Social Class in the Lower School Classroom

Fall 2007

By Joan Arrowsmith

Imagine being a first grade child, living contentedly with your mother in a one-bedroom apartment. The child next to you chatters about going to his "country house." You remember going to his birthday party at his house, which seemed huge and was surrounded by trees and grass. How can someone have two houses? Is there something wrong with only having one apartment? Conversely, imagine being a sensitive ten year old whose greatest joy is skiing with your family. When you mention this to your best friend, she says that her dad said skiing is too expensive and out of the question for her family. Or imagine you're a young teenager keeping up with the latest music and it feels as if you're the only one your age without your own i-Pod. Any teacher can recall such situations impeding the harmony of a classroom. Indeed, any adult can recall such situations having an impact on his/her own life.

As teachers in a New York City independent school with a good scholarship program, we have seen the extremes of family income disparity in our classrooms. And this situation exists to some degree in many classrooms. Although it's true that money doesn't buy happiness, it can buy freedom from financial worry. It can buy choices and with them power. Children hear the "approved" message but observe realities that don't match it and soon realize that no one is truly talking about the disconnection. At an early age, they are prevented from developing a vocabulary about income disparities because they have learned that the whole subject is "taboo." Feeling different, with this difference emphasized by silence, can cause anxiety that is detrimental to learning.

It is relative deprivation that stings. Perhaps surprisingly, it can also be relative privilege that stings for children. A child can fret about having much more than her friend as well as about having much less. All of us teachers have seen children who when confronted with material disparities "clam up" or start to cry or simply become flushed and preoccupied or even strike out at their peers in seemingly random ways.

In a recent discussion with several teachers, each could remember and still feel the pain and resentment from such situations, some from many years before. One teacher recalled a new acquaintance assuming she was divorced simply because she mentioned living in an apartment instead of in a house. Another thought of her annoyance when a wealthy "friend" began to lecture her about how she should be spending her money. And so it went, spontaneously and emotionally. If these trivial incidents had enduring power to sting supposedly well-adjusted adult professionals, how much greater must be their impact on children?

Part of the power of these incidents lies in the hidden baggage they bear. To some extent, all of us buy into the mythology of the American meritocracy. And of course, there is always just enough evidence to fit into this paradigm, from Abe Lincoln to the home inventor to the basketball superstar. Our cultural myths about the rewards of the work ethic make it all too easy to think that maybe if we (or our parents or forbears) had been smarter or worked harder or made better choices along the way, we wouldn't have to be condescended to by those luckier (better?) others. Or, again conversely, maybe we don't really "deserve" whatever material things, whatever privileges, we enjoy. After all, this wealth could vanish if we don't work hard at maintaining it and proving we do deserve it.

As teachers, we can help students think critically about those ideas. At the same time, it's important to challenge the idea of different levels of wealth deserving different levels of respect. Children notice how assiduously we avoid discussing these issues. And they notice how variously actual work is rewarded or ignored in our society.

"Social class differences in children's life experiences can be seen in the details of life," asserts Annette Lareau in her book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (University of California Press, 2003). She (with a team of sociologists) illustrates this assertion by the intensive study of nine families chosen at random. Four of the families (two black and two white) are middle class,* three (two white and one black) are working class, and two (one white and one black) are poor. Two basic approaches to child rearing are discerned and described. One is "Concerted Cultivation," in which families, usually middle class, actively assess and work to develop their children's talents (through extracurricular programs and activities) and advocate for them within the educational system, fostering a sense of entitlement on the child's part. The other approach is "Accomplishment of Natural Growth," in which mostly poor and working class families surround their children with wider family ties but allow them to grow without the advocacy and extracurricular development of concerted cultivation families. Trade-offs abound. For example, daily life in a "concerted cultivation" household can be packed with scheduled activities but isolated from the natural support systems of extended family, while that of an "accomplishment of natural growth" household can produce children with a well-developed sense of family responsibility but over-deference to or frustration with the world beyond their family. The different approaches have an impact on children in school which needs to be recognized. ["1. Middle-class children are those who live in households in which at least one parent is employed in a position that either entails substantial managerial authority or that centrally draws upon highly complex, educationally certified (i.e., college-level) skills. 2. Working-class children are those who live in households in which neither parent is employed in a middle-class position and at least one parent is employed in a position with little or no managerial authority and that does not draw on highly complex, educationally certified skills. This category includes lower-level white collar workers. 3. Poor children are those who live in households in which parents receive public assistance and do not participate in the labor force on a regular, continuous basis." Page 279, Unequal Childhoods.]

