Income inequality in the United States has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age. While most public school teachers come from a middle-class background, the same is not true for their students. This school year, more than half of students in U.S. public schools come from families with low incomes. I reached out to University of Georgia Professor Stephanie Jones to ask her about strategies teachers can use to build awareness of the many ways socioeconomic status impacts students and to develop what she calls “class-sensitive pedagogy.” Jones has published widely on the importance of class-sensitive pedagogy and has trained thousands of teachers to reflect on the impact of classism in schools.
You've written a lot about the impact of social class in schools. Can you tell me a little bit about why you became interested in this field?
Because I grew up in a working-poor family, I have been thinking about these issues my whole life. I lived in a trailer park that was like an amazing childhood paradise for me. When I started to see how outsiders perceived trailer parks, it surprised me. As I started my teaching career, I became interested in how social class, class discrimination and class privilege manifested in schools. Now, as a researcher, I look into theories of social class and the history of class in our country and across the globe.
What are some of the most common assumptions we make about social class in this country?
One is that the “rags to riches” fairy tale is possible for anyone who's willing to work hard. We know that upward mobility is just not happening right now for the majority of people. In fact, a lot of people are experiencing downward mobility. Also, we assume that upward mobility is always a positive experience. Many who have moved across class boundaries deal with mixed emotions and complicated experiences in their upward mobility. One example is a deep sense of guilt about being the only one in a family to have more economic security. Some feel isolated living in a world where class privilege is assumed.
It is also common to assume that people who have more money are smarter than people who have less money, or that people who work with their hands or their bodies are less intelligent than people who work sitting at a desk or a cleaner environment. Another assumption is that charity is a way to alleviate and end poverty. That's the backend way of trying to fix a symptom of a major systemic problem. You really have to look at the front end of what creates class inequality and poverty at the beginning.
What are some of the major ways that class manifests in schools?
Attendance zones are critical, as they determine who is in which schools to begin with, and we have a lot of social-class segregation as a result. Then there’s the fact that public schools aren’t free. Whether it’s a $50-$200 supply list at the beginning of the year, field trip payments or fundraisers that are used as competitions, there is always payment for full participation in schools. Competitions often reproduce the unequal social networks that kids [experience] outside of school. Who's winning the pizza parties or the bikes at the end of the fundraising project? Usually these are not kids who live in places where people are just managing to keep their lights on.
Even food drives are problematic. I was visiting a child's grandmother in her kitchen where she was cooking, and I just happened to see a really big bag of rice and beans on the floor. The grandmother noticed me looking and said: “I picked up extra food at the food pantry because Kylie is having a food drive competition at her school and she really wants her class to win the pizza party." The food drive is supposed to be supporting people who have food insecurity, but the emphasis becomes a competition and prize rather than curricular investigations into who experiences food insecurity and why.
You've talked about the need for a "class-sensitive pedagogy." Would you describe what that might look like?
We educators have to begin with reflections about how and when social class—as well as race, gender, sexuality and dis/ability—has impacted our lives. When we think about broader systems and practices and the personal effects they have on us and others, we can start seeing, hearing and responding to the ways that class and classism play a role in schools. A child may say, for example, "I want to be a waitress when I grow up.” In education, it’s so ingrained in educators to push kids [toward] upward mobility and to not promote work with hands or bodies. If we’ve thought about class, we might realize that we have to have waitresses. Therefore, the response “You can do better” doesn’t make sense, but talking about this kind of work and its importance does. Then we can address the social context, the low wages that most waitresses make, and encourage students to think about why someone who is so important to society is paid below minimum wage. And, crucially, what do we do about that?
What advice would you give to educators who want to work on their own class-sensitivity? And how might a single teacher change her classroom practice?
First, teachers and administrators should take a serious look at how students are assigned to different groups. We may think assignments are based on “ability,” but we need to step back and ask ourselves if groups also align with social-class hierarchies. If they do, groupings need to change. The danger is that the kids with the most resources get the most resources, and the kids with the least resources then get the least opportunity. Tracking is a social experiment. We think it’s about academics, but grouping risks reproducing social groups based on class.
