Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis



How Families Came to Know the Classroom

No one leaves his or her world without having been transfixed by its roots, or with a vacuum for a soul. We carry with us the memory of many fabrics, a self soaked in our history, our culture; a memory, sometimes scattered, sometimes sharp and clear, of the streets of our childhood.

Paulo Freire (1994, p.31)

Just because I talk too proper; just because I sometimes hang out with white people; just because I’m high yalla honey-coated dipped in tea-colored soda water almost white with back too tight, don’t make me not Black!

Allison Francis (1996, p. 126)

Parents saw the classroom uniquely through their own values, educational histories, and aspirations for their children.2 Creating a common ground in the classroom from such diverse home cultures requires negotiation and compromise on both sides. Families literally hand over their second and third graders to teachers; therefore, warm relationships with parents strengthen the children’s ability to negotiate this handover. It is children, however, who must mediate between home and school, and this necessary transition propels them out in the world, even when such passage erodes the safety, ease, and belonging that Diane wants for children and their families.3 Since school can separate children from their homes, it is crucial that teachers make it possible for all children to acquire the skills and knowledge they need without choosing between school and home. Diane once wrote, “When children and teachers are working toward something not of their own design, the classroom becomes difficult for the child. It is trying, as well, for the parent who feels removed from the school” (Mullins, 1988, p. 12). Diane puts serious energy into dissipating any parental “feeling of remove,” but families must be willing to engage with her, and the road is sometimes rocky.

Multiple Entry Points to Engaging in School Life

No one contests that Diane began the year with school-ready parents. Very few families in Diane’s class arrived at PS 3 by accident, which suggests parents’ determination to find the most appropriate school for their children—perhaps a good predictor of school success (Lareau, 1989). The demographics of this cohort confirm the considerable data that children of first-generation immigrants from practically everywhere are more highly motivated and pressured to succeed in the system (and often do) than children in the next generation, especially if they are children of color and, therefore, not so easily assimilated in a race-conscious society.

Beyond “Standard” Demographics

The diversity of students is one reason many families choose to send their children to PS 3.4 For an exploration of cultural interchange, perhaps the most striking demographic—defying any generalization about what families bring to school—is that in Diane’s 1996–97 class of twenty-seven children, no one ethnic group predominated. Reflecting a rich New York City diversity that increasingly heralds the country’s future, parents were born in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dutch New Guinea, Egypt, England, France, Grenada, Holland, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Russia, and the United States. Children with mixed ethnic heritages and racial identities were the norm, and children with two European-American parents were the minority. The three student teachers over the year were born in China, Korea, and Bangladesh.

As the United States increasingly becomes home to intermarrying partners who arrive from all over the world in all kinds of circumstances, standard demographic and socioeconomic categories no longer adequately describe families. Several parents grew up in desperate poverty; others identified themselves as among the African-American community’s “Talented Tenth.” When a mother from an illiterate family in a developing country marries the grandson of Howard University’s first medical school graduate, pinning one ethnic or racial label on this union makes no sense. Not so long ago, school personnel filled out census forms by “eyeball.” Today, parents are asked to self-identify, but instructions do not ask them to check all categories that apply. The records say that sixteen percent of New York City public school children are “White” (New York Times, Dec. 29, 1998). Children in Diane’s class came from so many cultures that ascertaining who was “White” provoked hard thinking and confounded the figures perpetuated by the Board of Education forms.5

In Diane’s class, economic, religious, educational, employment circumstances, and family constellations existed in unusual configurations, producing unpredictable twists. One parent, a member of a marginalized ethnic group, had no current economic safety net, an itinerant job history, and an unfinished graduate degree; a White male making a mid-career change chose poverty while training for a potentially secure future; a young, single Asian-American father bartered craft skills on an ad hoc basis. A child of a Puerto Rican high-school dropout had more financial resources than a child of a White unemployed professional. Some families lived below the poverty line and their children attended school alongside children whose two parents each earned working-class or middle-income salaries. Young, single Latino fathers took responsibility that defied the textbook examples of noninvolvement. African-American Buddhist, African-Caribbean Seventh-day Adventist, and Colombian Catholic parents all sent their children off to a public school to be educated together.

