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Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Sep 4, 2016

How can teachers support and advocate for students in poverty?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How can teachers support and advocate for students in poverty?

By Angela Watson

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. 

Today I’ve invited Zaretta Hammond to be a guest this week on the podcast. I was introduced to Zaretta by a good friend of mine who had the privilege of talking with her and immediately wanted to connect us because of the similarities in our missions and passions. I checked out Zaretta’s blog, ready4rigor.com and was just so impressed by her ability to take really important, complex topics and make them accessible and practical for classroom teachers.

Zaretta is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain and describes herself as a former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter. Her full time role in education now is supporting teachers in closing the achievement gap as they work with culturally and linguistically diverse students. She has a heart for serving students in high poverty schools and has a tremendous amount of wisdom to share on that topic, as well. Thank you, Zaretta, for being a guest on the show!

Use the audio player below to listen in as I talk with Zaretta:


Zaretta, I want to talk first about the “pedagogy of poverty” as Martin Haberman first termed it. I can tell you from my own teaching experience which was almost exclusively in inner city, Title 1 schools, that it felt like my students were not getting the same learning opportunities as the kids in schools that served wealthier demographics. The district had decided that our students were struggling with reading and math and therefore they were ONLY going to do reading and math, all day every day, and for months at a time, there was no science, social studies, or anything else.

As much as we hear about the power of learning opportunities like Genius Hour and makerspaces, these types of things seem to be mainly happening in middle and upper class areas. That’s my perception–does that match up with what you know to be true from your research and personal experiences?

Angela, it certainly does. There are a lot of misconceptions about the capacity of students in high poverty schools. Yes, many of them are struggling and many of them are underperforming, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not capable. And I think the main thing that we have to do is shift from this idea of control and behavior management and discipline.

If you go into some of the high poverty schools, you start to see they almost look like they are military bases, where the kids are in strict lines and can’t talk as they’re passing in the hallways. That’s not the optimum conditions for the brain to learn.

So I come through neuroscience to a lot of the work that I do, looking at the research around how the brain learns best, how we create the conditions for students, no matter what their socio-economic status is, to be in that right learning space and frame of mind.

And we know that in high poverty schools, going the route of this hyper-focus on control and behavior management is taking us in the opposite direction. So we have a tendency then to overcorrect with taking out recess and taking out social studies and not doing the engaging things, and instead doing more drill and kill, and that doesn’t lead to the learning results that we want.

Ok, so this is definitely an issue in a lot of schools. What would you say to a teacher who is being told to perpetuate this kind of system? I know on your blog, you’ve talked about how teachers can make a difference for their students by examining their classroom structure and routines and rituals. What can an individual teacher to be more intentional about creating a deeper, more meaningful learning environment even when she or he is told to focus on test prep?

I think that’s a really good point, because a lot of teachers are conflicted. They are getting this message that scores need to go up, students need to be performing well, but at the same time, the conditions that they create aren’t the optimum for learning.

So what I tell teachers is, you really have to do two things in high-poverty schools, and that is create a climate of high trust and low stress to get the brain calm and to help students be in this wonderful state of relaxed alertness, so that they are really curious and leaning into learning. And then what we have to do is actually create more engaging instruction.

So even if you have to do test prep, right? You’re being told to do it by your principal, why not make it a game? You still have a lot of leeway as a teacher to make that content engaging. You can turn it into matching games. You can turn it into sorts. You can turn it into charades.

There are a lot of things that you can do to actually make learning more engaging, and that actually feeds into two things: It feeds into what we know about how the brain learns, that it learns in active, engaging ways, but also it ties it into making content more culturally responsive, which is more communal, more group-oriented, more interactive, particularly if you are in a high poverty school that has higher numbers of students of color. This is going to actually allow you leverage the ways they already learn outside of the classroom, so you’ll actually see more engagement.

Here’s the other thing I think is really important for us to remember: The more engagement you have, the more students have to actually work to process the information, the more that you will have on-task behavior, prosocial behavior.

So the need to actually have this hyper-focus on behavior management or discipline or control actually falls away. It’s when the brain is bored that kids start getting into mischief, right? The brain likes excitement, so it actually will create a ruckus if no real learning or if it’s not being challenged in any way.

That’s another misconception, I think, that kids in high poverty schools don’t like productive struggle or challenge. Every brain likes challenge, this is why we play video games or kids do puzzles. So the more you can make learning interactive in that way, I think the more you’ll see kids lean in and the result is learning gets stickier. Kids actually retain more. They actually make more connections.

