February 12, 2013

why we need to change how we teach poor students

Students that come from impoverished families do not learn in the same way as students from middle class or wealthy families. Notions of value and importance are different when seen through the eyes of an underprivileged child, and we can’t expect them to adapt their worldview in order to succeed in the American education system. Our schools need to adapt in order to teach all students effectively, by using programs that will help them understand the worth of a grade school education in the real world.

When we attempt to understand obstacles to impoverished students in the classroom, it’s important to put ourselves in their shoes. When someone of the well-to-do class takes a glance at a poor, urban high school student they see the obvious. Financial limitations, likely poor parenting, and maybe a part-time job after school make it difficult for poor students to keep the importance of schooling in frame. But let’s say that the good people of the world were to give that student enough money to go to college - we’ll say $100,000. Would this fix all of his or her problems?

If you think of the obstacles to an impoverished student as more than financial, you’ll realize that money isn’t a quick fix, and it certainly isn’t the only key to success and an eventual escape from generational poverty. Imagine what will happen to the imaginary hundred grand we gifted to that student and his family: it will go to pay for rent, for groceries, the necessities. But a new car might be in that family’s future, likely some extravagant clothes, and the rest of it goes under the mattress. Without the know-how and resources to invest and to save, something that even the moderately wealthy take for granted, that $100,000 wouldn’t last long. And that student probably won’t end up going to college.

Now, I recognize that the picture I’ve painted is a stereotypical one, but it’s not one that’s untrue. It’s a picture of many American youth growing up in poverty, and it’s because of this that we have to adjust how our education system teaches impoverished students. Our students need to be taught more than math, science, social studies and English. They need to know that a GED and a tool belt of financial dos and don’ts are the keys to long-term success.

Programs like Newspapers in Education (NIE) help to reconstruct students’ notions of what it means to be successful. Keeping track of current events and the news is a regular facet of the American elite. By incorporating daily news and media into the classroom, students can begin to see how their lessons and homework are related to their lives and their futures. If students, wealthy and poor alike, are able to find purpose in their schooling, then they come to have a vested interest in their class work, and the results are visible. Schools that use NIE programs performed an average 10 percent better than those without, and the benefits were shown to be even greater in schools with larger minority populations where household news consumption is less common.

NIE is one of many ways to start engaging impoverished students in the classroom. By incorporating life lessons into regular curriculum, schools can help set up their students for long term success. Otherwise, they might just sit around after graduation waiting on that mythical hundred grand.

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