Professional Development Opinion

Response: Embracing & Celebrating Diverse Families

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 28, 2013 11 min read
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Cheryl Suliteanu asked:

What are teachers doing to build communication, understanding, and empathy between teachers and families whose lives are dramatically different? Lifestyles, religion, poverty, and political views are just some of the differences we face daily - some teachers openly criticize families for the choices they’re making. It’s not only inappropriate, it’s counter-productive to student achievement. I’d like to know how others may be overcoming this challenge.

Cheryl (who, by the way, was just voted the winner of Goldman Sachs’ “Innovation in U.S. Education " essay contest) asks a question critical to our success as educators.

I’ve previously posted a popular three-part series on parent engagement that might offer some ideas on this topic.

In addition, two author/educators, Cindi Rigsbee and Darcy J. Hutchins, have provided guest responses today, along with contributions from readers.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified reading and language arts teacher currently on-loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The North Carolina Teacher of the Year in 2009, Cindi was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. Her book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2010:

In my experience, the past few years have brought about an understanding of diversity unlike ever before. I can remember teaching twenty years ago when we all used to boast, “I’m colorblind. All my students look the same to me, and I treat them all equally.” Now I look back and am disappointed. I know we meant well, but we should never be blind to color and other attributes of our students’ cultures. Instead, we should EMBRACE them, CELEBRATE them. And I see this practice occurring more and more in our schools.

My school, as well as many others, holds “Cultural Explosion” nights. Families bring dishes that represent their culture, and students display projects based on countries from around the world. In addition, discussions inside the classroom are based on each student’s heritage and the understanding that we all bring our own unique histories with us.

I’m excited about the fact that, in my state, teaching every child, regardless of culture and background, is part of our teacher evaluation system. Standard 2 reads “Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students.” Not only is the standard spelled out in an intricate rubric of teacher behaviors and dispositions, it is part of professional development opportunities for beginning teachers and mentors and is a component of a reflection activity - called a self-assessment - that every North Carolina teacher participates in at the beginning of every school year.

As far as communication, this digital age has allowed us to communicate with all families via email and voice mail which can be translated to the languages spoken at home. With the addition of bilingual, even trilingual, teachers on our staffs, we hopefully have eager translators. Forms sent home to parents are always printed in English as well as Spanish, the two dominant languages among our students.

There is, however, still work to be done. Discussions about religion and sexuality are particularly tricky, and this election year has caused some turmoil when political conversations threaten to disrupt the peaceful classroom. The role of the teacher is to lead discussions that are age-appropriate (a second grader doesn’t need to weigh in on same-sex marriage) and are within the policies of the school and district.

I’m reminded of a story that hits me close to home. In 1951, my brother started school as a child being raised by a divorcee, a single parent mother. Imagine the scandal. Divorce just wasn’t common in those days. I’m sure the potential was there for teachers to treat my brother differently, to judge him by his circumstances, to provide a school environment that was different from the ones the other children experienced. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they nurtured his need to have an outlet for his creativity, gave him the opportunity to express himself in writing, and laughed at his quick wit and charm. As a teacher I hope I’ve treated students with the same respect for individuality - I didn’t sneer at my student Michael who arrived every morning from the homeless shelter; instead, I embraced him and his family, communicating often and providing school supplies and other resources as needed. The same should be said for students from single parent families or students who have two parents who happen to be the same gender. Governor Jim Hunt, whom I call the “Education Governor” because he is such a cheerleader for teachers, and who chaired the first National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said to me once, “We have to leave politics outside the schoolhouse doors.” As a teacher, I don’t have the right (or the time) to judge the family dynamics of my students. I can only teach the children sitting in my classroom every day, keeping who they are as individuals in mind in the event that they need resources or interventions. All the other stuff has to stay on the other side of that door.

What I can do is offer information, within the context of my own curriculum, on many different religions or on what a particular political group stands for...without expressing personal opinions. Teaching is no longer about disseminating information; it’s about allowing our students to discover on their own. It’s our job to facilitate this discovery so that students can make their own choices based on what they believe.

Response From Darcy J. Hutchins

Darcy J. Hutchins, Ph.D. in Education Policy Studies from the University of Maryland-College Park, is Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University. She provides professional development to enable district, state, and organization leaders and school teams establish and maintain comprehensive partnership programs that positively impact student success. She is co-author of Multicultural Partnerships Involve All Families (Hutchins, et al., Eye on Education, 2012), Family Reading Night (Hutchins, et al., Eye on Education, 2008) and School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, Third Edition (Epstein, et al., Corwin Press, 2009). She also is lead editor of annual books of Promising Partnership Practices published by NNPS.