An understanding of these child-rearing styles is critical for us teachers because it can be so difficult for families believing in "Accomplishment of Natural Growth" to find a common language for comfortable and effective communication with us. The burden falls on us to become aware of this disconnect and find ways to bridge it for the sake of our students' educational, emotional, and social growth.

Although her work builds on that of other scholars and writers, notably Jean Anyon and Jonathan Kozol, Lareau breaks new ground with the power of her detailed descriptions and analysis. These have universal resonances but break free from the pull of meritocracy. Our first suggestion, then, is for teachers to read Unequal Childhoods. Although Lareau records the consequences of racial group while focusing on those of social class, both her research and our own experience indicate that social class tends to be more important than racial group. Upper middle class white and black children, for example, socialize with one another more freely than do children across social class within the same racial group.

One of the suggestions Lareau offers, and with which we strongly agree, is to begin using with children a vocabulary for discussion that substitutes social class for moral worth. For example, "lots of us can't afford..." or "her family has enough money to..." If the subtext is not so "radioactive" with values, its sting is muted. This is neither to romanticize nor stigmatize a "culture of poverty," as Walter Benn Michaels trenchantly discusses in his The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2006) . A matter-of-fact openness about family differences won't remove resentments or discomfort, but it can, gradually, enable teachers and children (and parents) to acknowledge, discuss, and manage them.

This fresh vocabulary of difference helps in many ways, but what are some specific suggestions we have found? Children's literature, read aloud and discussed, is always good. But there is a surprising and perhaps revealing dearth of good possibilities. Most books about family income disparities are set in a long ago past or are tainted with sentimentality or deal with such extremes as homelessness. The only really good one we have found is out of print, but available in libraries and from used book sources. It is Somebody's New Pajamas , by Isaac Jackson (Dial Books for Young Readers). Although ostensibly for four to eight year-olds, this book sets off wonderful discussions with older children too. In it, two healthy, loving African American families, one wealthy and the other financially struggling, are compared through the "sleepover" experience of their sons, who attend the same school and are best friends. [Other books for children are listed at the end of this article, but none approaches this one in quality and effectiveness for the topic.]

As we try to develop better vocabulary for discussion, it is important to find and eliminate conspicuous markers of family income difference at school. These may be scarcely visible to teachers but loom large for children. Money to participate in a fundraising fair or for photos or holiday events needn't be made as obvious as it often is. Imaginative schemes could provide paper or plastic tokens that would be the same for everyone, instead of having some children flaunting twenty-dollar bills while others clutch their quarters. Also, lunch or breakfast cards meant to help poor children can seem to have sirens attached for the children bearing them. There could be schemes to absorb the costs of these kids' meals into the general costs, depending on the particular situation. Field trips can be socioeconomic minefields. Careful preparation before and debriefing afterwards can lessen these effects. In classrooms, teachers' global questions, much less assignments, about summer experiences or weekend plans, can be clumsy and hurtful. But such a limited question as "tell us just one favorite thing you did" can make everyone more thoughtful about what he or she has to share. Let kids say what matters to them .

Perhaps surprisingly, clothes often matter less to kids than adults might think. The "coolest" kid may be a wealthy one who "dresses down" in the extreme. Conversely, school uniforms may push the markers of status into narrower lines visible to the kids but not to the adults. Poorer families may go to great pains to dress their children acceptably.

