In the landscape of identity issues such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, family structure, religion, and ability/disAbility, I often hear from colleagues, teachers, students and school leaders that there is one topic that seems almost too difficult and taboo to address: socioeconomic status.
The other day, a teacher emailed me to ask how to be proactive in setting up a classroom environment that honors and respects the diverse socioeconomic spectrum. Her concern, much like of other teachers, is that we are about to go on Spring Break. For some of our families, Spring Break is a time of travel and leisure. Some of our families will travel internationally to see family, friends, or to return to a favorite vacation spot or home. Some of our families will stay home, be cared for by family or extended family, or be engaged in a camp or day-care learning environment. And, some of our families will find creative ways to get through two full weeks of vacation by taking turns off from work, bringing children to their work place, finding sitters here and there, or setting up play dates during the work hours so their children will not be home alone. This range of experiences exists at Park School, and this also exists at many other schools in our country.
This teacher was wondering: "How do I engage the students, in an age appropriate way, to be excited about the break from school while also acknowledging that this is a conversation about privilege and access?"
Truth is, I stared at her email from about five minutes. I began to draft an email. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and cut them out. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed and I was still down to "Dear ____, what a great question."
To buy myself some time allow myself the space to respond thoughtfully, I promised this teacher a blog post.
Truth is, I have stared at this blank screen for about fifteen minutes. I began to draft a post. Then I deleted it. I tried again. Then I highlighted whole sections and ... well...
You get the picture.
To me, just like race, ethnicity, religion, faith, sexual orientation -- class is an identity. Class isn't just about how much or how little we have; class is also about how we understand money, how we learn about money and wealth, what our relationship is to money and wealth, and what those factors mean to us. Class is about how we behave, how we relate to, and how we manage conversations about ourselves and our earliest messages about class and identity. Like other cultural identifiers, these conversations can be difficult for some, easy for others. But, once I began to understand class as a cultural experience, talking about it made much more sense to me. I became more open to learning about the experiences of people from socioeconomic backgrounds both of my own and outside of my own. I became more open to asking questions about what they learned, what they saw, what they shared and what they felt. And, I became more open about sharing my own, too.
I can tell you how I deal with conversations about class in my own family. Not long after school started, my children began to tell me about the new friends they had met. They told me about how nice their peers were. They told me how a friend showed them around when they got lost. They told me how they learned the culture of the school -- where to put your backpacks, what to wear to a school dance, and what kind of activities people sign up for after school. They also told me about the ways in which their new friends spent their summer vacations: traveling around Europe; spending the summer in Hawai'i; upgrading to the new iPhone.
I knew what I had walked into. My children were sharing aspects of class. Of culture. Of socioeconomics in a way they have not experienced themselves. I admit, the reaction in my heart was of sadness. Between the lines, I could hear the question, "Why don't we do those types of things?" in their voices. I could hear them teetering on adolescent jealousy. I wanted to say something that would help them feel better. I wanted to give them something that they could share when the topic of summer vacations or long weekends came up.
Instead, I did the opposite.
I told them that those experiences sounded really interesting. I asked them if they had good questions for their new friends -- what could they learn from their adventures. I asked them, "So, did they tell you what they saw in Europe or what they learned?" or "Did they feel any different being outside of the United States?" or "How did they describe the food in Hawai'i? Was it good? Ask them what they thought tasted the best!" or "Ask them what they enjoy most about the apps on their new iPhone or what kind of music they like to listen to in their playlists. Which songs on their playlist make them dance? Make them laugh? Make them cry? Make them sing out loud like no one is listening?"
I want to teach my children to develop a sense of wonder and of curiosity about other people. I want them to see that it wasn't about what their friends did or what we did, or what they had and what we had; rather, it was about what we could all learn from each other's experiences. How could we open our own hearts and minds to the experiences of others? How do we develop humility? How can we model asking about experiences and developing a real sense of curiosity for each other's lives?
When I travel to different schools and this topic of socioeconomics comes up, I often find that teachers turn to the "just don't talk about it" approach. They tell me that they never ask the students, "How was your weekend?" or "What did you do this weekend?" But, they then get caught in this bind of, "But am I teaching children to be ashamed of their experiences? How can I nurture this sharing without making people feel badly about themselves for having too much or not having as much as others?"
For our younger students (and, of course, all our students!), there are ways in which we can frame questions or prompts to guide their learning and sharing. Below are some prompts you might put up during your morning circle time or in your warm-up for the day. Do these questions and prompts solve our tension and apprehension about socioeconomic status? No. Of course not. Do they help us get closer to teaching and modeling curiosity, wonder and respect for each other's experiences? Possibly. Maybe. Do they help us start our journey towards finding what works for our classrooms, our age groups and our Selves? I hope so -- would love to hear how these worked out, if you try some of them!
"During this vacation/long weekend, ..."
- I felt happy when __________.
- I felt proud when ____________.
- I noticed that ____________.
- I learned that _______________.
- I was interested in _____________.
- I was curious about ____________.
- I wondered why ______________.
- I read ____________.
- I heard __________.
- I listened to _____________.
- I shared _____________.
In our lower division, I have often snuck into morning circle and closing circle (it's my favorite time of day!). Brilliantly, teachers have set up structures for all students to feel heard and affirmed. I can imagine, after this activity, each student simply saying 'Thank you, Carly" or 'Thank you, Alan" after each statement. This acknowledges that the contribution of each student is important in our classrooms.
Will this work on the playground or the lunch room or the free-period in between classes? Likely not. But, it does help equip our students will the skills to talk about their vacations or long weekends in a way that shifts from "what I have and where I went" to "what I experienced and what I can share."
I'd love to hear about the strategies and ideas you have used at home or at school, too! Feel free to send me an email and let me know!
Also, while this post was about personal and relational engagement about class, our friends over at Shady Hill School spent a whole year talking about institutional approaches to discussing socioeconomic issues. Check out this great article by Head of School, Mark Stanek about this issue.