The Poverty Paradigm: Resisting This Narrative

I can’t tell you how many educators I have heard say that poor, Black kids can’t learn and that poverty is their deficiency. On top of that, poor, black parents/guardians do not care about the education of their children.

Full stop.

I, for one, grew up as a poor, Black kid.

I learned.

I, for one, see how poor, Black kids can, will and have always excelled academically. See, it takes educators that are there to teach with high expectations that will push all of his or her students, no matter the background.

Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.
Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.

Let me tell you, my parents never thought I was deficient. They never sent me to school saying I was an inadequate black kid because of poverty. They always told me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I can succeed in anything if I had the will to believe. We were broke and struggled at times, but that never stopped me from going to school and excelling. Sure, you may have been through some dark times but my parents didn’t want to see no bad grades. They weren’t about to have me sitting up in a school and not learn.

Let me tell you, my folks made sure to read to us. They made sure to see if I had homework and if I needed additional help. So, please dismiss yourself if you have the belief that poor folks, especially black and Latino folks can’t learn.

Let me tell you, most of us poor folk are serious about our education. We set high expectations for ourselves and the kids around us. In the words of my black mama, “I ain’t raising no dummies”. There you have it.

So, the next person that I hear saying that poor black kids can’t learn than we about to have some problems.

Let me tell you something else, these black and brown babies are pushing hard in these classrooms. They are pushing hard against the social-inequities within their lives. They are pushing against the oppressions that face them just because they are poor and black.

Let me tell you something else, if my black and brown students want to beat-box on the table, braid their hair back in cornrows, dab on it and everything else that screams “Black and brown” then go ahead. There’s too many people that wish to police them. There’s too many people seeking to silence them. There’s too many people that wants to see them fail.

We are not deficient. We are not going to silence ourselves. We are not going to fail.

Social-Justice in the Classroom: Practicing What You Preach

Curriculum pictures

I listened to stories from children that hold worlds inside themselves. Worlds that are forever unfolding and adding depth to their own knowledge of the world. They cry. They laugh. They hold themselves. They hold each other. They hold nothing. There is nothing to hold but hopes and dreams. On many days, I sit with students in classrooms, along stairwells, by the buses, on the way to lunch, coming from their support-classes and in hallways to listen to their stories. To listen to their voices. To teach them to speak. To teach myself that I have much to learn about humanity. In working with young students, I have learned the importance of creating space for healing within the lives of students. To be an educator means to stand for social-justice. this is what I believe, but is this always the case?

I watch and listen to teachers, staff members and administrators on a daily basis. I mentally take note of my philosophy on education and ask myself if I am truly practicing what I preach. Am I standing up for what is right? Am I practicing ethics in my decision-making? Am I taking my task of being an educator seriously? Am I serving the students that I teach? These questions are important. They are asked in Education programs. They are posed to us in articles. They are there to be examined. However, are we aligning ourselves with these social-justice questions? In “Narratives of Social-Justice Teaching” by sj Miller, Laura Beliveau, Todd DeStigter, David Kirkland, and Peggy Rice, a teacher named Judith said that “The university is idealistic and doesn’t teach prospective teachers how to deal with tough issues that just aren’t solvable. I learned some starting points for curriculum in the program but not strategies for the complex situations that we find ourselves in” (p.XVII). In real-world context, educators have to deal with themselves. We have to deal with our own issues internally.

In working with students, we have to constantly ask if we are aligning ourselves with social-justice. In one of the classes that I had today, one of the students wanted to give up on a grammar problem that I assigned for them to answer. She stood at the board, became frustrated and told me that she gives up. Once she said that, a class of hands shot up in the air. However, I knew that this student didn’t need a pass. No, she needed someone to push her. Someone to tell her that she could do it. In working through the sentence as a class, she soon figured out the answer. As a class, we learned that giving up is never an option. We must not give up on others or ourselves. We must always push each other no matter the problems that we may encounter.

I remember when I was in the sixth grade, there was a student in my Social-Studies’ class that was called on to read. In waiting for him to begin his section of reading, we soon realized that he couldn’t read. In looking back on the moment, I can’t remember the teacher helping the student in facing this moment of slight embarrassment. My peer wasn’t helped nor encouraged to work through the words in front of him. In that moment, I’m sure the student would’ve liked for someone to help him. However, he never got that. He was there drowning. Sinking. I would hate for any student of mine to encounter this kind of embarrassment. Yes, some teacher failed this student. Yes, someone must be accounted for this. However, what do we do when we see a student is struggling? Do we simply let them take a pass or do we help them work through the tough stuff? Is simply giving a pass the way to help them achieve their ultimate success?

