Poverty in My Mind

It is clear that poverty has a strong grip on education. Learning requires resources and with shortages in basic needs, it is challenging for a school to provide what is necessary for children to succeed. Since schools can not realistically solve poverty, one way to address poverty inside the classroom is to mitigate its effects. A curriculum cannot magically achieve this mitigation. Only a teacher can. Poverty is so widespread in the Philippines that it should be obvious why teachers need to be in front of any reform to improve basic education. The most obvious place where poverty crushes education is engagement. A child from a poor home may easily be suffering from poor health, lack of nutrition, and stress. A teacher must be empowered to overcome these obstacles so that he or she may in fact reach the student.
Above cartoon copied from The Hartford Courant: Bob Englehart, "3/29/2012 Education Reform Stymied II"
Cartoon use courtesy of The Hartford Courant, www.courant.com
Melissa Harris-Perry recently interviewed Jahzaire Sutton, a 12-year old in NBC's Education Nation broadcast. A transcript is available from Washington Post's Valerie Strauss' article "Going to school hungry: A child and his mom tell their story". The following are excerpts:
Melissa Harris-Perry: Did you tell your teachers that you were hungry?

Jahzaire: Yes, in sixth grade, I told one of my teachers, teacher Kathy. She did something about it.

Melissa Harris-Perry: What did she do?

Jahzaire: When I told her, I didn’t ask her to do it, but she did it out of kindness. What she did is, every morning, she would bring in like snacks and chips for the whole class, not just me.

Melissa Harris-Perry: That part of it being for the whole class, not just for you, how important was that to you?

Jahzaire: It was important to me, because it felt like that she didn’t just care about me, she cared about the whole entire class, because she didn’t know how many students in the class were going to school hungry.
The above responses from a 12-year old may sound simple, yet these are actually quite profound. The teacher would bring in like snacks and chips for the whole class, not just me. That is powerful. Jahzaire has a teacher in Kathy who truly knows how to reach students. This is close to impossible if the teacher likewise suffers from poverty. A teacher who cannot feed his or her own family, a teacher who likewise could not overcome stress, or a teacher who is in poor health, is not in a good position to reach out to students in need.

Mitigating the effects of poverty in education requires reaching out. And this can only happen inside the classroom. Poverty has so much of an effect on schooling because of its grip on engagement. I remember one of my instructors in philosophy at the Ateneo saying that all a philosopher needs is a piece of bread, and he or she would go on reflecting. Yes, a piece of bread is still necessary.

A book by Eric Jensen, "Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind", has recently been published. I have not read the book, but its first chapter, The Seven Engagement Factors, is available online. This first chapter provides the template on how to raise student learning in spite of poverty. The template is drawn by first identifying how poverty prevents engagement. These are the seven factors through which poverty blocks student learning:
  1. Health and nutrition
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Effort and energy
  4. Mind-set
  5. Cognitive capacity
  6. Relationships
  7. Stress level
Several of these factors have already been discussed at some length in this blog. Vocabulary is one example. Some confuse this with the mother tongue issue. Mother tongue based instruction does not do any good if poor children are likewise deficient in the vocabulary of their mother tongue. 

The first chapter of the book illustrates that the issues are examined with an eye on results from peer-reviewed research. This is not just a chapter of "feel good ideas". These are evidence-based. Take for example the following paragraph taken from the section discussing health and nutrition:
In addition to inadequate quantity of food, food quality is also an issue: children who are raised in poor households typically eat a low-cost, low-nutrition diet that can have adverse effects on the brain (G√≥mez-Pinilla, 2008). 
Poor nutrition poses a strong risk to students' learning and engagement. When kids don't eat well, or when they don't eat at all, their behavior suffers, and they have a tougher time learning. Poor nutrition at breakfast affects gray-matter mass in kids' brains (Taki, 2010). Deficiencies in minerals are linked to weaker memory, and low levels of certain nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids are linked to depression. 
The two most important fuels for the brain are oxygen and glucose. To get a stable supply of glucose to the brain, kids ideally should eat either a high-protein breakfast including, for example, lean meats, eggs, or yogurt, or one that includes complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal. Either of these breakfasts will stabilize and manage the levels of glucose over several hours. In contrast, simple carbohydrates such as sugary cereals, pastries, PopTarts, pancakes, or fast food—which are often what poor children eat for breakfast—create wide fluctuations in blood sugar. Unstable glucose levels, whether too high or too low, are linked to weaker cognitive and behavioral outcomes (Wang, Szabo, & Dykman, 2004). 
Although hunger does have an adverse effect on academic performance, food quality is more important than quantity (Weinreb et al., 2002). Cognitively, it's better to eat less but better-quality food. The brain actually produces more new brain cells on a restricted-calorie diet than on an ordinary one (Kitamura, Mishina, & Sugiyama, 2006).
Higher dropout rates are strongly correlated to socio-economic status. There are reasons why poor students are leaving schools. One of them is an absence of a sense of belonging. Engagement comes when a child realizes that his or her school is a second home. And only teachers can make this happen.