Thank for sharing this! I been thinking a lot about my own childhood, my family was often homeless, but did not live on the street. We lived in a shelter, but never went hungry, we used food stamps and were on free and reduced lunch, but my mom did a lot to make sure we had everything we needed. I was poor but lived in a middle class suburb… I have spent years of my life using these stories to show how strong I am, but the last 7 or 8 years trying to live in the present and not sharing these facts as I believe I was acting as a victim or often got pity that I didn’t want… or that I was not poor enough or didn’t struggled as much as others…. but I am coming to understand that I must live in the tension of growing up poor and now being on the way to middle class and realized that I don’t have to write my future based on my past…but that past has shaped who I am now.
I hope people can look at their own past and those of others with a openness and lack of judgement…. we all come from different places and have different stories and voices worth sharing… no matter if we are rich or poor, of any race or background or education… that often we all need help but not pity.
thank you for sharing this… because it allowed me a way to share a part of my own story.
-adventures in learning
Recently, The Heritage Foundation released a report on poverty in American, largely trying to debunk the idea that poor people are poor. They included facts like the majority of people living in poverty have refrigerators, microwaves, and air conditioners. Never mind these things might be attached to a rental unit of some kind… it’s not like those items listed are big-ticket items, particularly when bought used.
I met a family the other day who, according to the Heritage Foundation, is living in the lap of luxury. I’ll let you folks make up your minds.
I was at the Salvation Army last week and was looking at the appliances. There was an older microwave for $5. A woman in front of me (I’ll call her Ann) at the register bought the microwave and was telling her kids they’d get microwave popcorn again. It looked like that $5 microwave made those kids’ day. Now, that microwave would have been included in The Heritage Foundation’s analysis because she also receives WIC, and Heritage Foundation is especially interested in those receiving federal benefits.
I know she receives WIC, because she asked me if all the grocery stores in town took it. Ann just moved here about three weeks ago and was staying with a friend who was now in the process of moving away. I talked to her for about half an hour outside the store. She asked if I knew which hotel was the cheapest and cleanest, because she couldn’t afford the rent here (college is about to start, so the cheapest rentals are gone) and she’s on a list for a housing voucher.
I helped her put a suitcase on a luggage rack on the top of her car to make room for the microwave in her trunk. She mentioned she was glad to have a place to work and, she hoped, a place to live. I asked where she moved from. She said Denver, and that she and her kids were living in their car for a few months (in the midst of a heat wave) because her landlord kicked her out and she had nowhere to go. Ann said she never signed a lease and the landlord evicted her with just a few hours notice because her two-year-old was too noisy. She was afraid to go for DFS for help because she thought they’d take the kids, what with them living in the car. She interviewed for a job at a fast food place here about a week ago and starts this Monday. She’d been out of work for about 5 months when she moved up here.
I gave her the phone numbers for every community resource I could think of, pointed her towards the hotels I knew were cheap and clean, and offered to help in any way I could. Ann said that I’d helped, that she already knew how to get along the best she could, and that “being poor takes skills you don’t know you have ‘til you need them.”
But according to Heritage Foundation, she’s not poor. She and her 3 kids are living in a hotel here that has a fridge, a queen bed (or two), a $5 microwave she bought, and she’s living in the lap of luxury (as defined by them)? I don’t think so. Their report exemplifies what I (and others) call “Poor people can’t have nice things.” Basically, if you have a very basic amenity, like a microwave, you’re obviously not poor. Apparently, being poor involves some kind of “noble suffering” and if you aren’t suffering Oliver Twist-style, you aren’t poor.
I can see Ann and her kids were struggling. But that’s seemingly not “low” enough for folks at the Heritage Foundation. I don’t care what “amenities” people in poverty supposedly have - to me, one person being one paycheck away from homelessness or food insecurity is one too many. One in seven Americans currently rely on food stamps to eat. And never mind those folks trying to subsist on the goodwill of others and/or unemployment. I’m not going to quibble about a cell phone or a television.
I hope she’s doing alright, the job works out, and the kids get microwave popcorn.
I’m writing you while you are probably also writing me, on Sunday the 15th because I get up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to go to a board meeting at the Panasonic Foundation and then must drive five hours to Concord, N.H., where I’ll spend a few days at the Upper Valley Educators Institute with Rob Fried. The institute runs a program where would-be teachers are placed in school four days a week and take classes one day a week—in order to earn a teaching license. It’s the kind of “alternative” system I applaud and is just one of many which immerses interested would-be teachers inside classrooms—day after day. More later.
