Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis



Home: I Test All Practices by the Word of God

We have to recognize that home is ultimately more important than school—it is the out-of-school life that helps the person to keep alive—to stand in the school arena and not be crushed.

Lillian Weber (1997), p. 89

Religion and a personal relationship with God is a home value that neither Diane nor I attended to sufficiently, since in our experience religious concerns rarely showed up in school. In retrospect, it is clear that children with a deep belief in God can easily keep themselves apart in a secular public school. Nonreligious teachers who came to teaching in the sixties, especially in New York City (and I include myself), fill the school’s job rolls. We have no incentives to acquire that knowledge, even as the times and the demographics of our classrooms change.27 Constitutional church/state separation militates against inviting religious beliefs into the classroom and into teachers’ discussions, but despite the potential explosiveness of the topic, educators need to know what is on children’s minds.

Deborah at Seven

All children must make sense of the differences between home and school, but some children travel more distance than others. Almost seven years old when she entered Diane’s class, Deborah McMann had traveled a long way, geographically and psychologically, from home to school. This was her first classroom with White peers, her first secular education, her first White teacher, and her first experience away from a Caribbean-centered neighborhood and school life. Deborah’s mother, Virginia, did not know what Deborah would encounter at PS 3, but she assumed all public schools were alike. Location alone dictated her choice. Even then, logistics were not so convenient: Virginia’s job tracking royalty payments for a publishing house required a ten-minute walk to the subway and then a forty-minute ride, a ten-minute walk to school to drop Deborah, then another ten-minute walk to work. Her return trip at 5:30 p.m. was slightly longer. At first, Deborah slept on the train, but as she became more wide-awake in school, she stayed more alert on the subway.

Both Deborah and her mother admitted to being “nervous” about public school. Deborah had known friends from her old school “since I was a baby,” and “making new friends was scary.” In addition to social life with children who looked very different than her old classmates, her experience in first grade predicted academic heartache. Each night at home, her old school required that Deborah memorize fifty spelling words and complete worksheets in several subjects. Each day in school, her first grade teacher wrote on her long lists of spelling words, dictations, or arithmetic problems: “Wrong”; “You do not listen”; “Careless”; “Incomplete.” When she didn’t conform, Deborah told me, “The principal was MEAN. He used to beat our hands with a ruler.” Although Deborah was not retained in first grade, she left without a stellar academic reputation or confidence in her abilities at school. Diane knew none of this information when Deborah arrived.

After Virginia’s experience during Deborah’s first grade, Diane’s focus on Deborah as an individual with her own strengths reassured her parents, even as they found the classroom baffling.28 What eased the experience of school for Deborah was the fluid classroom expectations, not the standardization often cited as the foundation for high achievement. Deborah’s success grew from an elastic classroom setting that created multiple entrances for the family to engage in school life. The experience was not without growth for both the McManns and Diane.

Home: Joyful, Crowded, Religious

Virginia described Deborah at home as graceful and in motion (2/1/98):

Deborah loves to dance—alone anytime. She will be sitting there and just get up and dance. She’s never embarrassed to show herself. She’ll dance with her father, dance with anyone. You see her gliding by herself across the floor without music. She coaches her sisters to follow her.

Finding space to dance is a challenge. Deborah lives with her extended family in a frame house in Brooklyn, which overlooks a major boulevard recently renamed for a famous African American. Deborah’s father, Peter, tends the grass, flower beds, and stone walk from the curb to the door. Inside, Virginia and her younger sister Yvette take care to keep the house ordered and comfortable. Virginia sews the curtains, bedspreads, and pillow shams that decorate a house that is “too small for all of us.” Family activities take place in the living room around a large TV, with open play space for the three children on the carpeted floor and around the table in the adjacent dining area. On my visits, various extended family members simultaneously ate dinner, watched TV, chatted with me, tended a year-old cousin, played school, and listened to Christian tapes for children. Each activity seemed to be carved out in a private space, even as the contact is public and companionable.

But crowdedness is a constant topic—the saga of trying to find a house that is large enough for this extended family is ongoing. Meanwhile, Deborah and her four-year-old sister, Yassie, sleep on the carpeted floor at the foot of her parent’s bed in one bedroom. Her mother’s sister, Yvette, and Deborah’s two-year-old sister, Alia, sleep in the bed in another bedroom. Her maternal uncle, LeRoy, sleeps downstairs in a separate living unit with Peter’s relatives. This extended family feels comfortable and known here in this neighborhood, where they have lived for at least eight years and are within walking distance to church, a nearby park, and local stores. They would push themselves even harder to afford a larger house, but rising prices make that impossible.

