51%

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Donna Beegle about poverty. Donna grew up in a family of migrant workers, and worked her way through some incredible circumstances to eventually receive a Ph.D in communications, write a book, and now works as an advocate and consultant.

During her talk, I was first introduced to ACES, or Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey. The survey looks for different types of childhood experiences that are considered traumatic: anything from a divorced family to severe childhood abuse. The higher the score, the more adverse your experiences were. This is important research, because many of the symptoms of a child growing up in these circumstances mimic the symptoms of children with diagnoses such as ADD and ADHD, but the interventions recommended for these separate issues are clearly very different.

Donna asked the audience to take the quiz, and the audience of over 200 educators had an average score of 4. Donna then discussed with the mostly white, mostly middle class audience how our score affected our lives, and how our students lives are so very different. She discussed Ruby Payne’s work, and how when you grow up in poverty, you have to learn a whole other set of hidden rules in order to make it in a middle class world, and these rules are not communicated to you the way they are to a middle class child (for example: I was an adult in my 30s before I had ever heard the word ‘escrow’ before).

Dr. Beegle trains poverty advocates, individuals who partner with folks living in poverty, to teach them the hidden rules and help them navigate through the system. Things like how to get a library card, how to register to vote, where to go to get your license, how to apply for a loan, etc. These are all systems that are already in place for middle class families– their children are brought into these systems, and so explanations are often not required. But a child living in poverty learns an entirely different set of rules and systems, that do not translate into a middle class environment (for example: I know how to siphon gas, how to shower without running water, how to stay warm without heat, etc)

As we drove home from the conference, my colleagues and I discussed the talk.  And of course, we compared scores. I had the unhappy renown of hitting the high score in the car with an 8 out of 10.

As we talked more, I was surprised, as I often am, at the many things about middle class living that my colleagues (whom I deeply respect and admire) took for granted. I made a commitment that day that I needed to start talking more about my childhood growing up in poverty, because I needed my colleagues to understand that stories like Dr. Beegle’s (stories like mine) are possible for everyone of our students. Too often as a kid I ran into well-meaning teachers who would (quite literally) tell me to settle for less because that’s as good as I would get– from the guidance counselor who would not help me with scholarship applications to the teacher who would not let me take an advanced placement history course my senior year– even though I had all the right pre-requisites, because she needed to reserve the seats for those that were ‘college-bound.’

I had just such an opportunity the other day in a finance committee meeting at Schoolcraft, as we were discussing our policy about food service balances. As every school in the nation does, we have some students who have a high lunch balance that goes unpaid. It is Schoolcraft’s policy to ALWAYS feed these children, regardless of their balance, and work out the balance with adults later. 

This policy existed before I came onto the scene, and I just had to give them team props. I remembered back in my day (not so long ago!) when I had been asked to do janitorial work in exchange for school lunch. I would scrape the trays and wash tables for my middle class classmates, having to miss a little bit of class so that I could eat before they arrived, and coming back a little late so that I could finish cleaning up the cafeteria. This was my experience from about 2nd grade until 7th.

Once I went to junior high, it was the practice of the school just to simply not feed kids who couldn’t pay. I will never forget the hot shame I felt one day when I didn’t realize there was no money on my account and went through the line, and the cafeteria worker took my tray away from me and threw it in the trash. That was the only meal that I was going to eat that day, and there it was, wasted in a garbage bin.

51% of the students at Schoolcraft qualify for free and reduced lunch. This is higher than our state percentage of 38%. Many other families in our school do not hit the qualifying metric for this distinction, even though their families struggle.

It is a point of pride at Schoolcraft that our kitchen serves fresh, home cooked meals every day. Our chef is often seen peeling real potatoes, cracking real eggs, and serving real chicken (no ‘mystery meat Mondays’ at Schoolcraft). We do not give an option for chocolate milk. It is an important part of our culture that our scholars are being given the right tools that they need for learning, and we believe that this includes their physiological needs as well. I am proud to work in a place where there is no stigma attached to being one of the 51%, where kids are blissfully ignorant of the financial situation of their peers, and instead, we can all focus on working and learning together.

