Sunday, March 8, 2015

Teaching With Poverty in Mind - Chapter 5

Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen

What sparked your interest or challenged your thinking within the readings and/or class discussions?

Several things come to my mind as I write this today. One thing that is clear to me is that all people, youth included, desire mutual respect and positive regard. If students feel valued and cared about by the adults teaching them, they are more likely to care about what the adult is teaching.  But here’s the bottom line, we can’t just tell them we care about them, we must show them we care about them. Unfortunately, many of the students we are concerned about falling through the cracks are those who have been lied to over and over again so they are less likely to believe the words “we care about you”.

I feel fortunate that I taught previously in a low income school district. I learned much from that experience, from the students and from the community. Though extremely frustrating at times, there were many rewards as well. It took a couple of weeks my first year before I gained the trust of the two main powerhouses in my 6th grade classroom, but once I confirmed in their minds that I was honest and trustworthy because I said what I was going to do and I did what I said my classroom environment changed drastically.  I’ll never forget the second day when one of those girls said to me, “Mrs. Sjol, you’re a Christian aren’t you?” to which I replied, “Yes, I am”.  I learned early on that those kids had been lied to more times than you could imagine and that they had previously seen some inappropriate adult responses to the antics that they attempted, even from the adults in the school.  They had been able to get THREE teachers the year before I arrived to quit or get fired and they were on a mission to do the same thing with me.  I told them often that I was going to hang in there and that they couldn’t do anything to make me give up on what I knew that they were capable of. My expectations were high and I made positive phone calls home and established a rapport with their parents so that when/if I needed to call home for any other reason, the parents knew that I was not the white teacher who was judging them or their family but instead wanted what was best for them. It didn’t take long and within a year there were parents requesting me to be their child’s teacher.  I truly believed that building that positive rapport with the parents was key and this enabled them to be more comfortable in the school setting themselves since many had negative feelings toward school due to their own personal experiences.

I think it’s great that we model and encourage healthy activities in our high school building. The music concerts, the plays, the art club, the speech club, open gym, family game night, and all of the sports activities and more all contribute to model those healthy activities that families are far better off being involved in. Encouraging every young person to be involved in these activities and helping provide scholarships for the uniform, clothing or the equipment would be another thing we could do. It’s great that we already have families who help provide for some but we sure know that there are more; there are students who would be involved in extra-curricular activities but are not due to the expense that is involved. The question is, how would we go about promoting this or even qualifying students in a respectful way that would maintain their dignity.

Julie Sjol


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Teaching with Poverty in Mind - Ch. 4

Teaching with Poverty in Mind

The recommendations Eric Jensen has spelled out for schools and communities to address children’s physical, social and emotional well-being are definitely positive actions that our Rugby community and school can accomplish. Of course, this is not going to happen overnight but I believe we are on the right track and have the ability to achieve our goals. We have already executed many of the suggestions and have formed a committee of caring and responsible stakeholders who will want to make this happen.

In reflecting on the first factor of “support of the whole child” I feel that we do fall short due to being in a rural community with minimal psychologist and counseling resources. This is difficult when there may be just one school counselor, for example, who has multiple responsibilities and who, by law, is required to refer students who need extensive counseling to outside resources.  We do however, provide children access to before and after school tutoring, and our RTI process has been an amazing process that has ‘caught’ a lot of students who might otherwise fail classes. The caring and willingness of staff at RHS to attempt new teaching techniques and to develop professionally is truly impressive. Without their enthusiasm and willing hearts, there would be many students who would be ‘falling through the cracks’.  I appreciate that our district has now started a PTA and that we are offering a few FACS classes that teach important topics and skills to students, but at this time we do not offer parenting skills, nutrition, and “how to help my child study” classes (for example) for parents, which I feel would be beneficial.

In reflecting on the second factor of “hard data”, I feel that we as a district do collect plenty of data but that due to time constraints and our failure or inadequacy of interpreting that data, we fall short in this area.  I am excited to be a part of the Strategic Planning Committee and that interpreting data training has been suggested. It is extremely impressive what the Student Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) data collection system can report. Once all staff is trained in using data, I am optimistic that they too will see the benefits of using it to improve student engagement, individual student learning and instructional strategies.

The factor of “accountability” makes an individual really think. I like that staff opinion has been valued and that there are various committees that involve many staff. This is much more efficient and creates more personal buy in from all staff than having the changes come from the top down. The morale is much better and the responsibility is not on any one person; it’s a group effort and instead of placing the blame on others or on parents, we realize we can reach students with a conscientious and collaborate effort and can celebrate the successes together.  I believe that we are truly on the way to making even more positive changes in our district because I can see that we already have.

“Relationship building” is a vitally important factor as well.  While classroom teaching for nine years in another district north of here, I experienced that having a positive relationship with the students and their parents was insurmountable in achieving trust and compliance from students and their parents. It was astounding to me how much the students appreciated my high expectations of their behavior and their academics and how many parents requested me to be their child’s teacher.  I am ecstatic that the mentor/mentee groups have been formed here at RHS and that we are attempting to build better relationships with students.  Having a positive relationship with a stable, honest, and caring professional in a place where students are required to be for 28% of a student’s awake time will most definitely be a positive action that we can take as a district.

