Field Notes: Raising Learning Warriors
Moses was my student in Brooklyn, N.Y. He came from Guyana, was 10 years old, and deaf. His mother, who spoke no English and knew no one in New York, had made the treacherous journey to the United States to give him the opportunity to go to school. He was the skinniest boy I had ever seen, with longer-than-long legs that he sometimes tripped over when he ran. Moses was not getting enough to eat at home, so I started bringing him food. Some days, he did not eat from the time he left me until the next morning at school.
Moses and his mother lived in one tiny room where the heat sometimes did not work. His mother worked two jobs and was rarely home for more than an hour when Moses returned from school. Yet here he was, at long last, in a school for the deaf where he could finally thrive and learn.
One of Many
Millions of children are like Moses, living on the brink of disaster. I felt his situation was urgent because I knew I had one year to create a sanctuary for him and make sure he could learn to read, write, and learn. More than anything, I wanted Moses to become a learning warrior. Moses's teachers needed to equip him with the right tools so he could set and reach his goals both inside and outside the classroom. In this way, we could beat poverty down.
Moses's mother did her best with severely limited resources. Schools must do the same: We must fiercely protect our children, even when resources are low. We can't just say it's poverty's fault that children do not thrive in school. Educators have to organize communities and schools to make sure that Moses and so many other children become warriors against poverty.
Here are five ways we can equip children and schools to fight poverty.
1. Get Books
Give kids books and their lives will change. I mean "good" books—not necessarily the ones that win medals, but the ones no one wants to put down. Search BookHive, KidsReads, and ReadKiddoRead, for hundreds of examples. Kids need to like to read in order to learn to read.
The real question is, do our kids have enough access to books that will compel them to become lifelong readers? Especially in impoverished, at-risk communities, books remain inaccessible, despite the proven influence they make on the lives of young learners both at home and in school.
According to author and Temple University education professor Susan Neuman (PDF), studies have shown that "the highest achievers in fifth grade classrooms were likely to read over 200 times as many minutes per day (21 minutes) as the lowest achievers (who read for less than one 10th of a minute per day)."
Reading builds vocabulary; grows stamina; opens doors to new people, places, and ideas; and fosters community. Sherman Alexie, acclaimed American Indian writer, poet, and filmmaker, has said, "If one reads enough books, one has a fighting chance. Or better, one's chances of survival increase with each book one reads." According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure." Literacy Texas states that "85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate," and "more than 60 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can barely read and write."
Educators must advocate urgently for access to an abundance of books inside the classroom. We need books that represent characters of color in children's literature, and we must advocate for authors of color to stay in print and be honored and celebrated in our curriculum. The canon is changing, as it should.
2. Power Up
Smartphones, computers, tablets, iPods, laptops, and e-readers have made access and information ubiquitous. We see them everywhere—but not enough in our classrooms. And for low-socioeconomic children, for whom we cannot guarantee access to technology at home, school is the place to introduce it and build on the devices they already have. Instead of banning phones from the classroom, let's use text messaging to send writing prompts, tips, and check-ins. Let's ask our shyer students to text us a literature response. Let's confer with our middle school students on their writing progress using tablets and Google Drive.
With guidance, children can use the Internet to explore their interests and access previously unattainable information. Children in rural Kenya can explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art with me on a Skype tour. Shouldn't children in rural Mississippi be able to do the same? The world is open, but not if we don't give children this access.
E-readers allow children at all levels to read without embarrassment. A Scholastic survey found that 54 percent of children said that e-books are better than print books when they do not want their friends to see what they are reading.
3. Meet the Parents
Recently, a principal invited me to speak with parents at a breakfast. When I arrived, she told me to not expect anyone to show up. I asked where the parents were at that moment, and she said they were in the courtyard, dropping off their children. So, I went outside.
It was easy to start conversations with parents about their beautiful children and invite parents in for the breakfast, where we could connect more intimately and I could give them valuable information about their children's education. In impoverished, high-risk communities, many parents do not feel comfortable in school. Just as it is difficult for a struggling student to return to school with confidence day after day, so too is it difficult for families to not feel lost and confused about how to communicate with the school or how to advocate for their children.
