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Does poverty matter? Can all students achieve? How about “yes” to both.

August 28, 2011

Teacher Musings:
As I follow education reform discussions I see a trend that really bothers me as a classroom teacher.  This debate is no different from the other debates where common sense and thoughtful discussion and argument seems to get taken over by sound-bites and slamming one’s opponents for the sake of somehow “winning.”  The most troubling dichotomy I see in this debate is the tension between people like Diane Ravitch (who points out that teachers can’t be responsible for solving all the problems caused by poverty in children’s lives) and people like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and Arne Duncan (who seems to think that teachers are the only reason why children do well or poorly in school and on standardized tests).  The more I read blogs and articles about education reform, the more I see these two “camps” separating.

But let’s put aside the standardized testing for a minute (I know – this is a BIG issue, but stick with me).    If we can pretend for a moment that both “sides” of this debate magically agree on how to measure student learning and achievement, they might still disagree about how much teacher’s are responsible for that learning and achievement.  If someone says that poverty has an impact on children, which teachers might not be able to single-handedly overcome, it feels like they are saying that education doesn’t matter that much.  But if someone says that “studies show” that teachers have a stronger effect on a child’s life and future success than any other factor (such as their parents, living situation, etc.) that seems to be overstating the role of a person who is usually in a child’s life for 10 months out of the year.  How can we find middle ground?  How can we resolve these two polar opposite points of view?

Here’s a hint: Ask a teacher.

This September 98 students will cross the doorway of room 201, and I will be responsible for them.  I am charged with making them into fully literate citizens, teaching them how to analyze an author’s purpose and pushing them to express themselves effectively in writing.  I believe that every single one of them has the ability to read well, write effectively and make a positive impact on the world, even if they start out several grade-levels behind.  And I am a big part of that – the decisions I make can make or break these kids in front of me.

At the same time I know that some of them will fail in various ways.  Some may drop out.  Some may transfer to an “easier” school.  Some won’t come to school every day and won’t come after school to get caught up.  Some will come every day and try hard and I still won’t be brilliant/diligent/engaging/good enough to get them where they need to be.  And a lot of these problems will have to do with the fact that my students often don’t have a quiet place to study, a stable place to live, a model for academic success or other support they need.

If I thought this was all my fault and that I was responsible for solving all those problems I would be a broken shell of a woman by now.

So every year, every month, every day I enter my classroom and somehow resolve this strange tension.  I believe in every one of my students’ capabilities, and I work hard to reach them all.  I teach the best way I know how, which is better than I taught two years ago and worse than I will be two years from now.  And I also know that I am not the most important person in their lives and I am not the only reason for their success and failure now or later.  To believe that would be the an excellent example of hubris.  My students will make choices that determine their futures more than I will.  And our society has made choices that determine the way my kids live, the way their immigration status works, the amount and quality of the food they eat, the housing they live in, and the amount of money they and their parents make when they are making minimum wage.

Yeah, poverty really matters and really affects kids.  And yeah, I believe all kids can learn and that I have a responsibility to teach them so that they can become educated citizens that will also, hopefully, improve their economic situation.  And there are many kids in my classes who, which the help of me and other teachers, will overcome the problems that poverty has wrought.

I can hold this all in my head and be a teacher who is working hard to make kids’ lives better every day.  So why can’t the people in charge do it?

Any thoughts?  If you are a teacher do you find yourself having to reconcile this tension?

Yummy Stuff:

Warning – this isn’t really a recipe.  It’s one of those things that sounds cool until you realize that all the “ingredients” are pre-made things that have to be bought.  I normally hate those types of recipes, and I don’t really enjoy making them.  But work has started for me again, and I are back to trying to make dinner quickly while my husband runs around with our toddler (or visa versa).  So, one of our go-to meals on a busy night: Fajitas!

Veggie Fajitas

Ingredients (I use the term loosely!)
2 bell peppers (green work well, other colors are marvelous as well!)
1 onion
1 TB canola or peanut oil
1/2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp ground cumin
dash of cayenne
1 can of vegetarian refried black beans
1 soy chorizo link (we like Trader Joe’s)
Flour or corn tortillas
1 tomato (chopped) (optional)
1 avocado, sliced (optional)
Salsa or vegan sour cream for topping (optional)

Directions:
1) Slice the peppers into long thin strips and the onion into thin 1/2 moons.  Then, pour the beans into a small saucepan and put them on the stove on low.

2) Heat the oil on medium high in a large wide saute pan.  When the oil is hot, add in the bell peppers and onion.  Use tongs to stir often – like a stir-fry.  You will stir-fry the peppers and onion on medium-high heat for about 7 minutes.  Meanwhile, give the beans one or two stirs to make sure they are cooking evenly.

3. After the peppers and onions have been cooking about 7 minutes (and the onions are translucent, and the peppers are a bit charred in places) add in the spices (chili powder, cayenne and cumin).  Stir until the spices are evenly distributed and then turn the heat down to medium.  Let them sit for a bit while you cut up the tomato, avocado and unwrap the chorizo.

4. Move the peppers and onions to the side of the pan.  Put the chorizo on the pan and let it sit for 3-5 minutes.  Then, flip it around and mix it up a bit so it heats evenly.  Keep it separate from the peppers and onions – unless everyone eating likes chorizo!

4. Heat the tortillas in the microwave (about 10 seconds on high) and then serve.  Let all the diners add what they wish to their tortillas.  In our house this feeds two hungry grown-ups and one toddler and leaves no leftovers.

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