We also need to think about the texts we use and the people we bring in to speak. If you read a lot of children's literature, you might think that everyone lives in a 2,000-square-foot home with a mom and dad and a white picket fence. We have to learn to ask the right questions: “Where are the workers who made this life possible? What kind of work are they doing?”
Another very specific idea has to do with the way we teach about slavery. If we think of the history of the United States as a pursuit of cheap and free labor, it is easier to understand the enslavement of Africans as one part of a troubling narrative. Teachers can think about class in everything they teach. We can step back and ask, "How is social class or economics involved in this particular theme or this particular unit?" Then we create space for inquiry and conversation.
Do you want to learn more about the topics raised in this Q&A? Jones recommends these resources:
Class Lives: Stories From Across the Economic Divide edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider and Felice Yeskel (Cornell University Press).
Girls, Social Class and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference by Stephanie Jones (Heinemann).
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski (Teachers College Press).
Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks (Routledge).
Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms.
American Indians in Children's Literature: "In a comment to his post about weeding books, Roger Sutton said that Horn Book just received the 25th anniversary edition of Amazing Grace and that the page on which Grace is shown playing Indian is gone (she's pretending to be Longfellow's Hiawatha)."
Boston Globe: "I had been taught you don’t see race. You don’t talk about race. You just ignore it. Then you’re a teacher and you have all of these kids of different backgrounds, and it doesn’t make sense."
neaToday: "'It’s clear to me that books that fall outside the white, straight, abled mainstream are challenged more often than books that do not destabilize the status quo,' wrote Lo on the Diversity in YA website. 'The message this sends is loud and clear: diversity is actually under attack. Minority perspectives are being silenced every year.'"
neaToday: “This agreement signals a new era in bargaining in public education. We’ve negotiated a pro-student, pro-parent, pro-educator agreement. We really appreciate the strong support from parents and students.”
Noodle: "Homophobia is rampant in our nation's schools today, despite the widespread adoption of anti-bullying and harassment policies that have been implemented in most districts.”
Oregon Live: "For years, Soell had lived a double life. At home in Southeast Portland, friends knew Soell was transgender and used the gender-neutral pronoun 'they.' At work in Gresham, coworkers called the 26-year-old 'she.' But after treatment, Soell was ready to be known as 'Leo' and 'they' at school, too."
The New York Times Magazine: "[W]hat cannot be disputed is how profoundly we exist in one another’s imaginations. And what conversations about appropriation make clear is that our imaginations are unruly kingdoms governed by fears and fantasies. They are never neutral."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Last Friday, we posted an article on our Facebook page about the Hastings Area School District in Hastings, Michigan, where the superintendent recently received a petition from students with more than 300 signatures asking that they be allowed to display the Confederate flag on school grounds. The petition arrived a week after the superintendent asked high schoolers in the district not to display the flag on their vehicles, hats or clothing during the school day.
What happened in Hastings is interesting for a number of reasons. On one hand, you have a superintendent who has made a laudable move by requesting that students not display a symbol many Americans find hateful. On the other hand, you have student activists pushing for what they believe is their right to freedom of expression.
Curious how the TT audience would handle such a student response, we posted the article with a question: “What advice would you give to the leaders at this school?”
We received nearly 250 comments advising the Hastings Area School District leadership. While not all commenters agreed on how to handle the situation, the consensus from the thread was that the petition offers a teachable moment.
Some commenters suggested ideas that would allow students to learn how harmful displays like the Confederate flag can be.
Take time to do a school wide assembly and teach some factual history about what this flag represents.
