Happy Poetry Friday, Everyone!
Last month, Poetry Friday blogger Michelle H. Barnes invited me to her site, Today’s Little Ditty, for a post about persona poems. Although I used many poetic forms in my novel in verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, every single poem is a persona poem. Why? Because each poem is spoken in the voice of an invented character.
In my post for Michelle, I highlighted the development of one character in the book, fifth grader Brianna Holmes. You can read the full post at Today’s Little Ditty.
In that post, I wrote: When I came up with the character of Brianna Holmes, I only knew one thing about her: Her family was homeless. A neighbor of mine works with our local school system, providing support to homeless families. Because Emerson Elementary is modeled on schools in my area, it was important to include a homeless character.
Today, I’d like to welcome my friend and neighbor Kim McCauley. Kim works to support homeless children and their families here in Howard County, Maryland. If I didn’t know Kim, the character of Brianna Holmes would never have been invented.
At the end of our interview, I will share the poem where Brianna describes one way that she copes with being homeless.
Laura: THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY is set in Howard County, Maryland. How would you describe your work with homeless children? What are some ways that the school system gives them support?
Kim: I work in the Pupil Personnel Office which is part of Student Services in the Howard County Public School System. We have a comprehensive homeless policy in Howard County Schools and we also follow the McKinney-Vento law [read about it here] to make sure that all homeless students can attend school and receive the supports that they are entitled to by law and policy. Our job in the PPW office is to make sure all of these policies and the law are followed while also supporting the students and families as they navigate through homelessness. I have many responsibilities that relate to making sure that homeless children are monitored regularly for grades and attendance, ensuring that they are receiving free meals and transportation, data collection and other duties. There are so many things that go into supporting a homeless family. The PPWs work to address the issues on the school level. They case manage all homeless children and work extensively with the families to help support them while they are experiencing homelessness.
Laura: Is homelessness a big issue in central Maryland? How many school-aged children does it affect?
Kim: Homelessness is a big issue in all of Maryland. Each county reports to the state regularly on the numbers of homeless kids. You can find the numbers for each county by visiting the MSDE website and searching homelessness. In Howard County, we currently have approximately 550 children that have been identified since the beginning of the 15/16 school year that are experiencing homelessness. Not all of those are HCPSS students. We include all youth that we know about in this number. Also, this number changes almost every day. Almost all of our schools in Howard County have homeless students.
Laura: The character Brianna Holmes tells us that she is homeless. She’s living in a motel with her family, not in a shelter or on the streets. Is this something you see with the families you work with? Can you explain how a homeless family might come to live in a motel?
Kim: We see many of our families that are living in motels. Sometimes a family will lose their home through eviction or foreclosure and living in a motel is the most that they can afford. In other cases Grassroots Crisis Center will temporarily place families in a motel to help them through the transition of losing their home. Families experiencing homelessness in Howard County must go through the Coordinated System of Homeless Services to be eligible to receive services. They start this process by calling the Grassroots emergency hotline number 410-531-6677.
Laura: Thank you for sharing that contact information. How can parents, educators, and other adults help children understand what it means to be homeless? Are there ways that school children can support their peers who are homeless or food insecure?
Kim: This is a hard question because no matter what we say or do, children and adults will never fully understand what a person goes through when they are experiencing homelessness and sometimes hunger unless they experience it themselves. However, there are certainly ways to help children and others understand and offer them ways to help. There are many fundraising opportunities in HoCo designed to help Grassroots Crisis Center. One of those programs is called Change Matters and it’s tied into student service learning in many of our schools. For example, they usually incorporate lessons into the curriculum and then it culminates with a fundraising activity so that students feel like they are helping. There are many other opportunities to help by volunteering to make meals, work in the cold weather shelters, etc. There are also many films available for viewing that show homeless youth and how they deal with homelessness. One very powerful film that has been shown on HBO and is also available as a teaching resource is called Home Stretch. There are several others such as American Winter that are being used as educational resources as well.
Laura: Do you have any children’s books you recommend that touch on the issue of homelessness?
Kim: I do not know of any children’s books that touch on homelessness. However, there are many books that are extremely insightful and powerful that depict real-life homelessness. Enrique’s Journey and An Invisible Thread are two books that I highly recommend. These books shouldn’t be read to young children. I recommend an adult review them before having children read them.
Kim, thank you so much for sharing all of this information and telling us about the work that you do to support homeless children and their families.
Meet Brianna Holmes, an Emerson Elementary fifth grader, who is one of Ms. Hill’s poets.
In her first poem, Brianna tells us that she loves being as fashionable as the “fifth-grade queens.” So she’s taught herself how to sew, embroider, and repurpose hand-me-down clothes to make them stylish.
It’s not until Brianna’s second poem that we learn more about her family situation. Brianna is living in a motel with her mother and older brother. Although she hopes they will have their own home someday, for now, Brianna’s family is homeless.
Readers, I hope you enjoyed hearing from Kim McCauley today, and learning more about my inspiration for this character.
I recently read Katherine Applegate’s middle grade novel CRENSHAW, which is about a family on the brink of becoming homeless. Feel free to share your recommended reading about homelessness (specify whether it’s for kids or adults) in the comments.