Experiences are key to learning
This summer, my wife and I are taking our first vacation without kids in 23 years. We have been fortunate to have taken our daughters all around the world. They have experienced cities, mountains, oceans, museums, and more. Travel enables people to see the world in new and different ways, and provides background for new learning.
We also exposed them to whatever enriching things we could in the Cleveland area, visiting parks, museums, zoos, going to concerts and plays, music lessons, camps, and much more. Our daughters had every possible advantage and incorporated their varied experiences into their learning in and out of school.
I recently visited one of our union-sponsored classes, put on by teachers for teachers, where there was a discussion about early-age reading. What would a first-grader be able to understand? What contextual clues would help one to comprehend the text? The examples were easy for an adult to decipher and understand, but only because our experience helps us to do so, even when we don’t realize it. The class participants picked apart various sentences and discussed what knowledge the reader would need in order to understand the text. One example referenced an art gallery. If a child sounding out that word had never seen an art exhibition, the child would probably not understand it.
One of the teachers mentioned that he has had students who have never left Cleveland Heights, visited a museum, or seen Lake Erie, and other colleagues concurred. When we talk about poverty affecting children’s poor scores on standardized tests, this lack of access [to enrichment opportunities] for many of our children is one of the root causes.
Our students are as smart as any, but many do not have the same opportunities for enrichment that my own kids had. Their parents or guardians want all that is best for their children, but may not have the means or backgrounds to be able to give it to them.
For many of our students, school is tough because they do not have the reference of experience [to understand] basic contextual clues that are inherent in even the simplest of texts.
This is not an excuse, but a reality [indicative] of the hard work our teachers must do every day to fill in these [experiential] gaps as much as possible. This is why teaching reading and writing is not a simple task, but one [that requires] enormous attention to detail.
Picking apart a basic sentence and being able to help students [gain whatever] hidden knowledge is [needed to understand it] is not simple work. Teachers must challenge every preconceived notion of a child’s experience. Imagine teaching children with identified special needs, some of whom are new to this country and to English, and children like mine, all in the same class.
My wife and I are proud of our children, and know that we have been fortunate in being able to offer them a wide variety of enriching experiences. Our children grew up in a home [full] of books, with parents who have master’s degrees and time to spend with them. We do not love our children more than parents in our community who have not been able to provide [their children] with [similar] experiences.
Our students are hungry to learn and excel, but grow frustrated at times. This is our biggest challenge—one that requires flexibility and resources in a time when less support is offered by the state and federal governments.
We don’t need the next “new educational thing” that will fix us. We need more people in our community to understand the impact of poverty, and to volunteer in our schools.
We also need to continue our work in the school district developing partnerships with community agencies that offer school-based services to broaden opportunities for our students.
Poverty does not have to mean there is no hope, but it does mean that our students need more resources and time.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.