In the CLASSroom

College of Education faculty help K-12 teachers understand and better reach their students

In the CLASSroom

Third-graders in Jan Spurgeon’s class at Barrow Elementary School find a quiet place for their independent reading time.

The third-grade classroom at Oakwood Elementary School in Hall County is quiet as the children read independently. They’re sprawled across the carpeted floor, sitting on pillows or in desk chairs following the adventures of characters like Greg Hefley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Lemony Snicket or Junie B. Jones.

At a table in one corner, Carly Overmyer, 9, reads passages from Something from Nothing to Stephanie Jones, an associate professor from UGA’s College of Education.

“What do you think the meaning of that title is?” Jones asks Carly in a voice barely above a whisper. “Is there a part in this text you felt you could empathize with?”

Carly says she can relate to the working-class family in the book and Joseph, the story’s main character, whose grandfather makes things for him. Carly’s grandmother makes things for Carly.

Later, Carly’s teacher tells Jones she has encouraged the 9-year-old to read more difficult texts, but Carly prefers the simpler picture books. Maybe, Jones suggests, there are no chapter books in the classroom that Carly can relate to.

“I can help you with that,” Jones says.

Down the hall, students in Amanda Ruis’ second-grade classroom are talking about the book they’re going to read. Titled A Day’s Work, the cover features an older man and a young boy sitting next to a trash barrel.

Ruis asks them to come up with questions about the story based on the cover.

“It looks like they’re poor,” one child says.

“Are they sad? They look sad,” says Alyssa Ferrara, 7. “Are they hurt?”

The exercise piques the students’ interest in the book and helps them think about things from a different perspective.

Spurgeon finds that her third-graders read more if they can select books they can relate to or that interest them. Sharks has this young reader’s rapt attention.

In Tonya Hanks’ fifth-grade classroom, students have their noses in a variety of books—Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Lightning Thief and Big Nate, to name a few.

“You might have a kid that doesn’t like to read,” Hanks says. “Having the freedom to pick out a book may unlock that door.”

On this day in October, Jones will be in and out of classrooms in the elementary school just outside Gainesville, observing students and making suggestions to teachers about how they can enhance their curriculum by relating it more to the population they serve.

It’s part of the CLASSroom Project, a research and outreach program Jones launched in 2010 with colleague Mark Vagle, now an associate professor at the University of Minnesota.

Through the project Jones and Vagle work with K-12 classroom teachers to identify ways to better interact with and educate students in school settings that include a range of socioeconomic classes. Suggestions as simple as including books in the classroom that appeal to minority students, kids from working-class families and children with special needs are the lessons for teachers and administrators. Beyond that, however, Jones seeks to help educators better understand how their actions and language can work to a child’s benefit or detriment.

For example, a teacher that attended one of Jones’ workshops told her that she had admonished a young student for wanting to be a waitress like her mom when she grew up. “You can do so much better than that,” the teacher told her.

“That kind of interaction gives kids a negative impression of themselves, their families and their place in the schools,” Jones says.

Jaylen Brown (left) and Addie Middleton work with Spurgeon on a mathematics word problem at Barrow Elementary School.

A class-sensitive response, Jones told the teacher, would be to say, “I’d love to hear about the work your mother does as a waitress.”

Jones’ inspiration comes from her own experience as a child in Ohio raised in a working-class family. Early on, she began noticing that people often were treated differently because they wore a certain kind of clothes or drove a certain kind of car. Things like paying for extracurricular activities, like football, band and cheerleading, and getting picked up from school on time came easily for other students.

“There was a point in my life when I became very angry about that,” she says. “How can it be that my mother is working two jobs, working her butt off, and is hardly able to pay the rent, hardly able to keep a car on the road?”

By sixth-grade she began to hate school. It got worse in high school when she moved to Panama City, Fla.

“Literally, there were people who got brand-new Jaguars for their birthday and some who were struggling to keep their lights on,” she recalls.

She moved to a different school where she could attend class in the morning and go to work in the afternoon. Her job stretching canvases in an artists’ studio introduced her to the creative side of the working world and left her even more dissatisfied with high school. She chose the vocational-technical route and studied accounting.

After a couple of semesters at Gulf Coast Community College she moved back to Ohio where most of her family still lived. She worked there for a year before deciding to study education at the University of Cincinnati. After earning her bachelor’s degree she taught elementary school in both urban and suburban areas. There she saw the same disparities and class-based biases she experienced as a child. One mother, she says, asked that her child not be seated next to a child who lived in an apartment.

“I was a huge advocate for any kid or family who felt like they might be an outsider,” she says. “I was determined not to let that happen in my classroom.”

Ashanti Pope (center) and her third-grade classmates at Barrow Elementary School listen intently as Spurgeon reads the book I Love My Hair!

She went on to earn her master’s degree from Miami of Ohio and later was introduced to a professor, Deborah Hicks, at the University of Cincinnati who studied social class and literacy.

When she finished her doctoral program in 2004, the field of academics studying social class and literacy was relatively small. The literacy program at Columbia University was interested in her scholarly work and Jones was hired in a tenure-track position.

“Why Columbia would hire a [former] working-class girl studying class—it was fascinating to me,” she says.

