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Vol. 28, No.4
Summer 2014
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Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty

Reviewed by Harper B. KeenanAdd to Cart Purchase a PDF of this article

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap

By Paul Gorski
(Teachers College Press, 2013)
216 pp.

Eric tugged on my arm. “Mr. Keenan, can I have some construction paper?” I sighed. There wasn’t any more construction paper. There wasn’t any more paper, period. I’d been given three small packs of paper for my kindergarten classroom in September and was told to “make it work” due to budgetary restraints.

I was in my early 20s, two months into my teaching career, and had already spent a good chunk of my entry-level paycheck on supplemental arts and crafts supplies. My initial idealism about my capacity to make change in the lives of my students at a Brooklyn public school was beginning to fade. Like other high-poverty schools, my school received a Title I designation from the U.S. Department of Education. We received extra funding intended to, as the law states, “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.” As I looked around the room for scrap paper for Eric, I knew there was nothing fair about this situation. The Title I funding wasn’t enough. It seemed that little would change for my 5-year-old students without an overhaul of the economic structure. But what could I do with them in the meantime?

Paul Gorski’s new book, Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, seeks to equip educators with practical strategies for fighting economic inequity within the classroom. He is careful to acknowledge that the struggle for educational equity will not be won without a broader movement for economic justice, but maintains an unfailing belief in the power of educators to build more equitable learning environments. Central to achieving this goal, he writes, is that educators must deeply consider what it means to be a poor or working-class student at school.

Part of what makes Gorski’s argument effective is that he draws on the experiences of his own working-class family. Referencing the experiences of his Appalachian grandparents, Gorski seeks to debunk the popular myth of meritocracy:

If you’ve had parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles who, like mine, worked long, back-breaking, thankless shifts as coal miners or custodians or other sorts of low-pay laborers, you know, like I do, that the suggestion that they are poor because they don’t work hard enough is ludicrous.

Instead, he insists, “the system is rigged” in favor of wealthy families who are able to pay for high-priced academic services and educational resources like tutoring, academic summer camps, and expensive computers.

The book describes the “opportunity gap” for low-income students, a phrase coined in direct contrast to the popular notion of an “achievement gap.” Gorski argues that the latter term fails to acknowledge “inequities in working-class and poor families’ access to a wide variety of opportunities and resources outside of school.” He explains that Title I funding is hardly enough to make a dent in school inequality, offering “less than a 5 percentage point boost,” insufficient to cover such expenses as “the basic maintenance of their buildings, which are more likely to be outdated and dilapidated than schools in wealthier neighborhoods.” He also points to unequal access to early childhood education, support services in and outside of school, affirming educational environments, experienced teachers, current technology, higher-order curricula and student-centered pedagogy, and opportunities for family involvement.

This certainly rings true with my experience as a teacher in Brooklyn, where I faced challenges far beyond not having enough paper. Access to public pre-K programs in New York City is extremely competitive, leaving low-income students who don’t make the cut with few options, while their wealthier peers find spots in private preschools. The principal at a school where I worked told me to drop social studies and science instruction, where my students engaged in valuable critical thinking about their environment, in favor of spending more time on scripted phonics programs to compensate for my students’ “language deficiencies.”

In Chapter 4, which focuses on critical analysis of stereotypes of the poor, Gorski directly challenges the idea of language deficiency, calling it a “dangerous stereotype given the extent to which students’ identities are associated with their languages.” Referring to multiple research initiatives, Gorski acknowledges that low-income and working-class children begin school with more limited reading abilities than wealthy students, but states that there is no evidence that this is “connected to a language use deficiency or that it reflects parental disinterest in education.” He refutes the notion that students who speak nonstandard English have underdeveloped language abilities, insisting that “more than 100 years of linguistic research points to the fact that all languages and language varieties are communicatively equal because they are, in their contexts, equally complex and coherent.” Although educators have a responsibility to support students in developing “the varieties of English that will help them gain access to the fullest range of educational and vocational opportunities,” we “should do so without denigrating the language varieties spoken in students’ homes and communities and without wrongly assuming that students’ language varieties are indicators of their intelligence.”

Gorski explains many practical strategies for teachers working with children living in poverty, including regular incorporation of cooperative pedagogies in which students work in pairs or small groups to make sense of academic material. He also suggests weaving art, music, and theater into the classroom, arguing that “in-school access to the arts has a motivating effect on students who generally feel alienated at school.” Integrating movement and exercise into classroom instruction also provide an opportunity to “take advantage of links between physical activity, brain power, and learning.” Although these suggestions are rooted in extensive research, Gorski takes care to avoid one-size-fits-all prescriptions for teacher practice: “You know your students better than I know them and better than any researcher or educator cited in this book knows them.”

Recognizing that these are not problems that can be solved within classroom walls, Gorski urges teachers to participate in national campaigns for educational equity, including the fights for universal early childhood education, smaller class sizes, and wraparound support services.

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty is a must-read for educators in schools of all kinds. This accessible, highly relevant book empowers teachers with tools they can use today. Read it, talk about it with your friends and colleagues, and use it as a guide for your next project in educational activism! Our students’ school experiences will surely be better for it.