Academic Success in the Culture of Poverty

Damion HackettThis is the anthropologist sister, Jessie, again.  After last week’s post about the educational difficulties Rochelle’s children face, I’ve been preoccupied by the problem.  I think a lot about education, because that’s what I do for a living: I’m a faculty member in anthropology at a large, public university.  The university I teach at is not particularly distinguished, but it is oriented toward research, and its students are overwhelmingly middle class and white.  For most of them, going to college was not a hard won triumph; it was merely the expected next step after high school.  It is exciting for them not because they are looking forward to exploring new ideas, but because they are getting away from home and living on their own, without parental constraints.  The content of their courses is not particularly interesting to most of them, but they know that their incomes and life choices depend in large measure upon having graduated from college.  So they’re going to do it.

But getting into college, let alone graduating from college, depends on a lot more than the popular American myth of success through hard work and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  It’s not just hard work.  It’s not just good teachers.  It’s not even just parents who care.  It’s a whole constellation of social, cultural, and economic factors that provide an atmosphere in which children are able to prosper academically.

Take a look at the apartment Rochelle and her children live in.  It’s in good repair and safe.  It has adequate furniture, a computer, and the environment is stable.  Rochelle has worked very hard to provide this home for her children, and it is in stark contrast to the environment in which she grew up.  Her children aren’t moved from household to household, left with relatives for indeterminate periods of time, and ignored or taunted by their caregivers, who fail to feed them regularly.  They aren’t left alone to fend for themselves, and they’ve never watched a house burn down with their cousins dying inside.  So to Rochelle, the fact that her apartment is strewn with clothing and toys, has no regular spot for the children to do their homework, and no adequate lighting is not even noticeable.  Her children’s situation is such an improvement over her own as a child that its shortcomings are invisible to her.

Kalinda the eldest child, is now 11, and has been diagnosed by the school system as a “slow learner.”  She does not strike the casual acquaintance as “slow” in normal conversation.  But she is certainly not academic.  She has been teased in school, partly because she is overweight and partly because she has been labeled a “slow learner.”  None of this makes school or what goes on there very enjoyable for her.  Although she has recently had the services of a school appointed tutor, as well as a “Big Sister,” who takes her on various outings, there has been little continuity or intensive support for her academic difficulties.  Rochelle works full time and is frustrated and annoyed that Kalinda has difficulties with arithmetic that she never had, herself.  So, despite some real attempts at intervention, there is no systematic approach to the problem.  By contrast, I remember my own daughter, now 29, having problems with arithmetic in second grade.  Her teacher let us know about the problem, and I swung into action.  My mother and one of my sisters had had serious problems with mathematics that lasted a lifetime, and I didn’t want my daughter to be handicapped by math fear.  I made flash cards, and we worked on them every day.  Once a week we went out to a fast food fish restaurant (my daughter’s favorite at the time), where we reviewed the week’s work and celebrated with fish and chips.  It worked, and Leah ended up in the advanced mathematics program.  But that kind of intervention depends on a parent with the time, the experience, and the conviction that educational obstacles can be overcome.  It was luck, not virtue or intelligence, that resulted in Leah’s mathematical turnaround.  She (and I) had been born into a fortunate slot in life.

Kalinda is having trouble learning arithmetic, but so did my mother and my sister, both of them members of Phi Beta Kappa.  In fact, my sister used to call me at the end of the semester for help in figuring out her students’ final grades–she didn’t really understand percentages, despite her PhD.  No one ever thought she was “slow.”  No one ever believed she was a lost educational cause.  Of course, my sister is white and middle class.  Kalinda is not remotely slow at learning aspects of her culture that make more sense to her.  She likes to wear sparkly, “sexy” clothes, and strikes “sexy” poses for photographs, though she is only eleven.  She recognizes the approval her sexy aunt, the exotic dancer, receives from the family, and clearly wants to emulate her.  No one in Rochelle’s family is academically or professionally successful.  There are no role models for Kalinda in that realm of life.  Certainly, teachers tell Kalinda and her fellow students that they need to do well in school so that they will ultimately do well in life, but how meaningful is that for Kalinda and students like her?  Rochelle knows the same thing: her children need to do well in school so that they will do well in life.  But whom does Rochelle know for whom that has been true?  Literally no one, I suspect.  Education may truly be the key to prosperity, the door to the path out of poverty.  But what is the key to the key?  What is the door to the door?  For most people living in the culture of poverty, discussions about the value of education seem mostly like empty words, aimed at someone else.  Of course, there are remarkable people who come from Rochelle’s world and through education succeed in escaping into the middle class.  But the numbers are far smaller than affluent elites like to believe.  Like all cultural systems, the culture of poverty reproduces itself generation after generation.  Serious commitment to social and economic intervention is the only way to interrupt this pattern.

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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.