George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

From Wealthy to Homeless: Meaningful Learning in a Classroom with a Range of Backgrounds

August 27, 2015 Updated August 26, 2015

One of the prime truths of teaching is that effective instruction establishes connections between what students see inside of the classroom and what they see outside of the classroom. Teachers can easily familiarize themselves with what happens in their classroom; many of the educational and social experiences students encounter in the classroom are the result of deliberate teacher planning. What happens when students return home from school, however, is more difficult to accommodate.

Last year, my first grade classroom was home both to wealthy students and students who stayed homeless shelters. I sought to illustrate to my students that they all had the capacity and responsibility to learn in my classroom, no matter where they came from, but this socio-economic divide presents teachers with a challenge: How can we teach high-quality, accessible instruction to every learner in our class, regardless of their family’s income?

Instead of interpreting socio-economic diversity as a deficit, here are some ways we can use our students’ backgrounds to create significant learning experiences:

Know Your Students

To discover what kind of experiences our students are bringing into the classroom, we can take the time to view them not only as learners, but as people. Sometimes, just being available to listen to them at recess, during lunch, or after school can give us insight into what our students value. Every student has something they are proud of, something they are worried about, or something they are excited for regardless of their social background. Getting to know students as individuals helps us frame the content we teach with ideas our students care about.

An important aspect of getting to know our students is reaching out to their families. I used to walk my students outside after school, greet their family members, and say something encouraging about their student before departing. I also wrote positive notes home for students whose caregivers were unable to make it to school functions. Families, regardless of their salary, want what is best for their children. When we take the time to familiarize ourselves with a student’s family, we communicate that we value their role in their child’s education. We also increase our understanding of our students' viewpoints.

Don’t Make Assumptions

An essential, yet uncomfortable, step in this process is to check our own biases about socio-economic status. There is no way to avoid it- everyone holds implicit assumptions based on their experiences. As teachers, it is critical to take some time to think about our preconceived notions about wealth and consider how they affect the way we treat our students.

Did we discipline a student based on the assumption that he has had everything handed to him in life? Are we hesitant to redirect an off-task student who we assume does not take the lesson seriously? It is wrong to assume a student who comes from a single parent, low income family does not value his education, just as it would be a mistake to assume that a student from an upper-class, well-known household cannot be experiencing hardships at home.

As painful as it may be, we have the responsibility as teachers to educate our students with fairness and respect without defining them solely by how much money they have. We can practice critical self-reflection of our teaching approaches to ensure that we are interacting with  students based on their demonstrated needs, instead of our own unfounded biases.

Incorporate Student Backgrounds into Learning

Although our students are much more than their circumstances, where our students come from is an important component of who they are. As teachers, we can validate our students by letting them share their stories and interact with the content we teach.

There are simple ways we can give our students to bring their perspectives to our content. Instead of asking direct questions to check for comprehension, we can ask students to make a connection from the text to their own lives. Rather than assigning a paper, we can institute partner talk or a small-group discussion in response to an assigned text. We can pose a realistic, relevant problem to our students and ask them to solve it mathematically. Journaling is also an easy way to let students respond to a lesson. I used journaling in my classroom as a warm-up. I prompted students with a question based on a recent activity and let them write about it for a few minutes. Later, I took the time to read and reply to their thoughts. This let them know that I valued their words and insights.

When we invite our students to utilize their personal perspectives in our lessons, we allow our students to see themselves reflected in the content, and more powerful learning takes place as a result.

Provide Students with Shared Experiences

When working with students who come from a variety of social and income backgrounds, we have the benefit of shared classroom experiences. We can give our students an event to experience together to ensure that they all have sufficient background knowledge to draw from. This can involve shared reading on informational topics, taking a class trip to a museum, or conducting a science investigation within the school. A common experience can give all students information to use in their learning, whether the experience is new or repeated. I once taught “how-to” texts by carving a pumpkin in front of my class. The students easily recalled the steps I took and wrote out their own instruction manual afterwards. Generating a small, shared experience gave my students a base to build their content knowledge upon.

Hold All Students to High Expectations

The most important theme in teaching a classroom with a wide variety of socio-economic circumstances is that all students have the power to exceed our expectations. Students from low, middle, or high class backgrounds may require different tools to achieve this success, and for some, it will be harder than others. In a school where many social classes are represented, we know that our students may not ever have equal access to resources outside of school. They will, however, have common access to the same teacher who respects them and insists on their best effort each day. We must keep our expectations high and do our best to make sure all students have what they need to reach them.

Teachers cannot control what our students see outside of our classrooms. We can only hope to use our students’ diverse experiences to improve our teaching, expedite their learning, and create positive outcomes for their future.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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