In 2007, she was offered a position at UGA in the department of elementary and social studies education. The job appealed to her because the department was more interdisciplinary and she would be able to teach a range of classes, including some cross-listed with the Institute for Women’s Studies.

Three years after arriving in Athens she and Vagle began the CLASSroom Project.

Now the program is reaching administrators, teachers and students in more than two dozen Georgia counties. In addition, through the office of outreach and engagement, which began five years ago, faculty and students from the college are doing research and evaluation programs in each of the state’s 159 counties, says Dean Arthur Horne, who retires this month.

“We take our role as a land-grant university very seriously,” Horne says.

Jan Spurgeon, a third-grade teacher at Barrow Elementary School in Athens, took one of Jones and Vagle’s workshops two years ago.

“They’re not giving you strategies on how to change kids,” Spurgeon says. “They confront you with this issue of class in the classroom.”

As soon as Spurgeon got back to the school she looked closely at the resources in her classroom, searching for books that her students—a racially, ethnically and economically diverse group—might identify with.

“When I looked at my books they were all one dimensional,” she says. “I didn’t have books my kids could see themselves in.”

She took the book list Jones had provided at the workshop and went to Barnes and Noble, where she found a few of the recommendations, but not many. She’s slowly building her library, using her own money, buying books online and in stores where she can find them.

On a Wednesday in early October, the students sit on the rug at the front of her classroom while Spurgeon reads I Love My Hair!, a picture book by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley. The book is about an African-American girl named Kenyana whose mom combs the tangles out of her hair every night. It hurts Kenyana and as she cries, her mother talks to her about being proud of her beautiful hair and all the things she can do with it.

As Spurgeon reads, several children in the class reach up to touch their own hair.

“I see certain friends share a connection to (the story),” Spurgeon says. “I do too.”

Growing up in Greenville, S.C., Spurgeon says, she didn’t see herself in the books she read—until someone suggested she read Judy’s Blume’s Blubber. The book is about a little girl who is overweight and is teased by her schoolmates.

“I connected with that Judy Blume book because it was relevant to me,” she says. “I saw myself in that girl.”

The key to the success of the CLASSroom Project is having the teachers better understand their students by getting to know about their home lives.

Leslie Waldon (hand raised) a teacher at Hopkins Elementary School in Gwinnett County, participated in a recent workshop, “The Other Side of Poverty,” hosted by UGA Associate Professor Stephanie Jones at the UGA Gwinnett Campus.

At Oakwood Elementary, principal Shane Rayburn (PhD ’03) says his teachers began their work with the CLASSroom Project by taking an inventory of their own belief systems. They took a bus tour of the school district so that each teacher could see the neighborhoods where students live. The community has changed a lot over the past decade, Rayburn says, moving from a population of mixed socioeconomic classes to one with more needs. Two-thirds of the students at the school receive free or reduced-price lunch.

“Oakwood looks like the real world,” Rayburn says. “Some middle (income), upper middle and extreme poor.”

The more the teachers know about their students, the better able they are to teach them, he says.

“We’re teaching kids, we’re not teaching programs. You’ve got to take (students) and take the stuff they bring into school with them and work with that.”

One aspect of the project that has developed throughout the year at Oakwood is what Vagle has called class-sensitive photo-storying with teachers and children. He began by sending school-owned still- and video-capable cameras home with a handful of teachers and asked them to record in pictures some of the things that were relevant to their lives. The teachers brought in the images and wrote stories to accompany them.

Then they turned it over to the students. Since school began in August, the students in kindergarten through fifth-grade have started to build a portfolio of photos accompanied by stories, based on people, places and things in their own lives.

“It’s bringing an aspect of the students’ everyday experiences outside the classroom into the school in a concrete way,” Vagle says.

Oakwood Elementary School fifth-grader Victor Aleman Anya talks through his story with Jones.

Often when elementary school children are learning to write they are given very general topics, some of which can unintentionally privilege students from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds and place students from working-class and poor backgrounds in difficult situations. For example, an assignment to write about “What I did on my summer vacation” might be a great inspiration for someone who had a busy, eventful break traveling across the country to visit extended family but non-inspiring to other kids who might not feel their break held the same luster.

“This [photo-storying] has the potential to improve student engagement and interest in their writing,” Vagle says. “They’re the experts on that photo.”

Vagle continues to work with Oakwood and is launching a similar program in Minnesota.

Deborah Copher, a third-grade teacher at Oakwood, has taught at the school for 20 years, using prepared texts and graphic organizers to teach her students to write. As part of the project she was encouraged by Jones to begin writing her own stories, which she shared with the students in daily lessons.

Copher’s willingness to share her family stories and listen to others’ stories, regardless of the economic conditions that produced them, expands both her and her students’ class sensitivity and helps broaden their understanding about the world around them. And all the while, children from all social class backgrounds build stronger connections with their teacher and their school.

“It’s really been pretty phenomenal what’s happened from that,” Copher says. “They are just drawn into a lesson like I’ve never really seen before. It really seems to make a big difference in their writing.”

Get More

See a multimedia presentation of Jones’ work with the CLASSroom Project at

Want to give? To contribute to the CLASSroom Project, contact Aldon Knight, executive director of development for the College of Education, at (706) 542-2267 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).