What's Happening in Character?

Examining Poverty & Cultivating Empathy: Three Books that Will Expand Your Perspective

Posted by Rebecca Sipos on Mon, Nov 9, 2015 @ 13:11 PM

By Becky Sipos

The first is Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, my book club’s nonfiction selection this month. I thought the horrific stories of life in the slums of Mumbai, India, would be too awful to read, but Boo’s empathetic portrayal really drew me into their lives. I cheered for Abdul, the young garbage sorter, who works hard to get ahead, and was intrigued by Zehrunisa, his mother, whose efforts so often backfired despite her best efforts. As I got to know the complexity of the people, I was appalled by the corruption in society. But even when I felt that some deserved some blame for certain outcomes, I certainly understood and empathized with why they did what they did. I liked that Boo did not just focus on the terrible things. She showed the fun and playfulness of flagpole ring toss, teenage girl tell-all sessions and more. The book gave me a look at an aspect of society I had never really contemplated before. As a former journalism teacher, I read with amazement wondering how she gained the trust of her subjects and got such details of their lives. It also made me think how important it is that she makes us look at something we’d normally not notice. Now that we’re aware, what should we do? The author said in an interview: “If we don’t have all the time in the world to make things perfect, we can still make incremental and meaningful improvements. And seeing what’s wrong—seeing it clearly—seems to me a crucial part of beginning to set it right.”

I got the same exercise in empathy in the second book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Eden and H. Luke Shaefer, which is the November book selection by Michelle Singletary who writes the Color of Money column in The Washington Post. She chose this book (quite different from her usual financial advice works) to get her readers out of their comfort zones. As supermarkets are overstocking their shelves with traditional food items, she wanted readers to stop and think about the deep levels of poverty in America. Like Boo, Edin and Shaefer tell heart wrenching stories of the poor, but they weave their stories among historical discussions of welfare and safety-net programs. Also like Boo, they show the complexity of how people end up living on so very little and provide perspective that should keep people from just saying people should just work harder. It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t even have boots. The authors ask, “Can our desire for, and sense of, community induce those of us with resources to come alongside the extremely poor among us in a more supportive and ultimately effective way?”

Thinking of ways to help brings me to the third book, Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools, which brings the issue of poverty into schools. I got introduced to this book when I attended ASCD’s Whole Child Symposium on Poverty in May. One of the authors, Kathleen M. Budge served on one of the panels, but I got to speak more with her co-author William H. Parrett whom I met in the audience.What I like about this book is that it offers hopefulness and clear guidance. It shows that there are schools with high enrollments of underachieving children and adolescents who live in poverty that have reversed long-standing dropout rates and low achievement. Our 2015 class of National Schools of Character showed similar success stories as 21 of the exemplar schools indicated 51% or more of their student population were facing poverty. [You can read their stories in our Schools of Character magazine.]

So we know that it’s possible to bridge the achievement gap, but the attitude persists that because students from severe poverty come to school way behind other kids, teachers can’t be expected to get them to reach the same levels as those who start so far ahead. There is the sense that society must solve the problems of poverty first. Schools can’t be expected to do it all. But the authors state, “systematically eliminating poverty is a both/and proposition because transformation must occur in both the broader society and in schools.” This book is not a quick read as the other two were for me. It’s designed to be instructive and for a faculty to learn from together.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • The first part “Learning Together: Getting Ready to Lead Underachieving Students in Poverty to Success” is designed for educators to read and discuss.
  • The second part “Leading Together” gives specific actions that successful schools have undertaken. Each chapter includes a self-assessment rubric and a planning template for next steps.
  • The third section “Working Together” is a review of the framework for action and challenges educators to confront the reasons that we have not yet ensured every high-poverty school is high-performing.

While the book includes a lot of examples of effective things schools have done, the focus is on actions to take, not storytelling. But I recall one of the speakers at the Whole Child Poverty Symposium. I was so impressed by her emphasis on doing whatever it takes to make her students successful. For example, when parents weren’t showing up at school events, she went to their homes to find out why. They said they worked all day, then had laundry and too many other obligations. So she installed a washer and dryer at school and told the parents: “You volunteer in your child’s class and you get one load free.” With more than 90% of her district’s students living in poverty, she says school leaders have to be creative with the resources they have. [Visit www.ascd.org/wcsymposium to see a video of her remarks.]

ASCD speakers stressed that for the first time in recent history, the majority of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families. They are less likely to reach proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams than their wealthier peers, and 22 percent of children who have ever lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. The issue of poverty is one we must all address. At a Schools of Character event in Maryland recently, I heard the assistant superintendent of education offer a challenge that I’d like to share with you: “We cannot be satisfied with public schools until everyone of us would be willing for our own children to be randomly placed in any one of the schools.”

Topics: empathy, Book Review, Poverty