When I began this project, I did not appreciate how much religion mattered to the families I encountered. Religion has never been central to my life. Celebrating Passover every other year or so is a pleasure, and my family considers that enough religion. The most striking instance of my inexperience took place the first time I visited Deborah’s Seventh-day Adventist family (5/5/97). Her father had just come home from work. He asked me, “Are you religious?” I was standing in the center of the living room, crossing to retrieve a pencil. I asked him if he was religious (wasn’t I the researcher?), and instantly we cut to the heart of belief, right in front of an aunt, an uncle, the mother, and two children, all who watched me from the periphery of the room as I struggled to answer to his question, “Do you believe in God?”

“Well, uh, no,” I stammered.“Do you believe in any Higher Being?”

“Not exactly.” I remember being dizzy as I said it.

“You’re an atheist, then?”

“I guess so.”

Virginia sucked in her breath. The children hung on every word. Finally, Deborah’s father elicited that I’m involved in family ritual at home (Passover) and that I might be comfortable being called a humanist. I know now how I might have better answered—with a discussion of what kind of a God do I not believe in. The point is how different my Reform Jewish worldview is from that of this observant Seventh-day Adventist family from Grenada. As I have tried to understand the quality of religious commitment involved in a religious home, it gives me some notion of how I and other educators often make assumptions without sufficient understanding. I hardly realized what I was seeing at the time I recorded it.

To secular readers, the story I am about to tell may seem to bear too much weight, but that is not so for those whose centrality is their relationship with God (Sears and Carper, 1998).

Entering a New and Public School

On the first day of school, parents looked more tense than children. Another adult explained to Virginia: “We’re from rural Pennsylvania; my daughter has never been to a city school.” If this Caucasian mother with a large nose ring and an exclamatory delivery disturbed Virginia, it did not show. When Virginia, who was wearing a starched white blouse, answered with her Granadian lilt, “It is Deborah’s first day at this school, too,” the other mother issued what seemed like an offer born of anxiety: “Patricia and Deborah can keep each other company!” Eventually they did. Deborah later confided to me, “Patricia was the first one I told I was Christian” (5/18/97).

Deborah embarked on school life with vigor. Even on the first day, when Diane missed Deborah’s raised hand, Deborah easily approached Diane after the circle, requesting to paint, whereupon Diane took her by the hand to join a small group. In the first month, Deborah chose the most social projects: building with others, planting, making origami cranes (an activity organized by a third grader), joining a dance teacher after the Aquarium trip where “she danced graceful fishlike movements” (9/19/96). Deborah shared her own stories in circle, first softly and when encouraged by peers, in a loud, clear voice. When children’s book author Robin Tzannes (a former parent in the class) read her creation, Professor Puffendorf’s Secret Potion, Deborah was right up in front, enthralled, listening with openmouth attention (9/25/96).

Sometimes she vigorously resisted school life. The first week she complained about making a list of healthy snacks, avoided an assigned seat in a tiff with a student teacher, and repeatedly chewed gum against the rules, which brought her into direct confrontation with Diane. Most dramatically, she balked at kickball—an activity she had not experienced—and refused Diane’s direct instruction. She “disappeared” from the cafeteria when she should have been in the after-school program, confidently finding her way around the building. Diane secretly thought her explorations were “great” but couldn’t condone travels so far from adult supervision.

Deborah made classroom friends, even though the configurations and intensity of those friendships changed frequently. She picked up the fluid classroom climate Diane created: During circle, Nilsa taught her how to make long cellophane-tape fingernails, which she showed off proudly, although the ostensible task required listening to a story (9/10/96). Deborah and Joetta got to know each other over math chip games when they often burst into gales of laughter, totally ignoring the intended math activity. When Kristian didn’t have a story of his own to read in the circle, he reached over to read from Deborah’s notebook. When he read, “My First Day at PS 3, My New School. I love my teacher because she teaches good and she cares about us,” Luiz protested. “That couldn’t be Kristian’s writing because Kristian isn’t new.” Kristian and Deborah just giggled as if they shared a deep secret (9/20/96). Still, a recurrent theme throughout the year was her health, particularly stomach aches, which necessitated retreating to the sidelines or the nurse’s office.

