Thursday, January 15, 2015

Too long and boring for a Facebook post....

So burying it on my blog seems like the appropriate thing to do!  Warning: this has absolutely nothing to do with scrapbooking.

The interview process that I went through in December got me thinking about WHO I want to educate, as well as what problems and challenges different families face.  As I mentioned in my "soft underbelly" post, the school that I interviewed with was religious, and it was catering to students whose only other option were the failing public schools in the area.  Something like 70% of the students at the school met the federal guidelines for poverty. "But surely, since these parents care enough to seek out better schools, they'll take a more active role...?"  I'm not even certain I got the whole question out before they gave me a sheepish half smile and said, "They're not seeking us out.  WE'RE seeking them.  We literally knock on doors.  Make phone calls.  It actually takes a lot of convincing that there's a better way.  We meet a lot of resistance."

A couple of years ago I read a very enlightening book called "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" by Ruby K. Payne. It talks about the mindsets of different classes and how they approach just about everything from family to money, to discipline and authority and more.  And I think that a lot of us assume that many of these mindsets are a race thing, when in fact, these issues are far more universal within economic boundaries than just within any given race.

During the interview process, I thought about that book a lot.  Reading it had been eye opening.  So what else didn't I know?  Well, that's a classic conundrum, right?  But I did some spelunking around and decided to borrow a book from the library called Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life.  I managed to request the book-on-CD version, which is probably a good thing...when the CD version turned out to be FIFTEEN CDs, I looked at the paperback version: I just don't think I have the stick-to-it-tive-ness to power through 480 pages.  But with my short 20 minute commute, sure, I could listen to the book for...oh, you, 45 days. :P  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but I really have been listening for the better part of a month.

The book is an ethnographic study of 12 families: 4 middle class, 4 working class, and 4 poor families, both white and African American, and how they approach raising their children.  In the book, there is a lot of talk about "concerted cultivation" and "natural growth" and very clear divisions between the classes.  Concerted cultivation - and this is my very rough impression - seems to be the idea of embracing teachable moments, talking to develop language skills, negotiating rather than giving concise directives, and enrolling children in organized activities (sports teams, music lessons, religion classes, etc).  Whereas natural growth is a more relaxed approach: fewer activities, less adult-child interaction, more free-play time for children with extended family and neighborhood children.

It's interesting to listen to (or read, if you're so inclined) the similarities among the classes, regardless of race.  In the middle class, families were booked with activities: soccer, gymnastics, piano lessons, church activities and of course school.  Families often had multiple activities a day, meals were rarely spent with every family member at the kitchen table, and when issues arose at school, the middle class parents were quick to intervene and negotiate better outcomes for their children.  There were fewer differences between the working class and poor families, again, regardless of race.  In these families, children spent considerable amounts of time hanging out with cousins, playing with neighborhood kids, watching t.v.  Their parents would give concise directions, and would rarely get whining or back talk in return.  In the working class and poor families, children rarely complained of being bored, whereas in the middle class families children complained of boredom when they weren't fully booked with activities.  With regard to school, the working class and poor families seemed to regard educators as experts - on the same level and doctors - and rarely questioned their authority or pressed the schools to do what they wanted.  Even if their children had severe issues in school that weren't being adequately addressed, parents trusted that the schools and teachers were doing everything they could.

One detail that I've failed to mention is that the study focused on families with a 9 or 10 year old at one of two elementary schools at an undisclosed northeast city.  While the children were the focus of the study, the family was an integral part of each child's life.  The study was done in the mid-90s and the book was originally published in 2003.  I feel lucky to have only stumbled on the book now, because the 2nd edition had the added benefit of following up with the kids 10 years later.

In many regards, the middle class families seemed to be...well...exhausted.  Both parents worked full time, traveled, and the activities they enrolled their children in had them running in multiple directions on a daily basis.  Frequently, family events (birthday and graduation parties) were missed in favor of not missing sports tournaments.  By the same token, parents had deeper conversations with their children, asked probing questions, encouraged their children to interact confidently with the outside world, coached them to make eye contact and shake hands, and negotiate for what's in their best interest.

By contrast, the children of the working class and poor seemed energetic and imaginative, well behaved (in the sense that they followed directions without back talk) and were unspoiled, rarely asking for material things and truly appreciating what came their way.

At the end of the end of the study, it was clear that each family loved their children and wanted only the best for them.  Each set of parents was doing what they knew how to do and while it was clear that the middle class families knew how to negotiate with schools to get what they wanted for their children, it never seemed as though the working class and poor weren't doing their best.