 

The wand chooses the wizard.

“We’re canoers now, Mom.”

That’s what my 4 year old son told me, just a few minutes after we got on a canoe for the very first time. I’d been paddling him around the shore of our lake place in Two Inlets, MN, our golden doodle Tucker lying at my feet, my 7 year old daughter in a blue kayak just a little ways behind us.

 

I recently had a great conversation with one of my colleagues who has a degree in environmental education. He’d like to see the outdoor education program at our school deepen and expand (as we all would). One of the things he said to me was, “I’d like to see these kids define themselves by what they learn here– I want them to say, ‘I’m a climber,’ or ‘I’m a mountain biker.'”

I have been thinking about what that means. What distinguishes someone who is something from someone who does something? For example– I write blog posts. I am not sure I would call myself a writer. I’m also the Director of a school– I haven’t been responsible for a single classroom for a few years. But if someone asks me what I do, I still say, “I’m a teacher.”

I read a great book about professional learning communities called Professional Capital. In it, the author asserts that until a person has grounded their identity within their membership of their team, the team is not really a team. Here’s a thought exercise: if your organization closed it’s doors tomorrow, would you or your team members say, “I just don’t know who I am anymore,” or, “I just don’t know who I would be without this organization,” than you may be a true team. Conversely, if you have a group of people who would say something like, “Hey, if my school closed it’s doors tomorrow, I could just go start teaching somewhere else,” without an ounce of regret or sadness, than maybe you don’t. The difference is that the team members who feel like their identity is wrapped up in the organization is going to work harder to make sure that it survives.

I remember when I read this, I thought immediately about gangs. In my experience working in inner city and impoverished schools, the kids joining gangs do so because they are looking for acceptance. They want to belong to something. They want to be on a team! I realized that it’s even deeper than this– they are looking for their identity. The want to know who they are– and a gang (or any team!) will tell them: You are what you do, and this is what we do.

This is why kids who are in sports, scouts, piano lessons, etc, are less likely to join a gang or fall in ‘with the wrong crowd’– they already have a place where they belong. Their identity is grounded in their team. They already have something that they can ground themselves in: I am a pianist, and pianists do XYZ, and pianists DON’T do XYZ. I am a football player, and football players do XYZ, and football players DON’T do XYZ. Etc.

It is also why people often credit the military with giving them a home they didn’t know they needed, or why they feel like things just seemed to fall in place once they joined up. Once they understood the rules of the culture they were a part of, and started to emulate that culture in their own lives and choices, they felt like they were a part of something. They became.

Don’t get me wrong– I am not a crazy Jets vs. Sharks lady who feels like the lines between conventions can never be blurred. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. What I’m saying is that when people feel like they have somewhere they belong, they thrive. When they feel like they are a part of something, and that their membership in that group is crucial to the group itself, their self-worth rises. They become crew, not a passenger.

For many years, Schoolcraft has been asking the question– What makes a Schoolcrafter? How do our kids stand apart? If you put an 8th grade Schoolcraft graduate next to an 8th grader from anywhere else, what’s different about us? Where is our identity? What defines us? If someone asked them, “Who are you?” Would our kids answer, with pride, “I’m a Schoolcrafter”? Would my staff? When my students are absent, do they feel like their crew was missing something vital and important? If not– how can we build those structures so that our kids know that being at school is important, that they are wanted and needed? Because I can tell you: there are plenty of other organizations that make our kids feel this way. Why shouldn’t they feel this way at school?

Ask yourself: What are you? Who are you? What do you do? Where do you belong?

Ask yourself: What is my classroom? What do the kids do? How do they feel– not just comfortable, safe, and welcome– but truly like they are part of the identity of the class? How do you curate experiences to help kids feel like we need their individual input in order for the crew to thrive?