As Diane recalled Deborah’s entry into the classroom, she ascribed Deborah’s tentativeness to the new and possibly disconcerting experience of being with so many children who did not look like her (12/7/98). Diane may have based her intuitive opinion on this kind of below-the-surface visual detail that I picked up in my notes three weeks into the year: “During the circle Deborah was playing with Patricia’s long blond hair almost as if it might give out a hurtful electric charge. Without comment Diane asked Deborah to move” (9/28/96). Deborah told me later that “Patricia used to pull my corn rows so hard it hurt” (6/4/97). Diane also noted early that the homework Deborah wrote at home had a certain stiltedness, as if her work were being monitored for correctness. Diane wondered whether “Deborah trusted herself academically” (9/17/96). Race and academics—two familiar categories—did not account for religion, which turned out to be the most salient characteristic of her home life.

Virginia’s Pathway to a Home-School Alliance

Deborah’s mother, Virginia, found her way into the classroom on a path not taken by every parent—the written word. On the first day of school, Diane sent home a three-page, single-spaced letter “to make myself visible to families.” When parents retrieved the following missive from children’s backpacks, along with snack, trip, and homework information, they encountered Diane’s philosophy and the authority of her voice:

I have been teaching at this school since 1972. During those years, I have developed some firm ideas. Let me tell you some of the things I think. All people are educable. Children learn best when the surrounding is nonthreatening, when they are assured of safety, justice, and have friends. With the help of interesting people to work with, interesting material to investigate, and people who are interested in their ideas, the children are able to recognize the contributions of others and make contributions themselves. Children can see who they are and become who they are not yet....This coming to know is a lifelong process. Education is a lifelong process.

The letter was also an open invitation to parents:

I am very interested in what you think is important for your child’s development...I have found that if asked, people are willing to share their thoughts. As nurturing children is a partnership, I think it would be helpful if I knew some of your thinking. Please do some thinking and writing about your child’s interests, ways of going about things and concerns you have. Let me know the language you speak at home with your children. This kind of reflection is hard work. I also know how valuable it is for our work together. Please feel free to write out as much as you’d like; it is an important thing to do for yourself. I would most appreciate your sharing this with me, perhaps sometime next week.

Virginia was immediately captivated by the “thoughtfulness and genuineness” of Diane’s first-day letter. She said, “I rested easier after I studied the letter and reread it several times. I felt inspired by Diane’s seriousness and was ready to entrust my daughter to her care.” In answer to Diane’s request, she handwrote, on yellow legal-sized paper, a careful description of her child. This letter opened an avenue for Virginia that served her well throughout Deborah’s stay in Diane’s class as she and Diane created and read what each other wrote over two years. Virginia studies scripture each day. Careful attention to the written word was part of her cultural experience.

Virginia also connected in person. By skipping lunch and working late, she shifted her workday so she could go on the first class trip to the Aquarium. On this beautiful sunny September morning, Diane spent much of her time making all five parents comfortable, allowing them to see her “tight” procedures for safety on the subway (twenty-seven new second and third graders on a subway during rush hour is a trip in itself), demonstrating trust for children’s and adults’ good judgment, and affirming parents’ ability to manage the small groups of children assigned to each parent. Diane asked parents to write about the trip for homework alongside their children. Virginia did that assignment.

Formal Respect for the Teacher

The first parent/teacher conference could have been a tense time. Diane often begins her twice yearly scheduled half hour meetings with parents by saying, “Tell me about your child,” even though she frequently gets the response, “But I thought I was going to listen and you were going to talk.” When parents are primed to listen, when they believe that power is unequal and that the stakes for impressing the teacher are high, conferences can be uneasy. Even though Virginia had responded to Diane’s invitation to write about Deborah, had been on two class trips, and had attended parent’s night, neither Deborah’s parents nor Diane knew what to expect from each other in the first conference. Sensing the need for a more formal conference, Diane changed her usual style and began first. From my notes: (11/14/96):

Deborah’s mother was dressed in a rakish leather beret, black coat and scarf, which she didn’t remove. Her very tall husband, whom I hadn’t met at that time, was casually dressed and “in charge.” (He was a powerful presence!) Virginia deferred. She was more contained than when I talked to her on the last trip.

All was not easy. Diane talked about Deborah doing wonderful work at home but not at school. “I know she has the skills, but I wonder about her work in school.” Diane said that Deborah must feel safe here or she wouldn’t be all over the school during after school hours. “But it really isn’t safe and she needs to stay put.” Deborah’s father said several times, “You have my full authority to exercise any discipline you feel necessary.” Unusual in Diane’s conferences, she invited Deborah into the conference to explain why she absented herself from the after-school program. Her father was firm with her. Deborah didn’t say anything, except when pushed: “Yes, Diane. I will stay where I am supposed to....” Very formal.