I appreciate the next factor/recommendation of “enrichment mindset” as well because it’s always important to provide all students with access to programs and organizations that they can excel at.  Rugby High School is the perfect size school that is small enough where students know each of their classmates and probably everyone in the building. And it’s large enough where we offer many classes that help students prepare for college and also classes they can take that give them college credit.  The number of career and technical education classes we offer is increasing and these classes give students opportunities and career ready skills that improve their chances to be successful in the world of work.  The extra-curricular activities RHS offers such as sports, drama, speech, FFA, FBLA, NHS, Fine Arts Club, Sources of Strength, and much more give students even more opportunities to excel, collaborate with others and to practice working with others. 

Our next steps should be to continue improving our school using the stakeholder survey results and having the professional development match the individual needs of staff.  I look forward to seeing what the Strategic Planning Committee recommends and then being a part of the positive changes that will occur.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Reaction to Teaching Children With Poverty in Mind Ch. 3

Here are my thoughts about teaching children who are living in poverty.  The weekend before Christmas my husband and I (and our 2 year old granddaughter) had the privilege of helping the Rugby Food Pantry box up and deliver 120 boxes of food for families in our community.  I had also asked some of the NHS students to help as well and they were sworn to confidentiality before we all began helping with the deliveries.  Of the 6 families we delivered to in one area of town, 4 of them were families of students in our high school. It was humbling and yet frustrating for me. I was disappointed by the extreme untidiness and appalled by the strong cigarette odor coming from the homes, and one of them housed a single father with children who attend our schools.  Outside the home, there was frozen litter all over the yard, the steps and the attached deck. Two of the children were outside just standing there, and I assume it was to get fresh air because that house had the worst cigarette smell I have experienced in a long time.

We were as cheerful as we could be while walking up to their door with a box full of food, and my husband carrying the 20 # bag of potatoes and the turkey but as I looked at the children’s faces, I held back the urge to cry and on the way back to our vehicle, I held back the urge to say, “Hey boys, do you have some garbage bags or empty grocery bags inside so we can pick this litter up while we stand out here? I can sure help you.” 

Over the Christmas break I have often thought about them and their older siblings (who attend our school) and I wonder what in the world can I do for them.  The tired blank looks, the hopelessness they seemed to have really makes me wonder how getting assignments completed for school can even happen. Their home was one of the smallest so I know they probably don’t even have an empty spot at the kitchen/dining table.  What makes anything we say or do resonate with them to give them hope and motivation to make a better life for themselves? What can we do to instill a work ethic in them when their own dad was puffing on a cigarette while I handed him the box and there was litter all over the yard and deck that should have been taken care of a long time ago?  What makes us think that reading, writing and arithmetic are at the forefront of these children’s minds or even should be? They are just barely surviving and their basic needs are (probably) not even being met.

There are two other elementary children I want to mention. They live in another area of town and those two boys are the most energetic and motivated kids that my husband and I have ever seen (for their age). They seem to ALWAYS be outside doing something. They are either mowing their own yard or someone else’s. If they’re not working, they are either playing ball or hockey or football or building something.  Even this weekend with temperatures way below freezing they were outside shoveling the snow off their driveway!  They are the friendliest, happiest boys and I know that with their work ethic they are going to be successful and do well in whatever they decide to pursue.  I look forward to having them in our school someday and seeing the success they will experience.  The difference between the two families is astounding.

I am grateful that we have begun a mentor/mentee program for our students but I am wondering if we need to do more for many of our students. Students who are living in poverty and experiencing hopelessness and those who don’t have the support and even the expectations to be successful need men and women in their lives who can mentor them and help them change their mindset and give them hope on a daily basis, not just once a month. Just so you know, Social Services is already involved with the first family I mentioned.  Without intervention in these children’s lives, the cycle of poverty will very likely continue for another generation. 

I have always said that it would be great if our community had a boys/girls club or somewhere for these kids to go to get help with homework or to get help in other areas and it would be great if we could convince every child to take part in constructive and productive activities. If we too could provide our low SES students with enriched treatment as has been done in other communities, I am sure we would see the same positive results. In the meantime, it is imperative that we encourage our low SES students to take part in extra-curricular activities and maybe there should be a fund/scholarship they apply for to pay for their cheerleader uniforms, their basketball shoes, FFA jacket, dress up clothes for game days, etc. so that they will be able to participate.
I look forward to seeing the positive changes that we can make in our community. Being a part of the Pierce County Health and Safety Coalition is one positive step that the community can make (and by the way, any of you reading this are welcome to be part of the coalition) and I know that the caring and professional team of educators we have on staff in the RPS system will also want to make a difference in the lives of our low SES children! (as well as all of them)


Friday, November 7, 2014

Cognitive Deficiencies in Low SES Children

The biggest takeaway for me while reading Teaching With Poverty in Mind was reading about the cognitive ability in children and how complex it is and the ways it can be measured. The research that shows the cognitive lags in children living in low income homes was alarming to me and it causes me to be even more concerned about certain children that we have enrolled in our school system. 
I felt I was already quite familiar with the other characteristics of adults and children living in poverty due to past and current job experiences (school and my own home daycare) but the impact and contrast of low SES children on brain areas that are responsible for working memory, impulse regulation, visuospatial skills, language skills, and cognitive skills gave me a sense of urgency that we need to help these children anyway we can in school.
I appreciated the action steps that schools can take to improve the cognitive abilities of students who are living in poverty. It gives me hope that by being proactive: assessing students to find where they're at, building basic/core skills, providing hope and support, and improving our own  professional abilities, these students can benefit and improve their cognitive abilities to be successful in school and in their future.