Mississippi Teacher Corps

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Understanding Poverty

I just finished reading Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty as our assignment for this weekend. I was able to relate this reading best to my own experiences when I reflected on perhaps my greatest frustration so far in teaching: a lack of organization, and a lack of ability to follow simple directions. Let me elaborate.
I require students in my class to keep 3-ring binders with all their work. The binders stay in the classroom so that I don't have to worry about kids leaving their binders at home. I have a specific system for setting up the binders that I introduced to students on Day 1 and have reviewed multiple times since. I gave the students a good week and a half to obtain their binders, reviewed how to set them up, and remind students constantly that I will be checking and grading their notebooks. As I've mentioned to my students, a lot is at stake in this grades since I usually will check class work and homework when I grade their binders rather than having them hand in these assignments separately. Every day, I instruct them to take out their notebooks at the beginning of class, and every time we take notes or receive a handout, I tell students where to put it in their notebook. I keep a sample notebook in my room with all the work we've done. When a large percentage of my students failed to bring in binders by the due date, I went out and bought a bunch myself and offered them to students for $2. Now, here's the part that kills me: a good third of my students didn't have their notebooks in the classroom when I graded them! So, I had no choice but to give all of these students 0's. Wow, that made me want to scream. Of the other two-thirds of my students, a significant number had binders with some of the work, but were missing significant chunks of work and didn't have anything in order, despite the fact that I at least mention notebook organization EVERY SINGLE FREAKIN' DAY! Today, when we were working on a review sheet for the test I'm giving tomorrow (as a side note, this is a retest for the exam I gave last week that the majority of my students failed, and failed badly... but that's a topic for another blog), I had one student sit in his chair, stare at the sheet without even attempting to write a single answer, and tell me that he needed help. Our interaction went a little like this:
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: OK, what questions do you have?
Student: I don't know this one, this one, or this one, or this one, or... [pointing to every single question on the sheet]
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: Why don't you try and explain to me what confuses you about the questions? We can start with the first one.
Student: I don't know any of it.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: OK, why don't you take a look at the notes you took and the handouts about the cell?
Student: I don't have any of that.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: You didn't keep any of the notes you took at all?
Student: No.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: What about your binder?
Student: I don't have one. I don't have my notes.
Incidentally, this student kept on telling me for the first week or two of school that he was about to buy a binder. Even though I'm still working on a way to make sure students actually buy binders, I've grown somewhat used to the fact that a lot of my students just don't have them. But, for crying out loud, not keeping a single thing we worked on in class?! I was so frustrated that I told this student that if he didn't even keep his notes and handouts, of course he wouldn't know what he needed to know to study for the tests.
In addition to my notebook woes, I've had similar frustrations with students failing to follow directions that I give that seem abundantly clear to me. On the same review sheet that I handed out today, there were all of two lines of directions at the top of the page. It was a fill-in-the-blanks sheet, and the sheet had a word box that students could use. In bold letters, the top of the paper read, "You may use these words more than once." At some point in the day, I stopped counting how many kids asked me if they could use a word more than once. This kind of situation is standard fare for me; I have some students who still need to be reminded to put their names on their papers.
Coming into all this, I realized that my students probably wouldn't have the kind of organizational skills that they need to do well in school, but I had no idea that it would be this hard to teach them. I mean, tell kids step by step what to do, have them follow along, remind them a few times, and I should have almost everyone on board, right? Ha. Lately, I've felt like banging my head against a wall trying to figure out how the heck to get these kids to follow simple directions, and wondering why I've been failing with so many of them.
I wouldn't say that I have a solution to my problems after reading the book. However, Understanding Poverty made me realize that my students' struggles with organization are not the result of incompetent teaching, but a reflection of the lack of order in their lives. Payne wrote about how in poverty class, people do not tell stories in a chronological way, but in a non-linear manner that focuses on entertainment rather than plot. Hence the problem my students have following step-by-step directions that seem crystal clear to me. Payne also mentions the disorderliness that characterizes the lives of the poor: fluctuating personal ties, frequent moves, unanticipated problems that individuals lack the resources to solve neatly, and a focus on living in the moment. If my students think this way, it probably makes little sense to them to organize their notes, or in some cases, even hold on to their notes. I'm still at a loss for how to convey the importance of organization in academics to my students.

Completely unrelated anecdote that just makes me laugh so much that I couldn't resist including it in this blog: I give a Star Student award to one student in each class period once every two weeks (which causes its own issues for me, since I'm convinced my classes are rigged... I mean, seriously, more than two thirds of my 6th period students are on the honor roll wheras 4th period, I'll be happy if I get a coherent- not even correct, just coherent- answer from anyone... but again, that's a topic for another blog). One of the perks of the award is getting a little mix CD that I threw together. The Star Student award is starting to do great things for some students; I have students who are coming up to me and telling me that they will act right in class and study hard so that they can be the next Star Student. The CD has something to do with that motivation, methinks. Word is starting to spread that Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket actually knows the music that the students listen to, and that's earned me cool points. Today, my students started a new routine that seems to be catching on. It goes a little something like this:
Student: Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, what you know about dat?
Me: [smiling in amusement] I know all about dat.
*cue laughter and exclaimations of, "Oh snap! Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket knows about TI!"*
They even tried to get me to rap for them. Sweet.
Now playing: TI- What you know


  • At 7:10 AM, Blogger Ben Guest said…

    Grade the binders more often (ideally, check them every day). For any middle-school student, poor or not, checking binders a week or two weeks from now is an eternity.


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