When excused by the adults, Deborah approached Pei-Yee, who was in the classroom because her parents had not picked her up on this half day of school. We all (student teacher, Diane, parents, me) watched Deborah engage Pei-Yee, who spoke very little English at that point. Diane interpreted: “Look how Deborah can make an overture and be accepted. She has real social and leadership skills.” Parents beamed at Deborah’s charming and skilled interactions with a Chinese classmate.

Then the father said something that moved me to tears. He said, “You can’t pay teachers enough for the job they are doing raising the next generation. Thank you.” Diane then said, “And you, for raising the next generation.” I have rarely heard that kind of talk in any of my parent conferences ever. Maybe too sweet, but sincere. It was a warm moment of a stiff conference.

This twenty minutes was unlike Diane’s usual conferences where parents bring up concerns about their child. Diane was honest in asserting that Deborah’s schoolwork was not up to what she appeared capable of doing at home. Diane capitalized on Pei-Yee’s presence to make explicit a shared image of Deborah’s social strengths. Diane did not respond to the invitation to use any discipline necessary (which sounded to me like a coded invitation to continue the ruler-rapping of Deborah’s former principal). On the home side, other than Deborah’s father’s generalized, but heartfelt admiration for teachers, the parents mainly listened to Diane. I was puzzled by Virginia’s lack of exuberance, expressed to me a week earlier, that the family felt “warmly embraced” and happy at PS 3. Perhaps Virginia’s reticence should have been a signal.

That the family respected teachers was clear. Known only to me (and not until much later) was how much the family stories highlighted the seriousness of education. Virginia told me (3/5/97): “I was the second oldest of twelve siblings. My family was poor, but always fed and well-dressed. My mother died when I was sixteen and my youngest sibling was three. My father left the home, and my community thought that’s the end of this family group.” Virginia attributes the family’s ultimate success to her church and her faith in God. She finished primary school and had no money for secondary school, “but for pennies in Grenada you can hire tutors at home to help you pass secondary exams.” She passed several O level British subject exams as did her husband. Deborah’s father grew up in “abject poverty.” He supervises maintenance crews on a New York City bridge and is, Virginia said with great pride, “sponsoring” her brother to study engineering in college—what he would have done himself had he the money.

Family Readiness for Disequilibrium

By choosing a public school, Virginia showed that she was ready for a new adventure and that her family was prepared to willingly accept some measure of disequilibrium, expand or shift their worldview, occasionally have their assumptions upset, and tolerate the uncertainty that accompanies encounters with strangers.

That Virginia thinks for herself and therefore had arrived ready to fit into the PS 3 culture of questioning authority became clear when she talked about two details of her religious practice. For most Seventh-day Adventists, worship begins at 9:15 on Saturday morning. Virginia has made her own peace with that convention: “God means us to rest on the Sabbath, and therefore He doesn’t mean I have to rush.” She and her three daughters (all beautifully dressed, which takes time) arrive at the church at 11:00. Each month Virginia tithes as the Scripture dictates, but each month she decides where she wants her money to go: “I don’t always tithe to the big boys in the central office.”

Virginia kept her eyes open when she dropped off and picked up Deborah. She understood some progressive strands from her own education. From an interview (11/7/96):

Another thing that amazes me is when I saw kids in the classroom with mud and water. Back home we call it play house and that is something that I grew up with and I thought Deborah would never have that. I know it is going to help her reason well, develop her judgment.

In other ways, Virginia went with the flow of novel events. When she dropped into class on her lunch hour to deliver a birthday present for Deborah to take to a party after school, Diane beckoned her to sit in the circle and join the children in describing an Edward Sorel New Yorker cover (6/16/97) of tourists on a bus looking at native New Yorkers dressed as various mythical animals. She raised her eyebrows high but did as Diane requested, contributing an observation on her turn in the go-around.

When the family came to the Friday night All-School Square Dance to see this American dance form, they had to leave at sundown, before the music started. Virginia appeared totally nonplussed by parents’ table conversation about young children’s sexuality and condoms. A discussion of cultural differences (my presence perhaps) elicited that she had no dancing in her background because the church thought it was devilish, but she felt dancing and music should be part of praising God, so she and her family dance at home.

Assimilation: Are You Leaving?

