Leveling the Economic Playing Field

When I was a student, many of my classmates and I didn’t have empathy for people experiencing poverty. Nothing I learned in school ever helped me to build that empathy. I had to acquire it in adulthood, and I find that I still need to check myself from time to time. But what does being empathic to students experiencing poverty actually look like? How can educators respond to—and mitigate—the divides created by inequity, such as wealth disparity? Below you will find a list of policies that my after-school program uses to address this challenge.

Backpacks. All youth, regardless of need, are supplied with a backpack at the beginning of the school year, filled with school supplies. This policy helps to ensure that all participating youth are prepared to start the school year and that they will be on equal footing with their classmates, rather than some being seen as "charity cases." My organization is also equipped to help those who cannot afford school supplies stay well stocked throughout the year.

Pocket Money. Students are not allowed to bring pocket money on the field trips. Of course, they still do at times. “Miss,” they’ll whisper, “I’ve got money. Can I play games at the arcade?” or “Miss, can I buy myself and my friends some pop? I’ve got my own money.” They flash me a glimpse of their money, tucked in their purse or already palmed, and I’m supposed to shake my head and say, “No, not today.”

With few exceptions, that is how I end up responding, coupled with a reminder that not everyone brought money and that it would be unfair. Depending on the youth’s age and my relationship with them, I might gently remind them about our program’s policy and why it exists. The older youth are receptive and respond along the lines of, “I don’t want anyone to feel bad” or a soft-spoken, “I get it.” If their families aren’t experiencing poverty, they have friends who are—or they see it in their own extended families.

Snacks. During the summer months, youth who participate in the program are served two snacks each day—one first thing in the morning and another just before they go home. During the school year, there is one snack. The youth are not allowed to bring additional snacks, except on special—and infrequent—occasions, such as days when there will be a lot of physical activity. What all of this means is that youth who are experiencing food insecurity feel very little—or at least reduced—pressure to fit in by having the popular (or any) snacks.

Toys & Devices. Youth are not allowed to bring toys or electronic devices to our program. The intention here is twofold—to mitigate the appearance of "haves" and "have nots” and to minimize unwanted distractions.

Although these policies do not remove all signifiers of students’ socioeconomic status or their families’ discretionary incomes, they have several advantages:

  • Reduce the risk that youth feel left out or experience bullying.
  • Allow for teachable moments about empathy and inequity/equity when students question the policies or go against them.
  • Create an environment where youth are free to explore their interests without the immediate influence of money.
  • Lessen the possibility that staff will unconsciously discriminate against youth based on real or perceived economic standing.

I wish policies such as ”no pocket money” on fieldtrips and “backpacks for all” had been in place during my own childhood, which is perhaps why I’m okay with enforcing them now. I remember going on field trips—sometimes having money, sometimes not—and always being aware of the kids who brought enough money to buy souvenirs or extra food. I also recall the kids who were teased on field trips, the playground or the school bus for being poor. One girl, in particular, typically busied herself talking with the teacher or chaperone while other kids circled through the gift store selecting their prized purchases. I never stuck up for her when she was ridiculed or excluded for being poor. These memories have stuck with me. My intention now is to create an equitable and inclusive environment for my students—and to shape what memories stick with them.

What polices and practices do you use to level the economic playing field for your students?

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.


Students Are Watching Ferguson

The world is watching Ferguson, Missouri. Tuning into daily reports of unrest. Weighing in on (or avoiding) conversations about the role of race in Michael Brown’s death. Speculating about who’s to blame. Worrying about what will happen next.

But we’re not hearing much about what it’s like to be a kid in Ferguson, a kid who was supposed to start school two weeks ago, but couldn’t because of the volatile atmosphere, broken glass and tear gas canisters that would impede his walk to school. (School buses do not run in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.)

Educators in Ferguson, however, didn’t forget about the children who should have been starting school. Some teachers held classes at public libraries, and a handful of school cafeterias opened so they could provide lunch to low-income students. Many educators also stepped up and used those “days off” to clean up the debris and restore Ferguson to what it was before the rioting—for their students and for the community as a whole.

Students stepped up, too. They joined clean-up efforts and continued to peacefully protest because they understand the historical significance of this moment. As 12-year-old Leslie Adams told NPR, “At first I was absolutely, absolutely scared … [b]ut then, since I was watching the news, I understood that it was history that was going on.”

