One early elementary teacher explains how she explores issues of homelessness. Her goal: to increases student compassion and understanding, yet sidestep an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy.
“Hey, what would you do?” Brandon asked. “They are innocent. Their mom was only trying to find a safe place for the family to sleep for the night. Hey, what would you do if you was homeless?”
Brandon was passionate in his plea to his fellow jury members — part of a mock jury trial that culminated a two- month unit on shelter. The students in my 2nd/3rd grade classroom were role playing the parts of the judge, lawyers, bailiffs, witnesses, and jury members in a trial of a homeless family arrested for vagrancy.
I had done mock trials with my students before, but last year there was a new tone of urgency in the voices of Brandon and the other jurors.
Brandon was one of seven students in my class (out of 24) who had been in and out of shelters and/or homes of friends and relatives while his family’s desperate search for housing continued. Some 75% of my students last year were at the poverty level, as defined by qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Many of their families, if not homeless, were just a missed pay check away. Even the more financially secure students had talked about seeing homeless people in the streets of Madison, Milwaukee, or Chicago. During the year, in fact, students had encountered a homeless man sleeping in the underground bypass that crosses under the highway on their way to our school.
Developing the Unit
Our shelter unit began with a discussion of basic animal and human needs. We then explored concepts commonly studied in the primary grades: the variety and ways that wild animals find or create shelter, and the proper care of domesticated animals. We learned about the plight of abandoned or abused animals in our city and raised money to sponsor a “crate” at the local humane society. Even before we moved away from a focus on animals, my students’ empathy with the homeless dogs and cats that we sponsored or read about indicated to me that they were personally invested in the topic.
When we did our initial activity of talking about what the kids already knew about homelessness and drawing a visual “web” that listed and linked their knowledge, just about everyone contributed.
“I saw a homeless person when I was coming to school with my mom,” Stephanie said. “She had a sign that said, ‘No job, no food.’ I asked my mom if I could give her a dollar from my allowance.”
Jamel, who was living in a foster home, said he became homeless when neither his mom nor dad could take care of him. Robert related that his family had lived in a city shelter before moving to the school’s neighborhood.
Students also talked about difficulties of life on the streets: getting food, keeping clean, being safe, and finding protection from threatening weather. They spoke with indignation about ways that people could become homeless. Typical comments were, “Landlords kick you out for no good reason,” or, “Your boss doesn’t like you and he fires you. Then you can’t pay the rent.” One student shared that her mother had become homeless as a child when her family’s house had burned down.
I looked at the student-generated “web” and pondered how to go on. Interest was high. The children had a lot of knowledge. And students like Jamel and Robertt, who were as often shooting rubber bands as raising their hands to volunteer information, had been leaders in the discussion.
I was concerned, however, about the very thing that made this topic so compelling — we weren’t talking about a distant “other” such as endangered Rain Forest animals or the heroic travellers on the Underground Railroad. We were talking about the students and their families. I knew that I had to be very careful not to create a dichotomy of “us” (the lucky ones who have housing) vs. “them” (those homeless people). I wanted to support the experiences of the students who had been homeless, as well as to promote empathy and compassion among the others. I wanted to encourage all the students to speak up about issues generated by the topic.
I decided to use a book on the United Nations’ Children’s Bill of Rights to spark a discussion on basic human rights. Then I planned to use books with photos, drawings, stories, and poetry by homeless children to facilitate discussions and writing. I also used our district’s Transitional Education Program to find speakers and books written by homeless children in our district. Most of the fictional stories that I selected for use were written from the point of view of the homeless character; I wanted to avoid books that conveyed a “they need our help” attitude. (See resource list).
The students responded to the stories, poems, and guest speakers with their own writing. After reading a poem in an anthology that began “If I were President…,” students wrote their own versions. Some students decided to address their concerns directly to the President.
We also visited a Salvation Army shelter— a trip that immediately took on a personal note when Keisha saw her aunt waiting in the lobby. Then Robert, who had been living at the shelter before coming to our school and who was always ready to take charge of the class, seized the opportunity to be the tour guide. Our official guide quickly stepped back as Robert showed the class the laundry room, explained the rules of the dining and TV areas, and showed us the drawers where he had kept his toys. Robert’s way of prefacing his comments with, “Hey, guys, you’d like this,” or, “But this ain’t so good,” gave the students a balanced view of life in a shelter.
