The Missouri Reader Vol. 40, Issue 3 - Page 52

Content Contributions

52

A Call to Action: Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital

By Laura Swan

A must-read for families in poverty and not, for teachers, for policy makers, and community leaders, Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital is the result of an in-depth investigation into two contrasting Philadelphia communities by professors Susan B. Neuman and Donna C. Celano. Over ten years, the authors conducted 21 qualitative and quantitative studies in order to determine the effects of a citywide campaign to upgrade public libraries with modern technology. The initiative and study thereof were funded by the William Penn Foundation to answer the question: Does equalizing material resources help close the economic knowledge gap between students from affluent and poor backgrounds?

Neuman and Celano focused on two neighborhoods: one with high rates of affluence, Chestnut Hill, and one with high rates of poverty, the Philadelphia Badlands. These neighborhoods were deliberately selected based on average family income (around $110,000 and less than $18,000, respectively), differences in racial diversity, and glaring gaps in the education levels of children and adults. The authors thoroughly explored these neighborhoods, attending after-school activities, taking stock of environmental print like store signs, and conducting studies inside each neighborhood’s library.

Considering the disparities between neighborhoods on many fronts, the authors argue that the intensification of class differences has widened the economic knowledge gap and exacerbated the inequality of access to resources for what they call “information capital,” or the intrinsic value of knowledge and its acquisition. They propose that information capital is cumulatively gained by people’s firsthand and secondhand experiences, which include reading. Thus, reading leads to knowledge acquisition, which means more information capital, which streamlines knowledge acquisition, and the cycle continues.

Within this cycle, Neuman and Celano emphasize that the importance of adults. They found the Badlands’ hands-off approach, which was pervasive in schools as well, fostered independence and important life skills, but created deficits in areas that require adult support, including emergent reading. Thus, they propose that supportive adults are a crucial information capital resource. As a result of this revelation, they explored the idea of technology taking on the role of an absent or unengaged parent or adult in an attempt to close the knowledge gap. Unfortunately, the researchers found the opposite to be true; children still need productive time with adults offering scaffolding and support in order to use computers effectively for learning. In fact, Neuman and Celano argue that because of the further disparity caused by technology, “a new age of inequality is upon us.”

The authors also discussed the implications of specialization in today’s culture. They posit that to develop specialized expertise, students need access to resources, time to pursue their own interests, and opportunities to engage in “communities of practice” with supportive peers and adult mentors. As an example, one summer program in Chestnut Hill encouraged students to engage in an inquiry-based exploration of digital photography. The students worked together to solve problems and learn from each other, based on a common interest, thus developing expertise through experience. In general, the authors found summer loss to be devastating in the Badlands due to a lack of material and intangible resources, further compounding class advantages and the knowledge gap.

In the postscript, Neuman and Celano laud the efforts of the Urban Academy in New York for its demanding inquiry-based curriculum rooted in content. They propose that effective teaching is about introducing students to the world of knowledge with active engagement, high expectations, and intellectual toughness. Finally, the authors offer this book to education stakeholders as well as community members and teachers as a call to action for both curriculum and culture reform.

Families in poverty need to read this book. Throughout their research sessions, Neuman and Celano often found children as young as two years old wandering alone in the Badlands library, while adults in the Chestnut Hill Library frequently read with children and scaffolded the experience to help children learn new information. In fact, Mol, et al., confirmed their hypothesis that interactive reading experiences with adults or peers are essential, and passive interaction with books is simply not enough. Neuman and Celano also noticed children flipping through books becoming frustrated and moving on (which I have seen when children are alone in the Columbia Public Library). Later, they notice tweens doing the same thing on computers – attempting to access information, becoming frustrated by decoding challenges, and switching to easier options (usually games or movies). The missing element here is active adult support. Families in poverty can help children learn to read, improve access to information capital, and increase social mobility by being more hands-on and purposefully participating in literacy experiences.

Additionally, it’s striking how often the researchers saw teenagers reading much below their grade level (even board books) in the Badlands – 42% of the time-

which they never saw in Chestnut Hill. Conversely, they saw children in Chestnut Hill reading above age level 7% of the time, which they never saw in the Badlands library. This highlights the important skill of

choosing the right book – one that the child can read, but that is challenging – and then an adult scaffolding the student as they encounter new words or ideas. I have seen many teachers explain how to choose good fit books throughout the elementary grades, but parents and even high school teachers could reinforce those concepts.

Affluent families need to read this book, if only to recognize the issues that plague their neighbors and avoid the temptation of fundamental attribution error – placing the blame on individuals while ignoring situational factors. It might also be beneficial to recognize what is helping students learn in their communities – adult support, access to technology, enriching summer programs – and what isn’t helping – extreme competitiveness, popular homework habits(including multitasking), and replacing adult support with technology.