Two thoughts... Sometimes teachers have to teach students that the rules at school are not the same as the rules at home, or grandma's, or work. We wouldn't play football using baseball rules, so we need to consider whether displaying the Confederate flag is being used as a tool of education, a toy to distract or entertain, or as a weapon to do harm in some way... proceed from there. If it disrupts the school, then respect the rules of the school. Second thought... use it as a teaching tool via the English/Social Studies collaboration to hold a Lincoln-Douglas debate to ‘discuss’ the issues/history relative to displaying the Confederate flag. Sometimes, if people/students just want to feel like they are being heard. I believe this school is doing a good job of letting students present their side, and still standing behind their policy. Holding a debate gives both sides a forum to educate the other side, without necessarily needing to change the policy. Education to inform... not necessarily persuade.
Another commenter thought a moment such as this is best handled in small groups.
These kids are old enough to know the facts. They're old enough to see the evidence themselves. Just to come down hard on kids misses the moment when you might reach a few (and maybe even their parents). But I don't think you do it at a school-wide assembly. This kind of difficult conversation is held best in small groups, with each teacher having the same curriculum and the same level of knowledge. It takes planning and training. It also takes choosing the right teachers.
—Elizabeth A. Hutchinson
Other commenters thought teaching accurate accounts of slavery and the Civil War was the way to go.
I would ask them to teach the truth about the flag... Slavery... the Civil War... lynching... and....the KKK…
After a lesson about the flag (including the Civil Rights movement years) suggest that it might be OK if the flag is displayed as a museum piece. It's time to retire that flag to the past.
You may not, even if you are in the majority, take the rights of the minority away; when it comes to this flag, it is an historical symbol of slavery and is reinforcing the idea that black lives don't matter. You cannot display a Nazi symbol just because you have 300 signatures and only 3 Jews go to the school. Get over it.
One commenter thought the district has handled the situation well.
I think the school is handling it with dignity. They are turning it into a conversation. They are opening the discussion about why the flag is inappropriate at school. The messages it sends to some people. This is how they will she [sic] a change. Holding open forums and beginning to educate and talk about race and race issues.
Challenging the presence of Confederate flags on school grounds—as well as monuments, mascots and school names honoring Confederate leaders—remains a hot-button issue deserving of thoughtful discussion. The situation in Hastings shows that this is not only a southern issue but also remains relevant to schools across the country.
Have you faced this issue in your school or community? What did you do? What advice would you give to leaders at this school?
To learn more about how to call for the removal of Confederate symbols on public property, visit the Erasing Hate campaign page on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.
Williams is the new media associate for Teaching Tolerance.
The TT webinar lineup—featuring our teaching and learning specialists—continues this month! Register today for our October webinars:
Tuesday, October 6, 4:30 pm CDT
Responding to Hate and Bias at School
Just as schools have plans in place to respond to fires or natural disasters, they must also be prepared to respond to incidents of hate and bias. During this webinar, you will reflect on your school's climate, identify your school’s existing policies and procedures for responding to incidents of hate and bias, and learn how to draft an action plan.
Tuesday, October 13, 4:30 pm CDT
Code of Conduct: A Guide to Responsive Discipline
"How does my conduct affect the school-to-prison pipeline?" This webinar invites teachers, counselors, building and district leaders, and school resource officers to consider this question. Regardless of your role, you'll learn responsive discipline practices that can keep more students in school.
Last month's Speak Up at School and Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students webinars generated great conversations. If you couldn’t join us for the live webinars, you can still register and watch the on-demand versions at your convenience.
Be sure to mark these upcoming webinars on your calendar and stay tuned for details!
Tuesday, November 3—Perspectives for a Diverse America
Tuesday, November 17—Beyond the Bus: Teaching the Unseen Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Your school is doing something great by participating in Mix It Up at Lunch Day! Let your community know about it. Getting the word out is easy, and we’re happy to help.
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Those are the basics. Now, how about thinking outside the box?
A YouTube video. A Vine. A class project. Let your creative juices flow—and let your students take the reins!
Mix It Up at Lunch Day is October 27!
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