Back to School Isn’t Great for Everybody

Back to School Isn’t Great for Everybody

It’s back to school season and my teaching friends are posting photos of their classroom decorations on Pinterest and asking for lesson plan recommendations. Parent friends are Instagramming photos of last minute vacations and their kids with their shiny new shoes and bright, overflowing backpacks. I too, have fallen under the spell of special edition crayon packs and the possibilities of a nifty new binder.


Yet, in the midst of all this excitement, I am thinking of some other kids; students whose families are struggling with poverty, who are going back to school without – without a carefree summer break behind them, without school supplies, without proper clothing, without lunch money. Twenty-one percent of children in the U.S. living below the poverty line, making this an all-too-common back-to-school experience in schools across the country.  


We know that the chronic stresses of poverty can change a child’s brain; inhibiting ability to manage behavior, language development and memory, among other challenges. And while addressing these issues can be complex, there are so many things we can do to help a young person face a new school year – starting with not shaming them.  


That first trip through the lunch line that singles out free lunch students from their peers. Public “unboxing” of school supplies in the classroom. Or one of my most hated first day activities ever: “Draw a picture/tell us what you did on your summer vacation,” Followed closely with the Family Tree activity assigned under the guise of getting to know your students.


Social class, race, gender, family make-up and other social differences dramatically influence how a child perceives school. When handled poorly by teachers and schools, these differences may leave a negative and indelible mark on their memories of school, not to mention their engagement with learning.


Just brainstorming here, inviting you to create a kinder, gentler back to school this year and helping kids focus on learning instead of the shame and stress of being poor and different.

Outfitting kids for success

Encourage your school and/or teacher to adopt a “shared” supply policy so each student has equal access to what they need to complete assignments and activities. And, collect supplies in such a way that won’t embarrass students who don’t have them. Secondly, most schools have their supply lists posted in popular stores such as Target and Walmart. If you are able, grab a list and outfit a student for the year, or add a few items to donate to a local classroom.

Learning at home.

We could debate the value of homework all day, but most schools are still dishing it out. Homework assumes quite a lot about a child’s home life – starting with the child having a home. Beyond that, we assume that they have a place where they can do their homework, an adult able and available to help and, the means to purchase homework and project materials.

 I’m a huge advocate for outfitting a “project closet” where students can source materials they don’t have at home and to provide the tools they need for projects, or the school science or history fairs. In my classroom, I had grab and go bags of supplies that any student could use when needed. No check out/check in system, just a note inside saying to return the bag so it could be refilled. Sometimes my students were helping their siblings, too and I kept them stocked and available with donations from local non profits and stores. And don’t forget high school students. A stack of planners to supply students who don’t have one would be as a good as gold in any high school.  

Great minds start with full tummies.

Thank you President Truman for the National School Lunch Program; hunger is bad for learning! Yet, as they are implemented today, school breakfast and lunch programs single children out by requiring them to come to school early or, by providing only the very basic foodstuffs the program will allow, while more affluent children receive “fun” meal extras like cookies or nachos. These cues are easily read, and everyone knows who is “poor enough” to get free lunch, often prompting those in the program to skip meals all together. Recently, the news has highlighted stories of schools calling out students publically (or refusing meals at all) because their parents cannot pay their portion of the reduced fee or, they are not enrolled. This is disgraceful.

 Some school districts are extending free lunch to all students. Everyone getting free meals means no one is singled out for their socioeconomic status, and goes a long way to help destigmatize poverty at school. That’s a big move and one not all districts can afford. What else can you do?

 Educate yourself on your school’s policies and procedures and speak out for practices that protect each child’s privacy and dignity. Encourage your local food bank to start backpack programs that provide take home foodstuffs right at school so students can have nutritious meals at home, too. Or, you might just grab a gift card to a local grocery or superstore to gift to a teacher to supply his/her snack drawer for a student who is obviously hungry and distracted.

One of the most effective ways we have to reduce poverty is through education. This year, as we relive memories of joyful school days of years past, let’s work together to ensure we are giving all children the chance to reach their full potential today. As the bright new crayons and shiny backpacks hit the shelves, let’s act on our impulse to get engaged. It can be as easy as purchasing a box of crayons or as big as running for the school board. Maybe your book club or church group could adopt a classroom or pursue one of the ideas here? The key to strong communities is to get involved, and as a wise colleague once told me, no effort on behalf of a child is ever wasted.

