Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic: Learning in the Culture of Poverty

images-2It was 7:30 a.m., and I was knocking on Rochelle’s apartment door.  It was dark inside, but she had asked me to take her to work and then to babysit her children until her mother returned from her doctor’s appointment.  Her elder daughter, Kalinda, opened the door.  She and her sister were dressed, and her brother just needed his shoes put on.  Rochelle was not quite ready.  It was the first time I had been to the apartment.  “I want you to come over, but I want to have it clean first,” Rochelle had always said.  This morning she said,  “We picked up a little bit for your visit.”   She had called me two days earlier when she realized she had a babysitting problem.

The apartment was physically in very good shape, but there were clothes and toys and boxes of food all over every room except Rochelle’s bedroom.  Four people make for a lot of laundry and a lot of mess.  It is a four-bedroom apartment; however, two of the bedrooms are used for storage for bicycles and toys.  The two girls sleep in bunk beds, and the five-year old boy sleeps with his mother.  I wasn’t quite sure where the grandmother slept when she was there.

When Rochelle was ready I drove her to her work with the children in the back seat.  I took the kids to breakfast after we dropped their mother off.  It seemed easier that way, and I knew the children sometimes didn’t get breakfast.  After breakfast we went back to the apartment and I discovered the reason it had been so dark when I had arrived.  There are no overhead light fixtures in the apartment.  The living room had two end table lamps, but when I tried to read a book to the youngest children I didn’t have enough light to read by.  The lamps needed higher wattage bulbs.  “Why didn’t you open the curtain?” Rochelle asked when I told her about my predicament.  That would have solved my problem, but it only works in the daytime.   I began to wonder where and how the children ever did their homework.  I also wondered how the children could read books on their own.  Rochelle told me that she sometimes did read books to them, but that looked like a difficult thing to do.  I finally sat on the floor under an end table light and the two youngest sat on the couch and looked over my shoulder.

Kalinda, the 11-year old, has problems in school.  She had an after-school tutor towards the end of the past school year to help prepare her for the State of Texas tests that were coming up.  She did not understand multiplication at all.  “She just doesn’t get it, and I don’t know why,” Rochelle had told me in an interview a few months ago.  Rochelle had always done well in arithmetic and just couldn’t understand why her daughter had a problem.  “I just don’t have the patience to work with her; I get frustrated,” Rochelle explained.  At that time I suggested flash cards; we went to a store and got multiplication and division flash cards.

When I finished reading the book to the youngest children, I suggested to Kalinda that we do some flash cards.  She looked excited and stopped looking at Facebook on the computer.  She went to the bedroom closet and brought the flash cards to me.  They obviously had never been used, but she wanted to show me what she had learned with the tutor.  “I never used to understand multiplication at all,” she said.  Kalinda did get the right answer on some of the flash cards, but when we tried 9×12 she had a problem.  She had a problem with 8×9, as well.  She starts division when the fall semester begins in four weeks, and without multiplication she will have difficulty with division.  If there is not a breakthrough at the beginning of the school year, which seems unlikely, Kalinda’s ability to handle basic arithmetic will go downhill fast from there.  “You just have to memorize these things,” I told her.  “If you use the flash cards you will learn the answers.”  She asked if she could use some paper to figure out the answer.  I told her that would be fine, but I didn’t understand how that would help.  It didn’t.  Kalinda has memorized the smaller numbers but seems to runs into problems above 5.  The combinations she knows may be the result of familiarity.  I’m not sure anyone has ever explained the process and necessity of memorization to her, or sat with her while she mastered her flash cards.

Rochelle’s apartment has four bedrooms, but no place is conducive to studying or learning.  There is very little light for reading, and flat surfaces are covered with clothing and other possessions.  The computer has its own corner, and the television, as in many homes, is the focal point of the living room.  When Rochelle came to my house for her weekly interview the next morning I asked her where the children did their homework.  “On the dining room table,” Rochelle said.  That wasn’t really available the day I was there because it was piled with clothing.  Four people plus a visiting grandmother can turn an apartment into a mess very quickly.  I mentioned the fact that Kalinda didn’t really understand that multiplication required, especially at the beginning, just memorization.  “She has trouble with her memory,” Rochelle told me.  This child has been diagnosed with learning problems, but I suggested if she had no problem memorizing 4×5 (and she doesn’t), she could memorize 8×9.  “Just use the flash cards,” I said, and offered to spend time working on flash cards with Kalinda.    Rochelle nodded, but Rochelle had no support at all when she was in school and doesn’t see how crucial that support could be to a child who is struggling in school.   “I just don’t have the patience,” she again told me. The coming academic year will not be easy for Kalinda.  She starts at a new school, and she can’t handle multiplication.  The youngest two children also seem eager to learn.  They have done well in school so far, but I fear for the future.

I wasn’t surprised by the difficult environment for learning I found in Rochelle’s apartment, except that Rochelle had not described it to me that way.  Rochelle has never experienced a supportive learning environment herself, so she doesn’t recognize the problems her apartment presents to her children.  After all, she has provided her children with a secure and relatively comfortable home, something that was entirely missing from her own childhood.  Education may be a key to finding the way out of poverty, but the obstacles blocking educational achievement are huge from the earliest years of childhood.  The lack of money in a poor household is one thing, but if one has lived in the culture of poverty for generations, as Rochelle has, the key is very difficult to find.