Teachers around the United States also understand the historical implications of this moment and know it would be a mistake to assume the events in Ferguson haven’t had an impact on their students. That’s why a number of educators, collectives and educational organizations are sharing resources for addressing Michael Brown and Ferguson in the classroom. For those educators who are nervous about facilitating what certainly will be uncomfortable, difficult conversations, NPR offers some guidance, including a syllabus that teachers created and shared in the wake of Jordan Davis’ murder and perspectives from teachers who have already made lesson plans addressing Ferguson.

Here is a small sample of the growing list of resources available to educators who want to help their students understand what happened in Ferguson, contextualize its place in our nation’s history and empower young people to work for a more just, peaceful world:

Unfortunately, Ferguson has also inspired some missteps that are harmful to students, like the incident in Selma, Alabama, where a teacher had her sixth-graders reenact the shooting deaths of Brown and Trayvon Martin. But perhaps the most harmful approach of all is simply ignoring Ferguson altogether, which is what Edwardsville, Illinois, teachers have been directed to do.

At a time like this, educators can’t afford not to discuss Ferguson in the classroom, but it must be done in safe, supportive ways. Our students are watching along with the rest of the world, and they need us to be real with them about what they’re seeing. At the heart of it all is the goal of education: to prepare students to engage in the world and to equip them with the skills they need to make it better for everyone.

Bell is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

New Teachers Going “Back” to School

It’s back-to-school season! Schools across the country are welcoming new and returning students, educators are making lesson plans and setting up their classrooms, and students are navigating new buildings, classrooms and peer groups.

For first-year teachers, this back-to-school season marks an important career milestone. Earlier in the summer, Teaching Tolerance posed this question on Facebook: “What positive advice would you offer first-year teachers?” We received wonderful responses on topics ranging from how to manage a classroom to simple practices for surviving the workday. Your advice was heartfelt and reflected several important themes:  

Focus on your students

You could very well be the most important influence in a child's life. This is an awesome responsibility. Love them. Learn from them. Enjoy them.

From an old to a new.....focus on the students and NOT the administrative chaos that is is constant. The reason is, you cannot effect the chaos but you can definitely effect the students and that is why you teach.

Treat your homeroom like a community. Let the kids know that you care.

See your students for who they are

Just remember that each child is an individual, and they will all have their own needs for you to discover and support, strengths for you to identify and foster, and learning styles for you to use to help them embrace learning.

Remember that all kids make mistakes and try (try even harder with some kids) to separate the mistake from the personality/ability of the kid. For many kids, you may be the only one encouraging them to be their best selves!

[T]each each child. They aren't interchangeable, and neither are their minds.

Find support

Find the positive teachers because they can help you through tough days. 

Be open to the wise words from seasoned teachers (not necessarily the ones your admin points you too). Listen with your ears, eyes and heart.

Find a good mentor! But don't necessarily pick the first person who seems to want to be a mentor. Keep your eyes big and your mouth small for a while as you determine which teachers are truly good at what they do and teach for the right reasons. Pick someone that cares about helping you become the best teacher you can be.

Be kind—to others and to yourself

Cut yourself some slack—it takes time to find your groove; you'll learn a lot about what works for you and your students over time.

Golden rule, treat ALL (teachers and students) the way you would love to be treated regardless of gender, race, religion, wealth or lack of each and every day! Tall order, but it is worth it to be successful.

[Don’t] expect to get it all the first year—or second for that matter—and [that’s] ok

Relax and carve out downtime

You will be overwhelmed and you will work harder than you ever thought possible but don't forget to take time for yourself (exercise, meditate, occasional happy hour, whatever makes you happy and relieves some stress).

Take time for yourself. Do something you love (at least once a week) during your "off" times that has nothing to do with your job.

Take time to reflect and keep a journal.

Remember the simple things

1. Don't pass up an opportunity to use the rest room. 2. Wear comfy shoes.

Laugh. Always remember to laugh everyday.

If you return home exhausted and drained, [y]ou are probably doing a good job.

Teaching Tolerance wishes all educators—and especially new teachers stepping into their very first classrooms—a productive and enriching school year. Remember, the TT community is here for you—and our resources area always FREE. Consider signing up for our free weekly newsletters, following us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and subscribing to Teaching Tolerance magazine. These resources connect you with social justice educators across the country and to support, ideas and resources that can inspire, inform and guide you through the challenges ahead. For more ideas on how you can become involved in our community, check out these suggestions.

