Thursday, July 21, 2005

"The Pedagogy of Poverty"

Truly a fascinating article. Here is the full text by Martin Haberman. Please read it, especially if you're a teacher, most especially if you're an urban teacher. It will be quite enlightening, I believe. This is my own response.

As a “white girl,” I know that I must walk a fine line in discussing urban children and school systems, as in theory I am part of the oppressor. However, being a female and thus exposed to some stereotypes and derogatory remarks, as well as a student of international women’s studies, I am confident that I can move past my white privilege to understanding and helping bring about cultural sensitivity.

I was an undergraduate the first time that I had to read the article, “Unpacking the Backpack of White Privilege,” and at first I really resisted the idea. After all, I’m a girl! I’m oppressed! All the bad stuff was a long time ago, right? We’re past the overt racism, aren’t we? But through further readings of the article, and heated discussions in class, and other readings and other classes, I began to see that yep, I have all kinds of ascribed status due to my skin (and even eye) color, and those attributes have allowed me to do things and go places much easier than other attributes, and they have also helped me look good in the eyes of other people (and thus succeed) in the dominant culture.

In that vein, when I began to read Martin Haberman’s article, “The Pedagogy of Poverty,” I had a sinking feeling of “oh, here we go again, with the ‘bad white people’ thing…I swear I didn’t do anything wrong! There’s got to be more to it than just white teachers keeping black/Hispanic/poor students oppressed.”

"The teaching acts that constitute the core functions of urban teaching are:
giving information,
asking questions,
giving directions,
making assignments,
monitoring seatwork,
reviewing assignments,
giving tests,
reviewing tests,
assigning homework,
reviewing homework,
settling disputes,
punishing noncompliance,
marking papers, and
giving grades."

When I got to this list of acts within the pedagogy of poverty, I was, quite frankly, confused. How is that anything other than just plain teaching? My view of teachers and teaching (which I grew up around, so it’s not just this year) has always included those activities. How do you teach without things like monitoring, testing, grading, etc? How can teachers, parents, and community expect anything differently? If teachers don’t do that, what in the world *do* they do?

Then, once I got to the next set of lists, things starting clicking into place. The logic of how students and teachers are on parallel but unequal tracks and wavelengths was quietly enlightening for me. The first one, about teaching vs. learning, is very true of dominant culture’s expectation of roles to play in schools.

"Teaching is what teachers do. Learning is what students do. Therefore, students and teachers are engaged in different activities.

Teachers are in charge and responsible. Students are those who still need to develop appropriate behavior. Therefore, when students follow teachers' directions, appropriate behavior is being taught and learned."

Learning is something that I’ve always loved; I therefore know at least a little bit about a lot of different things. I did what I could to pass on interesting facts and information to my students when I could, things that they wouldn’t normally get to learn or hear about. I wanted to pique their interest with new tidbits, in hopes of nudging them towards motivation to learn more on their own.

On several occasions throughout the year, students would look at me wide-eyed and say things like, “Miss C, do you know everything?” “How come you’re so smart?” “Do you know all the words?” And though I usually kept a straight face (with difficulty), I was delighted at this response. I thought it was cute that they thought I was some kind of omniscient being, instead of just a teacher. And I also thought to myself, “Ha! At last being a so-called nerd comes through! Maybe I can help them want to learn lots of things too!” But through the lens of this article, I can see that all the dispensing of knowledge on my end intimidated my students. How could they hope to know as much as I do? Teachers are for telling you things, interesting and boring, and students’ jobs are for listening and behaving.

The discussion about the evidence of this pedagogy’s ineffectiveness made me really happy, only because I could so well identify exactly with those things. YES, I have totally had to transform myself into a mean, nasty, authoritarian to even attempt to survive in my urban classroom. I knew I would have to, though, since I’m a softy young white female first year teacher. Even though I knew the students would be really tough on me, but I had no idea just how tough I’d have to get. And I’m not even there yet! Next year I need to be much meaner right of the bat, to set a no-nonsense tone for my classroom.

Haberman’s line that says, “But if pedagogy of poverty will not force the learning of low-level skills, how can it be used to compel genuine thinking?” was such a perfect summation of my feelings and experiences this past year. My biggest complaints have been that the students cannot think for themselves, nor do they possess knowledge of the building blocks of the mechanics of the written language. I know that in future examinations and life experiences (like resume writing), that is going to be a serious problem for them. Since we were not allowed freedom in teaching grammar and mechanics, I was very frustrated. The balanced literacy/TC/America’s Choice has fostered too much abstracts and ignored all the concrete skills. The few things that I did teach needed a lot of time to reinforce, and even things that we repeated multiple times over the year, the students just did not absorb them. But it was their automatic complying of anything requiring copying off the board. They got that. Mind you, they didn’t actually read or take in any of the words they were writing down (and many students copied them and made spelling errors!). But it got me some quiet, industrious students. I was shocked. No wonder I’d had such a hard time; I had been asking them to think and analyze and actually use their brains. Other schools and teachers did nothing of the sort; they just trained the kids to be what I called robot-monkeys.

Occasionally I definitely made use of that Achilles heel in my lesson planning. I knew that I could effectively waste time and see students quietly working if I made them copy things off the board before they had to work on them. However, it quickly became a mission of mine to prevent any more growth of robot-monkeys my classroom. I said, “You HAVE TO THINK! You’ve got brains, so show me!”

In this way, I was relieved to see that I’ve started to unconsciously reject the pedagogy of poverty, and embrace good teacher concepts that hopefully allows students to learn the excitement of knowledge, as well as gives them a safe place to be themselves. I actively use heterogeneous grouping, I work with them to extract big ideas and principles of different works, I try to include discussions of differences and historical mistakes when possible. Time and politics make it very difficult to easily implement all of the strategies that Haberman suggests. However, I do believe that many teachers have begun noticing that things, such as they are, are not working. There’s also currently a big movement about student self-empowerment, which I think is the core of good teaching. We as teachers don’t want to be burned out and bitter about our difficult students. It’s too easy to bring the negative attitude into the classroom. While it’s not realistic to be all Mary Sunshine either, there are plenty of positive ways that students can learn about themselves, and the world around them, and of course how that relates to them.


Nancy said...

THIS IS A GREAT POST! I will definintely read this article. Have you read the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire?

Jenny said...

What a fascinating post. I know my archive delving may not be copied by many other readers, but just in case I thought I'd post a new URL for the article by Haberman since ENC has now become a subscription service.

Dan said...

Thank you for the link, Jenny! I couldn't read it otherwise.

Holly Graff said...

I was revisiting Haberman's article for a piece I'm working on for my own blog when I stumbled across yours. I really identified with this - maybe because I used to be you! (pretty little nerdy white girl inner city high school teacher) It's a tough gig! And most people have no idea how hard you work and how emotionally taxing your job is. I quit to unschool my 6 yo daughter. I thought you might be interested in reading why:
Best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

keep up the work. i am in my 4th year teaching in the inner city. My biggest fear was that i would become a disciplinarian with no personality to enjoy what i was doing! It took some time succeeding and failing, but i think i am on my way (hopefully i will get there before i retire!)
Good Luck!

jeff said...

That link is dead. Here's another one. (They say not to copy copyrighted material, but if you don't then it disappears.)

Life's Good Yo said...

Thank you for this fascinating post. I read the article and will share your blog with my colleagues! I am in my final year of a teacher education program and have been given the task of leading a discussion regarding Haberman's article. If you don't mind, I would love to use your blog as a resource for others in my group.