Why is that child so rude?

What is wrong with that mother that she allows her daughter to come to school dressed like that?

Why doesn’t he ever do his homework?

That child is so lazy that he sleeps in class every day!

For more than thirty years, I have worked with issues of poverty—both with people who live in poverty as well as with those who want to help.  Even though I began my career as a secondary math teacher, most of my life has been spent working with poverty, first as an executive director of a large nonprofit and then as the founder and CEO of Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc., a program that helps people who want to reach out to those who live in poverty to do so with wisdom and compassion.

I have heard comments such as those at the beginning of this article spoken by teachers when I’ve been asked to provide training for them about how to successfully work with children who live in poverty. I’ve heard variations of these comments as well as many other rather disparaging statements from all kinds of people—civic leaders, church people, business people, agency staff, and board members— when talking about those who may be different from them.

Comments such as these may indicate a gap in our fund of knowledge—those things we think we know because they are common sense to us.  The concept of “fund of knowledge” is powerful in helping us to understand people’s differences. We each have a distinct fund of knowledge, based on things we learned from the family in which we grew up and our education, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, age, gender, geography, religious affiliation as well as a host of life experiences.  For example, men will have a different fund of knowledge than women.  People who have lived in a community their entire lives will have a different fund of knowledge than newcomers. Someone can say, “Turn at the intersection where the hospital used to be” and a long-time resident will know exactly where to turn but a newcomer will not. Because we absorb our fund of knowledge without even conscious effort, we assume that everyone thinks like we do, or believes what we believe, or approaches life and its problems like we do. We assume that the solution that will work for me will, of course, work for you.

This is faulty thinking. When we are raised in middle class homes, our fund of knowledge will be different from the fund of knowledge that people who live in poverty have. This gap, this misunderstood difference, will cause problems in the classroom because our assumptions, based on our own fund of knowledge, will be inadequate for understanding the students, especially those who live in poverty.

Let’s go back to the statements at the beginning of this article.

Why is that child so rude?

Tawanda has a hard time listening when the teacher is presenting information. She keeps interrupting. No matter how many times the teacher asks her to wait until the end of the lesson, Tawanda just blurts out questions or comments. She does not raise her hand. She just keeps interrupting….loudly. The teacher tries ignoring the outbursts but that just seems to make the interruptions even more frequent and loud. The teacher’s frustrations make it hard to interact with Tawanda.

Is Tawanda really rude? She may live in an overcrowded household. She may have learned that to survive in chaos, she has to speak loudly and interrupt. When she manifests this behavior in school, she is simply doing what works for her at home. She is not being rude. Nor is she a discipline problem. She does not necessarily have a learning disability. Tawanda’s fund of knowledge says that when you have something to say in a group of people, you say it as loudly as you can, even if someone else is speaking.

Two different funds of knowledge. One says that you wait your turn to speak. Polite people do not yell. The other says that to survive with all those people who live in your house, you’d better speak up. The teacher is challenged to help the student learn other ways of interacting in the classroom without putting down behavior that allows the child to thrive at home.

What is wrong with that mother that she allows her daughter to come to school dressed like that?

Jenny wore the same tee shirt and jeans to school every day for a week. On occasion she had the same outfit on the next week. Her favorite attire was a purple tee shirt with Minnie Mouse on it with jeans that were an inch or two too short. Her shoes slapped when she walked because the sole of one shoe was loose. Her hair was rarely brushed.  Her socks…when she wore socks…were mismatched.

Is Jenny’s mother really uncaring? Yes, Jenny’s clothes may be dirty or in poor repair. However, can you remember a time when you had to use a laundromat to wash your clothes?  If so, you know how challenging that can be. You had to collect all your dirty clothes, carry them to the laundromat. Hopefully you had a car. You had to have the correct change and your detergent. You had to stay there while your clothes were in the washer and dryer so they were not stolen. And then you had to get your clothes together and back home again. You have just connected with the fund of knowledge that a mother who lives in poverty has. All the time and effort needed for clean clothes may have a very low priority when a woman is struggling daily to keep a roof over her family’s heads and food on the table. She may not have the time it takes to wash clothes. Her children wear what is available.

Two different funds of knowledge. One says you wear clean clothes that are in good repair when you come to school. The other says there are more important things in life than clean clothes…things such as a home and food. Neither fund of knowledge is better than the other. They are just different.  At least, Jenny is at school!

Why doesn’t he ever do his homework?

Henry never has his homework but always has an excuse about why he doesn’t. Sometimes he left it at home. Other times, a kid tore it up on the bus on the way to school. Occasionally Henry develops an attitude about homework and tells the teacher that doing homework is stupid or a waste of time.

Henry may really want to do his assignment. However, doing homework requires actually having a home. Additionally, someone needs to be at home with Henry who understands that doing homework is important.  A parent who works multiple jobs or who swings shifts may not always be available to encourage and help.  Sometimes homework is not as important for a student as making sure that younger siblings get something to eat, or working a part-time job so the family has enough rent money, or caring for an ailing grandfather. The home may be so chaotic and noisy that there’s no place to think about school work.

Two different funds of knowledge. One says that doing homework is important for school success. The other says that there are things in life that are more important than homework, things such as taking care of the people in your life.  Both funds of knowledge have value.

That child is so lazy that he sleeps in class every day!

Raymond falls asleep every day in class. He does not even try to be sly about it. He throws his head back with his mouth open so that sometimes he even snores. No matter how hard the teacher tries to engage Raymond, he falls asleep. When prodded to wake up, Raymond just glares and sits with his arms crossed over his chest.  Another teacher has the same problem with Raymond. She has talked with him and he promises to stay awake because he really connects with the teacher and especially enjoys the science lab days.  But his eyes slide to half way closed, he starts, wakes up, and before long, he’s asleep.