In November, Virginia commented how she felt “embraced by people of all races” (11/7/96):

Before I came [to PS 3] I looked at education differently. I used to think that for children to grow up spiritually you better take them to an Adventist school. I wouldn’t say I was shut in, but I was one-sided....But I was amazed at the respect and how we were embraced by people of all races at PS 3. Deborah can see that. I think she will deal better in our society. This is preparation for the world ahead of her, to work and live in this society....To me she is closer to the White kids because she has no choice...I think being with those kids who, you might say, are more national than she is, I think she will be able to understand and adapt better than if she were only in our society.

This willingness to assimilate did not preclude the question from the family’s Caribbean community: Are you leaving us by sending your child to a public school? Yet Virginia confirmed her pleasure in this multiracial setting that was new to Deborah:

Because of the community we live in we are basically one—Caribbean Blacks. The last school she came from was more Caribbean oriented...the books came from the Caribbean—all their books were Caribbean. So she had a clear concept of where she came from....Where she is now she knows the difference. For that reason she will be able to adapt well to where we come from. We go back home every two years. We eat the food [here]. You know, this country has allowed everybody to remain in their own culture.

Virginia’s confidence that a public school will be good for Deborah wins out even as she finds ways to keep home and school separate.

Naming the Barrier Slowly

On the surface, Deborah and her mother entered school uneventfully. Academic pressure evaporated. Deborah no longer returned home each day with work marked deficient. She genuinely liked to go to school with her best friends who “share their snake with me” (notebook, 9/18/96). She no longer brought work home in all subjects or massive numbers of words to memorize, which was a relief to Virginia. While Deborah’s empty math book and the notion of “oral math” startled Virginia and she struggled with Deborah’s nightly open-ended assignment to “write something,” both Deborah and Virginia felt comfortable and “warmly embraced” at school. No one at school lived anywhere near Deborah so Virginia was thrilled—even relieved—when Deborah invited a White and a Latina classmate to her October birthday party at home, and both immediately accepted “without a moment’s hesitation to come to an unfamiliar area in Brooklyn.”

That said, Deborah’s transition to this new school might have been more comfortable and her learning made easier if her home beliefs had been known and acknowledged. Deborah had her religious family and then she went to school (Suina, 1991). Although various barriers could have inhibited Deborah (Kohl, 1991; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Poplin, 1993; Rose, 1989), it was the rarely explored barrier of religious belief that marginalized her.

In coming to understand how parents see the world, educators need to know about children and their families, but what is it we need to know? How can we talk to families about their responsibility for providing knowledge and support children in ways that are meaningful and not intimidating? Where in school can families’ voices be heard on topics that require trust to reveal? When does a teacher’s need to know become intrusive? How does knowledge about a child’s religious beliefs find its way into a secular classroom?

The Absence of Religion at School

As quickly as Deborah’s father brought up religion at home—after about ten minutes—the first intimation of Deborah’s religious beliefs did not appear at school until Halloween, and then only vaguely. Three early clues to her religious interests escaped Diane’s notice, perhaps because religious belief does not play a central role in Diane’s life. Entitled “Aunty’s baby’s dedication,” Deborah described this event:29

The baby had a lovely white dress and the preacher blest her. I enjoyed singing and playing with my freinds. After that I went home and we changed our close. Then we had a party (9/21/96).

Diane did not register this retelling of the Biblical parable of “The Prodigal Son” on October 7:

A man was rich he had two sons so one day the little son asked his father for the rich position and the father gave him. He left and went to a faraway land and spent all his money on wines and women, freids and parties. He was hungry and he had nothing to eat and no freinds. So he said I would go back home to my father. When he went back his father ran to him and fell on his knees and kissed him and put a ring on his finger.

Nor did Diane pick up on this piece, written on October 17, just about the time everyone began gearing up for Halloween. Deborah wrote:

The real name of Halloween is All Saint. The librarian said that and my mom said that too. The Dictionary says that a saint is a holy person. The Roman Catholic church publicly declares such holy people to be saints after death. In America people celebrate Halloween with pumpkins and scery masks, and gost like costumes.

Deborah sought authoritative information from the librarian, her mother, and the dictionary, yet a reference-book tone veiled her struggle to make sense of the relationship among saints, holy people, and Halloween’s pagan roots. “In America...,” perhaps a proxy for ideas her family opposes, bespeaks a place far from Deborah’s own experience. It was. No one at school recognized Deborah’s religious background, nor did anyone foresee that the experience of Halloween was new to her. Neither Deborah nor Virginia knew that Halloween at PS 3 was a cultural happening, nor did Diane know about the centrality of the family’s religious beliefs.

