Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis



Differing Perspectives

This is important about us: that we have selves, that we are active in the pursuit of meaning and value, that in that pursuit we are each uniquely situated, yet understandable to each other.

Patricia Carini, 1993, p. 5

Barriers separating teachers’ and families’ cultures can be unintentionally impenetrable. PS 3 and Diane had little experience with religious discussion since the sacred rarely showed up in a secular school. For their part, the family did not expect to find their religious beliefs accepted in this public setting and thus did not disclose them when they were in conflict with accepted school events. We live in a country governed by church/state boundaries.

An Unseen Barrier Between Home and School

During the first year, Deborah’s daily writing soon dropped any references to religion. In what she shared with classmates in the circle and in the conversations between Deborah and her friends to which I was privy, the line between home and school held firm. When Deborah was a second grader, Virginia and Diane did not discuss religion at any conference or in any written communication or informal conversation.

Religious Boundaries Hold Firm

Used to keeping her Adventist faith to herself outside of her home, church, and neighborhood, Virginia had no inclination to lobby Diane about acknowledging it the classroom. This typical silence probably encourages children—including Deborah—to leave an important part of their life outside the classroom. Deborah may have gotten the message that her religious beliefs might not be welcome or appropriate at her new school. Home and school messages may have been reciprocally effective in keeping her Christian beliefs private, even secretive. Since other avenues were open to Deborah and her family to engage in school life, we will never know exactly how or whether these mutually reinforcing messages about belief may have interfered with Deborah’s learning.

Because Deborah did not bring her religious belief into school on her own, one might conclude that religion does not loom as large for her as it does for her mother. That is possible, but I doubt it. Deborah was engaged in the moral, factual, historical, and biblical aspects of religion. A few excerpted examples from my notes—all taken out of school—show her interests:

April 14, 1997: On a school half-day, I took Deborah out for pizza and a chat. When we got our pizza and sat down, she opened the conversation by saying that her mother told her I was Jewish. “I saw a Jew once,” she continued. “Jews wear black hats.” She recounted a video where Jews and Christians changed clothes to fool the police. “We are all alike under the clothes,” she concluded. I tell her Diane is Jewish and her mouth drops open in acute surprise. I do not get a clear sense of what is in her head about this new information. Again, probing on religious matters feels uncomfortable to me.

May 5, 1997: The first activity at home is drawing. Deborah made an elaborate title page for “Jesus Stories” decorated with butterflies.

May 18, 1997: The surrounding at home is full of religion, from the music on the tape player to the several editions of the Bible for Children, which are prominently displayed. After church with Deborah and her family, we sit on the living room rug reading the story of Esther together, one of Deborah’s favorites. Deborah knows a huge amount about it. She does not so much dispute the story as interrogate it.

Later, when I had my coat on and Deborah was sitting on the couch, she asked me whether I had gone to church with anyone else. I answered that I had never been to a church without a member of the congregation. She said: “No, I mean with anyone in the class.” And then she allowed that Nilsa had said she was Christian. And Deborah added, as if she were telling something very secret and sensitive—”Patricia was the first one I told I was Christian.”

February 1, 1998: Virginia recounts a time when Deborah was not ready to leave the house in the morning and “I just left her. Then I looked back and she was coming. But I thought to myself, I will never do that again. When she caught up with me, Deborah asked: “Does God care about children? Does God care whether you treat me that way?”

Since neither Deborah nor her family could participate in any school activity that took place between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, I could have treated as a barrier the deprivation Deborah might have felt by not being part of the talent show for which she practiced long and hard, or the classroom community of girls who got to know each other better at Friday night sleepovers. For some children, this absence would be crippling. As it was, friends may have missed Deborah. For Deborah, learning to appreciate the joyfulness of the God-centered Sabbath was the higher value.

Privacy as a Protective Barrier

While some well-intentioned educators oppose any exploration of personal religious beliefs as too intrusive, incurring too high a risk and too high a cost in invading the family’s privacy, Diane is not against talk of religion in the classroom on principle.32 Yet both Diane and Virginia saw the importance of privacy for children at school. Virginia recalled that when Mario’s mother complained at Parent’s Night that she no longer knew what her son was doing at school, Diane responded: “At this age children begin to need a private life at school.” Virginia repeated often how important that reminder was for her to recognize Deborah’s privacy at school. “Kids have to have a private school life—I agree with Diane about what she said at the meeting. Only bring me in for extreme cases. I don’t need to know everything. Diane can handle it.”

