Middle class as a second language

The cultural divide is obvious with ELL students from Mexico, Somalia, Central America and Yugoslavia. It  is less obvious with the student who was born and raised only a few miles away but who is on the subsidized lunch program.

Schools that fail to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) are learning that students on the subsidized lunch program may have as many literacy gains to make as the students from other countries.

One of the major messages of A Framework for Understanding Poverty is that these students are unacquainted with many of the hidden rules of the middle class that typically regulate the classroom. Author Ruby Payne says the student also do not know how to “talk “middle class.”

Just as it is the responsibility of the education system to teach students from other countries to speak English as a second language, so too do educators have a responsibility to teach students from the low socioeconomic class how to speak middle class. They need to learn to speak this second language so that they will have choices in education and the workplace.

Children from poverty, she says, do not speak the language of negotiation. Usually there are not enough resources for people in poverty to engage in a discussion of them. If there are five hot dogs and five people, the distribution is pretty clear. It is the middle class family that will have a discussion about how many hot dogs people can have and what condiments there are, etc.

Respect for authority is often an issue for children from the low socioeconomic class, Payne says. Sadly, some don’t have an adult in their home who deserves respect. But also, children who live in poverty are often their own parents and when their internal “parent voice” is spoken to by another adult (the teacher) speaking in a parent voice, anger often follows.

If children laugh when they are disciplined (a behavior related to poverty) it is a way to save face. The parent voice is directive, authoritative, judgmental, demanding and sometimes threatening. To teach children the language of negotiation, the teacher needs to teach–or show–students how to use the “adult” voice, a voice that is non-judgmental, factual and questioning rather than directive, Payne says.

Children from poverty often talk in a “casual register” rather than in the rational, logical “formal register” of the classroom and the workplace, Payne says. Rather than getting straight to the point, the speaker or writer goes around the issue and uses vignettes, character sketches and commentary to say what he or she has to say. This structure is more entertaining and participatory, but it is not the register that school and business is conducted in and must be directly taught to students, Payne says. Students need to be told how much the formal register affects their ability to get a well-paying job.

The goal or ideal is not for the child to abandon where he or she is from, just as it is not the goal for the Mexican child to abandon his or her language or culture. The objective is merely to teach students of low socioeconomic status the hidden rules of the middle class so that they can choose a different path. There’s a price to pay when leaving behind one’s background, losses in relationships and in a way of life that each student will need to measure on their own.

“There is a freedom of verbal expression, an appreciation of individual personality, a heightened and intense emotional experience, and a sensual, kinesthetic approach to life usually not found in the middle class or among the educated,” Payne writes. “These patterns are so intertwined in the daily life of the poor that to have those cut off would be to lose a limb. Many choose not to live a different life. And for some, alcoholism, laziness, lack of motivation, drug addiction, etc., in effect make the choices for the individual.

“But it is the responsibility of educators and others who work with the poor to teach the differences and skills/rules that will allow the individual to make the choice. As it now stands, for many of the poor, the choice never exists.”

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