After working with students in low socioeconomic schools for 16 years, I have found that the label “low-SES” is very misleading. This really doesn’t tell us anything about the students. Here are the more helpful questions:
- What is their family background?
- What are living arrangements like?
- What language did they learn first?
These questions will help you to develop a better game plan for the students that you are working with. You cannot meet their needs based solely on the fact that they are labeled “low-SES”. You also cannot teach them like this one label defines who they are.
I have worked in very different versions of low-SES schools and they cannot be taught with one strategy. Even the disparity in the type of language needed to communicate with them can be very different.
One example of a low-SES school I have worked with had students with very low vocabulary skills. Some cases were because of English language learning, others simply a lack of exposure to a wide vocabulary at home. This didn’t mean they couldn’t be fantastic musicians.
However, it did mean that I had to spend a much greater amount of time doing the following:
-checking for understanding
-asking students to put it in “teen-speak” (Their own words)
Checking for understanding was the most important. Knowing what the students believe the answer to be helps to determine how you readdress information. The worst thing you can do for these students is simply rote-teach (though some teachers will slip into this habit due to convenience.) When clinicians came I often had to paraphrase what they said to the students while they worked with a group, because I could see the students not understanding the higher-level vocabulary.
Another low-SES school had students with high language skills. The students could not only interpret and understand adults speaking, but could express themselves clearly. In this particular school, the barrier was not the vocabulary, but the dynamic level at which it was delivered to them.
The students were used to being yelled at if something was considered important. In walking around the building, I observed teachers and administrators addressing the students in a near scream.
I did not teach these students in a yell, but rather had to teach them how to listen when spoken to in what I view as an appropriate volume/tone. This was not a quick process. However, it did develop a level of mutual respect that led to students who worked harder in band than any other class.
Annette Mitchell is an active educator and clinician, who also likes to dabble in music education research. She is in her 16th year of teaching middle school band all 16 years of her career have been in Low SES schools. When she is not teaching fundamentals and encouraging students to reach beyond their own expectations, she is blessed work at her primary full-time job of being a wife and mommy to a toddler.
This is the second in a series of posts on Teaching in a low SES School by Annette Mitchell. Read the first post here.
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