One way I challenge stereotypes is by telling stories from my own life, stories that focus on creativity, compassion, problem solving, as well as persistence, conservation and resourcefulness. I draw on my own experiences: growing up in a struggling family, being a community organizer and a single mother working a minimum wage job.
Obviously not every teacher has a trunk load of those same stories to tell. Volunteering with local community organizing efforts is another way to gain more personal understanding of poverty. I also look for good children’s books that address matters of class. Here are some that I use regularly.
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is a classic story about a Polish immigrant girl who is teased for saying she has one hundred dresses, when she wears the same faded old dress every day. It is told from the perspective of the teaser’s friend. I read this story aloud over the course of a week, engaging the children during and after each reading in a philosophical discussion about the ethical dilemma of being a silent bystander.
Si, Se Puede! by Diana Cohn, is a bilingual story about the Service Employees International Union organizing drive and janitors’ strike in Los Angeles. It is useful to discuss why and how workers form unions, what a strike is, the importance of community support, and connections between the story of the janitors’ organizing drive and local labor struggles.
The Streets Are Free by Karusa, is a bilingual story about children in a Venezuelan barrio who organize and protest about the lack of a playground in their neighborhood and the eventual community action which builds it. Children can retell and then make captioned drawings to illustrate a story of community organizing told by a “guest activist” visitor to the classroom. These can be displayed, then bound into a class book.
Shingebiss by Nancy Van Lann, is an Ojibwe legend about a merganser duck who demonstrates the values of persistence, conservation and resourcefulness in order to survive the northern winter. This is a favorite of my students and my own children. Shingebiss is an excellent role model to refer to when the going gets rough. I am often impressed by hearing my students exhort each other to be persistent or praise each other for being resourceful in their problem solving. I start to proudly think, “Wow! Did I teach them that vocabulary?!” and then humbly remind myself, “No, they learned it from a duck.”
Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen, is about a boy in a financially stressed family who really wants a pet dog. Told from the child’s perspective, it describes the boy’s spontaneous adoption of a stray kitten against the backdrop of the father’s anger at his sudden job loss. Children can easily make text-to-self connections with the story as they discuss how a sudden change of circumstances can affect everyone in a family.
The Lady in the Box by Ann McGovern, is about two children who notice and then befriend a homeless woman living in their neighborhood. Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting, is about a homeless boy and his father who live at an airport. I use both of these books to help children see beyond the “shopping bag lady” stereotype of homelessness, to recognize that people of all ages and circumstances can become homeless for a brief or longer period of time, for a variety of reasons, and that shelters are not solutions in themselves.