It is vital to bear in mind the child's perspective and how its distinction from an adult's can be positive and egalitarian. For example, a six year old whose family had just moved from a small apartment into a big new house was asked what was his favorite thing about his new home. Without a pause, he exclaimed, " the Cheerios dispenser!" Simple joys can be shared independent of adults' knowledge of context because often the kids are innocent of this context. The child's different perspective can also be funny. A third grader wrote excitedly about the new house in the suburbs her parents had bought: "It's a tooter !" surely not the same as an adult's idea of the wood paneled, wood-beamed house.

In Angela Johnson's book, One of Three, the focus is on how particular siblings feel traveling with trusted adults by such ordinary means as buses and taxicabs, and how special each experience can be. Reinforcing shared experiences early on can help bridge the later awkwardness that ensues when the "stuff" people have clouds the concepts of identity.

With slightly older children, the simple device of a classroom response board can be helpful. You can explain the rules, such as that inappropriate words and the use of names are not allowed any more than they would be in any class discussion. A stack of index cards and some pencils provided beside a provocative question on the board can bring out a wonderful anonymous exchange of ideas among children, in our experience. (For example: "At our school, there are big differences in the amounts of money different families have. What effect, if any, do you think this situation has on the kids? Do you have particular suggestions of how to help?") Expressing frustrations or resentments without having to confront anyone, yet knowing that these feelings are posted for all to read may lead to a good group discussion later. Or it may simply be read and absorbed silently. In any event, the power of the written word is demonstrated. Children may be surprised and moved by what they read of their classmates' concerns. One child wrote poignantly about his fear that kids only wanted to be friends with him because of their wish to be invited to his family's weekend house. This led us to remember one of Mr. Rogers' (the late Fred Rogers) songs for younger children, "It's You I Like", with the line, "It's not your toys / They're just beside you." Other children posted cards expressing annoyance about their classmates' bragging about their latest computer games. Some even pointed out that we should talk more about these issues "because some of us get hurt!" Communication leads to trust and trust leads to friendship.

Attention to the urgent subject of friendship helps so many children. How do friendships start? How are they maintained? Are there rules for any friendship? How can a friendship change you? How can friendships overcome differences? Which differences matter and which don't? What about mutual support? What about the limits of friendship? The issues are endless, inextricable from income disparity, and fascinating to children and adults alike. They can be probed in discussion, in role-playing, in songs, in writing and reading. Learning to better understand the meanings of friendship is not only universally valid; it also helps children (and adults) navigate the choppy waters of social class difference.

With upper elementary school-aged children, attention to friendship and income disparities could usefully be done in an anthropological framework. In our American society, why do almost all of us identify ourselves as "middle class"? In Michael Apted's Up Series documentary movies,* the subjects seem quite comfortable identifying themselves as upper or lower class, although they acknowledge that this is changing. But the assumption is that one's social class simply doesn't change and is instantly apparent to all. Signifiers, such as accent, shout one's status. In American society, the assumption is that almost everyone is trying to move up the social ladder, and can, because of the meritocracy myth. And signifiers are subtler, such as grammar usage, taste in clothes and furnishings, neighborhood of residence, job, or membership in particular organizations. This apparent status fluidity engenders anxiety as everyone checks out everyone else, at least some of the time. Certainly none of this anxious attention to signifiers escapes children's notice. [in which British children from different socio-economic backgrounds are interviewed every seven years from age seven to age 49.]

A classroom discussion, using such an anthropological framework, could be interesting and helpful. What is a "signifier of status"? What is the dominant society in the school? How is it different in other societies? How are adults' and children's signifiers different or similar? How do our society's signifiers change from one generation to the next?

In our experience, almost any opportunity for sensitive discussion and reflection about this difficult topic with children has the effect of opening them to further discussion and more comfort. When teachers summon the courage to allow freer discussion, more learning of all sorts ensues.

An Annotated Bibliography of Children's Books about Social Class Difference

Picture Books

Atkins, Jeannine. Get Set! Swim! New York: Lee & Low Books, 1998.
A young Puerto Rican girl in New York City learns an important lesson about pride and victory from her mother when her public school swim team goes to a competition at a private school.

