To learn what it’s like to live in or near poverty, more than 130 Pekin and area teachers lost their jobs Tuesday.

Or they donned the roles of children and grandparents in family groups faced with the real-life problems of losing their household paychecks. Their cars are repossessed. They must restructure their lives, perhaps take minimum-wage jobs that keep them from their kids at night.

In the city’s public grade schools, with about 70 percent of students at or below poverty levels, that is what teachers see daily.

How to relate to the issues low-income children bring to their classrooms, and how to reach and teach them better, are the goals of a four-day seminar District 108 is conducting this week in partnership with National Louis University and the University of Illinois Extension Service.

It’s a unique event. Outside of the university, where several District 108 educators also serve as adjunct professors, the Pekin district is the only one in the state allowed to offer the Chicago-based school’s Comprehensive Intervention Model summer institute, said Leonard Ealey, district Assistant Superintendent.

It’s overall goal is basic.

“There’s a lot of perception that people out of work aren’t trying,” said Carrie McKillip, a U of I Extension community development educator helping to direct the seminar.

Role playing, showing teachers and counselors what it’s like for a family to quickly shift from lower-income to poverty-level status, “builds empathy” and understanding that the teachers can take to the classroom, she said.

“This is what goes on in Pekin,” said Ealey. “Everyone learns differently, but a child from poverty learns differently, too.”

The pre-school-year seminar, the fifth that District 108 has hosted, is drawing teachers from Bloomington, Galesburg and several other Illinois school districts as well as a half-dozen teachers from Iowa, Ealey said. “Our reputation has spread.”

The seminar’s first day focused on learning by living the lives of low-income children and their families, Ealey said. The “best practices of instruction,” as revealed by evidence-based research, will take up Wednesday and Thursday.

On Friday, “We’ll combine the two — how to put it all together in a ‘responsive classroom,’” he said.

The educators on Tuesday filled the gym at the district’s Preschool and Family Education Center in groups of six, each group with scripted outlines for that family’s roles and the life situation they faced. They were tasked to “navigate” through a month, divided by “15-minute weeks.”

Around the room were tables for the groups to visit — a bank, a grocery store, the police department, a pay-day loan outlet, even a pawn shop — “the type of agencies that help in the community, and where they might need to visit,” said Lisa Fulkerson, a U of I county extension director.

The role playing can get intense, Ealey said.

He recalled a previous seminar in which “teens” in one family stole bus passes another family left at their chairs “because they were desperate; they needed them.”

Follow Michael Smothers at