How students read between the lines

Ending the school year is tough: students are tired, good teachers are exhausted.  The start of our school year was rough; the end of it is rougher.  So what’s a good teacher to do?  I keep things moving by teaching students to read closely.

After we read There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, a nonfiction novel about two boys growing up in Chicago’s public housing during the 80s, my students articulate their responses to thoughtful questions in a paragraph and artwork modeled after The Humument project.  Here’s one example:

Treatment #1 by Abigail: What are the effects of economic hardship on children?

Abigail’s statement about poverty: Children are affected in multiple ways because of economic hardship. Thirty-five percent of people experience poverty at some point during their childhood.

According to National Center for Children in Poverty, it affects “children’s development and their prospects of their future.” Children grow up thinking that they can never amount to  anything; they think they’ll end up like the people from their neighborhoods.

These children turn to other things that make them feel like a part of something, like join a gang. We need a “human and social capitol” (NCCP) to survive in today’s society. Children see everything that goes on around them; therefore, it affects their way of thinking and their way of living. Most children feel like it’s their responsibility to get their families out of poverty.  However, they shouldn’t feel this way.

When they feel that there is nothing they can do, they end up making bad decisions that change their entire future.

The Assignment

In 1970, Tom Phillips created A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel.  These are pieces of art were created over W H Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document.  Phillips’s title for his treated book results from the partial deletion of the original title: A Human document.  Phillips drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, while leaving some of the original text to show through. The final product was a new insight on the original text.

Students select a page from Kotlowitz’s book that affected them the most emotionally or intellectually.  We photocopy it.  Then, using information supplied by The National Center for Children in Poverty, they decide how to reveal the subtextual answer to one of these questions:

  1.  What does it mean to experience poverty?
  2. How do the stereotypes of poverty affect families?
  3. What are the effects of economic hardship on children?
  4. Why should all Americans care about family economic hardship?
  5. Why is there so much economic hardship in a country as wealthy as the U.S.?
  6. What can be done to increase economic security for American children and families?

The paragraph that accompanies the piece incorporates some of the writing skills we learned throughout the year: semicolon use, parallelism, start with agreement and shift to disagreement, use a short sentence.

The challenge is that they must reveal a new understanding of the issue.  The treatment cannot just reveal a summary of the page (that’s too easy).

Through this exercise, students develop their abilities to look beyond the obvious and expand their ideas about this complex topic.  And they merge their artistic and writing abilities in something that looks and sounds cool.

Treatment #2 by Juan: What are the effects of economic hardships on children?

Juan’s statement about poverty: Economic hardships are not what a child should be worrying about. They have all the right to enjoy their childhood without a care in the world.

Unfortunately, not all children have it easy. Although some tend to blame the parents for giving them a hard life, we cannot control what is in store for us. Parents would do anything in the world to make their children happy.

However, when not giving proper care or having the basic necessities needed to live, children are going to be in negative environment. They take in all the violence they see, all the vulgar language they hear, and all the beatings they feel.

Their childhood is stripped from them, a thing that is unacceptable.  No longer will they fight to get on the swing first; instead, they’ll fight for their lives.


Treatment #3 by Griselena: How do the stereotypes of poverty affect families?

Griselena’s statement about poverty: Everyone’s an expert at judging people; even before they get to know them. People tend to look at economic status to really try to get to know someone.  No matter what the circumstances are, no one has the right to judge them.

Children seem to be the most affected by it. They tend to feel inferior to other children when they know they don’t have what the others have. However, everyone should have the strength to overcome any obstacle.

Economic status may affect many families throughout their lives, but it does not show who they are as a person. Everyone should have a chance to prove to the world that they are not what they seem to be. They can be something much more.


Treatment #4 by Franco: Why should all Americans care about family economic hardship?

Franco’s statement about poverty: Many families believe that poverty is just a word used for the people who do not work for a living and or do nothing with their lives. However, people who do have a job and have been working for their whole lives undergo this problem called “poverty.”

Numerous thoughts fill our mind, like innumerable stars in the sky.  Depression takes effect, creating a dark hole in our minds in which we can never crawl out of.

Although finding a positive influence is possible in the economic hardships that we face, some would say that poverty is an insurmountable hindrance.

However, it is a crime for us not to be able to stand on our own without needing the support of others: banks, “friends,” political figures.  People should be able to push forward with the support of each other, yet be undaunted as to push forward by themselves.


Treatment #5: What are the effect of economic hardship on children?

Guadalupe’s statement about poverty: Children who live through economic hardship face a different battle every day. These struggles are not like the task of an average child.  Children who belong to a low income family deal with lack of security, low quality services such as medical care and schooling.

If these children are not geared up to conquer these small battles, they will not be able to claim the real war: our world.  Later on, these children will grow and suffer bigger economic hardship than those of their parents, and they will be left alone to live in a social isolated world, repeating the same mistakes as their ancestors, creating a never ending cycle, destroying and slowly killing themselves and their offspring.

We should keep this in mind: help the weak when they’re young because the day will come when age will catch up. Those who once claimed themselves to be powerful will be old, weak, and wrong.

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