Baylor, Byrd. The Table Where Rich People Sit . New York: Scribner's Macmillan, 1994.
A girl discovers that her impoverished family is rich in things that matter in life, especially being outdoors and experiencing nature. When she calls a family meeting, and tells her father that she's sure he could earn more money if he worked in a building in town, they start to add up the aspects of their lives are that they value, such as working outdoors, seeing cactus blossoms, being able to wander. Turns out, maybe they're even millionaires. As the girl writes at the end, "To tell the truth, the cash part doesn't seem to matter anymore. I suggest it shouldn't even be on a list of our kind of riches" and she closes the meeting. This girl's family has made the choice to live this way in the desert, a choice many do not have. However this book can start discussions about what we value, as well as what it means to have choices.

Bechtold, Lizse . Buster and Phoebe: The Great Bone Game . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
A clever dog named Phoebe teaches the new puppy, Buster, the value of bones and how to train them to "stay" so that they do not disappear when he leaves the room. In the first story readers will infer from Phoebe's "training lessons for bones" why Buster's bones keep disappearing. In the second Phoebe gets beaten at her own game when she claims all the bones are hers because of her special "chew mark". And in the third Phoebe enlists an unwitting Buster to trick another dog out of his bone. Thanks to Buster's sincerity and helpfulness, Phoebe goes home without the bone, but Buster has gained a new friend. Buster learns how to deal with the selfish Phoebe, who always wants more bones so she can feel "rich". Buster knows by the end of the book that despite Phoebe's larger hoard of bones, the new friend he's made makes him feel truly rich.

Binch, Caroline . Gregory Cool . New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1994.
Gregory goes to visit his grandparents and his cousin, Lennox, on the island of Tobago. He doesn't know how he'll make it through four weeks without the food he's used to, his computer, TV, or any of the other things that the enjoys.

Borden, Louise . The A+ Custodian . New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, c2004.
The students and teachers at Dublin Elementary School make banners, posters, and signs for their school custodian to show how much they respect and appreciate him, and all the work he does.

Bunting, Eve. Fly Away Home . New York: Clarion, 1991.
Even when times are good, there are some who are disenfranchised, forgotten by the rest of society. A homeless boy who lives in an airport with his father, moving from terminal to terminal and trying not to be noticed, is given hope when he sees a trapped bird find its freedom.

Cohn, Diana. Sí, Se Puede! : Yes, We Can! : Janitor Strike in L.A . El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2002.
Young Carlitos helps his mother on the picket lines when she decides to go on strike for a better wage to feed her family. Based on the 2000 janitors' strike in Los Angeles, and presented in side-by-side English and Spanish. This is a passionate look at the struggle for better wages by a mother who has to work two jobs to take care of her son and elderly mother.

Cristaldi, Kathryn . Samantha the Snob . New York: Random House, 1994.
A young girl resents her new rich classmate until she gets to know her. An I Can Read book.

Demi. The Hungry Coat : a Tale from Turkey . New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004.
An old Turkish legend beautifully retold. The wise old Hoca arrives at a dinner party of his wealthy friends but in a coat that looks the worse for wear after he helped out a local goat keeper on his way to the party. Hoca is surprised to find that he is seated at the end of the table, no food in brought, and his friends are ignoring him! Quickly he returns home, changes into splendid new clothes and returns to the gathering. Now he is showered with attention and platters of food are brought. Hoca bewilders everyone by dumping the food into his coat instead of eating it, and saying, "eat, my fine coat!" Why? Because when he arrived as himself, no one was interested, but now with a new coat they are - it must be the coat that was invited to the banquet! So Hoca teaches everyone a wise lesson with a smile on his face.

Egan, Tim. Metropolitan Cow . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
Although his parents, very cosmopolitan cows, are uncomfortable with the idea, Bennett becomes good friends with Webster, a young pig who moves in next door. How come the parents don't want them to play?

Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, [1974, 1944].
When a new and poor student arrives from Poland, she is teased and excluded by her classmates. She perseveres, and is rewarded when she wins a prize at school, but by then her family has moved to where they will not be so labeled as outsiders. The pain of teasing and exclusion is vividly shown, as is the regret the classmates feel when they realize the consequences of their actions.