Today, I visited the library at my university and found a PhD candidate doing his usual research on the computer. In a story he told me, I learned about his experiences with education and the act of passing students. In his story, I saw myself asking the questions that I raised above. As an absent father for a good period of his son’s schooling, he told me that his son’s teachers consistently passed his son with F’s year after year. These teachers told him that they didn’t want to prevent him from going on due to his home-life, so they passed him. However, he wasn’t appeased by this answer. He said that he felt that is was a disgrace to not prepare a student for life. He felt it was a disgrace to see that educators wouldn’t think about the bigger picture. However, he didn’t want think it was simply due to his son’s home-life that he was passed with failing grades. He felt that his son’s racial-background allowed teachers to simply give up and not see the potential in this student.

So, I asked myself the question, “What biases and stereotypes do I hold that will prevent me from pushing a student towards their ultimate success?”. In this father’s story, I felt speechless. I was speechless. I was humbled by his story. We can judge this father’s action of being absent, but it doesn’t explain his son’s years of passing with failing grades. However, what should an educator do? Is it ethical or morally acceptable to fail a student, allow them to continue onto the next grade without mastering or grasping the content? This is a question that one may want to ask. We are consistently faced with hard questions that may not have an immediate answer. However, we must work through these questions because no one can answer these but ourselves.

Social-justice is about action. It’s about putting into reality what we pass across our lips. Sometimes we allow ourselves to teach without practicing what we preach. We give our students lectures without giving ourselves these lectures first. In preparing students to be conscious in their words and deeds, we must awaken ourselves from our slumber. In the eloquent words of Ruth Vinz,”Part of preparing teachers is to help them learn to negotiate ways to disrupt, critique, and challenge accepted practices and beliefs rather than simply trying to survive the school day or assuming the curriculum will engage students in social justice understandings and practices”.

Moving in the Direction of Progress: The World of Children

We would not have gotten past the level of pure adaptation to the world if we had not reached the possibility, while thinking about adaptation itself, of also using it to program transformation. For this reason, progressive education, whether at home or at school, must never eradicate the learner’s sense of pride and self worth, his or her ability to oppose, by imposing on him or her a quietism which denies his or her being. That is why one must work out the unity between one’s discourse, one’s actions, and one’s motivating utopia. In this sense, one must take advantage of every opportunity to give testimony to one’s commitment to the realization of a better world- a world more just, less ugly, and more substantively democratic. -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation

In thinking about the words of Freire, I struggle daily to remind myself that I must never put out the flame of any student. I must allow the student to stay on fire, ready to light whatever comes their way. However, many schools are set up to tame students. Students are encouraged to act like cattle. In my conversation with a professor at my university, she told me that she was always full of life and never allowed school to put out her flame. She was that ‘loud, black girl that wouldn’t shut up’. In seeing how school would break the spirits of students, she was committed to being herself. She was committed to the fire inside of her.

As I engage with students on a daily basis within my primary-school, I am always thinking about this. I always remind students that there are limitations on their behavior, but they must never change who they are. They must always remain who they are, but grow intellectually. I think school can be extremely restricting and suffocating. It can drag students out of their vibrancy and breed a population of students that are complacent to rules and regulations. I refuse to teach this to students. I want to teach students to think critically. They must not feel obligated to agree with an authority-figure or a system. They must learn that citizenship doesn’t mean complacency.

Today, I experienced a teacher telling her students that they must honor this country’s flag,be respectful citizens and appreciate American government. I must say that this can be a good way to help students understand their role(s) in citizenship. However, I would’ve had a caveat to such a statement. I would have told them that there is a time to rebel and to say ‘no’ if injustices are present. Nonetheless, this caveat would need to be explained in an age-appropriate manner. Students are aware of the world around them. They see what is happening in their neighborhoods. They see what is happening in other neighborhoods. So, do not believe they are ignorant to the world around them. I believe many people tend to be overprotective of children. They aren’t given the chance to think critically. They are coddled until they are deathly afraid of the world. Teach them to think. Teach them to read. Teach them to question.

I can’t simply accept this notion that children are ignorant. I’ve worked with children and they understand more than you think that they know. They are observing the world just like adults. They are trying to fill in the gaps just like adults. They are dealing with the massive influx of information that adults are trying to get through on a daily basis. Do not believe that they are ignorant. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that they are very intelligent. They are growing in knowledge, especially as consumers of this technologically-advanced society.

So, allow them to explore. Explore yourself to explore what they are exploring. Become aware of the things they are into. Do not hold them back from discovering new things. Yes, set limits. However, do not allow those limits that you set to prevent them from being the great individual that they can be. They can add to the collective and do much good. Just observe them. Let them show you the world through their eyes. They will help guide you in your knowledge of the world.