Rethinking Poverty and Casual Conversations

What "little" things do you do that might marginalize your students in poverty?
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Editor's note: This blog was originally published on December 13, 2011.

I recently overheard a lot of talk in the hallways about holiday gifts that students want or deals they had found during the Black Friday mad rush of sales. It made me think about how oftentimes, on returning from winter break, I would discuss with other students the laundry list of things they received as gifts. I’ve always been careful to not assume that every student celebrates Christmas or Hanukkah and the gift giving that comes with that. But it dawned on me, just that morning, that my informal discussions with students about gifts and presents has the potential to quickly marginalize our students in poverty, regardless of the time and traditions of their gift giving. 

A few years ago, I read Paul C. Gorski’s article “The Question of Class,” in which he encourages and challenges teachers to think differently about families and students in poverty. He asks us to consider how we as teachers and schools may perpetuate classist assumptions and judgments. Those recent conversations in the hallway about holiday purchases immediately brought me back to the ideas in Gorski’s article.

I reread the article, and thought about this “little” thing I did that potentially marginalizes students in poverty. I thought I was building rapport and making personal connections by asking questions like, “Did you get anything cool for your birthday?” or “What did you buy your dad for Christmas?” or even “Did your family have a nice big dinner to celebrate the holidays?” But I hadn’t really stopped to think about the fact that some of my students may not get presents, are hesitant to talk about what they did receive or, more important, may not have had much to eat at all during special occasions. 

In his article, Gorski lists changes that can be made quickly to help us become more aware of creating an equitable environment for students in poverty. One way is to keep basic school supplies, clothing and snacks on hand to be able to give those quietly to students in need. I promptly made that change after reading the article. But why hadn’t I made the connection that if a student may not be able to afford breakfast and a notebook, gifts during the holidays, no matter how inexpensive they may seem, are completely out of the question for students living in poverty? And not only are gifts or big meals not possible, the discussion about those lavish dinners and presents quickly becomes a tool for isolating students.

What “little” things do I do or say that become big factors in continuing to marginalize students in poverty? Instead of isolating students through what I believe to be harmless small talk, I want to remind myself of the importance of thoughtfully engaging students on an individual basis, taking time to understand their worlds, no matter how different than my own they may be.

Van Etten is a middle school language arts teacher and creative-workshop instructor in Iowa.

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