Social Class and the Writing Classroom: Two Ways to Help Your Students

By Katelynn DeLuca

This piece first appeared in Writers Who Care in May of 2021.

Growing up, social class wasn’t something we spoke about in my family, my high school, or my peer groups. Or maybe that isn’t true–we talked around it. For example, my friends and I knew that if someone lived in a trailer park that meant they had less than those who lived in a multi-bedroom home in certain parts of town; we knew that if someone could afford to play on the sports teams that weren’t sponsored by our school district without having to do their own door-to-door fundraising, they were financially “comfortable.”

But this “knowing” didn’t translate to talking about class, privilege, social position, or cultural capital. We also didn’t know that there was a reason to talk about class or the reality that some had more than others; instead it seemed to be a simple reality that we accepted and moved on from. That, right there, is the harm. It is not simple and it is not a reality that we can afford to accept.

Of our individual identity markers (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.), the one that perhaps receives the least attention is our social class. This multilayered term refers to the different ways that economic and social factors place us in varying categories that give us more or less status and economic privilege than others. These factors—income, behavior, education, taste, etc.—and their associated connotations have a direct impact on the lives we live and that we perceive as “for us” or “not for us.”

Why Social Class is Important in the Writing Classroom

Social class does not cease to exist when we don’t discuss it in our classrooms. Instead, we are hiding from our students the existence of social inequality and perpetuating the myth that each individual is solely responsible for their success or lack of success. Failing to teach our students about class can cause them to blame themselves and their families for the perceived shortcomings within their lives: Why can’t I live in a bigger house? Why do I have to take public transportation? Why can’t my parents afford the latest technology or clothing trend?

Simply believing that we all have the same privilege is harmful. And we do harm when we avoid teaching the reality of class privilege. Therefore, as educators it is our responsibility to help students learn about what social class is and how it operates. Our students deserve to be better equipped to engage with social class, rather than talk around it, if we want to inspire informed action.

Now, this isn’t about the ways teachers hurt or damage students; it’s about the ways we can actively work toward not doing so. In the US, talking explicitly about social class isn’t only uncomfortable, it’s unexpected, and any time we do something unexpected it can create discomfort and uncertainty for both the doer and the listener/receiver/observer. But through discomfort, we learn.

I often wonder, what if someone had named what we “knew” in high school as issues or concerns of social class. How would my conversations with peers and teachers have transformed my thinking and their own? Now, as a professor of writing, I realize that I can have these conversations in my classroom. Doing this doesn’t even require dramatically changing the curriculum. Below I will provide advice about how teachers can prepare themselves to discuss social class which is based on my own practice and years researching social class and pedagogy. I then follow this with activities teachers can use within the classroom to help students learn about and engage with social class.

What can teachers do first to prepare so as to avoid causing such harm?

  1. Get uncomfortable as you raise questions about class. Know that being uncomfortable means you are doing meaningful work and that by accepting your own discomfort, you’re pushing your students (and yourself) to grow.
  2. Accept the challenge you’ve signed up for. As teachers, we are charged with the work of helping students develop knowledge and ideas, and, as such, we have committed to figuring out how to navigate difficult conversations for the good of our students.
  3. Just start. Begin talking about social class rather than around it.

As you start this work, remember that students are dynamic, resilient, and curious, and your discomfort will only increase their curiosity and allow them to explore the issue with you. You don’t need to fully modify your teaching to begin giving class the attention it requires.

How to start helping your students

1.     Recognize class as an aspect of identity that impacts our daily lives, whether we choose to look at it or hide from it.

To talk about social class, you have to define it in a few of its many forms so students know how to recognize it in action. Begin by talking about the obvious: how wealth and income each create class positions. Starting here is critical because this is the definition of social class with which students are likely to be most familiar. It will help students recognize it more quickly and can increase their participation in offering examples from their own experiences which you can then build on and discuss in greater detail.

In my own college writing classroom, I open the door for students to begin this sort of open discussion by having them “read me.” After a few weeks of classes, once ethos and a rapport has been established, I walk around the classroom and have students quite literally read what they see and verbalize the conclusions they have made. The hesitation and shock on their faces is real, it’s palpable. But I encourage them not to be shy and I joke that I won’t remove imaginary points from their grade should they contribute to the discussion. And each time I’ve done it, one student has broken the ice and, seeing that my reaction is far from offended and I am verbally welcoming their contributions, more students add their thoughts.

One example of a student response is: “well, you’re wearing suede shoes so you must have some money and some sense of style.” I joked with students that they were too kind to even think that I had a sense of style, which lightened the mood, but I then asked them “why does suede connect to money?” They looked puzzled. I asked them to then write down in their private journals a label or other fashion representation that they connect to money.