Greenwald, Sheila . Rosy Cole's Great American Guilt Club. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
Convinced that she doesn't have any of the things that matter, such as trendy clothes and a house in the country, Rosy Cole decides to form a club which will allow her rich friends to give her their surplus clothes, sports gear, and jewelry.

Guthrie, Donna. A Rose for Abby . Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.
Abby, whose father preaches in a large urban church, sees a homeless old woman searching the trash cans nearby and is inspired to do something for the neighborhood's many street people.

Hazen, Barbara Shook. Tight Times . New York: Viking, 1979.
"Tight times" means not getting a dog for a young girl. But when her father loses his job too, times get even tighter. A family that is in the middle of stress and difficulty, but their love for each other, and for the kitten that has found its way into their home, brings them comfort and joy.

Hest, Amy . Jamaica Louise James . Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 1996.
On her eighth birthday Jamaica receives paints, which she uses to surprise her grandmother and to brighten the subway station where Grammy works. What are some reasons why elderly people are still working?

Jackson, Isaac . Somebody's New Pajamas . New York: Dial, 1996.
Two boys from different economic backgrounds become friends and have a sleep-over at the wealthier boy's house. The embarrassment of not having the appropriate clothing to wear is portrayed as the visiting boy goes back to his home-life and starts to judge his home by a new standard. His family helps him to understand that each family does things its own way

Joyce, William . A day with Wilbur Robinson New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1993, 1990.
While spending the day in the Robinson household, Wilbur's best friend joins in the search for Grandfather Robinson's missing false teeth and meets one wacky relative after another. Sometimes going to a friend's house is a real eye opening experience. Some families just don't do things the same way as others, or have the same kinds of belongings.

Lachtman, Ofelia Dumas. Pepita Finds Out . Houston, TX: Pinata Books, 2002.
For a school project, Pepita has to interview someone in her family. She is afraid that her report about her family members may not be interesting, and that what they do is not magical or important. After thinking about making up stories about her family instead, her father shows her some of the work he does as a gardener, and she realizes how magical, and important his work really is.

Menzel, Peter. Material World : A Global Family Portrait . San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995.
Not a picture book, but an amazing collection of photographs, this is a fascinating photo-journey through the homes and lives of 30 families, revealing culture and economic levels around the world.

Mitchell, Margaret. Uncle Jed's Barber Shop . NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Despite serious obstacles and setbacks Sarah Jean's Uncle Jed, the only Black barber in the county, pursues his dream of saving enough money to open his own barbershop. His hardships do not come because he didn't work hard enough.

Paterson, Katherine. The Smallest Cow in the World . New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
When Marvin's family has to sell their farm, he is devastated. He misses everything about it, even the mean old cow Rosie. Marvin cannot get over his grief at leaving the farm, and one day he tells his family that he has a very tiny, invisible Rosie in his pocket. Rosie spends the summer with Marvin, and his family is very understanding as he tells them what she is saying and doing. In the fall, other children tease him about his imaginary cow, and although his sister stops them, he reveals that Rosie won't be going to school anymore, because she is going to have a baby. Marvin's family expresses their love and caring for Rosie (and Marvin), forever, wherever they are. Reduced circumstances create the pain of loss not only of things, but of a way of life. This is how one child comes through those changes, with the support and love of his family.

Perkins, Lynne Rae. Home Lovely . New York: Greenwillow, 1995.
Tiffany lives in a trailer with her mother, who has to work during much of the day, leaving her alone. Thinking that she would plant flowers to make the trailer look more like home, she plants some seedling she finds outside and hopes they become trees or a flower garden. With the kind help of the mailman, she learns that they aren't flowers at all - but tomatoes, potatoes, and melons. She learns how to take care of them, and when the mailman brings her some extra marigolds from his garden, they now have a real garden, and a friend.

Schermbrucker, Reviva. Charlie's House . New York: Viking, 1991.
Charlie builds the house of his dreams with mud walls, cardboard roof, popsicle sticks, and bottle caps in a South African township. A child whose imagination is not confined by the poverty in which he lives is beautifully portrayed.