Let's communicate with families in a way that is comfortable, accessible, and productive. We must go outside, both physically and metaphorically. Let's meet parents in the courtyard in the morning and call them in the evening to let them know how their child did that day. Let's give parents something they can be proud of so that our calls and texts can help them feel inspired that they are making a difference. Let's text them a tip to engage their children over the weekend or on a holiday break, and let them know we value them.
Scholastic's 2013 Kids & Family Reading Report (PDF) reveals that having parents as reading role models has a greater effect on kids' reading frequency than household income. This stunning finding leads me to want to create even more ways to bring parents back to the classroom, such as parent literacy clubs that invite parents to read to and with children in school. Empowering parents to be leaders in their children's educational journey will strengthen educators' relationships with families and improve the support systems that lead students to success.
4. Value the Relationship
All parents and educators have a moment they would identify as a failure, a time we wish we had connected differently with our children. In high-need environments, the stress that can push us over this delicate edge is compounded, and teachers in such communities report these failures often.
While children in high-resource schools experience vibrant arts and music programs, creativity, halls and walls that display student work and colorful learning materials, and independent reading in designated spaces with comfortable chairs, students in low-income schools experience rote learning. Instead of creativity, they get discipline and rigid structures, less time for personal expression, and less time for a teacher to connect with each child.
It seems we have decided that the backgrounds of at-risk students mean they necessitate a different cultural approach to learning than their more affluent peers. As though these limiting structures aren't choices at all, we claim that schools in low-income communities do not have the resources to make their classrooms warm and welcoming or to offer creative activities that engage students while also educating them.
We can create a new culture of genuine praise and affirmation in our classrooms. John Smyth, a research professor of education and proponent of relational teaching, states, "Creating trusting and respectful relationships in schools and classrooms is the indispensable and single most crucial element to learning ... When young people cannot, or do not, form a relationship in school with at least one adult or with their peers, then they disconnect, disengage or ‘drop out’ of school" (Smyth, 2007, p. 228).
Every time a child raises his hand to share an idea or listens quietly, every time a child selects a new story to read or finishes the smallest of assignments, every time a child reads independently for just one more minute or tries something new, let's celebrate it. By doing so, we turn children who may have felt like the world is against them into children who turn swords into plowshares.
5. Focus on Strength
My organization, LitWorld, has created LitClubs, a strengths-based approach to teaching reading and writing. We believe in cultivating the strengths that children have within themselves. According to Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, people with a growth mind-set—who believe abilities are developed and that one can learn and grow—"seek challenges and learning, value effort, and persist effectively in the face of obstacles." When the going gets rough, people who have learned a growth framework "find ways to keep themselves committed and interested."
At LitWorld, we create this growth mind-set using our 7 Strengths model. The 7 Strengths—belonging, curiosity, kindness, friendship, confidence, courage, and hope—are incredibly important to resilience building and social-emotional learning. We show children how to reframe their stories so that they tell who they are and who they want to become. This crucial process of narrative framing not only cultivates their literacy skills but also gives them the strength and resilience they need to face their life challenges.
Many students in high-risk communities live behind a veil of predetermined outcomes. Success is not expected, their voices are not heard, and they are not encouraged to dream. We must change their perspectives on their future by celebrating their strengths, their worth, their capacity, and the many choices they have to reach their goals. We must give them access to the books and tools that will give them both mirrors and windows into the kinds of lives they see and that they want to live, and help them find relatable characters and experiences that make them feel less alone. We need to work not only as our students' advocates but also with them to stoke their own fierce selves into becoming their own advocates.
A strengths-based curriculum unlocks the story inside of every child that is waiting to be told and gives them the power to transform their lives and worlds. Then, finally, Moses can grow up bold, strong, and fearless, and carry with him his own literacy as his greatest and most empowering tool for change.
Smyth, J. (2007). Teacher development against the policy reform grain: An argument for recapturing relationships in teaching and learning. Teacher Development, 11(2), 221–236.
Pam Allyn is executive director of LitWorld and author of many books on teaching, reading, and writing, including Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys (Scholastic, 2011). She founded Books for Boys, a reading program for boys in foster care. This article originally appeared in ASCD Express.