Pascal famously observed that the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of. Something similar can be said of education, whose genuine challenges and victories lie deeper than the reach of most legislation and the awareness, or at least acknowledgment, of most communities.
A recent article in The Washington Post shines a light on one of the key challenges to students and why current efforts to improve education are actually hurting those who are already in need. Poverty is not something that affects so-called "poor countries" that exist somewhere "over there." As one organization puts it, the world is next door.
I know this from first-hand experience. In my classes have sat the children of business titans and high-ranking government officials. They have been sitting next to those who had no money for lunch and were unlikely to eat when they went home. My students whose parents ask about their day work in groups with those whose parents are abusive and worse. Unless you are a teacher reading this on Mars, I imagine your classroom is much the same.
What the Washington Post article gets correct is this. Poverty is perhaps the most significant issue affecting education, and many of our efforts to double down on certain courses to the exclusion of others exacerbates the problem. When it comes to being hungry or malnourished, it really does not matter if everyone in the class has an iPad. For children who come to school weak, tired, and bearing emotional burdens that cause adults to take a day off, it really does not matter whether my curriculum is properly aligned with certain standards. I was struck with this thought recently as members of our church and I served hot soup, pizza, and drinks to those in need in Indianapolis. How could the children in line be able to focus on their studies the next day when this was all they had? Say what you want about adults in poverty and whether or not it is their own fault through bad choices, no child ever did anything to warrant an empty stomach.
So what do we often do in schools were the academic performance is low and the poverty is high? As the Post article notes, we "drill and kill." I have said many times in various situations that I could not understand it when an art or music program was cut. Why was math or English not cut? Is it because those subjects are more important? No one would want to say it, but that is clearly the belief. It reminds me of a scene in Schindler's List in which the character Chaim Nowak expresses his incredulity at being labeled a non-essential worker. "Not essential? I think you misunderstand the meaning of the word. I teach history and literature, since when it's not essential?"
So what do we do? Does this mean we need more opportunities to eat during the school day? Perhaps. Let's face it. When adults go to conferences, there is usually a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break, lunch, and snacks throughout the day. You can even pick up a sucker just for filling out a deposit slip at the bank. If we are denying students opportunities to eat when they need food simply because of classroom management concerns, we may need to rethink classroom management. Maybe we need to get community volunteers and parents to help during the day. Maybe it is as simple as having some granola bars in a bowl for students who need them. And when it comes to art, music, and other classes deemed not essential, the jackboots of pragmatism begin to march a bit too close to home.
Let's start the conversation. What are some practical next steps we can take?