Education and artistic and/or entrepreneurial spirit was more in evidence than job security or money. In one instance, a French-speaking parent took reservations for several hours at a French restaurant in exchange for a daily meal for himself and his child. As a group, the families in this classroom had energy and vitality even when, from time to time, individual families faced financial, health, employment, or marital crises.

Parents worried about the future. Recurring stories stood out about the lack of economic benefits that accompany the itinerant and self-employed. Fathers, in particular, told of single parenthood with no life insurance; single mothers, in particular, told of serious illness with no health benefits. Affordable housing, always seriously in short supply in New York City, meant large extended families living in too-small spaces with children sleeping on the floor or families of two or three living in tiny, expensive apartments. Although many parents made a point of affirming public education, seventeen families mentioned private schools (two families spoke of religious schools rather than independent schools) as something that was possibly desirable but economically unrealistic.

The take-home lesson from this brief description is the impossibility of generalizing about any home cultures. This diversity is new territory for schools; simplistic thinking does not suffice.

School Support for Parents and Parent Support for Schools

Having enrolled their children in this school, parents expected a “custom-made” rather than a “generic” education (Lareau, 1989), although cultural differences may have dispersed families along a continuum of how involved or welcomed in this classroom they expected to be. What these families from all over the world found in this New York City second/third grade was Diane.

In the first year with Diane, parents had to adjust. This environment could not help but create dissonance between some parental views and Diane’s strong values about what constitutes successful learning for children. Coming to understand “this many-thing-happening environment,” as one father put it, was not always comfortable or smooth. Most families struggled with some degree of “foreignness” to the classroom, even if born and educated in the United States. One mother, new to PS 3, taught in an alternative school, so she “got” Diane’s pedagogy. She reported immediately that her child found Diane “exactly his type,” yet her own European mother, who had major responsibility for child care, found the foul language on the playground highly distressing and was on the phone with Diane at once (“Cursing is not part of my background!”). All families had to rethink, adjust, and shift their worldview, at least a little, as Diane responded to who was present without compromising her own values.

Diane worked hard at drawing parents in and creating opportunities for them to gain knowledge of the classroom. They had to be willing, however, to persist over several weeks in a setting that may not have made sense to them. This classroom required children to engage in very different modes of learning than parents themselves had known and to develop significantly different relationships with the teacher than parents may have experienced. What parents saw was not school as they usually knew it. But slowly, through formal and informal relationships with Diane, their own exposure to the classroom, and attention to their own children’s experiences, parents “got” what this classroom was about. Gradually, over time, Diane’s understanding of individual parents changed, in small fine-grained ways, the way she responded to their children.

This expansion of a classroom community to include all families in an equitable and caring relationship with the teacher does not happen naturally (Epstein, 1995). Opening up a space for others requires a strong commitment and a strong personality, both of which Diane exercised with a low profile. Yet there is a complex cyclical dilemma built into this notion of a strong autonomous teacher. If the presence of parents comes only with the teacher’s consent, then teachers and parents are not partners here. But when teachers have no autonomy, the parent’s suggestions cannot be taken and teachers do not have the latitude to respond according to their best judgment. Yet the more the teacher is “in control,” the more the classroom belongs to the teacher. Parents can become an intrusion on the “teacher’s classroom.” Further, if teachers become engaged in professional development that reinforces their stance as “experts,” they may widen the gap between parental “experts” who know their children best and teachers who are experts in their own classroom.

The New York City Board of Education Annual School Report includes parent participation. Interestingly, the forms divide up the response space into two categories: “Parental Support for Schools” and “School Support for Parents.” In this classroom, these categories amounted to the same thing. Parents accompanied school trips, for instance, not only to increase adult supervision, but also—under Diane’s careful orchestration—to enjoy themselves and observe their own children interacting with others. I believe that when parent support for schools and school support for parents occurs close to the child in early elementary school, it is the most important arena for participation and partnership. To be sure, parents had access to other quite powerful school governance committees and all-school volunteer opportunities. This parent-founded school generated myriad opportunities to govern, but parents of the class did not take them; I am speculating that parents got sufficiently caught up in multiple classroom opportunities that fulfilled their needs. Although many parents volunteered to help with all-school events, they neither ran them nor did they venture into committees or school-wide councils, many of which invited nonelective participation. The “rightness” of the fit between what parents wanted and what Diane offered in the classroom may decline as children grow older, but in second/third grade, it worked for these parents.