Students’ success in school depends largely upon the relationship between teachers and parents. The growing diversity within United States schools necessitates that teachers and administrators reach out to parents in unique and varied ways. Hundreds of schools across the U.S. follow Epstein’s Six-Types of Involvement as a comprehensive framework of school, family, and community collaboration. The Six Types of Involvement are Parenting, Communicating, Volunteering, Learning at Home, Decision Making, and Collaborating with the Community (For definitions, go to National Network Of Partnership Schools). Schools should intentionally implement all Six Types of Involvement in order to have a comprehensive partnership program. Below are several examples of what schools are doing around the Six Types of Involvement to effectively involve all families, particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

Type 1-Parenting: Meet Your Neighbors

Although the boundaries of Howe Elementary School, Green Bay, Wisconsin, span only two miles, teachers found that many parents did not know their neighbors. At Get to Know Your Neighbor Night, families ate dinner with others from their neighborhoods and participated in activities led by some of the school’s different ethnic groups. Teachers circulated to keep conversations lively. The school displayed a large map of the area so that families could see where others lived. Teachers used the map in class to teach reading and geography skills.

Type 2-Communicating: School Programs and Children’s Progress

Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School, Saint Paul, Minnesota, serves many new immigrant families and is one of first schools focused on Hmong culture. As one activity, the school combined two established practices - Hmong New Year and Hmong Studies Showcase (focused on the school’s Core Knowledge curriculum). The team scheduled the event twice - day and evening - to accommodate busy parents. Each grade level presented a song, dance, poem, or skit that highlighted new knowledge about the Hmong culture to share what they were learning with over 700 attendees.

Type 3-Volunteering: School Helps Families

Staff, students, and families at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup, Maryland, worked together to help 25 families from Burma (now called Myanmar) acclimate to their new home and school. Volunteers helped with a drive for winter clothes, employment assistance, and information on the school system. Over six weeks, the ESOL program implemented Connecting Families to Communities. Burmese families learned the importance of helping children remain literate in their native language and to use their language to increase reading proficiency in English. By year’s end, many Burmese families were ready to volunteer for future activities.

Type 4-Learning at Home: Learning Math, Reading, and Cultures

Shelton Park Elementary School, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, added a cultural twist to its traditional math-literacy night by focusing the theme on China. Families began Multicultural Math-Literacy Night with an enjoyable lesson on the history of China and a snack of egg rolls, rice, and fortune cookies. They participated in Chinese math and puzzle games and read from the book Grandfather Tang’s Story. Every family who attended received a copy of the book to reread with their children at home.

Type 5-Decision Making: A Council for African American Families

To increase the involvement of all families, the Action Team for Partnerships (ATP) at Roosevelt Elementary School in Saint Paul, Minnesota developed Harambee, which means “all pull together” in Swahili. This is a collaborative council for African American families to discuss and resolve issues concerning children’s health, safety, and success in school. The forum promotes parents’ leadership in school events and monthly discussions on children’s needs and families’ concerns. With Harambee, more African American parents also attended other school events, such as Back to School Night and parent conferences.

Type 6-Collaborating with the Community: Local and International Connections

Roberts Elementary School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, partnered with Temple University and the University of Kuwait on the Global Media Literacy Project. The project aimed to increase students’ understanding of Middle Eastern countries and to dispel cultural stereotyping. For example, students in grades 2-4, corresponded with Kuwaiti college students via Wikispaces, shared digital videos of their daily lives, and teachers based lessons on some of these exchanges. Third graders completed a research project about their rights and responsibilities to promote peace as U.S. and world citizens. Students developed writing, video, geography and research skills

Responses From Readers

Georgette Eatmon:

Keep the lines of communication open.

Dr. Bertha Richardson:

Look at the work of Gay and Ladson-Billings on Culturally Responsive Teaching which takes into account the background, ethnicity and prior experiences of the student and families for consideration. The six characteristics of Culturally Responsive Teaching allow teachers to interact and develop reciprocal respect and cooperation.

The six areas are:

-- Validating: Connecting to how the student learns, learning styles and strengths
-- Comprehensive: Using the references of students intellectual, cognitive, emotional to connect the student to the content
-- Multidimensional: Bringing multiple contents together to help student learn within different disciplines
-- Empowering: Integrating academic competence, self-efficacy, and initiative, relating student’s growth to social context
-- Transformative: Respecting current perspectives and strengths while bridging to new knowledge and skills that are needed to become successful
-- Emancipatory: Gaining increased freedom from appreciating contributions of diverse groups and individuals to the learning process

If teachers are to make real connections to diverse families they would do well to recognize the need to learn and appreciate their own cultural contribution to a diverse society. Next, seek to learn about other cultures. Finally, research the background of families in the school.

Thanks to Cindy and Darcy, and to readers, for contributing their responses, .

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