When learning takes a back seat to survival

Photo by Dave Boyd
Jacqueline Johnson, coordinator of early childhood education at Motlow State Community College, speaks to an audience at MilliganÕs Hyder auditorium to introduce a conference on literacy and poverty held there Saturday. The conference was sponsored by Tennessee Parents First and the Milligan College department of education.

Conference explores reasons behind poverty and illiteracy

By Julie Fann
star staff
If her mom wasn't able to make the rent, sun down wasn't a serene, back porch event for Jacqueline Johnson growing up in the housing projects of downtown Memphis. It was a time to be scared.
Standing on the street, Jacqueline recalls guarding the family's furniture with her younger sister while her mother and her older siblings knocked on doors searching for a place for them to spend the night.
"If they couldn't find anybody, we had to watch the sun, and when it started getting dark, my younger sister and I had to give the furniture away so that it wouldn't be stolen," said Johnson, keynote speaker for the conference, "How Literacy is Affected by Poverty and Parental Involvement" held Saturday at Milligan College for educators and the general public.
Johnson's message stressed that middle class teachers, raised in middle class schools, graduating from middle class colleges, usually have a hard time understanding that issues of literacy and poverty are largely cultural in nature and passed from generation to generation.
"Teacher education programs do not effectively prepare us to work with families in poverty. They prepare us to work with middle class families ... We have to understand that the behavior problems that teachers sometimes see with children in poverty are really not behavioral problems but problems with cultural issues. Children in poverty react and respond to people differently than middle class children," Johnson said.
Because children in poverty face basic issues of daily physical survival, they see life more as a moment-to-moment occurrence and lack the ability to plan for a future. They often must fight for what is theirs and defend their territory. These are issues that children in poverty bring into the classroom, according to Johnson.
"Children in poverty often laugh when they are disciplined. It's a way to save face. Many times, if you discipline a child in poverty, they will laugh and say, 'That didn't bother me,' or 'I don't care.' When they do that, sometimes teachers will say to them, 'Well, if that doesn't matter to you, I'll give you something that will,' and they compound the issue because they have further humiliated the child," Johnson said.
To instruct children in poverty, teachers must explain in a private setting how they expect the student to respond to discipline and why rules exist in the first place while also emphasizing that the rules are explicitly for that particular classroom. Whereas in middle class institutions discipline is used to change behavior, it is a concept that is foreign to those who live in poverty.
"(Children in poverty) look at discipline as a way of getting off, and to say, 'I'm sorry', and to move on to the next thing. People in poverty feel like they are destined to be a certain way; they feel like they are fated," said Johnson. "... You must explain to these children what they need to do; what is expected of them. Children in poverty don't understand cause and effect or consequences of their behavior, so when we don't explain things to them, they don't know and they repeat it. They need to know what your rules are."
Just because a student skips class frequently doesn't mean they are uninterested in getting an education, Johnson said. Forced to focus on basic survival, teenage children in poverty often hold part-time jobs at fast-food restaurants to help their family, or are unable to attend because their home has no running water and they cannot bathe. Johnson stressed that children in poverty miss school for a myriad of reasons, and, if, by chance, they resort to extreme behavior that is unhealthy, it is because that behavior will enable them to survive.
"If you work at minimum wage you will not be hired at a full 40 hours a week because fast-food restaurants don't want to pay benefits. So what happens is, if you have that small amount coming in, it takes three or four people in the household to work at a fast-food restaurant just to bring in a full week's paycheck," Johnson said.
And while middle class values center around competition, it is a dirty word to families in poverty. Families in poverty don't compete with one another because they all suffer under the same circumstances and, as a result, see competition as something very negative.
"They are more concerned with sharing and working together. They will share everything, including finances. In the middle class, the rule is, 'You don't ask me for money, and I don't ask you,' but in poverty, the motto is, 'Share and share alike.' They will have very little money, but if so-and-so's boyfriend is in jail this week, she's going to go around the neighborhood, and by that I mean, the housing project, and she will go from door to door and borrow money from people to get her boyfriend out of jail. And they will give it to her."
Also, the English language as middle class society understands it is difficult for children in poverty to understand and learn, according to Johnson. While most achievement tests and state assessments are written in what Johnson said is termed "formal register", the only form of the English language many children in poverty know is "casual register", the vernacular that is spoken at home.
"In storytelling, in casual register of language, stories are often told in a seemingly haphazard way. Children or families in poverty, when they tell a story they tell it in exaggerated terms, making it seem more exciting than it is. In addition to that, everybody in the room will throw in their two cents worth while someone is telling the story," Johnson said.
In the classroom then, it is difficult for children in poverty to explain on a test after reading a book or a story how that story progresses - what happened first, second, and third. Because they understand stories differently, the most dramatic event is the one they usually choose as the event that happened first because they see the most dramatic event as being the most important.
Children in poverty also often become pregnant because having a child makes them feel they finally have "something or someone" that is their own and that can't be taken from them, according to Johnson.
"Everything children in poverty have is subject to being stolen, sold, or given away. When you look at how that effects everything that they do, teenagers will say, 'Well, I had a baby because that's something nobody can take away from me. I had a baby because that's someone I can love and nobody can take it away from me,'" Johnson said.
Physical and sexual abuse are also injustices that children who live in poverty often experience. Such experiences cause those children to have a heightened perception regarding mannerisms and body language. For instance, to escape an alcoholic, abusive uncle, a child learns to read his body language so that he or she can escape to a different room. For teachers, this can be challenging.
"... They learn to read facial expressions and body movements. When teachers make sarcastic comments to children in the classroom and don't think they got it; they got it, and they got it long before you said it because they read it in your face and they read it in your body language," said Johnson.
It is extremely imperative, then, that teachers respect student confidentiality and always search for the positive in a child, no matter how much he or she may have been labeled by the education system as a failing student. Love, said Johnson, transforms and, ultimately, makes all the difference.
According to a recent report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty rose during 2002 for the second straight year in a row as 1.7 million more people dropped below the poverty line. The poverty rate was 12.1 percent last year, an increase from 11.7 percent in 2001 even though the last recession ended in November 2001, the Associated Press reported.
The poverty threshold differs by the size and makeup of a household. The average poverty threshold for a family of four was $18,392 in annual income in 2002.
Johnson is former statewide coordinator of parent education for the Tennessee First Parents First Center, a program of NashvilleREAD. She has also served as parent education specialist for the state department of education and is currently coordinator of early childhood education at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn. She holds a bachelor's degree and licensure in secondary education, a master's degree in health education, and an EDS. degree in instruction and supervision.
Approximately 200 people attended Saturday's conference on literacy and poverty, which was sponsored by Tennessee Parents First and the Milligan College department of teacher education. The conference began at 8:30 a.m. with Johnson's opening lecture. Afterward, several workshops were held throughout the day which addressed various issues surrounding the topic, and attendees were given a free lunch. The conference ended at 3 p.m.