Yesterday I talked for hours with Dennis Littky whose new MET one-on-one college is coming to the end of its first year. The big turning point, he said, was sending young people to far-away lands largely on their own for a few months. Maybe it’s one way of shifting their perspectives, going from seeing-like-a-teenager to seeing-like-an-adult, an American. Dennis is always learning on the job!
How we take in the world is so critical to what we can understand about it. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a must read. It gets to the heart of our problem. Aside from those who truly believe that public enterprises are themselves evil, inefficient, and/or tyrannical, and those whose self-interests are tied into privatization, or testing, etc., I think the reforms also are the outcome of the vast number of people who see the world from their bird’s-eye view. Libertarian critics are right, in part, that such ambitions are not unnatural perhaps in young, well-intended, but ambitious, people—especially young idealists. They are attracted to being “change agents” (changing others), vanguards, “policymakers.” Scott gives examples of this from friend and foe alike.
In fact, every time I prepared for class the next day I was doing something similar—although it must seem an odd comparison. My scale is so different. And, consistently, I was—unlike today’s reformers—brought down to earth the next day when I tried to implement my grand plans. Some things worked, some fell absolutely flat, and some went nowhere so fast that I had no back-up plan. The same thing happened to some of my best ideas for the school reforms I had in mind and brought before the staff or parents, only to discover that even as I laid them out to this real-life audience I could see flaws I hadn’t noticed the night before.
That’s true of many of one’s own favorite ideas. [Text revised per author.] In the real world, of course, the reformers and the schools and the teachers (who carry the weight of many of the reformers’ grand schemes) may or may not even agree with each other about something as fundamental as “the purpose” of it all.
We may not agree, either, on the kind of evidence that we need to use as we revise our schemes, as they go from inside our heads, to paper and pencil to actual implementation. For example, I just don’t believe, based on 45 years of experience, that most poor and black children enter kindergarten without strong language skills, loving families, and strong and lively minds. But I’ve been told otherwise since the 1950s when the “culture of poverty” hit the academic/policy world.
Given where I was situated I saw and heard something very different. In the classroom, “those children” were often silent, children of few words, confused by complexity, and fidgety and looking for clues. But on the playground, at home with their families or at home with mine they were chatterers, filled with questions and as much fun to talk with as the children of my middle-class friends. And in time they were openly full of powerful ideas. But only once they were convinced I and my classroom were “family,” trusted members of their world. They had thoroughly imbibed one message that their families and most schools repeated over and over: Do not act in school the way you would in your far-from-ideal families. Shut up, watch the teacher carefully, and avoid getting into trouble. Some succeeded at this; others gave up and became the “bad kids.” We didn’t use their strengths—including their talent at figuring things out for themselves, creating strong social bonds, and reading adults.
We rarely picked up on some of the worldly experiences they had. Instead, we saw only their limitations. We treated their language as non-language/deviant/slang/”black English,” etc.
They brought the same “disadvantage” to the tests. Their strengths were precisely those that the tests intended to punish, to expose. They could not thus fall back, in the classroom or in the test sessions, on their intuitive knowledge, as I had been able to do and as the middle-class kids in my school did. They had to ask themselves: “What do ‘they’ want me to say?” As did idiosyncratic middle-class kids like my son, Nick—kids who have a harder time “thinking and seeing like a State.”
This idea—which was so much part of the incipient pedagogy and curriculum “revolution” of the 1970s and early 1980s, often in distorted and half-thought-through ways—has disappeared. Those entering the profession today know nothing of that literature: John Holt (How Children Fail), or Sylvia Ashton-Warner (Teacher), or Herb Kohl (36 Children), et al.
Yes, it’s true that children come to us with some of the handicaps that poverty and oppression create. But even worse perhaps is that we drive a wedge between their “natural” selves and their school selves. We offer an appallingly dull alternative to the rich lives they live, the families they love, the world as they know it.
That much we can and did undo. That’s what we discovered by watching and hearing from our graduates. They took away from school a self-confidence in their own judgment based on the knowledge and experience which the school helped them hone and expand upon.
Practice, practice, practice is an extraordinary teacher once one can tell the difference between dutiful practice and practice that one owns.
More on these different ways of “seeing” in future letters—maybe a book! Enough, I have to get my seven hours of sleep.
If you read one blog today….this should be it! Click through for full post! and join the conversation/discussion! Good Primer for all Team Teacher Book Club readers~!
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