Early Childhood Literacy Teachers in High Poverty Schools: A Study of Courage and Caring
reviewed by April Sanders - April 29, 2018
Title: Early Childhood Literacy Teachers in High Poverty Schools: A Study of Courage and Caring
Author(s): Melissa Landa
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 149855587X, Pages: 144, Year: 2017
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Teachers bring materials, content knowledge, and strategies into their classrooms each day, but rarely do we focus on what teachers bring into their classrooms based on their identity. In her book, Melissa Landa articulates how a teachers identity becomes the lens through which they view their students, how to teach, and their role as a teacher. Landa begins by detailing her journey, which began in South Africa, where she spent her early elementary years going to an all-white school under apartheid. Later in her elementary years, she moved to the United States and had quite a different educational experience. At one point she realized that one of her most revered teachers in South Africa actually supported segregating schools by race, and this revelation along with her diverse experiences in the United States helped lead her to create a teaching philosophy based on social justice. Over the course of the book, Landa describes her journey to becoming a teacher and discusses why she decided to teach in high-poverty schools.
The personal experiences detailed in her first chapter lay the groundwork for the following chapters in which she shares interview data from teachers of various backgrounds and levels of experience. She begins by looking at the different voices present in the early childhood literacy classroom, and admits that she is somewhat of a rebel when it comes to her stance on customizing her curriculum according to her students needs instead of simply following the formula laid out in the textbook. Even though she is somewhat critical of the Whole Language movement, Landas approach to teaching literacy does include aspects of Whole Language when she discusses moving beyond standardized assessment as the central measure of a teacher or students worth. Instead, she argues that childrens literature in the classroom can be a celebration of culture, and thus of the child. Landa provides examples from her own classroom of how she incorporated childrens literature to give her students a view of different cultures as well as their own. For marginalized groups in our society, this is a powerful tool which can provide a basis for understanding and pride.
This book very aptly dives into controversial topics in the world of literacy and discusses honestly how some standard beliefs in the literacy field are not fairly applied to children from poverty. Landa explains that childrens understanding of the alphabetic principle, for example, is considered to be an indicator of literacy success. Children from impoverished families where written language is not paramount are considered to be at risk, and basic skills are drilled with these students to try to enhance what is viewed to be missing in the home literacy environment. Landa makes the argument that children in such home environments actually do have literacy-rich experiences, but they may look different from those of children in higher socioeconomic brackets. By looking deeper into the experiences these children are having with their parents or caregivers in the home environment, teachers can capitalize on what is being learned instead of simply believing there are tremendous gaps.
At the heart of this book are the interviews with five white teachers who have taught literacy in high poverty schools. The five teachers recall how they first started in the field of education and what drew them to teaching literacy at the early childhood level. One central connection among all their stories is how they chose to work in Title I schools and found themselves energized in that type of school environment. These teachers are fully aware of the obstacles their students face. One teacher in particular discusses how some of her children do not arrive at school with basic necessities of clothing or food. She must take care of these needs before she can move forward into intellectual pursuits with them. Other roadblocks are presented when teaching in Title I schools, such as language barriers with both students and parents. The teachers talk openly about how they find ways around such roadblocks. One of the five teachers focuses on how she works to be an advocate for her students and how she believes that some of her students parents dont realize the details of their rights. She attempts to educate the parents in this regard and believes she is making change happen in our society at a very personal level. Even though the five educators are white, they do not share a common history. Instead, they have more of a hybrid identity based on different struggles that allow them to have compassion for their students. The teachers also do not have the typical history of Anglo-Saxon Christians. These differences are explored in their interviews and examined as a way of understanding how they contributed to making them the educator they are today.
Negative aspects and fears are also explored with the five white educators, and they discuss how their fear of saying the wrong thing to students and parents creates a level of pressure for them. This adds to how conversations involving race and identity can be complicated. Pride and identification with one group can ultimately create tension and distance from another group. Landa is honest in her exploration of these uncomfortable issues with the educators as well as in her examination of her own past and experiences as an educator.
The interviews go beyond understanding identity and move into exploring curriculum models and how to create effective change. The educators discuss policy and how to work within its confines to support their students. As one teacher describes how she buys books and wraps them to give to her students as gifts each year, she explains that increasing literacy starts with simply putting books in students hands. This basic gesture speaks volumes about the levels of hope resonating among the teachers in this study. They do not walk into Title I schools and feel they are burdened by the problems and limitations created by poverty. Instead they are energized by what change they can enact and the ways in which they can reach individual students. Landa is not able to provide easy answers as to how these teachers white identity relates to their accomplishments or hurdles as educators, but she does explore the nuances and complexities involved. Her exploration of these issues with these five teachers is bold in that she provides us a view of teachers who love their profession while also knowing its constraints. This exploration of the intersection of hope and reality when teaching in challenging situations makes this book a must-read for literacy teachers.