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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Inequalities in Real World Experiences

By Peter DeWitt — July 28, 2011 2 min read
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When I taught elementary school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., we used to take a field trip every year to Hahn’s Farm. First graders love to go to a farm to see cows, pigs, chickens and other animals. They also learn where some of their food comes from, and it provides a great way for students to learn about proper nutrition. Unfortunately, many children lack real life experiences, which is why schools offer field trips to bring kids out of the classroom and into the real world.

There are great inequalities between those students who have real life experiences that take them to new and engaging places compared to those students who cannot afford those enriching experiences. I realized how drastic the inequalities of experience were when I went to Hahn’s Farm the first time. It was only a 15 minute bus ride outside of Poughkeepsie, but for some of my students, it may have well been across the country.

One of my students, Shantel (pseudonym), had never been to a farm before, and she found out rather quickly where milk came from. Unfortunately for her, it was at the same time that a baby calf was nursing from her mother. Shantel began to cry because she did not know that milk came from a cow. She thought that milk came from a carton or bottle.

The moment continued to get worse because Farmer Hahn dropped grain in a pig’s bowl and asked my students what foods were made from grain. Some of my students yelled out pizza, bread and cereal. Other kids had no idea what food was made from grain, and Shantel once again got upset because she was concerned that her daily diet included the same food as a pig’s. I realized that many of my students thought food came from the grocery store, not from a farm.

Many of us have seen students who lacked real life experiences. It creates an issue for them when they take tests that are biased towards students who have the benefit of travel and exposure to the outside world. What happens to all of our students who lack experiences as simple as going to a farm 10 minutes away from their home? How can those students understand the outside world when, too often, they don’t get a chance to participate in it? Many of those same students do not have the benefit of a distance learning classroom to transform them into a virtual world where they can see other cultures and learn different customs. They don’t even get a chance to escape their own school block.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to see Jonathan Kozol speak for the second time. The first was at a fundraiser for my friend David’s non-profit homeless women’s shelter, and I had coffee with Jonathan and David on a Saturday night and drove Jonathan to and from his speaking engagement on Sunday. The second time was at the Save Our Schools Conference, and he spoke about how children in poor homes lack experiences compared to their wealthier peers, something those of us who have taught in poorer schools understand all too well.

Many of our students enter our school systems with a reading and vocabulary deficiency, but they also enter our schools with a lack of real life experiences which have a devastating effect on their educational progress. To take a very famous phrase from Jonathan Kozol, we must continue to move forward and do something about these savage inequalities. We cannot close, or even narrow, the achievement gap when our students lack real world experiences.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.