Is Raymond really lazy or is he sleepy? Raymond’s dad may get off work at midnight. Raymond wants to spend time with his father, so he is awake late into the night. Or his home or neighborhood may be very noisy so he can’t get a good night’s rest.  He may have responsibilities for family or friends that mean getting seven hours of sleep rarely happens.

Two different funds of knowledge. One says that children need a good night sleep on school nights. The other says that you spend time together as parent and child when you can. Or you live where you can afford, even when the conditions are unhealthy.  Or you take care of people in your life.

Realizing the differences in funds of knowledge is a powerful insight toward deciding how to ford the separation that socioeconomics can place in the middle of successful interaction between teacher and student.  For example, helping a child learn not to interrupt or speak loudly is an important process for the child’s ongoing success in school. One teacher handles this by asking students to put comments on note paper and stick them to the board. Then she responds to the notes before the end of class. Another always speaks in a soft voice. The louder the student speaks, the softer his voice becomes. When the student begins to wait for a turn to talk, the teacher rewards the new behavior in appropriate ways for the class. One teacher uses small groups to help students learn good classroom behavior. After going over with the students suitable ways to interact, she then lets the students practice their skills in their group work. Always she commends proper classroom decorum without putting down behavior that allows the child to survive at home.

A teacher helped a children “fit in” with clothes that did not cause classmates to tease or taunt by keeping a lost and found box that any child could take clothes from. The teacher “found” some of the clothes at a local thrift store, but all the children had an opportunity to pull from the box what they liked. Another told a student that his child had outgrown this outfit and he thought it would look great on this pupil. Students may not even know that their clothing is a problem because they do what is expected from home. Teachers can use compassion and empathy as they help children improve their appearance and hygiene in order to enhance learning.

A school handled the homework issue by providing early and late bus students homework assistance during that waiting time.  One teacher intentionally arrived early or stayed late to help students with homework when necessary. Other schools experiment with providing students technology that taps into the natural curiosity of children so the child discovers ways to learn that are different from the usual homework routine. Some schools build homework time into the school schedule. The worst thing to do is to allow a student who lives in poverty to not complete the tasks expected of all the students in the class. A teacher needs to be creative to help the pupil find ways that work for him or her, based on the child’s environment and fund of knowledge.

Sleepy children cannot be good learners. One school arranged for certain children to have first period as sleep time. Other teachers work with students by allowing them to stand up when they need to stay awake. Occasionally when a teacher discovered that the student could not sleep at night because of a noisy environment, she offered the child earplugs and that made the difference in the student’s motivation and classroom success.  Another educator realized that having nutritional snacks available helped a student stay awake. Some teachers that are energetic and active themselves direct the entire class stand up and do some stretching or brain activating exercises.

There are a number of things that children in poverty experience because of their living situations: lack of hygiene materials or other basic needs, fear, frequent moving, lack of being able to think sequentially, substandard houses and neighborhoods, in addition to those things already mentioned. Bringing teachers together and putting them into small groups to brainstorm how these things will affect their students and then sharing what has worked for a teacher is extremely empowering for a faculty.

A poverty simulation created by Community Action in Missouri is a tool that can help teachers enlarge their fund of knowledge in order to better connect with their students and parents. The simulation puts participants into families that range in size from one to five people. The family receives information about their demographics, income, and expenses. Their task is to keep their family housed, fed, and safe for four fifteen-minute weeks.  In order to meet this goal, they interact with various vendors such as an employer, school, grocer, pawn shop, check cashing place, mortgage company, and others. To get from home to a vendor requires a transportation ticket.  Getting from place to place quickly becomes an issue. After week two, families pick “Luck of the Draw” cards that can either improve their situations or make already difficult situations even harder.

When I am privileged to facilitate the simulation with a faculty, I watch teachers struggle with keeping their families fed, safe and alive for a month.  Each participant assumes a role within their “family”. Some are children and “go to school” for three of the four weeks.  They report that while at school, they really do not think about the worksheets that the “teacher” gives them nor do they feel compelled to complete the second week’s assignment. They are more worried about what is going on at home. Is mom or grandma able to pay the bills that week? Will they be evicted that week?  The real life teachers begin to understand why some of their students do not focus on the classroom material.

Other participants have “jobs” and report in the debriefing that they found it difficult not only to get to work but also to find time to visit all the vendors to pay their bills. They are astounded that the entire simulation ends without their interacting once with their “children.”  They report that they understand now the challenges of the parents of some of their students.

One teacher said in a debriefing session, “You know how we always tell children they cannot take food from the cafeteria? Well, I’m never going to do that again after not having food in our “family” for each of the four ‘weeks.’  We simply did not have enough time in the week to get to the grocery store. We went hungry for most of the month.”

Other participants report that they were overwhelmed financially with the need for five dollars for a school event. Some of the “children” did not even mention the request to their family because they knew there was no money. One said she chose to stay home rather than go to school when her classmates were planning a field trip. Occasionally in the simulation, a child assumes the role of primary caregiver for a disabled relative or even tries to pay bills while mom or dad are at work. Many report that they really had no conversation with their “parent”.

Within a couple of hours, teachers experience the feelings and challenges of living in poverty. They expand their funds of knowledge because for a brief time, they lived what some of their students’ families live 24/7.

The concept of fund of knowledge can open worlds of understanding when we are willing to acknowledge that my fund of knowledge is only mine. Another person has a different fund of knowledge. Our challenge and delight is finding ways to connect and form relationships so that all can learn and benefit from each other.

This article by me appeared originally in Educational Leadership, May 2013

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