Deborah’s First-Ever Halloween

Halloween—a week-long event at PS 3—is not low-key. Deborah came to school not knowing what to expect on the actual day. Excerpts from my field notes, October 31, 1996:

I am struck by the contagious unselfconscious exuberance that would never have taken place at my own children’s much stuffier school. Some parents are as elaborately costumed as kids are. Many faculty are dressed as corn products to make a political point in support of the guidance counselor whose hours have been cut and whose name is a variation on corn. Diane is an elaborate corn stalk.

At 8:30 a.m. kids congregate in this second/third grade classroom, appreciating each other’s costumes. As Luiz’s mom watches kids line up for the annual parade around the neighborhood, she observes: “Funny, the boys all look disgusting and the girls look beautiful.” She is right—the boys have awful scars and dripping blood while the girls have sparkling eye make up and feather boas; even Joetta’s tiger costume is glamorous rather than fierce. Only two children in Diane’s class are not in costume: Tero (“My father didn’t buy it yet”) and second-grade Deborah whose story I don’t know. Deborah has on a red dress and a black and red jacket, not a usual school outfit, but not an obvious costume either. Before the parade someone asks her what she is. She doesn’t say. Patricia answers for her: “She’s the new kid on the block.” Sounds like a witty costume to me and I accept the comment at face value.

After the parade around the neighborhood, kids return to the classroom. Nell’s mother is there, wearing a suit, high heels, colored foil fake eyelashes, and blood running down her mouth. She has brought snack (fruit and cheese—no sugar allowed in Diane’s classroom, even on Halloween). Diane asks kids to write, draw, read, be quiet while some children get the apples together for the party and put finishing touches on the haunted house. Nell’s spooky tape is playing all of a sudden.

Diane’s class is hosting a haunted house for all the classes on the floor. Kids—mostly third graders—have planned the whole event, taking risks by climbing high up to hang skeletons and drape dark spaces. They have figured out imaginative ways to jump out and scare their peers. It is really very clever—and very scary—with kids in corners and closets leaping out without warning. The spider webs that were up on Tuesday are still intact, even with all the activity. Kids are pleased with what they are doing. Sam’s mother comes in and kids ask if they can practice on her. Luiz tells her exactly what will happen and she agrees. She assures kids that “it is really scary,” thanks them and leaves. Now the haunted house is for real. High excitement. Kids urge each other to “Get in your places.” I am sitting in the middle with my laptop, absolutely unnoticed. The principal comes to check out the safety and supervision. Two kids at a time go through and are given candy for their reward (an exception to the no sugar rule). Diane comes to watch. Hard to believe this is only a second/third grade activity.

In the other room, Tero has the electric piano on the Moonlight Sonata, an odd choice, but a pleasant accompaniment to the scene of one hundred apples hanging by their stems off long strings across the classroom. Kids are trying to bite them with their hands behind their back. They are having a good time. Everyone is biting apples, including Deborah

Right before lunch Deborah is in tears. Luiz asks, “Why are you crying? Because you don’t celebrate Halloween?” Deborah doesn’t say. Mirasol answers: “Because she was scared in the haunted house.” A few minutes later, Deborah tells the student teacher about the haunted house. “It scared me; it scared me to death.” She elaborates: “When I went in the haunted house they scared me and when I went to get the candy all the scary masks came at me and I started to cry. And then they told me to go back in the classroom and they told Diane. And then Liza and Marisol began to be mean to me. They called me names and then we started to be friends again.” Despite the strong feelings conveyed by her story, Deborah appears fully healed as she leaves for lunch.

Later she chooses not to hear the librarian’s scary story. At the end of the day, kids are talking about trick or treat plans. I ask Deborah about hers and she says simply, “We don’t celebrate Halloween.” I ask: “Is it for a religious reason?” No answer. “Are you a Jehovah’s Witness?” She whispers, “No, my family is Christian.” Deborah offers no more information to me or to Diane, who has overheard this exchange. I wonder, how did a child so young figure out that she was so different from the rest of the class. Why did she say Christian without any explanation of details? Given Deborah’s reticence, Diane did not probe, nor would she have let me violate this child’s privacy. I record Deborah’s laconic answer, but I don’t know what to make of it in connection with her tears, or lack of costume.

