One of the things that was most striking to me about last year - compared to my previous experience many years ago - was how completely undisciplined the students seemed to be. And I don't mean that no one else disciplined them, but that they had no self-control. A student would walk in to the classroom and, with no recognition that everyone else in the room was actively engaged in something, announce that they were late because they'd been to the bathroom. Students were constantly touching me, touching my things, picking up stuff off my desk and setting it down somewhere else. In a perfectly quiet room, waiting for someone to answer, students had no problem announcing that they had a thread hanging from their sleeve, but could probably just break it off with their teeth. It boggled the mind, what these students took for appropriate behavior.
I had decided about a quarter into the year that I was going to have to add study skills to my list of objectives; I took for granted that seventh graders would know how to do things like keep a notebook, write down an assignment, or look back at examples in order to complete new work. Somewhere in the third quarter, I realized I was going to have to add a few more:
1) Don't be an asshole.
2) Don't touch my stuff.
3) Don't be an asshole about not touching my stuff.
Seriously, it will be just as important to these kids down the road if I can help them learn appropriate classroom behavior as to learn ratios and proportions.
And then, in May, my principal and I were talking about equity and un-tracking, and she gave me a
book that I wish I'd read a year ago. A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Dr. Ruby Payne. It was remarkable. Truthfully, reading it a year ago might not have done me as much good. Reading it
now, I was able to mentally point to students in each chapter. "Aha!" I said, "That's why she acts like that.." "That's why he says that stuff."
Please don't get me wrong. While I did grow up very middle-class, I was not isolated from poverty. My parents grew up in Appalachia, and I spent much of my childhood there. My husband and I intentionally bought a house in a run-down neighborhood and for the last 14 years I've watched a parade of single parents, welfare recipients, addicts, dealers, and prostitutes move in and then out of the house next door to us. From each of these individuals and their situations, I have grown in my understanding, and in my compassion for the challenges many people face.
But - for all of my understanding of poverty as it affected (those) individuals - it wasn't until I read this book that I began to identify aspects of the culture of poverty. The language, emphasis, values, and rules of the culture. And from there, to understand how the culture affected their behavior and attitudes - and my classroom.
I can't summarize the entire book, and I'm not sure I can even adequately articulate the ways that I have internalized the ways that it has changed my thinking, but it HAS. The best I can do is to recommend that you read it, too. If you have even a small part of your population that comes from poverty, it's worth checking out.