Know Your Place

July 17, 2008

I’m working on a collection of narratives written by education faculty from poor and working class backgrounds.    As I read these,  it’s impossible to miss the profound sense of place in many of the essays.

For the most part, we are not people who moved around a lot (from home to home, perhaps, but not from place to place), so in ways that may be unusual in these highly mobile times, most of us have grounded our experiences of class and education in particular geographies.

I was fascinated, then, to read of this Australian project in which literacy and architecture people in a university are working with poor and working class kids to “know their place” and to act within the spaces in which they live as they develop critical literacy skills.

As the authors of the book I’m editing and the authors of this project so vividly observe, critical pedagogies tied to  locality could be potent for poor and working class kids who may be uniquely immersed within particular social and physical spaces.

Thanks to the literacies log blog for the link to the project.

The Ruby Payne discussion continues today with this comprehensive post from Dan Butin on the Education Policy Blog, one of the few bloggers over the past few days that actually critiques Payne. Steve grapples with how poverty might be eliminated, but misreads those who acknowledge structural dimensions of poverty as believing that the poor themselves can’t change without being “lifted up” by the “power elite” (which is sort of like saying that anyone who believes that women still face sexism also believes that women won’t get anywhere until men “lift them up”).

I also read this article yesterday, in which a number of educators critique Payne’s work in their districts.

This article mentioned that one district spent more than $320,000 dollars on Payne training. Reading this reminded me of the unfortunate comments on the blogs that I read yesterday that suggested that the only real choices available to teachers of poor children are to embrace Payne’s “theories” or to become mired in the critique of overly-intellectual, self-interested, out-of-touch academics.

That got me thinking of just a few of the many other ways that this district might have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. And had they done any of these things, they could have been pretty confident that they were drawing upon carefully-researched, effective practices (most of them developed in collaboration with academics). I’m including here only links that are readily available on the web (I’m not one to take copyright lightly). There are many more resources on any of these practices in journals, in library catalogs, and via ERIC, just as there are many other effective practices with poor kids beyond this short list.

  • Home visits, so that teachers can form relationships with parents and kids directly, without Payne positioning herself as the cultural broker between them.
  • Smaller classes so that teachers can get to know kids better without relying on Payne to explain what they’re really like.
  • Supporting teachers in developing deep, inquiry-based curriculum, as Deborah Meier did at Central Park East.
  • Support innovative and creative uses of technology in schools for poor kid so that you’d see more of the literacy learning that is evident in Sara Kajder’s classrooms.
  • Educate poor kids in partnership with their parents, not as adversaries of families, as Comer schools are designed to do.
  • Invest deeply in the arts for low-income kids, as Shirley Brice Heath recommends, because in the arts, kids learn “motivation, persistence, critical analysis, and planning”, and the sense that they have a point of view that matters.
  • Have a full-time person coordinating community partnerships, as BF Day School did in Seattle, because having such a person brought multiple new resources to the homeless kids attending the school, the teachers, and the families.
  • Ensure that low-income kids are being educated within new media, as are the kids in the City Voices, City Visions program, who are learning a tremendous amount about history and literature and literacy along the way.

Those are just a few of the things that schools looking to better serve low-income students might do.

And what do all of these programs have in common? They bring the best of what we know about teaching, learning, and schooling to low-income kids.

And they do these things without first teaching teachers that people are poor because poor families engage in bizarre and destructive child-rearing practices (even if the workshop leaders do insist that they’re not stereotyping when they speak of the drugs, the alcohol, the beatings, the inability to plan or to engage in such basic cognitive skills as predicting cause and effect).

I’m working on a paper about a course that I teach, Education and the American Dream, in which the students — many of them the first in their family to attend college — examine the processes of upward mobility via success in school.

My writing has taken me back to an article I’d read by Julie Lindquist a few years ago. Lindquist’s piece is one of a number I’ve found in Composition Studies that speak theoretically about pedagogies for working-class students in college.

The field of education is rich with critical critical studies of schooling, and in teacher education, we may devote entire courses to critical analysis of inequities of “race, class, and gender” within the institution of school and the broader society, in the hope that teachers will embrace the work of social justice and school change.

There is a long tradition of grumbling among the faculty who teach these courses about the students who resist this teaching. These students who refuse to simply accept the premise of systemic inequalities, who insist that hard work can bring success, who downplay the relative oppression of others are, it seems, often “those kids” from working-class backgrounds.

But Lindquist questions the pedagogical work that is common in such courses. She writes:

We understand class as a problem of distribution of resources, but we experience it as an emotional process.

And it’s this point — of the deeply emotional work of becoming educated against the odds– that I think we often miss when teaching the many first-generation students in our courses. I think that it can be entirely too easy for middle-class faculty to project their own college experiences of intellectual exploration and social growth into these students, who have burned bridges behind them, who are living at the edges of economic precariousness, who still doubt, deep inside, that they’re going to be good enough in the end

Once in our courses, Lindquist reminds us “much is at stake” for working-class kids asked to accept — intellectually — that the odds are still stacked against them, no matter how hard they’ve worked. Much is at stake in crossing that line of coming to accept academic views of the world as more valid that one’s own experiences.

Much is at stake in crossing over to the middle class.

And the process is deeply emotional.

It seems sometimes as if we just look past the students in our own college classrooms as we admonish them to create their own classrooms in which children can investigate the central questions of their own lives.

Where, in teacher ed, are first-generation students invited to explore the complex and often deeply-emotional processes of social mobility that has been at the core of their own education?

That’s what I’m trying to write about in this paper.

 

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Lindquist, Julie. (2004). Class affects, classroom affectations: Working through the paradoxes of strategic empathy. College English, 67, 187-209.

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