Get Ready for Mix It Up 2014!

Have you registered for this year’s national Mix It Up at Lunch Day? When you do, you’ll become part of a 13-year tradition of improving intergroup relations and reducing prejudice in schools across the country.

Mix It Up starts with a simple idea: Sit with someone new at lunch. It sounds small, but Mix schools see results! Based on feedback from past participants, we know that Mix It Up really does help students cross social divisions. The event heightens students’ empathy towards one another and supports a welcoming learning environment.

You—and educators like you—can help create these welcoming environments. What happens in a single lunch period can have tremendous benefits to your students.

Oct. 28 is the date, and it will be here before you know it. Let’s start building momentum. Stay connected to the Mix It Up community through weekly emails, Mix It Up blog posts, Facebook, Twitter and online resources. With the support of the Mix community, your school can plan and carry out a great campaign.

Want to jump in right away? Before you do anything else, be sure to register! Then, visit our Mix It Up FAQ page, or see how our Model Schools have been making their Mix events successful for years. 

Be sure to check the TT blog weekly for planning tips and suggestions for getting the whole school involved. Let’s make this the best Mix year yet!

Three Years Old, Black and Suspended

In the classroom, teachable moments are those unplanned occasions during which learning occurs, when lessons are sparked by real-life interactions that could never be predicted.

The epidemic of suspensions imposed on black preschoolers presents just such a teachable moment for teachers and school administrators.

The tally on preschool suspensions is startling and distressing. Black children make up 18 percent of the nation’s preschoolers, but they represent nearly half of the children in that age group who are suspended more than once. Even a preschooler can see those numbers don’t add up.

It’s widely known that black students across all grade levels are suspended (and expelled) three times as often as their white peers. What’s less understood is that the practice of defaulting to zero-tolerance “get-tough” suspensions and expulsions is trickling down from middle and high schools into preschools.

Researchers and activists have cautioned educators and criticized these policies, yet the practice continues with disturbing results—like 4-year-olds put out of school for temper tantrums.

“The first step is awareness, and that’s a huge step at the preschool level,” says Tunette Powell, whose 3-year-old has been suspended five times this year. The research is powerful. A city council member in the District of Columbia, calling preschool suspensions “ridiculous,” introduced a bill to curtail the practice after a report drew awareness to the fact that district schools suspended preschoolers 181 times during the 2012-13 school year.

More superintendents are also raising the alarm about this issue. The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund teamed up to study district-wide school discipline policies, and determined that nine out of 10 superintendents “believe there are negative consequences to the use of OSS [out-of-school suspension] in their districts.”

While tackling excessive suspensions from a policy standpoint is essential, so is shaping teacher practice and providing professional development, something Powell sees as lacking.

“We see all of these studies, but the people we don’t see using all of these studies are teachers in the classroom,” she points out. “None of the preschool teachers at my son’s school have seen the research.”

Powell contrasts the national push for early childhood education and the coming influx of new preschool teachers with the lack of cultural competence training at the preschool level. “We all carry these implicit biases,” she says. "What’s missing is the opportunity to learn and grow and do better for kids. When we’re sending kids home at this age, 3- and 4-year-olds, it’s saying we can’t do anything with you. You’re already rejecting them at this early age.”

Helping teachers get in touch with their biases is crucial to changing the nature of student interactions. Denver Public Schools made an intentional decision to design training and curricula to guide teachers to continually address their biases, implicit and explicit. The comprehensive program urges teachers to ask themselves key questions that get at the core of engaging with students of all races and ethnicities at any age, such as:

  • Do I call on you?
  • How do I view your skills and abilities?
  • Am I connected to you?
  • How do I advocate for you?

Preschool suspensions are prevalent and racial disparities exist, but the numbers don’t explain why. For that, educators have to look more closely at themselves—a hard look at their own biases, beliefs, values and preferences.

“If you can see what you’re doing wrong, then it becomes knowledge,” says Powell. “I’m not here to badmouth. It’s a system we created. We’re all products of it. So how can we change it?”

Anderson is an education writer and activist for educational equity. Follow her on Twitter @mdawriter.

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