with a high incidence of poverty–those wherein students may be living with a higher level of “toxic stress”–the test scores are much lower.

Basically speaking, one could say that teachers in this latter category of school are given students who are not ready to exercise the same cognitive abilities and are being required and judged on their ability to raise those students to a level of cognitive development equal to those who do not daily have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or whether or not a parent is going to come home stoned.

As I read the blog post, I found myself nodding along. As teachers, we work to raise our students, wherever they are at the beginning of the school year. But it may not always be reasonable to expect we can raise them to the level of the standardized tests by the end of the year, particularly with the difference in focus experienced by students in poverty.

And so, while I work to teach my students to the best of my ability and prepare them for the standardized tests, incorporating suggestions I find which may make the material more readily understandable or relevant to them, I don’t stress about the tests; there’s not much I can do about them. What I can do is work to improve my students’ reading comprehension and help them learn to organize an essay well, even if the grammar used in that essay may never be perfect. What I can do is drill them on punctuation rules, even if they choose not to use them in their writing. What I can do is correct pronoun usage and double negatives in their speech, even if it doesn’t end up sticking. And what I can do is be enthusiastic about reading and the learning process, hoping that perhaps, just perhaps, a small amount of that will rub off and whisper to them that they can do it, if they work hard enough.

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