Opening thoughts on Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind

Editor’s Note: This year the faculty and staff at my school will be reading and discussing Eric Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind and I will be leading one of many discussion groups. The thoughts and opinions here are my own and do not reflect the feelings, ideas or positions of the school administration or of the faculty in general.

                  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic American novel, The Great Gatsby, opens with narrator, Nick Carroway, telling his audience, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’.” It’s a sobering thought, especially for those of us fortunate enough to have grown up with some “advantages”.

                  For writer Eric Jensen, it seems to be the kind of thought he has had on many occasions, admitting in the introduction to his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind that he, “was simply unable to fathom why the poor could (or would) not lift themselves out of poverty. (He) believed that if ‘those people’ simply tried harder or had ‘better values’, they would be able to succeed. “ Jensen goes on to explain that his attitude was “small-minded and prejudiced”, but that he has since traveled extensively and learned things that “opened (his) eyes and transformed (his) soul”.

                  This is exactly the kind of language you would expect to hear at a revival or carnival, for you see, Eric Jensen is an education snake oil salesman; a charlatan who rides into school districts with his thin volumes of pretend academic research ready to offer desperate administrators a quick solution to their myriad problems. Like spiritualist, Deepak Chopra, who hijacks the language of quantum mechanics to talk about spiritual vibrations, energy levels and the non-locality of the mind, Eric Jensen obfuscates his trickery by cloaking it in fabulous language. Just take for example, his definition of poverty which is … “a chronic and debilitating condition that results from multiple adverse synergistic risk factors and affects the mind, body and soul.” No matter how good the professional development seminars that Jensen delivers are, I don’t think I will ever be certified to work on people’s souls.

                  But Jensen’s writing and presentation styles are persuasive, so they work like the charms they are supposed to be. Like Ruby Payne, and her book Framework for Understanding Poverty, before him, Eric Jensen travels around the country spreading what in academic circles is known as the “deficit-model” of education; a philosophy that views students as “broken” or “missing something”. Jensen does this (and has been doing it for nearly two decades) under the guise of “Brain-based” education because, after all, that sounds really smart, doesn’t it?

                  One of my problems with Jensen in general, and with his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, specifically, comes from the fact that some of the research he relies on is twenty years old and older. This is especially worrisome since so many advances in brain imaging and cognitive science have been made in the last two decades. In the first chapter alone, for example, Jensen cites Freiberg (1993), Bradley, et al (1994), Graber and Brooks-Dunn (1995), and Mouton & Hawkins (1996). To make matters worse, the information Jensen cherry picks to make his case, is less than conclusive enough for him to then extrapolate to a more general scenario. According to Jensen’s research, “40% of children living in chronic poverty had deficiencies in at least two areas of functioning at age 3” (Bradley, et al., 1994). This means that more than half of the children in CHRONIC poverty did NOT show these affects.

                  For Jensen, however, this kind of evidence seems to lead him to such outrageous conclusions as, “…children raised in poor households often fail to learn these [healthy, appropriate emotional] responses, to the detriment of their school performance. “ Among the responses he believes poor children don’t learn at home are things such as gratitude, forgiveness, patience and empathy. This is not true, according to Assistant Professor of Psychology and writer, Michael W. Krauss who says, “Disposed to reduced social and economic resources, lower-class individuals’ outcomes are more likely to hinge on outside forces. These conditions make it so that it is more costly for lower-class individuals to mis-read others’ emotions. In contrast, abundant social and economic resources allow relatively upper-class individuals to navigate the social world without (for the most part) incurring social costs that come from not reading others’ emotions. In essence, while upper-class individuals can remain blissfully unaware of others’ emotions, their lower-class counterparts must be vigilant of the emotions of others to identify both social opportunities and potential social costs.”

                  Jensen does this sort of thing throughout the first few chapters (I am only on Chapter 3), making negative blanket statements about the impact poverty has on people, without ever considering the kind of resourcefulness and ingenuity that necessity demands of them. Furthermore, he makes claims about low SES students that could be applied to students in general, and to teenagers in high school more specifically.

                  Take for example the opening paragraph of the first chapter, “Understanding the Nature of Poverty”. He begins with an anecdote that introduces us to history teacher Chris Hawkins (whom he doesn’t clarify is a real person or a pseudonym for a real person or just a name for a character in a story he is telling us). Jensen says that Hawkins is desperate and that like others who teach economically disadvantaged students, he complains of their “chronic tardiness, lack of motivation, and inappropriate behavior.” Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a high school, no matter what social class the students belong to, will attest to the fact that these are traits shared by many teenagers, not just poor ones.

                  But Jensen persists in making such misguided leaps of logic and uses great slight of hand to smooth over the nonsense that he is pushing. Near the end of the first chapter, he writes, “Many nonminority (does he mean White?) or middle-class teachers cannot understand why children from poor backgrounds act the way they do at school. Teachers don’t need to come from their students’ cultures to be able to teach them, but empathy and cultural knowledge are essential. Therefore, an introduction to how students are affected by poverty is highly useful.” To which I respond, “wait … what?” Is Jensen implying here that poverty is some students’ cultures? If he is, then I missed that part of his thesis. If he isn’t, then he needs to continue editing his slim manual so that it makes more sense.                                  

                  Like the best con artists, Eric Jensen has made a name for himself by co-opting the language of the field, preparing professional looking wares and stringing together other people’s research and ideas to suit his own means and ends. It is the kind of junk science that may be fine when ghost hunting, preparing herbal supplements or tracking ancient aliens, but educators should not fall for it. Viewing our poor students as having sub-optimal brains or being somehow deficient of such basic human emotions as humility or optimism seems monstrous to me and unacceptable as a teacher and a father.

                  Of course we want to improve our schools and be better teachers for our students; their success is our success. But we cannot be lured by false promises or quick fixes like the idea that simply changing our attitudes will correct deep, systemic and persistent deficiencies. In closing, I would like to return to Nick Carroway, who says, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——”

                 We may still be able to realize our American Dreams.

And now, some definitions and some numbers.

Poverty as defined by is the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.1

Poverty as defined by the Federal Government is a family of two (2) people making less than $15,391. Three (3) people making less than $18,871. Four (4) people making less than $24,257. Five (5)  people making less than $28,7412

According to the 2014 income-to-poverty ratios, 6.6 percent of Americans were living in deep poverty. Among children, the rate is higher: 9.3 percent of children were living under 50 percent of their family’s poverty threshold.3

In 2014, the Median Household Income in the United States was $53,5674

  •                   In Massachusetts, it was $69,200
  •                   In Essex County, it was $70,074
  •                   In Haverhill it was $61,2085

According to one set of data from the site, Haverhill has 12.2% of its population living in poverty. According to another set of data from the same site, the number is 16.8%.


  3. (Institute for Research on Poverty at University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  5. (Haverhill Information)

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you found something useful.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2016. All rights reserved.

Author: htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.

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