The notion of school that parents found in Diane’s classroom often caused disequilibrium, but stimulated by Diane, parents tended to have energy and savvy to rise to the challenge of grappling with divergent values. Or at least they set aside what bothered them and chose to focus on common ground built from increased knowledge, developing relationships, and growing trust.

Parents differed in what drew them into the classroom. Parents who were comfortable in school took up Diane’s invitation to visit, often in a spirit of checking up (Lareau, 1989). Parents who were less comfortable approaching school joined more slowly as Diane reached out to them. Parents accompanied class trips, where Diane worked hard both to see that they would want to come again and that they had opportunities to see her in action so they would be able to trust her with their children. Parents dropped in unannounced, stayed in the morning, or came early to pick up their children. Eventually, parents ran small group activities (cooking, poetry, a newsletter, drama). One mother spent every Friday in the classroom, a father arrived periodically to be an extra adult when Diane withdrew to conference with individual children, and two fathers regularly swam with the class and supervised the boys. One mother typed the class literary magazine, giving her a window into her child’s peers and their thinking. Every child’s family came to scheduled conferences. Class picnics, plays, and other all-school events multiplied opportunities for contact.

Diane wrote frequent letters home to parents and twice yearly narrative report cards, which were translated into their home language, if necessary (Mullins, 1992). She also valued parents’ own writing, if they chose to do it, but the written word was not for every parent: The written communications hardly seeped into the consciousness of some families, and one mother refused to write because of an initial lack of trust.6 Nor did many families attend the monthly parent gatherings Diane formed for parents to look at children’s work, reflect on homework, and get to know other parents. These meetings, however, were crucially important for some families, especially those for whom the distance from the classroom was greatest. Virginia McMann only missed one meeting.

For parents whose work schedules allowed it and whose values encouraged it, direct observation worked. As a matter of school policy, PS 3 allows families unrestricted access to classrooms (unusual in schools), although not all teachers in the school welcomed parents enthusiastically. Diane’s classroom door was always open, whether children were calmly working at tables, sprawled on the floor in what adults might call disarray, or in a noisy transition from one activity to another. Diane found it helpful for parents to see their children doing whatever it was they were doing. Parents joined whatever activity was taking place.

Not all parents applauded what they saw. Diane can raise her voice in irritability (fatigue and her recovery from major surgery may have increased the volume), and one parent found “harsh” what Diane called her “show and tell” anger. But with more time in the classroom, this parent saw that the children “learned to read” Diane’s mood and tone, just as Diane read the children’s energy and rhythm. Almost always, what parents saw required rethinking over time, but firsthand experience began the process. One parent’s comment about how she came to understand the classroom was typical:

At first I was a little worried because I hear Diane likes screaming and yelling, or says, “I don’t want to talk to you now....” But a couple of times I sit...I come early and I thought about it and I talk with my husband and I think maybe it is all right since the way I see it as a process, how you and children approach each other. And children these days, you have to scare them...otherwise they won’t listen. I come away from class wondering, how does she do it? So I get over that. Her class is very real.

Many parents came to appreciate the classroom for their child’s love of school and set aside what bothered them for what they felt their children gained. Interestingly, parents in Diane’s class seemed to feel responsible for their children’s learning—no one blamed Diane for what children did not know, even when it was a matter of basic skills such as multiplication tables. Perhaps parent’s classroom participation encouraged them to feel responsible and, if they felt it important, they took on rote teaching tasks themselves.

All of these avenues of participation promoted opportunities for increased mutual understandings between families and teacher, but what worked for one family did not necessarily work for another. As parents began to make sense of Diane’s classroom for themselves, various entry points touched parents in different ways: No one way worked for every parent, but over time, parents and Diane began to know each other in ways that made warm connections and empathetic identification with each other possible.

In Deborah’s second year, her mother came to know Diane better through the monthly meetings Diane organized for parents to look at children’s work. Held from 5:15 to 6:45 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month while children played together in the after-school program (until 6:00 p.m. anyway when they hung around the fringes of the classroom), a handful of parents gathered around tables in Diane’s class.

