In this article excerpt, Alma Flor Ada and Rosa Zubizarreta suggest an innovative but practical technique for helping parents engage in a meaningful way with their children and their children's schools.
Teachers send home questions or dialog prompts designed to encourage parents to share stories about their own life experiences with their children. These stories then become the basis for classroom discussions about students' cultures, and they can also be used to generate meaningful classroom curriculum activities.
Whether or not we speak students' home languages, we can send home on a regular basis oral or written questions and dialogue prompts to encourage conversations in the home language. These invitations are designed by the teacher to elicit and welcome parents' experience, wisdom, and cultural knowledge.
In many cases, there may be initial barriers to overcome as we begin this deeper dialogue between home and school. We have found that an excellent way for teachers to "break the ice" is to author a personal book to be sent home and shared with families. By taking the initiative of self-disclosure, teachers make it easier for parents to share their own life experiences.
Books based on the teacher's own life or family can provide a fruitful starting point for dialogue (see Chapter 8, "Hooked on Writing: Linking Literacy to Students' Lived Experiences). When teachers share their own personal stories, they begin to bridge the formidable barriers of social class and educational status that can exist between them and the parents of their students. For example, a teacher who wrote a book about her mother and sent it to all the mothers of her students, received a strong positive response from the parents to her message of equality and respect conveyed by her offering. As we have shown (Ada & Campoy, 1997b), these books written by teachers for other teachers in subsequent workshops have been a source of inspiration to their colleagues.
Many different factors may account for the positive responses received by teachers using this approach. When parents receive the teacher authored book, they are able to read it at home at their own pace, or have it read to them by their children. This generally inspires them to remember their own stories, to honor their own memories, and to bring to light the experiences of their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Teachers often begin by writing a book on the story of their name. Other teacher-authored books include I Was Not Always a Teacher, My Bed Is Not at School, and The Foolish Teacher, all aimed at helping parents and children understand that teachers are human. Teachers also have chosen to write books about their parents, grandparents, spouses, children, nephews, nieces, and others as a means of sharing cherished stories with parents.
Once initial trust has been established, teachers continue the process by inviting students to initiate conversations with their parents, in their own home language, on a variety of possible topics. For example, if the class is studying the theme of friendship, students can be encouraged to ask their parents for their own memories on the subject: Who were their parents' friends when they were young? Did they ever have differences of opinion with a friend? How did they negotiate the situation? Did they ever need to resolve a conflict with their friend? What do parents seek in a friend today? What would they be willing to do for a friend? Parents also can be invited to share, via their children, their thoughts about universal values: What would they like to do to create a more just society? What would they like to change? What would they preserve? As we design our questions, we ensure inclusiveness by focusing on general, shared human experiences.
How the teacher responds to the information students bring back is crucial, as openness, creativity, continuity, and follow-up are all essential for deepening the process. Teachers can demonstrate interest in parents' wisdom and experiences by recording the stories brought back by students, by inviting students to create classroom books with the stories they have collected, or simply by providing students with the time and space to share their stories and classmates. Teachers who do not speak children's home language can still invite their students to have conversations at home with parents in the home language, and invite students to share in the classroom what they have learned from their parents at home. What is important in this case is sensitivity, respect, and willingness to learn about students' culture. Our responses can serve to model respect for a diversity of experience and opinions.
There are many possibilities for generating curriculum activities from parents' contributions. When a group of parents in Windsor, California, was asked for the best advice they could offer their children, a father responded that he would tell his children, "We are here to create a better world." Teachers at the school decided to make a project based on this parent's words. In each classroom, teachers displayed a banner with the quote and asked each child to create a page for a classroom book on how we can all make a better world. Needless to say, a tangible sense of pride was generated in children with respect to their parents, and the response of the community as a whole was overwhelming.
Teachers looking for ideas on how to create their own conversation starters for parents and children, or for a ready-made program to implement, might want to review the Homeside Activities/Actividades Familiares program created by the Developmental Studies Center (1995). This program, which includes a Spanish-language parent video (1997), offers a simple way to begin validating children's families and communities at the school site by encouraging home conversations that serve as the basis for follow-up activities in the classroom.