In My Own Backyard

This afternoon I celebrated the end of two very stressful, busy weeks and National Readathon Day by reading Paper Things by Jennifer Richards Jacobson. The book doesn’t officially release until February 10, but somehow Letterpress Books of Portland was able to secure copies to sell at the nErDCamp Northern New England Author Night last week. I love Jennifer’s writing, I’ve been hearing good things about the book, so of course I needed to get a copy and have it signed.


I wasn’t very far into the book before I was wiping my eyes, moved to compassion for Ari, the 11 year old main character/narrator. Ari, through a series of events completely out of her control, becomes homeless. The story takes place right here in Portland, Maine (called Port City in the book). This is a fabulous book that I really think should be read by every teacher and young person.
Just as I think everyone should read Kate Messner’s The Exact Location of Home. Although first they should read Kate’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, so they meet Zig before they read his story in The Exact Location of Home.


Books like these always remind me that my students are dealing with things that I often have no idea about. Although, reading Paper Things, I realize that the chances of my students actually dealing with homelessness is pretty slim. I teach in a private school. I know it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, there might be a student who is blessed to have a grandparent or a generous patron pay their tuition, but most of our students have parents who are making incredible sacrifices to pay our incredibly low tuition, but they aren’t in danger of being homeless. Of course, I realize I am making an assumption about our students.

But books like these also make me grateful for what I do have, because in our depressed economy, working in a small Christian school, I realize how close so many of us are living to that line. How easy it would be for us or for the families of one of my students to slip into the place where what money is coming in doesn’t cover the bills and the situation snowballs.

This is the second book I know about to come out this winter that deals with poverty and homelessness among school children. This is a growing problem, although I wonder how much the problem it’s self is growing and how much we are simply just becoming more aware? In The Exact Location of Home, Zig lives in a town on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Ari, in Paper Things, lives in Portland, Maine. These are not necessarily communities where poverty and homelessness are the first things to come to mind, and yet it is a reality.

I’ve recently read some articles about how the issues with our supposedly broken education system aren’t that the education or schools themselves are bad. It’s that there is a high percentage of kids living in poverty. How do we expect students to complete homework, pay attention in class, and complete projects using technology when they are wondering where they’re going to sleep that night or when they’ll get a meal? Common Core isn’t going to do a single thing to improve schools, it will simply widen that gap between the haves and the have-nots, drive failing schools deeper into depression, and make it even more hopeless for a large percentage of the population.

So I wonder, how much do my students know or understand about the world around them? We want them to be concerned about children starving in Africa, to donate so we can help people in India get clean water and Bibles, but how much do they understand about their own community and state? Are they living in ignorance that because they are able to afford a new iPod, or buy fast food for lunch they assume everyone can, and they don’t realize that while its frustrating to wait to upgrade their cell phone because they need to save the money, just a few miles from them kids their age are hoping to get a bed in a shelter and a hot meal?

Reading Paper Things has gotten me thinking. A few weeks ago we had a really good planning session with the middle school and high school teachers. We talked about restructuring our school so that spiritual formation is the linchpin for our whole program. Part of the conversation was about how to incorporate service, so that it wasn’t some external thing, but an outpouring of their developing faith. In order to do that we need to approach our academics differently. We need to provide opportunity for real world experiences. I’m starting to think about the idea of exploring poverty or homelessness. I can see having the students read and discuss books such as Paper Things and The Exact Location of Home as part of a larger study on either of these topics.

I have more reading to do, including A Framework for Understanding Poverty, but I’m starting to ruminate on the idea of developing a problem based learning study that will incorporate spiritual formation, academic subjects, and service.


I want desperately to transform my school, our teaching, and our learning. I want to be do problem based learning and inquiry. I want a richer educational experience for me and for my students. I want to delve into difficult topics that break my heart and the heart of my students. I want them to have the opportunity to see beyond themselves and to develop gratitude for want they have and a heart of compassion for those who aren’t as blessed as them.

It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work on my part, but it will be so worth it.


2 thoughts on “In My Own Backyard

  1. I love this post Natalee. I’ve missed you. It’s been a while. I too love Jennifer Jacobson’s writing. She is so on target with kid language especially when she has kids going through tough issues, but remaining kids throughout the story. I haven’t read those two Kate Messner books so I’m going to order them tonight. I often think about how we could have worked together and how much that might have changed me. You are quite special.


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