Teachers cannot do their best work alone. For twenty years, Diane has been involved with Patricia Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect Center for Education and Research in North Bennington, Vermont (Prospect, 1986). This national network of educators uses observation and description as grounding for teaching practice and inquiry. For Diane, these groups build a community based on shared knowledge about children and change the participants in fundamental ways: “People will not stand for a nontrusting relationship after they participate in this group. You have to be your own honest self and that feels good so you never want to give it up.”

Each month, the group used the Prospect Center’s formal processes to describe a child’s writing or drawing. Adhering to the formality meant that each participant anchored her (yes, all women) contributions to the child’s work to resist the all too human tendency to speculate, interpret, or judge. The formality dictated only one statement per go-around from each person, so more facile thinkers and talkers checked themselves, which slowed down the process and supported respectful listening. Over time, the group built a community based on shared knowledge about children—“Deep Talk as Knowing”—as Margaret Himley calls it (1991, pp. 57–72). Helped by this formal structure, Diane learned what parents thought, and parents learned what Diane thought. Virginia came to all but one meeting.

2I was in the classroom at least three full days each week for an academic year and attended most parent events. I met forty-five parents out of a possible fifty-four. Three fathers and one mother lived outside New York City. Four other fathers, either separated or divorced, and one mother never came to school and, for reasons having to do with particular family dynamics, I never contacted them. Ultimately, I had informal and/or formal contact with all but two children’s families. Two families with whom I spent time refused me permission to tell their stories. Therefore, I talked formally in prearranged taped interviews with ten parents/couples and informally with ten more parents/couples with whom I had taped interviews during the course of the year. I talked with (and taped) parents while on trips, while waiting for children to be picked up after school, and at all-school events like picnics, graduation, Halloween, and the last day of school. With three of the study families, I spent much more time, including staying with one family for several days. return to text

3In a mesmerizing reflection on teaching, entitled “My First Intellectual: An Ex-Jock Remembers the Teacher Who Changed His Life,” Mark Edmundson, a Professor of English, taps into the distance between his home and school. He observes that all good teaching involves a “touch of kidnapping” and isn’t without costs (Lingua Franca, March 1999, p. 60). return to text

4PS 3 is a neighborhood school, but children living outside of the district may apply to attend. By the same application process, some neighborhood children attend other schools. Although the demographics defy categories, convention demands listing official indicators for the 550 students, lest it appear I forgot to notice. Current records show ethnicity as 67% white, 14% black, 12% Hispanic, and 7% Asian. The figures, however, make nonsense of reality, since the Board of Education form implies that both parents belong to the same arbitrary category. More to the point, this school has a high number of interracialfamilies, receives federal money to support integration, and is known to be a comfortable place for gay and lesbian parents and teachers (New York Times, 5/14/97).

Twenty percent of school families receive free lunch. Between the time we applied for this grant and the time it was granted, the mayor had moved the homeless shelters from the city to outlying boroughs, so there were no homeless families in this classroom. Diane took seriously the confidentiality of the free and reduced-fee lunch forms, so I never knew for sure how many of the children applied. Unlike 1981-82, when children who received free lunches had a lunch pass, such distinctions were no longer public. Any child who forgot lunch, liked the menu, or was actually entitled ate school food. At the end of each month, parents sent money owed for lunches, prompted by a posted sign.

Children in New York City currently are not tested before third grade. During the first year of the study, the third grade scores at PS 3 ranged from 1st percentile to 99th-plus percentile. Scores in 1996 showed 60% of third graders reading at grade level (New York Times, 1/5/97, p. 10, City Section).

Parents have resisted programs for the gifted; families can find tracked ability groups or gifted classes at other city schools if that is what they want for their children. There is a special education class identified as Modified Instructional Services, level 1 (MIS 1), for children younger than seven, pull-out English as a Second Language, Reading Recovery, and daily resource room help for those children who are certified. return to text

5In MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, 17-year-old Tennessee Reed says that “mixed kids are the fastest-growing group of children in the United States” (p. 114), and that he “doesn’t fit anywhere.” Other essays in the section, “To Pass or Not to Pass” (pp. 113–142), are variations on how the authors dislike being labeled (Reed, 1996). return to text

6The story of this parent’s developing relationship is told by Diane, the parent, and me in an unpublished paper, “In the Face of my Resistance...: Stephanie’s Parent and Teacher Gain a Working Trust.” return to text

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