That Deborah shared her fears with student teachers and friends (even as they reverted to typical second grade exclusionary behavior) confirmed that she felt emotionally safe enough to confide her feelings—no small matter. But seven weeks into Deborah’s tentative PS 3 membership, she was confronted with a foreign, slightly forbidden marker of the school community. Her reluctant disclosure, “My family is Christian,” got lost, the strong Halloween celebration flowed around her, and her struggles with whether Halloween is religious went unrecognized.

At the end of the Halloween school day when her peers went out to scare the world, collect UNICEF money, and “gross out” on sugar, she went home to a regular school night. Deborah (alone in the class) did her writing homework:

At clay class we make all kinds of things like animals and plaques. We go there on Tuesdays. Diane puts us in groups. Each class in PS 3 goes but they go on different days. It is a lot of fun. The clay teacher sometimes tells us what to make but most time we do whatever we whant to do. The best thing of all is James made a army out of clay.

One might conclude from this writing—so distant from the recent excitement—that Halloween made no impact on Deborah, but perhaps it is no accident that she chose a subject that reintegrated her with a community where all children participate. She deftly captured the predictable regularity of the Tuesday art-making where each class has a turn, teachers are present and put children in groups, choices are sometimes given, plaques and animals are crafted, and her pleasure in a peer’s clay army is high.

The Community Holds a Mirror to Itself Without Reflecting Deborah

An interview with the principal on November 1, 1996, represents accurately, I think, the school community’s view of Halloween:

Halloween is a joy in this school, a metaphor and an excuse. Our school celebration brings the community together in a generosity of spirit, a playfulness. It is a way for the children, educators, and parents to join on an even plane, a way for us to care for one another. The school works as a community as the day moves along and floors combine to have joint activities. It’s a party for 600. When else could I dress up as a little boy with freckles giving out carrots as a character from a storybook? Parents and teachers use Halloween as an opportunity to make it safe to take risks. Kids and adults take emotional risks and physical risks. It is the community taking a mirror to itself.

“The community taking a mirror to itself” suggests a powerful image of a ritual that binds its members—and Deborah was not included. Deborah was an outsider on Halloween, her feelings surely heightened by the day’s high-adrenaline nature. According to Patricia Calderwood (1998), outsiders can never experience a sense of community (pp. 1–2). In that definition of community, members must share identity, beliefs, values, norms, practices, history, and goals specific and unique to the group. Further, differences between competing values, beliefs, and practices within the group must be recognized, reconciled, or tolerated; and competent membership within the community must be learned.

If Deborah is going to benefit from this new experience and learn to be part of an inclusive community, even when she differs significantly, the school needs to acknowledge her by recognizing her own religious values. If a community is going to expand to include all families, schools and families have to reach for a different standard of awareness.

Genuine communities invite individual and minority views (Westheimer, 1998). Halloween may be an obvious example of a contentious school issue, but because its celebration matters so much to PS 3, dissenters are almost invisible. Multiple forums exist for debate, but the parent association leaders, teachers, and administrators are too preoccupied with daily school politics to add a meaningful reconsideration of Halloween to their agendas. The absence of a place for contrary voices to be heard calls into question whether PS 3 is a genuine community. In a conception close to PS 3’s ideal, Jon Snyder (1994) maintains that:

A community can only be created by its members. It emerges and changes in the particularity of specific contexts. It can only be achieved over time: time to establish and continually reestablish the trust and respect necessary to its evolution; time to make who one is as an individual and as an institution visible to oneself and others....It is [a] shared commitment to enact common values...with all the angst that involves (p. 2).

Can a family that does not celebrate Halloween really belong to a community that is unconflicted about this week-long event? There is no angst over Halloween at PS 3. By venerating Halloween, the school does not mean to marginalize any child’s religious experience, but it happens.30 Faculty and administration take their Halloween celebration for granted; questions from the outside help jog an understanding of “the way it is.” From an interview with the principal (11/1/96):

The undergraduates I teach had spent the day in the school and came in full of their responses. I must say I thought they were very judgmental. They asked, what about kids who don’t have money for costumes and are next to kids who come in all elaborate because mothers have time and money? I said, “You’re right; that is a good question and I’m going to tell you what I am observing. There are not judgments about costumes.” That is the thing, kids care for each other. Not one-hundred percent, but there is a spirit of caring. The seminar students said things that made me think they didn’t trust children. They made me realize the very premise of everything here is absolutely trusting the kids.

