Poverty in My Mind
|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: Did you tell your teachers that you were 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.
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.
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:
- Health and nutrition
- Effort and energy
- Cognitive capacity
- Stress level
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 (Gómez-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).