Thursday, May 2, 2013

Class Talk III

Presenting my workshop, "Talking About Class," at the White Privilege Conference in March (see previous 2 posts), was a powerful learning experience for me. The conference, with 2000 attendees, draws many with deep experience, knowledge and insight on issues of race and class, and the workshop was full of leaders who had significant insights to share.

Here are some highlights of my learnings:

1. There are many entry points for addressing social class and economic status, and the approach should be geared to the particular group of children. For example, one teacher shared that her school's response to the range of parenting situations (dual- and single-parent; working outside the home and at home) was to institute a policy of not allowing any "rescue" of students by delivering forgotten lunches or homework, because not all students had this resource available to them. To a teacher from a different community, this removing of key support did not speak to where his students lived.

These were a few of the themes, resources and frameworks suggested by participants:
  • What are basic needs? What is the difference between needs and wants?
  • Each social class is a life-giving culture with different experiences, customs and values. (For instance, lower income communities may have less material resource but more connection. Or, in low-income communities, children may be taught to use respectful forms to address adults, such as "Mr./Mrs." or "Uncle/Auntie"; in upper income groups, it may be acceptable for children to address adults by their first names.)
  • What does "enough" mean?
  • There are different kinds of jobs, all worthy of respect.
  • Teaching basic concepts of economics -  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children: "provides teachers, parents, and volunteers with ideas for using children's literature to introduce economics to children." 
2. Particularly when working with students in affluent communities, reading books and talking about class can become cultural voyeurism. Those with "less" are too often the object to be studied. Too many conversations and activities (private school students taking field trips to soup kitchens) may result in an Us/Them perspective that reinforces images of low-income people as needy victims and upper-income people as the helpers. How can we structure conversations and experiences so that the lens through which students are observing others becomes a mirror in which they view themselves?

3. As significant adults in the lives of children, we have to constantly be alert to ways in which our own judgments are being revealed. My list of "Key Points" (previous post) emphasized the importance of being open and inquiring: "The goal is to find out what children are thinking and to give them permission and language to voice their ideas and impressions." This is much more challenging than I imagined as I wrote it.

An example: In one of the sessions, we were discussing an event in the book, A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams, in which neighbors share furnishings for an apartment after Rosa's family loses everything in a fire. Someone referred to the offerings as a "gift," and noted that it was a different application of the word, since it often implies buying something new rather than sharing something you have used. I remarked that I liked the way in which that term honored and graced the sharing. An educator who works with young children observed that using the term "gift" was a value judgment.

On later reflection, I realized that my response to the word "gift" came out of my own class privilege. I had an impulse to "honor" and "grace" the offerings of people in a working class community who gave their used goods to help a neighbor in need, over-compensating because I unconsciously identified this group of people as "less than." If I had shared this response with children, I would have been leaking my own unconscious bias.

So that's the ongoing challenge: Find language that is free of value and judgment. And, once again, continue to expand your own awareness. 

To that end, here are resources recommended by participants: 

A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne - This pdf includes an overview of some of the book's concepts and information.

And critiques of the book: 

- "Uncovering Classism in Ruby Payne’s Framework"  by Paul Gorski


Carol Baldwin said...

Very thought provoking. thanks.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

From a workshop participant, with her permission:

Thank you for sharing this resource with us!
As a middle school teacher, I have found a great book for talking about class and class prejudices is "I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This" by Jacqueline Woodson. It does have the "n" word it in, so teachers would need to be prepared to discuss that. As well, it deals with sexual abuse, so because of its intense subject matter, I think it's best for 7-8th graders. It does deal with race and with class in a really interesting way. A definite recommendation!
Seattle Girls' School
Seattle, WA