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Children and poverty: How teachers overcome barriers

By Bayne Hughes
DAILY Education Writer

hughes@decaturdaily.com 340-2432

Dustin Lee's sad story is an example of one of the many issues Somerville Road Elementary School teachers and staff deal with almost daily.

In her book "When Poverty's Children Write," Decatur native Bobbie Solley shows how teachers overcome the barriers in this Decatur school where more than 90 percent of the children qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program.

Solley, a Middle Tennessee State University professor, came to Somerville Road in February 2002 with a preconceived notion that she would work with the teachers on teaching writing.

A Decatur native and daughter of middle class parents, Solley said she experienced the unexpected as her consulting work turned into a full-fledged research project.

"I wasn't aware of what poverty is really all about," Solley said. "I guess I just shut my eyes to what children of poverty must endure, like not getting to eat breakfast or dinner — lunch at school would be their only meal. I shut my eyes to a child dealing with his home burning down."

Somerville Road Principal Joyce Johnston said Solley "captured the essence" of her school.

"The book shows how much our teachers care, and how students can't learn until every need is met," Johnston said.

Solley features Missy Gann, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, and her class on the book cover. Gann said Solley taught the teachers about writing and they taught Solley about teaching poverty's children.

She spent more than a year interviewing teachers and pupils and collecting data for her book.

"I think she gives a true picture of what happens in the classroom (in the book)," said Gann, a 17-year veteran. "She shows that we have to meet the children's needs before we can talk about writing."

Eight-year veteran fifth-grade teacher Marisa Pedings said she wouldn't teach anywhere else, although teachers often become substitute mothers first and teachers second. They've seen pupils come to school hungry, unbathed and wearing dirty, hole-ridden clothes.

"The kids need me here," Pedings said.

Teachers try to turn their classrooms into a loving and nurturing environment.

In her book, Solley says adults disappoint children of poverty so often that they are slow to trust.

"Low socioeconomic homes are many times characterized by unpredictability, instability, stress and anxiety," she writes.

Solley writes that children of poverty are lacking in oral communication because of the differences in casual language used at home and school's more formal language. These children are often more skilled at nonverbal communication such as hand movement, facial expressions and body language.

Talk with them

"One of the best things a parent (can do) for a child, regardless of financial status, is talk to them — no, talk with them," Solley said. "You should ask them questions and answer questions. Tell them to explain their thoughts."

Solley said children of poverty lack the life experiences that more affluent children have. Gann and the other kindergarten teachers raised $1,000 last year for field trips to give their pupils some of these experiences.

Solley writes that, while children of poverty often do not get to experience family trips and other advantages that wealthier children do, using their personal experiences is a way to get children to feel "more valuable."

"Children (of poverty) aren't going to understand and be able to write about things like flying in an airplane or building a snowman," Johnston said. "But they can describe what a hot dog tastes like or how much fun it is to play in the sprinkler."

Write about experiences

When they first come to their classes, pupils write about their experiences. Teachers tell pupils to focus on the story, and not worry about the grammar and spelling.

As the pupils become more comfortable expressing themselves in writing, teachers slowly work on correcting grammar and spelling.

"You can drill, drill, drill grammar and spelling, but the kids don't connect that with writing and understand that it's an important way to communicate," Solley said.

Read with them

Solley's advice to parents, rich or poor, is to do two things to prepare their children for school: Read to them and talk with them.

She points out that many sources of reading materials exist, "whether it's a book from the library, a newspaper or a comic book."

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