People who know my work in Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading may not realize that I also grew up in generational poverty. I want to share an episode from my own life that illustrates how generational poverty and lack of education contribute to the achievement gap and students’ reluctance to ask questions.
Pretending to be my big sister Josephine, I picked up one of her third-grade school books, opened it, and tried to read one of the words—with no luck. I looked around for help. Mom was in the backyard talking to a neighbor, so I decided to ask her to tell me the word. The book was heavy, but I carried it to the clothesline where Momma and Mrs. King were standing. I stared at that unknown word the whole way. When I stopped between Momma and Mrs. King, I held the book up as close to Momma’s face as I could get it and asked, “Momma, what’s this word?”
“Why did you interrupt me again? I’ve told you not to. Quit doing that,” Momma snapped, then added, “I’ve also told you to stop asking me so many questions.” She turned her back to me and started talking once again to Mrs. King.
I shouldn’t have interrupted her, and I knew I had done a bad thing. I ran back inside and let the screen door slam behind me. I wished I could sit in the closet like Josephine did when she was upset, but she was already in there and there wasn’t enough room for two.
When Momma came back into the house, I waited for her to say something, but she walked right past me without stopping to speak. Interrupting her must have been worse than I thought, so I stayed shy of her for a while.
Later in the day Momma was sitting quietly in a dark corner, so I thought I would try once more now that she wasn’t talking to anybody. With Josephine’s book open in my arms, I cautiously walked over to where she was sitting. “What’s this word, Momma?” I asked, holding the book up once again.
“I’ve already told you, I don’t know that word,” she answered sharply.
“What about this one?” I pointed to another word, but she didn’t know that one, either.
“Here, Momma,” I held the book toward her as I talked. “Can you read the book to me?”
Momma stood up, slapped my face, and walked away.
For a long time after that I was afraid to ask Momma to read to me. When I got to school, I was timid about asking questions because I was afraid the teachers would react like Momma did, with frustration and impatience. This is why it’s so important to practice skills like question making and to create classrooms where all students, especially students from generational poverty, feel like their questions are valuable tools for learning.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”