Breaking Bad Through Giving, Not Giving Up

By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan

Hey, Walter White fans, English teachers cook, too.  Remember this recipe from our first post?

The Create-Socially-Responsive-Learners Soufflé 

  • Take any required novel.
  • Add a little Paul Freire’s advice*
  • Stir in a few sticky notes to hold your thinking.
  • Spice it with a parallel non-fiction books and other materials
  • Let simmer.
  • Serve via conversations, investigations and projects that take students from the classroom into the world

*First assignment—not sure of the Freire reference?  Read or re-read Freire’s introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed  before you don an apron.

For new readers, this post is part of an on-going connection between Of Mice and Men and poverty in our students’ schools and communities.  We originally thought we could wrap up the connection in a couple of posts and move on to our next curriculum-mandated novel.  But teaching and learning aren’t like that.  As we began to write, think, and work with our students, we realized we needed to linger a bit longer with poverty and our responses to it.

From Joan’s point of view: last week, I listened as two colleagues described their despair over low-performing students who come from disadvantaged homes: 3-10 absences in six weeks of school, inattentive in class, unmotivated to do better, dismissive and rude to each other, stressed out and dysfunctional when talking about grades and how to make up late work….  One teacher wrapped up the conversation by saying, “Well, I have only four more years until retirement.  I can hang on.”

If I had had a copy of Eric Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind, I would have given it to the Counting-it-Down-to-Retirement teacher.  I would have assigned Ch. 1: “Understanding the Nature of Poverty” with the purpose of reading to learn the deep cascading affect of poverty on students’ brains and what many educators are doing to prove that “those poor kids” can and do achieve at high levels.

But it was parent-teacher conference night–we were lucky to have a five-minute break to talk to each other.    I did manage one parting rebuttal to Counting-it-Down: “We’re teachers; poverty doesn’t stand a chance against us!”  Both teachers chuckled and moved on.  I wished I had added, “Read my fleshed out answer in Teaching it Forward on Saturday morning.”

In a more articulate moment, I would have paraphrased these points:

  • Teachers help turn children’s lives around every day.  That includes low-socioeconomic status (SES) children, too.
  • Poverty calls for teachers to work smarter, not harder, but first we need to understand what poverty is and how chronic stress affects children’s brains.
  • We need teachers to grow beyond sympathy into empathy and cultural understanding of poverty to support and challenge low-SES students (just as we support and challenge our mid-high SES students).

So What is Poverty?

“Poverty is a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body, and soul.  However you define it, poverty is complex; it does not mean the same thing for all people.”

Eric Jensen, Teaching With Poverty in Mind

Jensen describes six types of poverty and the broad research that documents the good, the bad, and the ugly around educating children living in poverty.  Here’s a visual depiction of the adverse impact of poverty on achievement:



Not pretty, huh?  Especially when you consider that learning is language-based.  Check out this link to understand the language and confidence (that’s the affirmations / prohibitions piece) differences between low-SES children and children from mid to high-SES homes.   Children of poverty have a dramatically reduced vocabulary compared to children from professional-class families, and the research in helping disadvantaged parents improve their vocabularies isn’t promising.  Without effective intervention, that language-deprived three-year-old will likely be a language-poor adult.

Teachers can help change that, but first we need to be aware of the differences for children from impoverished homes.

Here’s where you come in: given what we now know about the human brain and about the exemplar schools that succeed in helping low-SES children achieve at high levels, there’s no excuse to let any child fail (see Doug Reeve’s 90/ 90/90 Schools.  And to be fair, read Justin Baeder’s rebuttal:  The “90/90/90 Schools” Myth).  No matter how you do the math, the conclusion is the same:  All students can learn, and educators can learn from successful schools and effective teachers.

What Can we Learn From People Who Have Broken Out of Poverty?

We take this question personally and look to people we know to help address this question.

Dr. Donna Beegle, a PSU professor, grew up in generational poverty where she was the only member in her family who didn’t spend time in jail.  In fact she considers herself bi-lingual, now that she can speak “middle class.”  Read her article, “Interrupting Generational Poverty.”  Keep scrolling on that link to see her take on “Educating Students from Poverty” and “Tools for Working with Students and Families Living in Poverty.”

West Salem Principal Ed John spoke with Pattie about his struggles as a child growing up in poverty.

Pattie writes, “Principal Ed John knows all the students by name and greets them every morning at the door.  His office is open to all of them, and he champions ALL students, not just the ones that make the school look great.  But what will remain forever in my memory is the staff meeting where Ed recounted his experiences as a child of poverty.  His transparency encouraged the staff to begin to understand and support the children of poverty that are in all of our schools.”

What experiences from poverty still impact you today?

EJ:  They have given me a heart for at-risk minority students that I may not have had. I was born to an unwed teen-age mother, who realized she could not raise me.  As a ward of the court, I was bounced from foster home to foster home.  Some were okay, as a home goes, but some would be considered abusive today.  And for some, I was only a means for their livelihood, so I really did not have a nurturing home life.

At the age of 12, I was adopted by a Native American and became a part of the Siletz Tribe.  My father moved me to Alaska where we lived and fished on a houseboat and worked in the logging camps.  Life was rough on the boat with no indoor plumbing.  So if we wanted water, we pulled a bucket out of the river.  We had an outhouse and of course, no refrigerator, which meant powdered milk.

So there I was, in a Native American family, at-risk, living in poverty.  I realize that my situation may not be as severe as some of the students we serve, but this poverty molded me into a champion for the students in my population overcoming adversity.

What would you tell a teacher about students in poverty and their behavioral issues?

EJ: These children, with all of their issues, are someone’s pride and joy.  And many are doing the very best they can,  so it is our job to love and care for them.  Teachers need to have patience as the students struggle with respect.  We need to make them feel they have worth by recognizing them, knowing their names and showing them they are important to us.  It is all about encouragement and praise.  Everyone has something special, something to contribute.  We need to make them feel good about themselves.  After all, someone finally did that for me.

All of my experiences made me what I am today.  I don’t know if I would be as compassionate and long-suffering if I had not gone through this experience.

It is about reaching out to struggling kids, and I will say that my experience has made me so patient(With a twinkle in his eye) We have to continue to believe that every kid has the ability to turn it around, if we don’t kill them first.  End of interview.

Do You Have to Have a Disadvantaged Background to Effectively Support Disadvantaged Students? 

No, but you do need to be informed.  Read Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind  and his new book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.  Here’s a chapter-by-chapter discussion guide for Teaching With Poverty in Mind.  And a guide for Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.

One myth about helping children from impoverished families is that it takes away from our middle-class and high-achieving children.  Another myth is that the problem is too big and that we can’t do much about it, so why do anything at all?  We’re brewing up a special blog just for those issues.

Meanwhile, got more ideas about supporting all of our students?  Please share them with us and with your colleagues.

“Being poor is far less the result of ‘bad life decisions’ than it is the result of being born poor.”   Toure@toure on Twitter



About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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3 Responses to Breaking Bad Through Giving, Not Giving Up

  1. So glad it’s helpful. Check back when we address the other side of poverty: children from wealthy homes have a unique set of challenges that garners less sympathy and less support. Think Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye.

  2. Pingback: Can You Love the Pebble in Your Shoe? | Teaching it Forward

  3. Angie says:

    Thanks Joan for an insightful blogpost and the many links and connected reading. I have read all the links but randomly in different places. This is a nice resource with all the links in one place. We struggle with all of these issues in our district, but sometimes it is easy to keep them hidden away.

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