It's 8:45 a.m. and a creative AP English teacher greets her students with handshakes and high fives. But they're not as energetic as she is in the morning. Many of them have been up all night with babies, on late-night jobs, or preparing their brothers and sisters for school in the morning. Some of her students have been couch-surfing for months because they don't have a stable home. This teacher doesn't know each student's specific story, but she’s equipped with something most teachers don’t have—she grew up with the same experiences as these kids. She is the product of the same low-income, urban environment, and she knows firsthand that it comes with a plethora of different issues, pains and challenges. More and more low-income students are taking the AP exams every year (thanks to federal funding, which unfortunately may now be in danger). Thanks to committed educators like this one, the scores are going up as well. But what if you haven't had the same experiences as these students? Here are five tips for connecting with AP students from challenging backgrounds.
1. Build Trust, But Not the Way You Think.Establishing a connection between us and our students is vital to creating a positive classroom environment. However, many of the teachers I've spoken with think this means to share personal information or to listen to their stories. Although I am a strong supporter of allowing students to vent, I would caution teachers from telling students personal information, especially those in poverty. Even though many of our students may need parental figures, crossing that line may be costly. Many times students in poverty are in survival mode so a teacher who is too open with such a student could open him/herself up to ridicule and even personal attacks. The best thing to do is tell the students your role is to be a teacher. You cannot be anyone's parent. Once a teacher establishes this expectation, a student will better understand when you are unable to come to an event, bring them something to eat or aid them with supplies. Believe it or not, students in poverty feel more safe with realistic expectations rather than a false hope of having a pseudo-parent. A great rule of thumb is to only do for one student what you can do for all students.
2. Help Them Personally Connect With the Subject Matter.Creating an aesthetic connection between our students and the subject, especially elevated literary texts, is essential to ushering our students into both understanding complex concepts and fostering a desire to read works outside of their normal social construct. We can do this by studying the environment students live in, the colloquialisms they use and their opinions about social/political belief systems. For instance, I taught Shakespeare's “Othello: The Moor of Venice” using the neighborhoods in their surrounding areas in relation to Venice (a place of affluence), Cyprus (the in-between, a middle-class suburb), and the places of Othello's captivity (the "’hood" or a neighborhood where there is abject poverty). I used an exercise that included students thinking about which type of neighborhood they thought they lived in; then, I asked them to write on the paper the music they heard in those neighborhoods. Once they did, we evaluated the messages in the music. We learned from our observations that the students who lived in the ’hood were more likely to listen to music that glorified violence whereas students from the "Venice" or "Cyprus" neighborhoods listened to a variety of music. After that discussion, we looked into Othello as a tragic hero who may have been more prone to violence than love, which could have possibly been the reason why he didn't trust Desdemona and ultimately killed her. Murder was all he knew. After doing this, students looked past the difficulty of reading Shakespearean English and embraced the message behind the play.
3. Give Them a Voice.Just like their wealthier peers, students in poverty can benefit from Socratic seminars, inner-outer circles, debates and even TED talks. Here’s a documentary one of my students made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDQ_H_faWRY When we refuse to give students an outlet for their thoughts, they will use their voices anyway, but it will be an interruption instead of a chance for learning. In my classroom, I provided each student with a sticky note on their desks for writing down their random thoughts. Then I used the last five minutes of class to read the notes. Many of them were questions about the lesson or connections to other lessons, while some of the thoughts were, admittedly, random. Once I implemented this strategy, interruptions reduced and the notes became increasingly about the lesson. Here my students lead an AP prep session. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0s2GPuvqUc There are many ways to give students a voice when we are willing to be flexible and creative. I've talked to numerous teachers who are afraid of giving their students control over the classroom, but that trust is vital if you want students to reciprocate that trust in us as teachers.
4. Keep a High Bar. Don’t Fall Into the Belief Gap.Having high expectations is a must with AP students in our urban areas. Often teachers believe minority students and children in poverty have too many pressures and responsibilities to handle the same amount of work as their non-minority or more affluent counterparts. Moreover, teachers do not feel "those students" even have the capacity to learn elevated concepts because they appear to have so many deficits. However, students in urban areas—especially those who are gifted—can rise to the occasion but lack the opportunities to do so. Giftedness and intellect manifests in many different ways, and as educators we need to look for ways to overcome our biases and interweave culturally responsive teaching strategies.
5. Make Time for Creative Expression.Allowing students to take control of their learning and make decisions about their work is tough for teachers to do, yet essential. Many teachers feel uncomfortable when students are “talking too loudly” or are “all over the place,” so they end up dominating the class time with lectures, not allowing the students to participate. When the teacher leads every discussion, the students often don’t arrive at their own conclusions or learn how to take control of their own learning and creative processes. My suggestion is to allow students in our biggest classes more time to collaborate through creative modes of expression such as poetry cafes/slams, cyphers, and even music video creation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNIckc20oj4 Here is a satirical piece done by an on-level English class, but guess what—they did AP level work too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj0NWXPMubQ In my experience, the more we trust students in urban classrooms to lead their own learning, the more they engage in all of our lessons and instruction. At the end of the day, as the teacher, no one can tell us how we should teach. Therefore, everything in this article is merely a suggestion based on the successes I've had with urban students over the years. I won't sugar-coat it, teaching in a high-needs school is not an easy task. Just keep in mind that there are ways you can do it that will send you home feeling fulfilled rather than simply hoping you will make it through the week without walking (or running) away. In many cases, we are all these students have. Once they know we care, they will rise to the occasion. Once we allow them to lead and realize their potential, they will succeed. Believe me, I should know. Because I was one of them.
Photo of students leading an AP prep session.
Yolanda R. Whitted is a middle school English language arts and reading teacher in Washington, D.C., as well as an advocate for urban gifted and talented youth in poverty. Whitted was once herself an urban, unidentified gifted and talented student living on Chicago's South Side. Now, she feels understanding her story, challenges and triumphs helps Whitted to be a great support for both students ...