4 Steps to Meeting the Needs of Students in Poverty

I spent last week laughing with friends with family, stuffing my face until I couldn’t eat anymore, buying Christmas presents and sending over lists, and relaxing by the fire at the end of the day. But how many of our students did not have that kind of a week?

Over the next few weeks, we are going to really be focusing on our targeted audience when being culturally responsive.

To get us started, I want to focus on our students living in generational poverty.  While poverty is NOT a culture, and it’s important to make that distinction, it does weigh very heavily on their ability to learn. Coming off Thanksgiving and really taking the time to be intentional about recognizing and being grateful for the blessings in my life, I’ve been thinking a lot about those who are living with so much less, even living without their basic needs met.

A few months back, I read a book called Evicted by Matthew Desmond.  The author follows a few landlords working in the very impoverished communities in Milwaukee. Most of the tenants that the book introduces are tenants who have lived in generational poverty, and the mindsets and behavior of these people are really fascinating.  The expectation of moving suddenly, not having running water or electricity or even completed walls and floors, and having the main meals of the day be at school seemed to be prevalent expectations that they lived with. Landlords don’t fix anything because tenants don’t pay, and tenants learn to live without these basic amenities (if we can call them that.)

So why do I bring this up?  Well, because these sweet babies are sitting in our classroom. These kids who may or may not had any nutritious food put into their bodies over the last 24 hours, who may or may not have a home by the end of the week, who may or may not have had a very tumultuous and chaotic “Thanksgiving Break” and who see very little to be thankful for, who are not worried about the perfect Christmas tree as depicted on social media because they’ve never had one.  These kids don’t have their bellies stuffed full because they’ve eaten for the last 4 solid days (like mine), in fact, they are hungry because they haven’t had a solid meal since school let out. And these kids are sitting in our classrooms today…right along with my kid and your kid in a lot of cases.  And they may or may not look any different.

So how do we reach this kids in an effort to empower them with education so that they can rise above their current circumstance?

Here are 4 steps to moving these students to success:

  1. Expand their perspective.
  2. Teach learned traits for interpersonal and coping skills.
  3. Build autonomy.
  4. Require them to read and write.

We are going to be talking the next few weeks about ways to reach these students. For this blog, I just want to focus on the first step.

Being a culturally responsive teacher is not just beneficial for the teacher to meet the needs of culturally diverse students, it is also powerful for student to be able to expand their perspectives. Many students living in poverty will have a very small look at the world.  They will lack many of the experiences that other students have that enable them to see more than just their day-to-day experiences. Often times, the people that surround them are in the same generational poverty that they find themselves in, and therefore have the same perspective on life. In the blog notes, I’m going to post the story and testimonial that I read in the professional development.  This is a good reminder of how different our perspectives can be coming from various socio-economic backgrounds. In short, these testimonials remind us that people living in generational poverty are often not looking in the future – they are not setting goals or thinking though consequences.  They are looking at the present moment. Surviving the present moment.  Doing their best – in the present moment. Even searching for pleasures in the present moment, regardless of consequences.

We also have to remember that many of our students’ parents, who were living in generational poverty when they went through school, graduated from high school, but have yet to see their circumstances change.  Therefore, they don’t necessarily see education (or at least a high school diploma) as a way out.  We have to remember this when we are pushing our students to “get this work turned in so you can pass and graduate”.  That’s probably not the leverage they are looking for.

So back to growing their perspective of the world, they need to see “what else is out there.” They need to see that other people live differently, and what opportunities are out there for them to grasp.  They need to hear the opinions and perspectives of their fellow classmates, and as importantly, have their voice heard to know that they are important and add value. They need to be exposed to music and art, and on a slightly bigger scale, this is where having free clubs available to them where they can explore the different ways to use their education and be a part of something positive is so crucial.

Here are some ideas for growing their perspective:

  1. Show videos and read texts of people who rose above poverty to acheive their goals
  2. Show cultures in other countries
  3. Have students have conversations about things that are important to them.  One power frame to use for this is “If you really knew me, one thing you would know is _____”
  4. Talk A LOT about goals and dreams and discuss tangible ways to meet them (even if they are small)
  5. Teach problem solving, and other ways to look at situations
  6. Connect students with other young people who have met goals (these don’t have to be famous people – just people who have completed college or a trade school maybe and are working for a living)

Either way, the first step is to recognize that these students living in generational poverty DO NOT have the same perspective or experiences as we do, and we can’t expect to act or learn as if they do.

Love them well.  Broaden their perspective.

See you next week to take a deeper dive with these precious children! In the meantime, order Building a Bridge from “I Can’t” to “I DID!” or connect with us!

Pressing Onward


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