Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman

Conclusion: Cultural Interchange

Each student in Mrs. Lynns’ class has a unique story. Some are as troubling as Nicole’s and Clarissa’s, others are as positive as Luther’s. In most of the stories, however, the process of interchange unfolded in a similar pattern.

1.   Setting the Stage. The school made parents feel welcome through letters sent home with their children, through parent education and GED and ESL programs, by supporting the Parents’ Association, and by inviting parents to accompany trips. (CES 518 did not set the stage effectively with Sister Sara, who was occupied running her mission and also suffering health problems; however, Sister Sara did form a positive impression of the school during the year when Nicole and her sister were living with a family friend half a block from the school).
2. Building Trusting Relationships. The teachers (Mrs. Lynns and I) established trusting relationships with the children and their families during time spent together in and out of the classroom and during private lunches; at formal parent-teacher meetings and informal discussions during class hours; on school trips; and at incidental meetings in front of the school at the end of the day and during home visits.
3. Getting to Know Each Other. As we developed trusting relationships, we learned a great deal about what we had in common and where we were different. (I should note that Mrs. Lynns was much less inclined to share her private side with students than I was mine. For example, she was deeply involved in the theater, played chess and piano, and was active in her church, but she never revealed these interests and involvements).
4. Building Bridges. Children began bringing to school some of their interests and concerns from their homes and sharing some aspects of the school’s program with their families.
5. Self-Expression at School. When children experienced the freedom to express important ideas and feelings through such activities as art, music, dance, writing, story telling, debate, and cheerleading, it reinforced their sense that family and school could be connected and that school could be a place where they could be themselves, without holding back or compartmentalizing themselves. For the children in Mrs. Lynns’ class, chorus performances, participation in the Arts Connection mural painting program, cheerleading, writing essays for holiday bulletin boards or for Black History Month and Women’s History Month, drawing pictures in art class, and learning African dances in another Arts Connection program were all prominent examples of opportunities for self-expression.

The process of cultural interchange did not proceed nearly as far with some students as it did with others, such as Luther and Lisette. In some cases, the barriers to interchange interfered with the process, causing people on both sides of the cultural divide to learn less from each other and frustrated their ability to work with each other to support student learning.

As an example, the relationship of Clarissa and her family to CES 518 represents a case of much less interchange. Clarissa withheld a great deal of herself from school: she tried to keep the details of her family life secret; she wouldn’t take academic risks; and she concealed her inability to do required work as best she could. Her self-effacement and sweetness enabled her not to be seen and known as well as other students, thus her need for help was unmet for a long time. On her part, Mrs. Ruiz always appeared anxious in school. She spoke softly and shyly with teachers, attended only a few voluntary programs, and spent little time with Clarissa on her homework. Her values, interests, and strengths were rarely evidenced at CES 518.

Many of the school’s programs did not reach Clarissa and her family. Some of the barriers were obvious: the requirement to write in cursive script, the fifteen-minute unscheduled parent meetings, large class sizes, sketchy report cards, lack of day care. Other barriers took more scrutiny to appreciate; for example, the prescribed curriculum limited teachers’ ability to engage with individual students about their interests. The competitiveness of the school ethos forced many students to close themselves off for fear of being excluded or rejected.

Combined, these barriers created a situation where what was central to Clarissa’s life (that is, her sense of connectedness with her family and her sense of identity, responsibility, and inclusion) looked, from the school’s vantage point, more as a barrier than a resource to her learning. School personnel saw her family as not providing warm clothing and academic support, not ensuring her health and getting her to school on time, and finally, not being aggressive advocates for her. Clarissa’s desire to help her mother take care of family members was perceived not as an opportunity to engage her active learning, but rather as a distraction from academic study. Clarissa’s desire to be a successful Latina woman who was caring, nurturing, sensitive, responsible, gregarious, popular, and lively was seen not as something drawing her into the life of the school, but rather as something that enabled her to hide her academic problems. Since Clarissa fit in well, got along with her peers, did not disrupt classes, behaved respectfully to authority—because she was a good girl on her way to being a successful Latina woman, she was able to make herself invisible.18

This same ability to hide by going along with the school’s program was exercised by Nicole and Clarissa. Unlike her sister Xenia, Nicole rarely acted out, often hid her thoughts behind a superficial smile, and tried to fit in with her peer group. As a result, Xenia got more attention from teachers, counselors, and administrators. Nicole’s depression and/or sadness usually was not sufficiently vivid to demand attention.

Because I was an “extra” adult in the classroom, without the responsibility for maintaining order or delivering instruction, I was free to pick up the signs that Clarissa and Nicole were so good at hiding, and usually I shared what I learned with Mrs. Lynns and other school personnel. Similarly, because the Federal research grant paid me to visit students’ homes, and because I had money to reimburse families for participating, I was able to spend time, communicate, get to know, and develop relationships with parents and siblings who often remained unknown to the school.

One obvious conclusion my experience suggests is that it’s easier to cross cultural boundaries when you reduce the teacher-student ratio. When Mrs. Lynns had to work alone with thirty-one children, including many in great emotional distress, it was hard to do more than maintain control and teach to the group as a whole. When my presence doubled the proportion of adults in the classroom, I was able to keep an eye on children who were not doing work, who were only pretending to keep up, or who were concerned with other things.

But my role in the world of Mrs. Lynns’ classroom was more than simply being an additional adult body. When I participated in class, or interacted with the students’ families, I presented myself as a person, a father, husband, and brother-in-law rather than simply as an expert, or a professional. I talked about my son, my wife, my parents, my musical tastes, my enjoyment of various cuisines, and I focused on my developing relationship with the students and their families rather than on my need to gather information for my study.

In some ways, my interactions with students and parents resembled the parent-teacher interactions modeled by the ETN program in which Maria Arjay participated. The parents and teachers in ETN shared memories, told each other stories, developed relationships, and worked with each other more on the basis of equality and mutual interest than on the basis of unequal authority and status.

My participation in ETN during the year following my time spent in Mrs. Lynns’ classroom convinces me that the kind of equalizing relationships built into ETN practice, combined with paying close attention to children’s work, provides a metaphor for how teachers and parents can go about increasing cultural interchange to support student learning. At CES 518, ETN was a separate program involving primarily teachers of the youngest children and a few of their parents. When I was there, it was not integrated into the whole of the school community, nor were there plans to increase participating parents greatly. Nevertheless, my experience with ETN at CES 518 suggests that if schools adopt programs that enable parents and teachers to work closely together on the basis of relative equality, mutual respect, and valuing difference and help teachers and parents learn more about the needs, strengths, interests, and learning styles of each individual student, then schools can overcome some of the barriers to cultural interchange.

Describing the process of cultural interchange in this way, however, does not erase the uncertainty of what lies ahead, for cultural interchange is always a walk in the dark. The knowledge it brings challenges our capacity to observe in fresh ways through the eyes of our students, their parents, their teachers, and our colleagues.

18Rosa Maria Gil and Carmen Inoa Vazquez (1996). The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-esteem. New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons. return to text

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