So it’s really this two-for-one, right? You get more on-task behavior, but you also get higher learning. Those don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The other thing I’ll add is this idea of rituals and routines. One of the things that we know, particularly when you have high poverty schools that have higher numbers of students of color that come from kind of communal or collectivist cultures, finding a way for them to be in community and work with one another, creating that sense of a team or a family in the classroom and allowing them to have rituals and routines that allow them some ownership of their learning, becomes really important.

The more students feel like they have ownership and agency in the classroom, the more they’re going to be confident as learners. The more confident that they are as learners, the more they are going to lean in and be active during times of struggle. They’ll see that as learning rather than as failure. That’s part of what Carol Dweck talks about with growth mindset. So it’s another lens through we we can actually think of both mindsets when we put kind of that cultural lens on it.

The more confident kids are as learners, the more they lean in during times of struggle. --@ready4rigor Click To Tweet

I love your ideas for helping teachers advocate for students. I want to take that a step further. What can we as educators do to help support kids in advocating for themselves? As much as I like the idea of empowering kids in poverty, even that phrase can be a little diminishing because it assumes that we as teachers have all the power and are “generously” sharing it with students, when the truth is that our students have a great deal of power already within them. Can you talk a little bit about student agency?

I think it’s a really important piece, and I talk a lot about the idea of academic mindset. We all have internal self talk. What we do know is if students begin to see themselves as not capable and not competent at math or good at reading, then that’s the story they tell themselves. And every student has a story, right? Even the confident learner is telling himself a story or herself a story about, “I can do this, even if it’s a bit of a struggle.”

One of the things that teachers can really do for those students that may be having some confidence issues is to really help them rewrite that internal story. So a teacher starts with a counter-narrative. The difference is a counter-narrative isn’t a pep talk. It’s not kind of pie-in-the-sky thing.

The student knows when the teacher’s being genuine or not, but it’s really this idea of, “You know what? You are capable.” And pointing out to the student, “I saw you do X during reading time. I know you’re capable,” or “Remember that time when you … “

So in many ways, the counter-narrative is the teacher actually reminding the student and pointing out progress or showing the student where they were capable to help themselves so the student transfers those skills or that capacity into a new domain.So these counter-narratives, the way the teacher pulls this idea for the student until the student starts to internalize it for himself is really an important part of what should go on in the classroom in a high poverty school.

And you can do it in some fun and engaging ways, right? You can do it through poetry. You could be reading an uplifting piece of poetry every morning that kind of gets students in that frame of mind. You can listen to uplifting songs. One teacher I know had her students create what she called a “power song playlist.” So just like baseball players have their walk-up music that gets them pumped up, or boxers have their music, or athletes have something that gets them kind of in the zone, she did this for her students so that it built on the counter-narrative that says, “I’m capable, and this is how I try, and this is kind of me moving myself forward.”

So student agency flows out of that internal story we tell ourselves. Until a student believes it, he’s not going to act on it. And so part of that work is getting that student in that academic mindset and really helping him see himself as a confident learner even through the hard parts, and that’s one of the important things, helping students navigate the hard parts.

In high poverty schools I see a lot of teachers who misinterpret students struggling through the hard parts of the lesson, as we all do. Things get hard, your capacity dips before it comes back up and you master something. A lot of teachers will see that struggle as confirmation that the student’s not capable, and then, again, water down the content or take out the Genius Hour or the makerspace until the student masters these basics.

And we have to kind of flip that script. We actually have to say, “Students will get more confident, students will have more agency when they have more confidence in themselves.” And the way that we can do that is to actually help them kind of get in that zone and encourage them through some of the challenging parts.

And I think that’s a big part of kind of being culturally responsive as a teacher, as an educator, is really being able to understand traditionally how students in high poverty schools may have not had the best start, either because of community conditions or even because of earlier educational experiences. If they’ve had a teacher or come from a school that was more focused on behavior management and control and test prep, at some point, we have to kind of turn that around and give them makerspaces and the Genius Hour and the opportunities to do more interactive high-level learning.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the brain research behind all of this, and what we know about how a student’s culture programs the brain to process data and how it affects learning relationships. What has your research on neuroscience taught you about what teachers can do to help students (particularly those in poverty) be successful and take charge of their learning?

That’s a really great question. And I think that the answer is simple, but at the same time can be complicated to actually think about how you change your practice to make it happen in light of the current emphasis on control and behavior management.

But the idea is you really need to have high trust with students. So students really need to build a different kind of relationship with teachers. Teachers need to have a different kind of relationship with students. So I call it a learning partnership. So rather than just being friendly with students, how do you actually partner up with the students and build what we call an “alliance.”

And this is where what we know about the brain chemistry is when students and teachers are trusting each other, the oxytocin is flowing, we let our guard down, we show ourselves more vulnerability as learners, and the teacher can actually get in there and help the student in a new or more powerful way.