Going into the 10 year follow up I had great hope that the children of the working class and poor would be doing well.  Their parents, after all, cared and loved them deeply, they weren't neglected, school wasn't de-emphasized, they were raised to know right from wrong...  I had no doubt that the middle class children would be fine, and for the most part they were.  There were minor setbacks (not getting into their first choice school, a less than perfect grade in an important class, broken hearts, etc), but for the most part they were right where I'd imagined they'd be: in good colleges working towards degrees, working during the summer at "better" jobs, including internships to help further their intended careers.  The working class and poor, on the other hand, had...harder lives.  Some went to community college for a semester or two, one dropped out but received a GED, they were in unions, some where married, a couple had children (at the time of the follow up, the kids were 19-21), and some had lost a number of friends to violence.

I realize that I've essentially written a book report, and maybe it looks like I miss my time in school, but ultimately, writing is a way to process my thoughts.  And this book was both interesting (sort of, I did find the author to be frequently redundant) and depressing.  The author gives her thoughts for 'fixing' the problems, but they lean toward socialistic.  While I know first hand how difficult life can be for the working class (for example, there is no room in my* budget to enroll my children in extracurricular activities, even thought I'm fully well aware of the benefits: working on a team, time management, learning to deal with disappointment, feeling comfortable in public settings, understanding rules and their consequences, etc), I also know that it's unrealistic to expect society to shoulder the bill for others.

It's also depressing because it further solidifies the adage that "the rich get richer".  Yes, the families studied were middle class (not rich), but they had the economic wherewithal to say yes to opportunities for their children, whether it be playing travel league sports, enrolling their children in summer school to boost knowledge (and confidence), sign their children up for SAT prep classes, and visit a number of colleges to help their children make informed decisions.  By contrast, because the working class and poor had not navigated the college course themselves, they lacked the knowledge to help their children in that regard.  They didn't see the need for SAT prep courses, didn't understand the college application and acceptance process, and some didn't really grasp the difference a GED and a high school diploma.

Ultimately, it seems that we are a product of our environments, and it is exceptionally difficult to break free from the place where we begin life.  Obviously, there is much work that needs to be done in our society to figure out a way to give equal footing to children of all classes.  I will have a lot to think about for a long time.

Every blog post needs a picture.  This one was taken inside the classroom where I did my student teaching.  Why a flag? Well, this is America, and we are problem solvers and don't run from difficult things.  This issue seems difficult, but it's totally worth our attention.

* There is no room in my budget for extracurricular activities for my children.  Thank goodness, my ex-husband is able and committed to providing these experiencing these important benefits for them.  And while I am "working class" currently, my middle class background allows me to provide other important benefits for my children.   


  1. Just heard you on the Paperclipping Roundtable and came here to "look you up" and I for one, enjoyed your book report! :) How fascinating!!! I often thank God for letting me born into the life I lived where my parents were both super hardworking and made a concerted effort to rise above the poverty they were born into. My parents were born into very, very poor families and ended up middle class because they determined to be so by working hard but I know that is rare and I value it greatly. I highly enjoyed your thoughts on the PRT - looking forward to reading more of your blog!

    1. Tracie, thanks for visiting and wading through my monster non-scrapbooking post! I'm so glad to hear that your family beat the odds! I want to believe that it can happen for those willing to work for it...otherwise, it's too depressing to go into education.

      Anyway, it's usually lighter fare around here! I hope you'll stop by again,,,maybe for a day with a fluffier topic!

  2. I enjoyed your book report too! Sociology and economic inequality are very interesting subjects. I was thinking of my own situation while reading this synopsis. I was born into a working class / middle class family that quickly fell into poverty when my father died. I was able to get a college education but it was never something that was "in the plan" for me and certainly not encouraged. Truthfully, I married well and now find myself upper middle class. I find myself kind of in between some of the typical things you've described. Education is a VERY high priority in my household and I have no problem at all intervening on my child's behalf. I do have a child with some minor special needs (he has a 504) and I've had to intervene on a number of occasions. I'm a social worker but currently work as a substitute teacher so that might explain why I feel I can easily navigate the school system and also why it's so important to me. With regards to the extracurricular activities I might fall back upon my working class upbringing somewhat. My kids do participate in extra activities but not to the same extent that many of my friends do. We normally have family dinners (although everybody hates my cooking- ha ha). Interesting to think about! PS. Loving your blog!

    1. I tried to put together a coherent response to this, but we're catching up on Celebrity Apprentice. (yes, I'm embarrassed to admit that) But I have also changed from one class to another and find that I fit with some of the classifications and not others. I tend to (subconsciously, I guess) cherry pick from each. I'm not a good cook, but it's hard to screw up those Saturday night hot dogs (yes, I'm serious) and it's more important that we're sitting down together than what we're eating. But we do do (out of 4) is totally immersed in both football and baseball, but he also knows he's working towards a baseball scholarship (so, still a priority placed on education).

      Yikes. Did I mention the television is on?? This is so incoherent, but I'm glad you found your way over here!