5 Principles for Social Class-Sensitive Change in Schools

In an effort to try to close the income achievement gap, some schools tend to focus their attention on trying to “fix” individual students and families from working class and poor backgrounds. However, as part of the CLASSroom Project, which I co-founded and co-direct with my colleague, Stephanie Jones (University of Georgia), we find that school and classroom policies and practices often unwittingly perpetuate the struggles and indignities of living in poverty. We use the phrase, “middle-class assumptions of normality” to describe how experiences of the middle class are often perceived as normal or correct, while experiences of the working class and those living in poverty are often deemed deficient and in need of remedy.

To begin to create what we call social class-sensitive schools, we designed this research and practice project to help make classrooms places where all children and families are valued, respected and treated with dignity. We also encourage educators to learn more about social class and classism in the U.S. and across the globe and to help their students do the same. Through our workshops with teachers and principals, we share strategies about how to design classrooms to help meet the needs of working class and poor students and their families as they navigate schools steeped in middle-class assumptions of normality.

Our research and work with practicing educators is based on five principles for change (paraphrased below), to help educators establish deeper, more meaningful connections with students while creating social class-sensitive learning environments:

  1. Explore personal experiences of social class:
    Remember that personal experiences of social class are never really individual but tied to broader trends in social and economic policies and contexts. For example, if a student shares that a parent was recently laid off, move the focus away from a “family problem” toward a broader understanding of the external forces (such as the economic recession) that created the situation in the first place.
  2. Disrupt social class hierarchies:
    Certain ways of talking or thinking in society links social class background to all sorts of things including judgments about intelligence, interests, talents, possible futures, etc. These may be based on assumptions about what’s more or less desirable—often positioning working class and poor students precariously. Encourage students to tell their stories from their upbringing—and respond with compassion and curiosity to all children’s stories. Setting aside time to reflect on these experiences is valuable for all students.
  3. Integrate social class and marginalized perspectives into curriculum:
    Encourage literature or perspectives from working class and poor backgrounds. For more upper-middle class students, this provides a way to disconnect from their own reality, and experience things that may not be a part of what they know as normal, everyday life. This also allows schools to reach and teach all students about issues that impact their daily lives.
  4. Recognize how you perceive a child or adult as a “classed person”:
    Stretch yourself and realize that the snapshot perception being created by you is only one in an infinite number of ways to perceive the person standing in front of you. Strive to become sensitive to how social class impacts one’s perceptions.
  5. Change broader school and classroom policies to reflect an anti-classist and anti-poverty commitment:
    Rethinking requests for money, supplies or fundraisers is just the beginning. Look closely at communications, discipline practices, report cards, etc. to reveal classist practices that add to the financial burden of struggling families—the opposite of what most schools intend to do.

One of the CLASSroom Project initiatives I have led is called, “social class-sensitive photostorying,” where students capture meaningful images from their personal lives and compile them into personal stories. Recent examples included capturing the important work of the parents and caregivers of students. This dignified the diversity of jobs held by kids’ caregivers, which ranged from a Subway sandwich maker to retail store manager to chicken factory worker. Through the creation of social class-sensitive photo-stories, the student becomes the expert and the teacher acts as listener, coach and guide. Photostorying helps kids connect with something they relate to and allows other students to ask questions about those connections.

In the end, The CLASSroom Project aims to continue to bring together different philosophies, theories, and practices in exciting ways, with the ultimate goal of re-imagining schools as places where education professionals actively work against poverty and classism through greater awareness of class-sensitive approaches.

Learn more about our research and our workshops and class-sensitive school consulting and please join us for our upcoming “Other Side of Poverty in Schools” workshop on August 23, 2013 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus: http://classroomprojectaugust2013.eventbrite.com

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Mark Vagle

About the Author

Mark Vagle, Ph.D.

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