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Problems on the Horizon

images-1Rochelle’s world has been somewhat problem-free for over a month.  It has been the longest problem-free time since I have been interviewing her, and it did made me wonder what the next crisis would be.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out because she mentioned it last Tuesday during our interview.  The problem looming in the future surprised me since I didn’t even realize it was on the horizon.  She started the interview by mentioning that she was recently called by a city constable who wanted to serve her with notice from a debt collector.  She recognized the phone number as one she often had to call when relatives had jail problems.  “Well, I’ve used that number enough to recognize the beginning numbers,” she told me.  “At first I wasn’t going to call back, but they have my address and phone number, and now they’ll come looking for me.”  The constable wanted to serve her with notice on a long-ago defaulted debt.  A debt she had forgotten about and thought would never be a problem again.  Rochelle called and set up a payment plan; she had decided this would be cheaper than having to pay court costs later on.

The newly discovered debt did present a new financial difficulty, but then she mentioned something that could indeed become a serious problem down the line.  “I think I’ll probably have to move in January,” she told me.  “Why?” I asked.  “Your children are in school and a disruption and change of schools will be hard on them.”  The conversation about the constable had started her thinking about her uncle.  “Jerome is getting out of prison in January,” she said.  I asked where he was going to stay, and that brought up the problem.  “He probably thinks he’s going to stay with me,” she sighed.  Jerome had stayed with her before, though she isn’t supposed to have roommates when she is receiving Section 8 government assistance.  Jerome had helped with babysitting then, but he always goes back to drug dealing and is not a good influence on her children.  Rochelle thinks moving to a neighboring town will make it impossible for him to stay with her since he won’t have a car.  Her new job is less than a mile from where she now lives, and the children have been going to the same school for the last four years.  The town she mentioned moving to would require more for gas money and has heavy commuter traffic to her work.  The town is also not near any of the services she uses since it is in an entirely different county.  We talked about this for a bit.  I suggested she just tell him he couldn’t move in.  Jerome is her mother’s brother, however, and Rochelle knows many people put her up when she was a child and had nowhere to stay.  She has often let people stay with her for that reason, but Jerome isn’t a child.  He is 49 and does not seem to be changing his ways.

Things like this come up in Rochelle’s life all the time.  Jerome will probably end up in jail again, as he always has in the past, but moving to a different town to avoid a possible problem does not seem to be a sensible solution.  Rochelle admits she has just started to think about Jerome’s release from jail, so things may change.  “It doesn’t seem smart to pay more for gas and to live so far from work,” she said, as we finished the weekly interview.  I agreed with her and told her she had several months to think it through.  With luck she will see another way out of this dilemma.

Planning Beyond Tomorrow

images-5“I need to put a resume together,” Rochelle told me quite a while ago.  I think this actually was a year ago when her unemployment ran out and she knew she needed a job.  She asked if I would help her put one together, and I agreed.  Two days later she got the job at the home for the disabled and said she no longer needed to have a resume.  She got her new job at the grocery store without a resume, too, but when I was interviewing her last week we talked about the future.  The future is something Rochelle rarely talks about, and I’ve come to understand that, like a lot of people in her position, Rochelle deals in the present and has a very hard time moving her thoughts to the future.  “I’m just so busy every day I don’t have time,” is how she explains it to me.  She had again brought up the fact that she needed a resume.  “I would like to have a state job,” she told me when I asked what she thought a perfect job would be.  “They have good benefits and good hours and I know plenty of people who work for the state who only have high school diplomas or G.E.D.s.  “I know I’ll need a resume, though,” she said.  “I know, I know, I’ve brought that up before and didn’t get it done,” she admitted.

There are lots of things that come up in Rochelle’s life that get postponed repeatedly.  Her eldest child goes to middle school in a few weeks, but she hasn’t yet registered her.  I suggested a “to do” list–a written “to do” list that she has to look at every day.  She says she puts thing into her smart phone to remind her when she needs to do something. “That’s not working,” I said.  We meet again this week, and I’ll bring it up again.  Our interview about thoughts on the future isn’t finished.

Yesterday, while researching “culture of poverty” on Google, I came across a column by Esther J. Cepeda of the Washington Post.  She had been a high school teacher and had been strongly influenced by Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.  She read the book in preparation for working in a low-income school district.  “Being proactive, setting goals and planning ahead are not a part of generational poverty,” wrote Ms. Cepeda.  She had learned this in her training.  She goes on to say,  “Also pervasive in the culture of poverty is the sense that time isn’t for measuring, that it occurs only in the present, and that the future exists only as a word.”  Though perhaps somewhat overstated, this certainly struck home with me having now interviewed Rochelle for what will soon be a year. I knew it described much of the thinking in Rochelle’s world.

Ms. Cepeda’s column is titled “Culture of Poverty Shapes Educational Achievement.”  She mentions that her trainer, Ruby Payne, also writes, “Most of what occurs is reactive and in the moment.  Future implications of present actions are seldom considered….devices for organization such as files, planners, etc. don’t exist.”   Well, this was not the first time that I had read about the problem;  however, the column I read was recent. And having read it just after interviewing Rochelle about her lack of planning , it was educational and struck home.  Of course, as Oscar Lewis pointed out more than fifty years ago when he introduced the notion of the culture of poverty, a lack of planning among those who live in this subculture, however maladaptive, is both comprehensible and in the short term, rational.   They know almost no one who has planned carefully and succeeded.  Maybe it works for middle class people, runs their thinking, but not for their friends and family.  And as for delaying gratification in favor of a greater future goal?  That goal will probably never be achieved so you might as well grab what you can right now.  Is it wise?  Of course, not.  But is it understandable?  You bet.   Planning beyond tomorrow will be difficult for Rochelle, but to move forward she will need to see herself in the future and to plan for it.  Luck could happen, but for most people, successful plans are what guide them forward.