Teachers learn lesson on poverty

Teachers learn lesson on poverty

URBANA – For people who work in the Urbana school district, a book about the effects of poverty on children may be more popular than even "The Da Vinci Code."

The book, called "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," was written a decade ago by Ruby Payne, a former teacher and principal and now a worldwide speaker on child education. Her book, which defines class differences and gives methods for teaching impoverished children, has sold about a million copies.

Urbana schools account for their own small chunk of those, as discussion of the book has seeped into all levels of staff.

District administrators discussed the work in monthly meetings as part of their book group. Kathy Wallig, spokeswoman for the district, now applies some of Payne's methods in communications with parents, suggestions like keeping notes sent home clear and simple.

King Elementary School teacher Sally Thompson already follows the advice. "Teachers are really bad about using teacher lingo," she said, comparing the experience to hearing a doctor's diagnosis. "You don't want to be condescending, but you just want to hear things in words you'd want to hear."

Kathy Barbour, who oversees some of the teacher development for the district, got training to teach about the book. She gives talks throughout the year about it in the district and has found an enthusiastic audience, she said.

"Any time teachers are excited about learning and about doing something in the classroom that they really think will make their classroom better," she said, "that's the point – making it as easy as possible for students to succeed."

Student success is the goal for Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, principal at King Elementary School in Urbana. She did a yearlong discussion about the book with teachers to get them talking about class differences and what could be done to enable student achievement.

"We know that there are a lot of our kids who live in generational poverty," Ivory-Tatum said. "They have to fight for space in the bed, they have to fight for their parents' attention. ... They come to school and nobody ever told them: 'Use words.'

"(Payne) doesn't just talk about the problem," Ivory-Tatum said. "She talks about solutions."

In the book, Payne writes that each class – rich, middle, poor – has its own "hidden rules." For example, while middle-class people may plan for the future with lists on paper, people in poverty think of their immediate future, Payne said in a phone interview from Maryland on Wednesday.

Where middle-class people value "work, achievement, material security," Payne said, "in poverty, your world is about three things: survival, entertainment and relationships."

The book's lessons include letting students use their hands to "draw or doodle" to keep them occupied, explicitly teaching the difference between talking casually and formally, and using the values of each class to explain why school is important.

Payne said she'd tell parents in poverty, who she said value power and control, that education is a way for their children to acquire those qualities. "Then the parent's thinking, 'Oh, those are important to me,'" she said. "What does it matter what the motivation is as long as the results are the same?"

Some professors think the book is awful, Payne said. "They think the book is not about social justice," she said. "No, it's not. It's about 'how do you educate children?'"

With King Elementary School children, her work has resonated.

More than half of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their parent's income, while most of the teachers have a middle-class background. For them, the work serves as a primer on poverty.

"Poverty is very participatory. ... Arguing is a way of staking my territory," Ivory-Tatum said. When teachers realize students are using skills they know from home, the goal is they "won't jump to, 'Oh, he was being rude.'"

In Bryan Lake's King classroom, the young teacher often tries to diffuse tense situations with humor. If a child misbehaves, he'll take the child aside and talk with him or her instead of pointing it out to the class.

"Work on getting to know your children, each child individually," he said. "You don't ever want to put a child in a situation where they need to save face. ... It tends to lead to more of a problem."

Lake said the Payne discussions led to more than classroom tools. "In the four years that I've been here, that's the first time I've seen the staff ... come together in that community."

In Thompson's classroom, the veteran teacher tries to build relationships without judging children's upbringing, she said. Instead, she works to show them how to succeed in school – and why.

"I just said it yesterday (in class), 'We all have things in our lives that make our lives hard,'" Thompson said. "'I'm the teacher, and I'm responsible for not letting that be an excuse for you.'"

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