Happy Back to School!



Movie Night

Movie Night

Nothing says, “kick back and relax” like a movie night.  Laughter, suspense, a good scare or satisfying cry…movies meet you where you are and make it all better. There is something indulgent about turning down the lights (at my house it’s so I can’t see that I need to dust) popping up a big batch of buttered popcorn and joining another world for a couple of hours.

I love movies and sometimes when I’m down, the best way up is an evening with one of my favorite, inspiring characters. Are they movie teachers? Sometimes.

For many educators, teacher movies represent all of the reasons we can’t get any respect; why the public has so much trouble understanding the complexities and challenges of our profession. When I Google “teacher movies,” the results could easily be a textbook example of “what is a stereotype.” There are the total horror shows (think Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher or Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter) and the savior-saints as portrayed in Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.  Some bullies turn up as well, such as the crass Mr. Woodcock, or the more refined, but no less hurtful Professor Crawford in Finding Forrester. Many kids count the aptly named Miss Trunchbull from Matilda as their worst nightmare. I endured one or two bully teachers in middle school, and they ruined any hope at all of my liking, or feeling confident with, maths. Forever. I hate bully teachers. But the worst of all may be the losers; the teachers portrayed as incompetent and clueless. Lazy, mediocre individuals who could only be employable as teachers, as in “those who can’t, teach.”

Movie teachers are often one-dimensional. They are not portrayed completely in realistic context, an individual teacher can single-handedly banish generational poverty or institutionalized racism and, you never see them writing their lesson plans.

For all of the damage they might cause, the movies do offer inspiring educator role models – without diminishing the integrity of serious, professional practitioners. And for all the consternation I felt, there were some scenes in Bad Teacher that honestly made me belly laugh.

Yep. I think tonight might be movie night. Which teacher would you like to spend the evening with?  Here are a few of my favorites:

Miss Riley in October Sky

Mr. White in McFarland USA

Mr. Rago in Renaissance Man

Mr. Cameron in Spare Parts

Principal Jacobs in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

I almost forgot Ridgemont High’s Mr. Hand. He’s a favorite. When he shows up at Jeff Spicoli’s house? The best!

Out with the bath water

Out with the bath water

 It’s time to throw out the baby.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to deal with students coming to my workshops and events toting crying plastic dolls all geared out with bottles, blankies and a car seat.  Just as we’re tucking into a really great discussion, the artificial tot starts to scream, the eye rolling, groaning, and laughing commence, and everything screeches to a halt while the terrorizing toy is attended to.

You know the program, right?

Teen girls (Yep – just girls) are assigned one of these faux newborns for a short period of time – typically a week. The battery operated bundle of joy uses wireless programming to track and report on the care it receives from its teen parent;  diaper changes, feeding, mishandling actions, (which we can assume to mean ignoring, shaking or dropping ) and time in a car seat etc.

The theory is that given this short inconvenience (one that the teen knows will end in a few days) a young lady will abstain from sexual activity. Lesson learned. Teen pregnancy problem solved.  It could be called “Annoyed Sexless.”

The interesting twist to this theory is that there is almost no evidence that this approach works.  In fact it might make the problem worse.  In a 2016 study, girls who went through the baby reality program were 51% more likely to become pregnant teens than their peers who didn’t go through the program. This held true even when the researchers made allowances for factors like socioeconomic status.

Not the magic doll you were looking for?

There is no question that helping teens transition into a productive, healthy adulthood is a daunting challenge. Adolescents get more sexually transmitted diseases than any other age group, they get in trouble with the law more than any other age group; and when they drive cars, they drive faster than any other age. But if we’re really going to improve outcomes for the generation that will manage our Social Security and care for us in our old age, we’ve got to do better than these synthetic polymer newborns.

What works?


  • Education that encourages both abstinence and contraceptive use.  And no, educating a teen about sex does not lead to promiscuity. According to Johns Hopkins University researchers, “Young women who have had sex education appear less likely than those who have not to become pregnant. “
  • Service learning and other approaches that engage young people constructively in their communities and schools.  Why? It builds empathy; the ability to think about how one’s actions can impact others – and a key attribute in good decision-making.
  • Accessible services like health care, academic assistance, sex education, performing arts and individual sports programs, and employment assistance.
  • Relationships – with pro-social peers, and with adults who care about them.
  • And my favorite:  Inspiring kids to find their passion and run toward their interests rather than scare tactics designed to get them to run away from taking control of their own futures.