Diane picked up on Virginia’s interest in privacy to suggest that children need privacy at home as well, so perhaps, Diane said, Deborah was content keeping religion at home. That may be true, but viewing the world from a religious child’s perspective, it must feel strange to approach moral questions at school without bringing in God. If part of Deborah’s identity is her relationship to God, she cannot leave religion at home. It is possible, however, that religious parents and children have gotten used to the idea that no one wants to hear about their religion or that they feel their religious beliefs are not acceptable. Perhaps Virginia or Deborah just lacked an opening that would have signaled acceptance; with an invitation, they each might have felt welcome to talk. A line from Virginia’s interview might be a clue (11/7/96): “If you ask Deborah, she will tell you she reads scripture before she leaves home every day....” If you ask her. No one at school was asking. Should they be? Parents need to take some responsibility, but families also need an atmosphere where they need not hesitate to come forth.

Halloween—Both Instructive and Divisive

At first, I thought that perhaps in the area of religion Virginia tended to discount school. Since she assigned school no role in helping Deborah clarify Halloween, maybe unconsciously Virginia was giving signals that school wasn’t important. Such a parental attitude could certainly affect how Deborah approached her schoolwork, and even her homework. Yet, although Deborah’s mother had no experience in guiding her daughter through Halloween, she had thought carefully about her stance. She rearranged her work schedule to stay for the school parade because she was “curious,” and also, I am speculating, to see what Deborah saw.

A week after Halloween, Virginia joined a class trip and talked along the way, for the tape recorder, about why she wanted Deborah at school on Halloween:

If Deborah was 12 and I would have sent her somewhere away from home and if I said to her, “As Seventh-day Adventists, we don’t believe in Halloween,” she would always have that zeal to know, to want to know. And perhaps she may defy me or defy rules. She might not want to get into it as much as if she knows what it is.

Especially in this society to strive well, to be able to know what she believes, I think Deborah must have a reason for what she believes. When she has a reason she can understand, she can distinguish. Because when I grew up all I knew is that this is right, this is wrong. So I want her to be able to answer why you don’t do that. She must be able to say “I don’t do it because...” and to know something about the reason why.

Virginia was determined that her daughter know the difference between home and the wider world—but not at the expense of eroding religious values. This emphasis on nurturing Deborah’s ability to distinguish right from wrong by experiencing differences was based on an appeal to rationality rather than tradition. Handing down values by this method involved some risk that knowledge of the forbidden would be too appealing, yet Virginia was confident that Deborah’s religious values would remain solid in this secular environment. She felt no urgency to initiate a conversation about religion with anyone at school.

As it turned out, one Halloween was enough for Deborah; she did not come to school on Halloween the following year. Thus, all by itself, the school’s very salient celebration of Halloween will always exclude her from that part of the PS 3 community. That seems unavoidable, even though the school community loses most from Deborah’s absence in that it buries the issues and makes no attempt to imagine the world from another family’s perspective. Halloween may mean little to Deborah compared with her much more central belief in God, but the rest of the school community might consider Deborah’s absence—for the good of the community.

Deborah’s participation in the community is not all or nothing—the effect of exclusion varies for different children. Some children caught between home and school might silently withdraw from classroom life to spend their time on the edges as marginalized nonmembers, or they might be left searching for a safe place, wondering what was the matter with them if no one discovered their interests or invited them to connect to school. Perhaps Deborah is resilient because her mother tells her regarding every aspect of her life, “God makes different circumstances and you take advantage of them,” and “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:13).” What the community loses without acknowledging Deborah is another question.

Chipping Away at the Barrier: Who Has to Change?

When I talked to Deborah eighteen months later, she remembered Halloween vividly, especially the issue of whether Halloween was religious and whose religion it was (“My mother says ‘it is devilish’”). Of course, she remembered how scared she was and how she cried. When Diane read that comment in draft, she said, “Deborah was too scared to learn from Halloween the first time; she needed another chance to ‘know.’” Virginia saw the situation differently:

I did not send Deborah to school the next Halloween because I was not sure she would have been respected enough to be allowed to stand on the sideline. I test all cultural practices by the Word of God. Culture does not make any practice right or wrong.

