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Writing through Poverty

graduatesI’m feeling pretty grateful as I’m writing this post because I’m reminded of what I take for granted. I’m sitting in my temperature-controlled office in my comfortable chair typing on my newer computer. I have no worries about where I will sleep tonight, or how I will feed myself or my children. I have no physical ailments or mental barriers preventing me from focusing. I don’t have any chemical addictions pulling at my every thought. Yet, many of my urban, community college, basic writing students wrestle with combinations of these on a daily basis. To me, overcoming and dealing with these struggles seems nearly impossible.

That’s not to say that some haven’t. Some of my students are incredible success stories—true inspirations. And I can’t express how proud I am to have been part of their learning experience. But, it’s the others that weigh on my mind.

I’ve been researching urban inequality, and it has become increasingly clear that poverty—deeply systemic poverty that has spanned generations—simply can’t be ignored in the college classroom. As sociologist William Julius Wilson outlined in his book, The Truly Disadvantaged, this kind of poverty developed from a loss of manufacturing jobs, the flight of work from the cities to the suburbs, and the ever-widening income gap. And, as technology continues to rule industry, access to and the successful completion of education is a key factor of moving up the economic ladder. The kind of poverty my students are living in results from generations of loss outside of their control.

Let me say that I’m setting aside the “cultural of poverty” argument, that the urban underclass lacks the motivation to improve their lives because they don’t know any different. Students who take the effort to attempt a college entrance exam, complete the paperwork, make their way to campus often by negotiating multiple bus lines, clearly don’t lack the motivation to get out.

But, even with that drive, these are the statistics they face in the US:

  • 13.7% of people ages 18-61 live in poverty (2012).
  • 14.5% of households are food insecure (2012).
  • 31.6 % of households headed by single women live in poverty (2010).
  • Students ages 16 to 24-years-old from low-income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from families with higher incomes.
  • Fewer than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of incomes enroll in a four-year school.
  • Less than half of those will graduate.

What does this mean for urban community college writing teachers? There is something worth acknowledging here. Something that requires our attention as educators and asks us to step back and see our roles within the much larger framework. We must understand that environment affects the ability to succeed—even in writing. Their responsibilities as students in my class weigh heavily on their minds while they struggle to secure the basic necessities—including the technology education requires. Our students are fighting for an education in an environment set up for failure.

So, what do we do? I have no clear answers here. I wish I did. I’m certainly not advocating that we give them carte blanche to skip deadlines, excuse irresponsible behavior, or have different expectations of them than their fortunate counterparts. Many of my students would write about the incredible hardships they had faced (drug addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, gang activity, murders, the list goes on). For them, writing was a way to move through some of it. And, when I have shared these stories with other teachers, some reacted with, “I don’t want to read about that”. But, maybe it’s our duty as educators to read about it and educate ourselves about our students.

So, while I don’t have the solutions, I sure hope we will keep talking about it. Because turning our backs, or pretending that these conditions aren’t intensely disabling our students, perpetuates and strengthens an already grueling climb out of poverty.

Sources: National Poverty Center; Feeding America; DoSomething.Org;

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