After the visit to the Salvation Army came the culmination of the unit — the mock trial. My partner, a legal services attorney, came to explain what an advocate does and to share work he has done in protecting the rights of the homeless. After straightening out some terms and clarifying how our legal system works (many students had knowledge from television as well as experience in court), I asked why a homeless family might need legal representation. One student who had paid close attention to a presentation about the rules governing our city’s shelter system had a suggestion.
“They might need a lawyer because their 30 days are up at the shelter,” Melanie said. “They might have no place to go, and what if they had a sick kid and didn’t want to be out on the streets.”
I used Melanie’s idea, along with the incident that had occurred the previous year, to create the scenario for the trial. I asked if any students remembered encountering the homeless person in the tunnel. Several did. For the sake of the drama, we altered the story so that it was about a family who had reached their 30-day limit, and then were arrested for vagrancy when found sleeping in the tunnel.
The students were very excited to be able to play out a “real trial.” However, we reminded them that although their role play would have aspects of a real trial, the legal system was much more complicated than we could explain in a short time.
Students volunteered to take parts in the role play and with some prompting carried out the drama. The “judge,” played by a student who often has to be reminded to listen to others, took every opportunity to pound the gavel (a hammer) and demand, “Order in the court!” The defense and prosecuting attorneys questioned the witnesses. After the closing statements, the trial participants went out for recess, leaving the jury members in the classroom.
The Jury Deliberation
Turning their chairs — placed in double rows of six — to face each other, the members of the jury solemnly began their task. Jeremy, the foreperson, took charge and asked for initial verdicts.
“The homeless people are guilty — no!” said Keisha, who was passionate about her ideas, but couldn’t always find the right words to express herself. “What’s that word that means they didn’t do it? Yeah, that’s right, innocent!”
Ten others proceeded with “innocent” verdicts. Melanie, a sly smile revealing her willingness to stand out on her own, asserted, “Guilty!”
“But Melanie, what if they are thrown into jail?” asked Brandon, a quiet, thoughtful boy. “The whole family will be sleeping on hard, cold floors. And they might get beaten up.”
“Yeah,” agreed Greg. “I know about that. My dad got beaten up in jail.”
“Give them a chance,” said Jamie, a student whose voice is rarely heard in group discussions, but whose family I know had been homeless for months. “They just need a roof over their heads.”
“What was they supposed to do?” agreed Tasha. “They wasn’t hurting nobody. They was just minding they own business.”
Silent, with arms crossed against her chest, Melanie held her ground. “Still guilty,” was all she said.
Greg, normally quiet and unassertive in class, became vehement: “You’ve got to have a good reason. You can’t just do this to this family. What did they do to you?”
Then, two other students joined in on the guilty charge, saying that the home- less family was scaring the kids walking to school.
“What?” said Brandon, now shouting, “Did they have weapons — a knife or anything? Did they try to hurt the kids? They were just taking care of themselves.”
After several more minutes of debate, Jeremy took a final vote: Eleven said “Innocent” and only one (still Melanie) voted “Guilty.”
As the rest of the class filed in from recess, the judge took his seat. “Order in the court,” he demanded, pounding the hammer on his desk. The jury’s foreper- son announced the verdict: 11-1, “not guilty.” The class cheered.
The trial was over, but not the tribulations of the families in my class. Some found housing; for one family of seven, it amounted to one room in a transitional housing shelter. The family of Keisha, who was finally beginning to make some progress in school after two years of absenteeism and “attitude problems,” had been evicted from their apartment and was living in the YWCA. Her family joined the ranks of the homeless, moving back and forth from the YWCA to relatives’ apartments, finally to transitional housing. The district paid for Keisha to be taxied to our school for 30 days; then, still without permanent housing, she was forced to bid our school (the only place of permanency for her over the last month) a tearful farewell. Brandon also moved to another school, his fifth school within the last two years.
Several months ago I heard a voice call out my name in the parking lot of a shopping mall. I looked around, but before I could locate the voice, a body bounded into my arms.
“Keisha! How have you been doing?” I asked as we hugged.
Keisha said she was now living in an apartment and going to another new school. “I miss you,” she said, still hang- ing on to me. “I miss the class.”
I missed her, too, and didn’t even let myself wonder about how many steps backwards she had taken academically and behaviorally in her journey from school to school. I could only hope that our trial and related activities had removed some of the stigma of being homeless, and that our classroom had become a place where the homeless were not viewed as criminals and where housing was seen as a basic right.