It is a worthy challenge for schools to take religious practice as seriously as does Deborah’s family and to honor their obligations to God within the school’s secular culture. At first, Virginia said, “I don’t want to ask the school to make a special exception for my child.” Virginia does not approve of the church/state separation: “It is just an excuse for one more of the many biases in this country.” However, she certainly is aware how this separation becomes a barrier that makes it hard to consider an exception “legitimate,” and thus it becomes an issue of respect. Another irritated, maybe angry, parent might have blamed the teacher or the school or removed her child.

Ultimately, Diane and Virginia had two different explanatory models of the place of religion in Deborah’s life and two different ideas of where her energy should be placed. Both recognized that the secular school culture of PS 3, of which Halloween was a significant part, and Virginia’s God-centered culture, where responsibility is primarily to God’s law, do not have to be mutually exclusive. People participate in both cultures. But parent and teacher cannot begin to see the world through each other’s eyes until each recognizes the potency of the other’s culture. We need to keep multiple worldviews in mind or we create one-dimensional stereotypes. If cultural interchange of this kind—learning to imagine the world through others’ eyes—is to benefit children in the classroom, then teachers and families must find ways to make their traditions, values, and beliefs explicit. If we cannot see that our own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can we expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture? Schools must make a comfortable space for families who differ on religious—or other cultural—dimensions so parents will have confidence that their children will be respected and that they can feel at ease requesting an exception. To this sentence Virginia wrote “Amen.”

While both Diane and Virginia might have benefited from seeing each other’s world more clearly to avoid the particular difficulties about Halloween, what happens in a classroom need not change the worldview of either the teacher or the family. Understanding each other’s perspective does not signal the end of cultural differences. Deborah and her family had many realities that worked for them, as did Diane. People are not one thing.

Year-End Writing

In a long, year-end narrative report, Diane could point to Deborah’s academic growth:

Deborah told me about her learning this year that she is learning about the world. Through books, particularly history and biography, she is able to imagine herself in another time. She is particularly taken with mid-nineteenth century America. Deborah chooses her own books, sometimes getting help from her parents. She is able to lose herself in reading and writing.

Diane also addressed Deborah’s exploration of a classroom culture that was foreign to her:

Deborah has spent a great deal of time learning the language and nuance of her classmates. She has tried on some of their conduct and is working to see where her limits are. I think she is a bit more grounded but expect that she will continue to test her limits and those of the adults around her.

Virginia wrote to Diane at the end of the year:

This year has been a very exciting one for Deborah and to some extent to us—her parents. Deborah is enjoying her new environment. She especially loves class trips, reading class after school, and having play dates with some of her classmates. She is unfolding socially and otherwise and because of this has started to reveal some unpleasant character flaws, some of which you may have noticed. First, I would like to thank you for the way you have handled her this school year and for your observations. I have noticed your interest in helping her by the books you give her and some of the written assignments she has had to do. I trust that those tactful counsels would eventually take root in her young mind. I must confess that although it’s a struggle, I am obligated to the tasks of steering Deborah against her tidal waves of irresponsibility.

On the other hand, my “little gem,” as I affectionately call her, can be a most gracious, thoughtful, and potentially brilliant child. I am sometimes amazed at her level of reasoning. She enjoys being a big sister and loves doing fun things. In fact, you may have noticed in her writing and speaking that she sums up time and events with this single work “fun.”

I am indeed grateful that Deborah is privileged to be in your class for another year, Diane. I do not know if someone else might as quickly as you have been able to look past her charms to her needs. It is my desire that by the Grace of God, you would have a restful vacation....

Because Diane had taken uncommon steps to get to know parents and Virginia had a reservoir of goodwill, this is a best-case scenario of a child whose religious practices went initially unacknowledged. Parents, however, especially if they differ in significant ways from the mainstream culture of the school, often keep their voices muted. Teachers never have the chance to learn; parents feel they are not being heard; and the cycle of ignorance and miscommunication continues. The lack of knowledge on the school’s part and Virginia’s reluctance to provide information will leave the barrier insurmountable until it is safe to discuss religion. Virginia responded: “I would do this differently in the future.” But her response came only after Deborah’s second year in Diane’s class, when Diane had made changes.

32When religion was clearly an issue, Diane heard easily. The student teacher during the second semester, a practicing Muslim, could not go swimming with the class because her religion forbade her to wear a swim suit in front of any adult male, namely the lifeguard and fathers who accompanied the children. Diane encouraged her to explain this to the children and created the opportunity to do so. back to text

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