Schwartz, Amy. What James Likes Best . New York: Atheneum, 2003.
James has a lot of choices. He goes with his parents on an express bus to visit twins, in a taxi to visit Grandma, and in a car to see the county fair, then walks next door with his mother for a play date. At the end of each "chapter", the reader gets to choose, what s/he thinks James liked best about that experience. Happily surrounded by friends and family, James experiences his world with delight. What does he like best? Is it the toys he is surrounded by, the rides in cars or buses, the food, or the people?

Shulevitz, Uri. One Monday Morning . New York: Scribner, 1967.
A playing-card-type king, queen, prince and their entourage march gaily through a young hero's daydream. A child invents a joyful fantasy world, all imagined from the pack of cards which is all he has to play with as seen in the last illustration.

Cohen, Miriam. My Big Brother . New York: Star Bright Books, 2005.
The bond between a significantly older brother and his younger brother is movingly conveyed. Although the older brother is really smart, he cannot go to college because the family does not have enough money. He joins the army instead. The mother is visibly upset, and after he leaves she cries when she watches the news. The younger brother fills his big brothers shoes as best he can. They find some comfort in baking him cookies and sending him a note, and treasure his letter home. A very real look, from a child's point of view, at the choices some people don't have.

Spinelli, Eileen. The Perfect Thanksgiving . New York: Holt, 2003.
Two families–one that is "perfect" and one that is far from it–celebrate Thanksgiving in their own loving ways. Abigail Archer's family eats perfectly cooked white meat at a table set with fine china and lace napkins. The girl telling the story describes her own family's meal - filled with slurping, burnt turkey, spilled gravy and the occasional burp. A funny look at how two households, with differences based on both social class and temperament, give thanks, and enjoy their holidays.

Thomas, Jane Resh. Lights on the River . N.Y.: Hyperion, 1994.
Theresa and her family are migrant workers. Moving from farm to farm is a hard life, and the living conditions are minimal. A woman farmer offers milk and cookies to Teresa and the other children, inviting them to come to the door of the farmhouse to get them. Teresa looks inside, sees the food, the curtains, and the clean bathroom inside the house, and it makes her angry. The woman farmer also invites the workers to a concert being held in the local school, but the families are too tired to go. Teresa imagines her own family, back in Mexico, happily running a small cafe, and while her father plays his guitar, her mother brings out the special candle and sand that they always have with them that come from their home village. These objects were meant to be saved for Christmas, but Teresa's mother explains "abuela gave us the sand and the light to keep the village alive in our hearts".

Thompson, Kay. Eloise : a Book for Precocious Grown Ups. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.
This is the story about a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel.

Wells, Rosemary. The Secret Birthday. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2002.
Noisy Nora finds a surprising new site for her birthday party when her mother will not let her invite all of her classmates to her house because it is too small. The passions and dynamics of birthday party invitations are realistically captured in this book of the Yoko and Friends series. Who will be included, and who won't is hard to keep out of discussions in school and on the playground, even though they all know they shouldn't. How can Nora find a way to in mend all the hurt feelings? Is she really so upset that she'd rather be in hospital with two broken legs? No, and her solution includes everyone, even the children who are in hospital.

Zemach-Bersin, Kaethe. Just Enough and Not Too Much. New York: A.A. Levine, 2003.
Simon the fiddler has always had just enough of everything he needs, but when he discovers the lure and danger of more, he learns that there is such a thing as too much. A gentle look at how more things don't make you happy, ending with a party for all his friends, and they each take something home, leaving him with just enough again. How do you know what enough is?

Wells, Ruth, The Farmer and the Poor God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
A poor god living in the attic of an unsuccessful family prepares to move with them and causes a reversal of their fortunes. How do people get to be poor?

Ziefert, Harriet. Home for Navidad. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Ten-year-old Rosa hopes that her mother, whom she has not seen for three years, will leave her job in New York and come home to Santa Catarina, Mexico, for Christmas and maybe even longer. Includes a glossary of Spanish words used. Who are the people who clean houses and care for other people's children? They have families of their own that they have left behind, sending them money until they can go home again. Rosa's mother is one of those workers, and Rosa lives in Mexico with her abuela (grandmother), missing her mother every day, and wishing she would return. This is an empathetic look at lives that are often ignored.

