One of the places I work is an elementary school in an inner-city neighborhood. I know some of my readers work with students from families in very challenging circumstances. It is a neighborhood with a high rate of sexual abuse and the sex offender registry adds new convicted sex offenders to the immediate surroundings every week. Living in cheap housing, in a neighborhood with a statistically high rate of crime and a low literacy rate, are major “given circumstances” in the lives of the children I see every week.Attendance at parent teacher conferences is low and the incidence of children being raised by a single parent or guardian, often a grandmother, is high. My second grade students giggle hysterically when we practice reading a list of words with 2 e’s because they already know what “weed” is, in this neighborhood. I have been cussed out, more than once, by six and seven year old children. With a 50% transiency rate, I would imagine that the school office has to spend an inordinate amount of time just keeping up with changing addresses and the revolving door of students transferring in and out of the school every month. So it is an understatement to say that many of them lead lives that are, at best, unstable.
At this beautiful school, with its amazing children, we’ve been talking a lot as a staff about a belief system that holds that the adults in the building are responsible for the culture of the school. An educator there, whom I respect very much, once pointed out that we, the adults in that building, have to be more influential than the environment. Ever since he said it, it has stuck with me, because– wow, tall order. Whether or not you work in a school like this one, every school has students with lives that are at least temporarily unstable. Students whose families are going through a divorce. Students who have recently been put into foster care. Students who struggle after a move. For young children especially, small upheavals are still upheavals, and I imagine when you don’t always know if you’re going to sleep in the same bed one night after another, when you don’t know if you’re going to go home to adults fighting, or when you don’t know if you’ll have a meal this Saturday– these things make tolerance for other kinds of changes that much less. Teachers are not social workers, but they know child development and they know something of the challenges the students in front of them face. I think it is an ethical responsibility of teachers and administrators who are aware of significant instability in the lives of the students in their building, to proactively consider every change in routine, every shift of a student into a new classroom, every change that might be very insignificant in the eyes of an emotionally healthy adult but could, somehow, be significant and sometimes re-traumatizing to a child in crisis. We, as educators, cannot “fix” everything in the lives of our students, but we can be sensitive to their needs and minimize the amount of changes and “surprises” that we throw at them.
I know, first hand, that the arts are an unbelievable tool in mourning, and it occurs to me that the constant unsteadiness in some children’s lives results in a near constant state of mourning for some of them. I’m wondering how the arts could be better utilized in classrooms with children who face this kind of instability.Given that the arts are notoriously the “first cut” from the curriculum in this age of high-stakes testing, I would guess that many of the schools with children with the most needs are the most arts starved. But arts experiences, too, can be surprising and potentially uncomfortable. Paintings don’t turn out the way you thought, you have to wait your turn while someone else reads their lines, and sometimes music dredges up feelings for which there are no words. So, I think there are landmines in this work too. This is just the beginning of a line of thought– maybe I will think on this more and add another post on the subject later. But I’m interested in hearing what you think.