Once they did so, I asked students to return to the suede shoes, again asking why these are connected to money. Students talked over each other to answer, but largely the responses included: because they had seen adults who had good jobs wearing them and because they were considered “fancy” and thus must require more money. I leveled with students; these were a TJ Maxx special. Their reactions consisted of laughter and intrigue as they began to recognize that what we see and assume is not as accurate as we often perceive, and there are real connections to social class all around us.

The objective of the above exercise is to begin engaging students in a dialogue about social class and help them demystify some of the ways it impacts our thoughts on a daily basis. This discussion sets the stage for students to move from discussing social class to writing reflectively about it.

Next Steps: A Reflective Journal

The next short assignment is a reflective journal which students maintain for at least two weeks. I encourage them to write on-the-go, whether in notebooks or using the memo or voice record app on their phones. Each time they notice themselves perceiving another person or group of people based on something financial, they describe what they saw and the conclusions or assumptions they made. For example, students have pointed out a time when they were on their way to school and saw a young person driving a high-end vehicle. Upon seeing this person, they assume the younger person has wealthy parents who purchased the vehicle for them and believe the driver didn’t work to purchase the car themselves.

While this might seem like a small moment, over time students who spend time reflecting on these instances in their journal will be able to note how quickly they create an entire reality for another person without even necessarily realizing it. Moreover, students will see the role that stereotypes and norms of social class have on their thinking. This gives students a chance to continue to recognize the ways we participate in a class system that is constantly operating around us, whether or not we see it. Such reflective writing builds on our earlier discussions and creates space for students and educators to think more freely about their identity, including their class and positionality, in ways that discussion may not.

Getting students to reflect on and record these observations prepares them for ongoing discussions of social class and its constant role in our lives. Students will have plenty of examples at the ready, allowing you to create a student-centered discussion that increases their participation in the discussion of social class. Might these moments become uncomfortable or difficult to navigate? Sure. But that is not an excuse to stop; instead, focus on the valuable learning that you and your students will experience together.

At this point, you have further immersed your students and yourself in the discomfort of talking about social class and have equipped students to see social class based on some of the financial aspects. This is major, but the work isn’t over.

       2.     Build awareness of social class as a form of access 

Once students establish a foundation for their understanding of social class, they can move forward by applying this learning to the understanding of class as a form of access–access to creative thinking and expression, self-direction, and autonomy–but also as access to spaces, resources, opportunity, and knowledge.

It doesn’t always have to be finances that create access; sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right people or having developed comfort within certain environments because of increased access over time. For example, students who grow up with parents and family members in service industries who have yet to attend college are far less likely to have knowledge of what it means to dress, talk, or interact within spaces such as colleges or universities which are designed for people with middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Many may never have applied to colleges, thus giving them less knowledge about how to do it with their children as well as less access to those who have such knowledge.

It doesn’t make those who are working-class less than, it means that we all must recognize that some and some do not have these privileges that can have long-term impacts on the trajectory of one’s life. Again, our early goal in this learning process is increasing awareness for our students and ourselves.

An activity that can be used to help students apply their learning about class as a form of access is to ask students to write about an experience where they felt like an outsider. Or have students write about a time they felt like an insider. What made them an outsider or insider? What aspects of their identity, positioning, or other identity constructions contributed to their status? What were the unwritten rules of this experience that established some as included and others as excluded? How were such rules communicated to them? Then have students write about this same experience from the other vantage point, whether as insider or outsider. What did this experience look like from that perspective? How might this experience have impacted such people? In what ways did they contribute to the positioning of themselves and others in that one instance?

This same analysis can then be applied to later projects or assignments so that students can continue to see class at work. What’s critical is that when students begin to reflect on their own identity and what characterizes some as insider and others as outsider, the realities of intersectionality will reveal themselves. And we must lean into these discoveries. Class does not stand on its own; it’s interconnected with race, gender identity, sexuality, and a multitude of other constructions. For more information about intersectionality, see Kimberle Crenshaw’s discussion of intersectionality. So, welcome the opportunity to discuss these connections and see issues from such perspectives.

You’ve started, now keep going!

Our students are not living in a bubble. There are many opportunities to raise awareness of class issues, which has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students’ awareness of class disparities is greater than ever because it is surrounding them in ways it never has: the devastating number of people who are food and home insecure; who lack access to what many students see as given (WiFi, technology, school); and the increasing visibility of class division based on the kinds of work people do and the value once placed on it versus the value placed on it over the past nine months (essential workers ranging from nurses and doctors to custodial staff and grocery store workers). We cannot and are not shielding students from it, but we also need to give them tools with which to process it. Starting these conversations with students will help them understand better the world around them, even as it is reshaping itself before our eyes.

Katelynn DeLuca is Assistant Professor of English, Composition at SUNY Farmingdale State College on Long Island, NY. Dr. DeLuca’s work focuses on the intersections of class, identity, and the writing classroom.

Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process. 

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