The Southern Educational Foundation reported last week that over half of all public school students in the region are now living in low income households. Commenting on the report, John Norton, of the Teacher Leadership Network, writes that in the South, “the most important ‘export’ has become factory jobs in textiles, furniture and other manufacturing”.

I’m challenged by how to teach my students about the complexities of making one’s living in this new economy. I struggle to find relevant readings and media to represent the scope of economic change in the past generation.

Just last week, I was talking with a colleague about my frustration with the reading materials available for our courses. Many of our students come from families that have been set economically adrift in a single generation. The parents of many of our students worked in manufacturing, in natural resources, in small businesses that couldn’t compete with the now ubiquitous Big Box stores. Many will teach in semi-rural and small town school districts in which privileged children living in new developments built on failed farmland will ( at least until rising property values drive out even moderate income families) attend school alongside the children of the milk truck drivers and convenience store clerks who haven’t seen black ink in the ledger book for the past 5 years and are weeks away from bankruptcy.

And in the rural South, children of parents who were laid off from the mill after decades of back-breaking work attend school with the children of the immigrants working in the poultry plants and in decaying orchards. There is virtually no chance that new family-wage jobs will be available to these kids if they do graduate from high school. The more privileged kids are in private schools down the street.

Yet the readings with which I might teach about critical perspectives on schooling are almost all focused on urban schools.

There are, of course, common challenges in teaching kids without health care or hope, regardless of where they live.

But too few texts in education represent the many faces of childhood poverty. Too few explain that many of the children living on farms, in decaying small towns, in the inner ring suburbs in our classrooms will be simply puzzled by teachers’ promises that doing well in school will shield them from the fate of their parents. Too few texts represent the lives of children who live just beyond the reach of the travel budgets of research grants, whose parents and grandparents thought that they were playing by the rules but now can no longer feed their families.

How do we prepare teachers for work in small towns, in rural areas, in the small cities built around “the mills”, in places in which the residents themselves are still trying to understand what happened to their dreams, where schools may well seem to simply be part of “the system” that betrayed them beyond measure? How do we trouble teachers’ understandings of the place of schooling in these new economic times?

I’ve written before about my intersecting interests in social class and emerging technologies. David Warlick writes poignantly about these intersections in his recent post from rural America, where many students have no, or very limited access to the internet, simply because there is little profit to be made for telecommunications companies in sparsely populated, economically depressed regions.

He writes:

Pressure should be applied to the telecommunications industry to do what they promised they would do in the ’90s, in return for enormous tax breaks — connect America to the high speed information grid, not just the parts of America that are thick enough, financially, to be in the Telco’s interest to connect.

There are many ways in which poor and working class children in this country are routinely and systematically “left behind”, and the expectation that they should be made to wait until a profit can be made from their access to the internet is unconscionable. At precisely the time that more privileged children are using the web to transcend geographic boundaries to learn, to collaborate, and to question, the pressures of NCLB have left too many schools for poor and working class children simply tweaking teaching and testing within the confines of classroom walls.

It certainly makes for easy sound bites to simply blame teachers for disturbing and persistent achievement gaps than to ensure that all children have access to the communication tools that children in many communities now simply take for granted.

And thus, it certainly seems to be time for more people the ed tech community to press the issues that Warlick raises in his post. We need obstinate voices to remind us — often — that until all children have access to the dazzling array of tools on the web, our work to push the boundaries of digital teaching and learning may only exacerbate gaps between the children of the haves and the children of the have-nots.

Warlick writes:

The shame of it is that this should not be happening. The natural resource that defines success in a flattening world is human intellect. And there is certainly no shortage of talent here in northeastern Wisconsin. There is simply a shameful lack of access to them, and they have a shameful lack of access to their world.

Shameful, indeed.

What is the responsibility of the ed tech community to ensure that our work isn’t just serving the children who already enjoy so many other economic and educational advantages?

Rural Poverty, Rural Schools

September 19, 2007

I began my teaching career in the Appalachian mountains of rural Kentucky, and I’ve been dismayed by how rarely anyone talks about social class in rural schools. It seems that rural schools are simply off of the radar of many educational researchers, journalists, and policy makers who can (and do) access any number of schools without, perhaps, ever getting into their cars.

I was thus gratified to see this post from Renee Moore on the deep and pervasive poverty in many rural schools. Hundreds of thousands of kids live in economically devastated rural communities. Teachers like Ms. Moore serve their students well by tenaciously reminding us of that.

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