Chapter Books

Bernier-Grand, Carmen T. In the Shade of the Níspero Tree. New York: Orchard Books, 1999.
Because her mother wants her to be part of the world of high society in their native Puerto Rico, nine-year-old Teresa attends a private school but loses her best friend.

Clements, Andrew. The Jacket. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Sixth-grader Phil comes to an awareness of his own racial prejudice after he sees Daniel, an African-American boy, wearing his brother's one-of-a-kind jacket and leaps to the conclusion that Daniel has stolen the coat

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. The Girl with 500 Middle Names. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Janie's parents move to the suburbs so she can go to a better school, but when she discovers that all the other students are richer than she is, she feels out of place–until she realizes that there are more important things than money. Janie deals with the teasing and assumptions of kids in her class, but when she decides to take a stand and actually devises a plan to help her mother's business that also involves drawing attention to her family income difference. Not only is her plan successful, but she and another girl finally speak honestly to each other about their feelings, and Janie discovers that she really does have a new friend after all.

Hahn, Mary Downing. Daphne's Book. New York: Clarion Books, 1983.
As author Jessica and artist Daphne collaborate on a picture book for a seventh-grade English class contest, Jessica becomes aware of conditions in Daphne's home life that seem to threaten her health and safety. Daphne is cared for by an unstable elderly grandmother, but is afraid to let anyone know. In this story Daphne deals with a combination of mental illness and poverty.

Harris, Mark Jonathan. Come the Morning. New York: Bradbury Press, 1989.
Ben and his family find themselves living among the poor and homeless when they leave El Paso for Los Angeles to look for Ben's father

Hobbs, Valerie. Carolina Crow Girl. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Carolina stays with her wealthy friend's family, and appreciates the attention and opportunities made available to her. But there are problems in his family as well, and she comes to realize that she can deal with her own family's issues, and she would rather be home.

Hyppolite, Joanne . Ola Shakes It Up. New York: Delacorte Press, 1998.
Nine-year-old Ola and her family are the first black people to move into Walcott Corners, a stuffy, suburban Massachusetts community that Ola wishes were a little bit more like the lively old Roxbury neighborhood she sorely misses.

Yep, Laurence. The Amah. New York: Puffin, 2001.
Twelve-year-old Amy finds her family responsibilities growing and interfering with her ballet practice when her mother takes a job outside the home. To make more money her mother becomes a caregiver for a rich young girl, and the extra household duties mean Amy cannot pursue what she loves. When the rich girl is to come and stay with Amy's family while the girl's parents are away, Amy is prepared to hate her. But things do not turn out in the way that she expected.

Background Books for Teachers

Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

Suggestions for Helping Families Cope with Income Disparity

Facilitate planning. If all families could be informed at the start of the school year of likely expenses for the entire year, they could anticipate and manage better. What may seem incidental expenses can provoke anxious scrambling because they come as an unwelcome surprise.  

Use a parents' buddy system. Any school's culture is opaque to new families. Pairing "old" and "new" families can be extremely helpful in explaining and translating the "hidden curriculum" so that the new families don't feel confused about unspoken or assumed expectations.

Facilitate awareness about time commitments. Parents' abilities to leave their jobs to help with school trips or attend school events may be quite limited. Acknowledge this reality and help all parents understand its consequences.

Find ways to help with children's playdates. Encourage the use of neutral territory such as school or public playgrounds. Facilitate "trade-offs" for supervision and transportation issues. Provide explicit, specific help for arranging children's social activities outside school.

Democratize birthday celebrations. Create ways to honor and celebrate children's birthdays without letting them become "cupcake competitions" or otherwise disruptive events.

Joan Arrowsmith

Joan Arrowsmith has been a children's librarian in an independent school in New York for the past 19 years. Lillian Polite teaches five and six year olds at a New York independent school. Elizabeth Saenger taught ethics to second through sixth graders for 24 years before retiring in the summer of 2007.