P.S.  Way back in the day, my fellow seniors and I were required to take a class called “Adult Living” that included a low-tech version of this charade. By carrying around an uncooked egg and returning it unscathed, we would miraculously be inspired to abstinence.  Of course by then we had already been experimenting with “adult living,” and it’s quite a leap from the dozen back-up eggs it took to get an “A” to having knowledge sufficient to being healthy and safe.  After almost forty years isn’t it about time for something that really works?

Do It Anyway

Do It Anyway

There is nothing quite like helping another human being succeed. Being witness to a hopeful young person walking through a previously closed door, and grasping the opportunities found beyond that threshold, is life-changing. How lucky I’ve been to earn my living by helping make that happen. Yet this morning, I’m not finding the courage to do it.

It is common knowledge that rich students have many advantages in the college process, and that merit or capability is sometimes passed over in favor of applicants with other qualifiers such as being a legacy, belonging to a powerful, connected family or, having parents with the means to promise some sort of financial commitment to the school in exchange for a positive result.

As entitled as all that sounds, the latest scandal has somehow managed to “level up” the lengths to which the elite will go to ensure they remain that way.  Faking a disability, buying test scores, doctoring records and lying about co-curricular achievements are all easily accomplished….with the right amount of cash.

Which returns me to my dilemma. What am I to say today to my mentees; students of color, recent citizens, from modest financial means, the first in their families to strive for college? How can I motivate them to compete in a high stakes game for which they possess only half the equipment needed to play, in a contest where not every player must follow the rules?  I have decided to tell them to run forward and do it anyway.

To the amazing young people who have entrusted me with their future:

Your road to a college degree will be infinitely harder than that of your richer peers. Finding the money to pay for tuition, books, and fees, and still put a roof over your head, will be a constant worry. But there are ways, and means, to get there. Dig in, use all the resources available to you and put together the funds you need.

Even though your family couldn’t afford competitive club sports and you haven’t had the opportunity to travel the world (or even to another state) you can still be a compelling and well-rounded applicant. Build yourself up.  Volunteer, join groups that interest you, read (a lot) and surround yourself with people who are interesting and think in ways that are new to you.  It is true that who you know is important, but even though you haven’t inherited an A-list network, you can go out and build one of your own.

Plan to succeed. Be the best student you are capable of. Take challenging courses, hone your writing and problem-solving skills and squeeze every advantage you can from the free public education you are being provided.  Being a great student, a great thinker, and a life-long learner – is evergreen. No matter the college or career you choose.

Despite the struggles that you have experienced (and the uphill climb you still have), the fact that you are thriving shows tremendous resilience. The inequities of poverty and race are crushingly real, and I don’t mean to suggest that you just put a positive spin on it. But through these experiences, you have developed perseverance and positive habits of mind that you can turn into a tremendous advantage – at college and in the workplace.  

Will you go to Harvard? Maybe, but most likely not. Still, know this: the elite colleges are not the only way to success. Warren Buffett (University of Nebraska) Vice President Joe Biden (University of Delaware) and Oprah (Tennessee State University) all attended state public universities.  It’s all about how hard you work and leverage what is offered to you.

Take your shot and get rich. Probably not Forbes List rich, but rich in a career you love and are great at; rich enough to live bigger than payday to payday. Travel, pursue a hobby you’ve always wanted to dive into, raise a family, and join in as a valuable part of your community.

As this latest scandal unfolds, it might feel like one more slap in the face; one more reminder of what you don’t have. But remember, the biggest losses will be felt not by you, but by the schools that won’t get to take the next steps with you. Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale are all poorer for missing their shot at nurturing your passion, persistence, resourcefulness, and the sheer guts it took to get where you are.

Your journey to and through college will be infinitely harder than that of your peers. I’m sorry that this is the reality you face. Work hard anyway. Because on an August day in the not-to-distant future, you will stride confidently onto campus knowing that no one purchased it for you. You earned it.  

Because you did it anyway.

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