Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement

Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement, by Eric Jensen (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development)

Review by Thomas Hansen

Eric Jensen provides good hints and strategies for dealing with the special and difficult problems our poorer students bring to the classroom.  The number of students living in poverty has grown exponentially, yet many educators are not aware of the realities.  Jensen shows a good understanding of some of the difficulties and challenges students face, and he uses a research basis in this text.

Published in 2013, this book paints a bleak picture of a bleak nation.  I am sure Jensen had NO idea there would be worse days, COVID-19, and a burgeoning homeless population in this country.  Fresh after the New Great Depression, this book was timeless then—and is timeless now.

This text appeared years ago but is still relevant because the number of persons on the streets has risen, a huge number of families rely on food stamps and free lunches, and the homes of many families have been boarded up for a number of years, with most people not able to afford a house and the original occupants of those dwellings now living with relatives, in shelters, or in their cars. 

A huge challenge today is how to afford a place to live.  Struggling families can tell you this.  Housing is expensive.  In many cities, very few people have any interest at all in providing affordable homes or apartments for poorer people to live in.  You can count on one hand the cities that have actually addressed the problem of “where to put the poor people.

The question remains:  “How do we begin to help students who face the stressors of hunger, despair, and stigma each day?”  It is important to serve and protect the students now, while they are poor, and deal with housing and other services later.  But how do we teach them?  Feed them?  Encourage them?

Jensen includes the data from research on these students, starting with health and nutrition issues and ranging to the stress levels and daily hassles students face.  These and five other areas constitute the seven types of challenges facing students living in poverty, though I would suggest many of our students, in addition to teachers and teacher candidates, face many of these same difficulties.   Jensen calls these “the seven engagement factors,” and the other ones are: vocabulary; effort and energy; mind-set; cognitive capacity; and relationships.

Jensen bases his approach here more on the stressors facing poor students and less on technical information about the poverty numbers and facts out there.  For that technical data, we would have to go to other sources. 

Jensen proposes “five rules for engagement” for teachers to employ in the classroom as a means of getting poorer students involved: upgrade your attitude; build relationships & respect; get buy-in; embrace clarity; and show your passion.  Though I think these are good to use with any student, they seem to make sense in dealing with students who face the hassles and challenges of living with poverty on a daily basis, a seemingly unrelenting set of difficulties.  Clarity is important, for example, because students living in poverty are often hungry and tired, and they need straightforward definitions and examples, in addition to encouragement and a positive learning environment.

Jensen acknowledges hunger and stress and the power they hold over students.  He reminds us that students should be treated with dignity, and that they are the reason we have a job.  The students are the future of our country, Jensen reminds us, not prison inmates. 

Students living in poverty, especially, come to school wondering if someone there cares about them, wondering if they are important.  They may have difficulty concentrating, and difficulty feeling that the school day may offer something interesting and relevant in a world that may have forgotten them, they may feel.  Younger people, especially, have trouble making sense of a world in which there is so much hunger.                

I can think of some other texts from years ago that are still relevant.  If Jensen’s older book is to be used in a topics class on dealing with poverty issues or other such use, including professional development meetings or retreats, I would definitely recommend one or more additional texts—both of them older/older editions fine—with more specific information on poverty be included.  One good additional text would be: Poverty in America: A Handbook, Third Edition, 2013, by John Iceland.  

Another good text would be: Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression, Updated Edition, 2013, by Dale Maharidge, Photographs by Michael S. Williamson.  These could both provide more of the technical information not included in the Jensen text.

To summarize, I recommend this text because of the good teaching strategies and scenarios included.  I think most of what Jensen includes is good information for working with any student, and certainly any student facing stressful situations.