Giving Poverty a Voice: West Salem HS Students for Change

Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora:  two teachers challenging the status quo.

ladder Generational poverty isn’t easy to talk about.  It’s challenging to understand poverty as a complex social force; it’s uncomfortable to look at our own responses, as Americans, to American poverty.  However, without attempting to understand poverty as a social force, we deny students living in poverty an opportunity to take a meaningful place in middle-class society.

Studying our students’ responses to and biases about poverty, helped us realize that American society has inadvertently done a disservice to people both in and out of poverty.  People not in poverty are allowed to look down on people living in poverty, devaluing their importance, making the middle class blind to their strengths and their skills.  On the other hand, people in poverty do not have the relationship pathways to help them enter the middle-class.  Why?  We think both conditions are borne from lack of understanding, which means teachers can take a powerful stance toward making a difference.

Nelson Mandela’s encouragement to see poverty as a solvable social issue inspired Poverty MandelaPattie to take on poverty education through authentic learning; she decided to give a voice to generational poverty but inviting poverty into her high school.    Hosting a school assembly, Pattie arranged for  Lynda Coates  to speak to West Salem High School on the issue of generational and situational poverty.  Lynda was born into generational poverty, and her transparency before the students allowed them all to see a beautiful young woman who worked her way out of poverty and into the middle class through the help of a work ethic and mentors.

Before 600 students,  Lynda shared seven tips to escape poverty that she discovered as she made her way out of poverty.

Seven steps into a middle class life:

1)  Working hard is not enough.  Simply put, the belief that working harder will not take you out of poverty.  Many people in poverty work harder than their  middle-class counterparts, but working three jobs at minimum wage will not bring a family out of poverty.  Ironically, working more jobs ensures the cycle of poverty.

2)  You can control how smart you become.  At the outset, learning is most

Lynda Coates speaks about her background in poverty with West Salem High School students

Lynda Coates speaks about her background in poverty with West Salem High School students

difficult, but the more you learn, the easier it becomes. The more connections the brain makes, the easier it becomes to learn.  However, if a person drops out of school at 14, returning to the classroom can be overwhelming because they have not created the necessary connections for learning.  Making it through the first two years of community college can be overwhelming, but as our brains make connections, learning eases and quickens.  Still, students coming from an impoverished background need help understanding the process.

3)  No one succeeds without help.  People cannot break out of a generational economic life-cycle without the help of others or without the monetary aid that will allow them to create life changes (this directly applies to Lynda’s second point about persevering in learning).

4)  Find mentors.  Dr. Donna Beegle was her mentor, and before that, Dr. Beegle relied on her mentor at the University of Portland.  To succeed, students in living poverty need people who will not judge them as they learn to walk into the middle-class.  Lynda makes clear that the middle-class has its own vocabulary and its own culture that people of generational poverty need help decoding, internalizing, and accessing.

5) Ask for what you want.  People who have grown up in poverty believe it is wrong to ask for help, and they need to become embolden to ask for those things that will help enrich their lives and help them reach their goals.broken society sign

6)   Step out of your comfort zone.  This is difficult for everyone but especially for someone who feels unworthy because of their economic situation.  We have to encourage and help them move away from the familiar and challenge themselves in new life experiences.

7)  Build a network.  Middle-class networks unknowingly; it is simply how the culture operates.  People of generational poverty need to understand the importance of networking and that they have worth within that network.

Watching students seek Lynda out after the assembly to tell their stories or to seek advice, Pattie knew this was the right approach to teach understanding poverty and solutions to poverty.  As poverty rates in America rise, we desperately need a paradigm shift in our thinking that will allow us to reaches all students.  We believe the shift begins in our classrooms.   If one student and one teacher change because of authentic conversations about poverty, then the shift is underway.

And we will never be the same, which is what we think education should do for us all


Pattie with Lynda and West Salem High School students. Pattie and her students are wearing their “Students for Change” t-shirts, April 2014




About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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