National Writing Project

Book Review: When Poverty's Children Write: Celebrating Strengths, Transforming Lives

By: Paul Epstein
Date: December 21, 2009

Summary: Paul Epstein, co-director at the Central West Virginia Writing Project, praises Bobbie Solley's When Poverty's Children Write for providing insights into the unique challenges that teachers of disadvantaged children face and for advancing strategies to better help these children learn and write.

 

Bobbie Solley, a professor in the Department of Elementary and Special Education at Middle Tennessee State University in and the director of the Middle Tennessee Writing Project, acknowledges that she held many erroneous beliefs about the abilities and attitudes of children and families in poverty when she was hired as a writing consultant by a high-poverty elementary school in 2002.

In this easy-to-read 100- page book (plus appendices), Solley introduces us to the children, the teachers, and the families of Somerville Road Elementary, located in Murfreesboro, a fast-growing city of 100,000 thirty-five miles from Nashville, as they learn together what it takes to improve student writing.

The school, described as a "neighborhood school" in which many families are "working poor" and live in substandard or government-subsidized housing, serves a population of 42 percent Caucasian, 30 percent Hispanic, 25 percent African American, and 3 percent Asian. All but 2 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Solley credits Patrick Shannon's book Reading Poverty (1998) with opening her eyes to the stereotypes inherent in her previously held beliefs about families in poverty, beliefs sometimes described as a "deficit model" because they portray students as lacking skills and needing remedial instruction rather than as having inherent strengths that can be used to overcome adversity. Shannon writes the foreword to Solley's book.

Overturning the Deficit Model

Solley's message throughout the book is that teachers need to look for the strengths in children raised in poverty, to be accepting of their language, and to recognize that the stories they need to tell may be very different from the stories middle-class children are encouraged to tell.

Teachers need to look for the strengths in children raised in poverty.

Asking children to write about family vacations, pets, or birthday parties, as teachers of middle-class children do, she notes, may not yield the same results with children in families facing eviction, sleeping on floors in crowded conditions, perhaps unsure where their next meal may come from. Teachers need to create a safe environment for such stories to be shared.

Powerful writing will not occur, and children will not value writing, she reminds us, until children and their teachers value the stories that emanate from their life experiences.

Early chapters describe children who live in poverty, propose ways to build trust and community, and address methods of building on the children's existing oral language.

Solley warns teachers against a reductionist curriculum in response to low test scores. She decries methods of teaching writing that involve phonics practice or worksheets, grammar drills, or "dull dry lessons on tasks students know will be on the (standardized) test" (p. 92) as leading to classrooms where writing is a dreaded activity.

Throughout the book, Solley introduces strategies and techniques by recounting the methods used by the teachers in various grade levels at Somerville Road Elementary during the period of her consultancy and study. Later chapters focus on classroom structures and teaching strategies, the writing process, and assessment.

In her final chapter, Solley unloads on No Child Left Behind and the culture of testing. She never tells us how the two years of her consultancy and research may have affected writing assessment scores at Somerville Road, but decries standardized testing because "children from disadvantaged homes . . . may lack the background knowledge to do well on tests." (p. 91)

She encourages teachers to become advocates of alternative assessment techniques such as checklists, rubrics, and self-assessment, and she describes their uses. However, she acknowledges that teachers must spend some time introducing their students to methods that will be used to evaluate them in standardized tests. She asks her readers to keep "wandering and wondering" in search of wisdom and understanding of their students' lives, knowledge which no standardized test will provide.

Teachers will appreciate the 25 pages of appendices, which include several lists of books for the classroom, among them books to build community and critical thinking; folk tales of African, Asian, and Hispanic origins; and rubrics and other useful classroom tools.

A good book for any teacher looking for ideas for teaching writing or new to teaching students living in poverty, When Poverty's Children Write would also be useful in study groups in high-poverty elementary schools that want to improve the quality of writing in their classrooms.

About the Author Paul Epstein is co-director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project.

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