The students asked, what about the children who can’t participate? What about religious sects that don’t believe in Halloween? So I spoke with them about how we work with each kid and each family. Many teachers—well, three—came and asked me and we spoke with the families and gave them choices. The families could say, “It is all right for my child to do this, but not this.” “My child could have candy, but not celebrate.” But it is not only the students who wonder about Halloween. I have six principals in this district who are friends, who are in a book group with me. None of them do Halloween in their schools. I spoke to the students about being careful not to give away an entirely positive experience because of a few negative or difficult problems. I said to them, it’s like deciding to have a silent lunch because there are discipline problems. Better to figure out the little problems in the big picture and keep the vision than do away with the vision because of the little problems.

Diane was not one of the three teachers who approached the principal, even though she would have met the family on any ground. She was not in a position to do it alone, without help from the family. Had Diane known Deborah’s background, she might have been more alert to Deborah’s awkward responses to her classmates’ questions and helped her to talk about her lack of costume and why she believed as she did. She might have prepared her for the haunted house and heard her questions about the origins of Halloween. She might have created an opportunity for Deborah to talk to the class (or at least a small group or maybe one friend) about why Halloween was not part of her tradition. Diane had no clue that Deborah did not “celebrate Halloween,” nor did she know that Deborah and her family were Christian or what that might mean for Deborah’s participation in the classroom. Even were Diane a Christian herself, she would not necessarily know the code; being Christian does not preclude celebrating Halloween. Deborah’s halting admission conveyed too little information, and Diane was reluctant to probe beyond what was offered in an area that is usually off-limits in school. Religion simply does not show up clearly enough on the radar screen of the nonreligious.

Contrast the following two views. The principal at PS 3 saw Halloween representing “generosity of spirit and playfulness.” Virginia, however, wrote:31

I want Deborah to understand that like so many other occasions—Christmas, Easter, etc.—that Halloween is a deflection of the Creator God. Humankind exhibits a form of Godliness while denying the power of God. Halloween worships the passed creature instead of giving God the credit and honor for Life.

The secular school culture centering on Halloween contributed to a break in the community for Deborah and her family. “Community” is derived from the Latin word communis, and in its earliest and most enduring sense, links under obligation with together (Raymond Williams quoted in Patricia Calderwood, p. 2), which prompts the thought that if classroom community is going to expand to include all families, then Diane, Deborah, and Virginia (and Diane adds “the public”) share an obligation to talk about Halloween. At first, shortly after Halloween, when I asked Virginia, she agreed with the principal’s position that giving up Halloween was not a necessary good; neither did she feel that she needed to help the school, nor did she need to help Diane understand what was at stake so Diane could help Deborah with the murkier features of Halloween. Only later did her thinking change.

Who has the burden to begin this discussion of cultural difference? What is the family’s responsibility for providing knowledge to the teacher? As things unfolded with this family, the school had the power. The parent and child had the choice of whether to participate. No matter how I describe the community, Halloween at PS 3 excluded this family from an important part of the school culture.

27See Gary Alan Fine and Jay Mechling (1993) on symbolic demography—the tendency of people to act according to images and ideas acquired earlier in a particular social, demographic location. back to text

28Susan Semel (1996) observes that “progressive educators and multicultural educators need an extended conversation about the meaning of culturally relevant pedagogy” (p. 156). In many ways, Diane’s classroom could be seen as the kind of classroom that Lisa Delpit criticizes so powerfully in her well-known and influential article, entitled “Silenced Dialogue” (1995), as being detrimental to African-American children. Life in any classroom is too complex to be categorized, however; in Diane’s classroom, progressive and culturally relevant practices overlap. The point is not to label categories, but to keep the conversation alive. back to text

29I have retained Deborah’s spelling and punctuation. back to text

30I was surprised by the numbers of readers of this draft who told stories of their own children’s fear and unhappiness over Halloween celebrations, both at PS 3 and at other schools, even though the reasons were not religious. Readers also told stories of exclusion having to do with religion. For instance, a teacher asked, “Where did the sun come from?” and a child said quietly, “Yeah, but where did God come from?” This challenge was never publicly acknowledged, and the child stayed silent during the rest of the science lesson. Or the fifth grader who completed a unit on six world religions—his own Zoroastrianism was not included. The teacher had not heard of it. When his mother volunteered to do a presentation, he did not want her to because he “felt like he had two heads or something....” back to text

31Diane and I do most of our co-constructing of text on the phone; I read aloud and Diane takes issue, makes corrections, and suggestions. Virginia and I devised a different method: Virginia affixed post-its with her comments to my draft. Then I retyped her comments in bold and sent the draft back to her for more comments. back to text

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