So that learning partnership is built on trust, greater rapport, and the teacher has to move from being kind of a sentimentalist — “Oh, poor baby” — to having a warm demeanor. And a warm demeanor isn’t just strict and, you know, cracking the whip. The warm demeanor is this interesting mix of personal warmth and what they call active demandingness.

It’s not enough to have high expectations and then being able to take that learner into the zone of proximal development, you know, Vygotsky talks about that’s where the brain grows, that’s where the dendrites start to sprout and their neural pathways are laid down.

So we have to be able to get learners into that zone of proximal development, but that’s where you’re stretched a little bit. And the learner won’t go into that zone without a trusted teacher or peer. And so the teacher really has to build that relationship, so that when it comes time to push, the teacher has the student’s permission to push. 

The warm demander offers care and push. And the student actually looks forward to this.

Interestingly enough, even though the students say they have more fun with the sentimentalist type of teacher that are really kind of over-friendly and they’re buddies, but the student is still struggling, they actually don’t have as much trust with that teacher, because they know they’re struggling as learners.

So it’s kind of this interesting dynamic where the teacher’s under the impression that “Well, we’re all good. I’ve got good relationships with my students” but the student really doesn’t trust the teacher to help them as learners. So being able to kind of move yourself toward that warm demeanor puts you in that spot where you can use more of the neuroscience of what it takes to get students in that kind of sweet zone of proximal development.

As we wrap up, what’s something that you wish every single teacher knew about working in high poverty schools?

I’d want them to understand that every student comes with assets. We’re not actually leveraging their funds of knowledge, and I think the more we can actually ask them what they think about subjects or what subjects they have deep understanding and we contextualize the content that we’re offering around real-life experiences, problems to be solved, issues that might be confronting them in their neighborhood.

I hear a lot of teachers say, “Students don’t have any assets. Our students don’t come with knowing anything.” It’s just we’re looking in the wrong way.

For example, if they’re studying water in the biology class or IN the science unit, why not look at the politics of water? Why not look at, “Is there a drought in our city?” Because then students have a reason for actually learning it. They come with some understanding and some funds of knowledge. I really want teachers to see students as having assets and knowledge to build on that, but also not worrying about what’s happening outside of the classroom.

We can’t change poverty. We’re not going to be able to change it. But we can certainly start to change the climate in the classroom so that we can offer up a much more engaging, much more challenging instruction for our students.

Thank you so much, Zaretta, for your time and for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us. If teachers want to learn more from you, where should they go?

I blog at ready4rigor.com, and that is probably the best place right now. Soon I will be having other online courses that teachers can take to build their capacity as culturally responsive educators. I do a two-day institute every fall, every spring and every summer in California, and we’ll be actually doing that around the country as well. So stay tuned at ready4rigor.com, and you’ll get more of that. And they can sign up for the newsletter, and that will always keep them up-to-date on what’s coming up.

Thank you! I always close out the show with something that I call The Takeaway Truth–a short but powerful sentence or quote that I want teachers to remember in the week ahead. Can you give us a Takeaway Truth for this week, Zaretta?

I would say that your job as an educator is to help students be the leaders of their own learning. Help them gain the confidence that they need, because they want to learn. They are hard workers, and when you can look at those behaviors with new eyes and help them change that internal story, you are going to see them blossom.

In high-poverty schools, create a climate of high trust + low stress to calm the brain--@ready4rigor Click To Tweet

This episode is sponsored by Kiddom, a standards-based platform helping teachers personalize learning. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of content, with beautiful, actionable reports. And the best part? Kiddom is free! Visit www.kiddom.co to learn more.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.See blog posts/transcripts for all episodes

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. This is amazing! Thank you Angela and Zaretta for an amazing interview. A couple of thoughts that I have.
    1. I know as a teacher I need to let go of my need to control my students. From what I’m reading quiet, docile classrooms don’t equal engaging learning. I do wish I had fewer students. This year I am blessed with 31 students at the moment, but any day I could have 35 (or even 36!)
    2. All children deserve a challenging, provocative, and meaningful education. Our children who are economically disadvantaged need it even more than their middle class peers.
    3. We certainly have to teacher the ‘what’. But the ‘how’ is up to us.
    4. Student confidence, this is a struggle. We don’t want to over scaffold content. Feeling comfortable in the classroom is important. It is important to point out what a student has accomplished in the past, and remind them they are capable.
    5. Being a warm demander is better than being a friendly sentimentalist.
    6. Finally, I know I need to work on building some community. Many of them respond better to teamwork, rituals, and a feeling of family. This certainly goes back to the fact that I really want my students to feel safe and loved.

    Thank you for an excellent podcast and blog!

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