Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis



Opening the Doors for New Thinking in Year Two

To talk with someone, ask a question first, then—listen.

Antonio Machado, 1983, p. 5

Lillian Weber (1997) reminds educators that parents’ strengths are powerful kernels that support children’s learning. She urges teachers to think about becoming the carrier of those strengths. “Our job is to study what relationships and what kinds of things are supportive to the child’s further growth and to try to see how to be a little continuous with those outside-school supports, even though the very nature of the school recreates limitations” (p. 89). In this case, the home kernels are religion and Deborah’s Caribbean culture. Interestingly, for our original notion of cultural interchange, the initial alliance with Diane was not built on either of these cultural platforms.

The Boundaries Between Home and School

In the second year of the study, when I was writing this paper and discussing religious belief with Diane (the first such talk in seventeen years of intense conversation and we have barely begun), Diane rethought how she viewed Deborah’s religion. Any teacher would have done the same, Diane maintained. It helped immeasurably that Virginia and Diane both participated in monthly parent gatherings. These meetings shifted the direction from school-determined subjects to parent-generated talk of home. Without these gatherings, perhaps no talk of religion would have come to the surface, but religion was not the primary focus of the group.


Work inspired by the Prospect Center in these monthly meetings contributed to an ongoing relationship between Diane and Virginia that allowed them to see how their perspectives differed and to make explicit a cultural gap. Diane and Virginia see responsibility differently, and neither changed their positions. Diane saw Deborah as having too much responsibility at home, and Virginia saw Deborah having to resist “tidal waves of irresponsibility.” Let this discussion of responsibility stand for other perspectives based on cultural differences that usually remain unexplored.

Responsibility is an important word to Deborah and her family. Deborah wrote in her notebook (3/13/97):


Responsible means able to answer ones conduct and obligation and trustworthiness. Responsible means talking care of things that belong to me. Being able to do my work at home at school and at church without somebdy always telling me to do what I know I have to do and following instructions well. Responsible means I should behave well so that my little sisters would have a good example of me. I should obey the rules at school and everywhere I go. That I must do my writing, reading, and drawing everyday and do them well. Being responsible means trying not to do wrong to other peole. It also means listening to my parents.

Diane was alert to Deborah’s exploration of responsibility. After Deborah complained that Patricia was too bossy, Diane and Deborah had the following conversation (5/27/97):

Diane: What are you the boss of?

Deborah: Nothing.

Diane: What do you want to be the boss of?

Deborah: Nothing.

Diane: Do you feel like you are one of the younger kids in class?

Deborah: Yes.

Diane: Are there any bosses in this class?

Deborah: Sometimes boss means bossy.

Diane: Are you ever bossy?

Deborah: Yes, with my sister. My mom says I am supposed to be. I am supposed to be an example. (Gives more details here.)

Diane: Do you want me to tell your mom to let you off from being in charge of your sister. You work hard at that.

Deborah: No.

Diane: Well, how about once every other week or something like that. Deborah agrees “yes,” with a smile of relief.

In the second year, when Diane told Virginia that Deborah was “playing with larger questions like who was in charge at home,” she suggested Deborah might have less responsibility at home. Virginia responded (2/18/98):

Sometimes I think all she wants to do is get married and begin housekeeping. I think she thinks she should be in charge or be allowed to do whatever she wants. I want her to focus on her role as an eight-year-old child. She can’t settle down academically, she forgets what she is not interested in, she does her work just to get over it. She is irresponsible.

After Deborah moved on to the fourth grade, in response to my quoting that transcript passage in a draft, Virginia wrote:

I am wondering who is in charge of my house here, Diane or Me? I don’t know that Deborah has any other responsibility at home but to herself: Study her Sabbath school lesson, learn her memory verse, do her schoolwork and the personal hygiene part and also taking care of her personal things and surroundings—which sounds like much but most of which can be done in two hours. I have never given her the responsibility to take care of her sisters. I have always told her she has a God-given responsibility to be an example to them, not a mother. Deborah’s reasons for not having her home work in class were not because they were not done and certainly not because she has any responsibility towards her sisters. I think Diane is being more judgmental than reasonable.

Views of responsibility vary. I saw things more like Diane than Virginia. From my notes (5/7/98):

In the parent gathering we are reflecting on a piece of writing, and Deborah signals her mother from the doorway by entering a few feet into the room. With a combination of whispers and pantomime, she tells her mother that her five-year-old sister’s pants are wet. In my family I would have jumped up to deal with any emotional fallout and the wet pants. Virginia glanced up and said, “It’s your job. You handle it.” And Deborah did. Entirely. She went to the Lost and Found for clean clothes and we didn’t see her until the meeting was over.

However one might view Deborah’s two hours of home responsibilities or her caretaking of her sister at school, Virginia and Diane will likely never agree on whether eight-year-old Deborah was too responsible or not responsible enough. Although, both Virginia and Diane noticed how Deborah takes time out from her own work to help others, and how that trait overlaps with her own preferences and interest in responsibility, Diane and Virginia have two different ideas of how a child should be in the world.

Yet one outcome of this likely cultural difference is that Virginia feels seriously responsible for helping Deborah to learn. “If it is in the classroom, I can reinforce it; if it isn’t, I can’t” ( 10/16/98). In her third year at PS 3, Virginia appears confident in both Deborah’s learning and in her own part in it. This growth in confidence, I believe, came as a result of Virginia’s ongoing participation in Diane’s classroom as she observed, discussed, and reflected with other adults each month in a group where everyone’s voice held equal weight.

Trust and Academics

Diane does not encourage children to revise their work, nor does she value a strong academic push until children “feel it in their belly.” Virginia’s experience in doing things “properly” and Diane’s quest for children’s interests, questions, and struggles, rather than their academic skills, were genuine value differences. Much of Deborah’s early work was bookish and did not have the “stamp of the child.” During the formal Descriptive Review processes of looking at children’s work, Virginia came to understand why Diane did not assess mechanics first, and how close reading changed the adult focus from a child’s deficiencies to a child’s strengths. Virginia did not change her position about the importance of conventional spelling, but rather than insist Deborah redo her homework to a correct adult standard, she began to ask Deborah: “Have you looked over your work to see that it is right?” She monitored the looking over rather than the redoing, a subtle but important difference that was not lost on Diane or the other parents. In turn, Virginia vividly described homework struggles so that Diane could understand what open-ended assignments did to an evening at home for a family accustomed to prescribed work.

As Deborah learned to trust herself academically, her increased trust in herself required that Virginia believe work “that came from the belly” (Diane’s word for work that children chose to do) would serve Deborah’s growth. By promoting that trust, Diane eased school for Deborah. Diane’s willingness to engage Virginia, and Virginia’s willingness to listen, grew out of continual exposure to each other’s writing, the actual classroom, formal descriptive reviews, and a growing relationship with Diane and other parents. Ultimately, everything was discussible. Both mother’s and teacher’s academic goals are now the same—authentic work. It has taken some time to reach that point.

Virginia wrote to Diane at the end of the second year that Deborah’s “tumultuous” first year had given way to “trust that the educational and character developmental bricks you have laid will be a firm foundation for her future.” She also noted that the stomach pains Deborah has had since Pre-Kindergarten have completely gone.

In a departure from previous writing, she acknowledged her own foundations. Thanking Diane, she wrote, “I am of the belief that no one comes into our—my family’s—lives without God’s direct channeling. “

Creating Space for Home Culture

As she got to know Deborah’s religious background over her third-grade year, Diane began to make opportunities for Deborah to share her passion for the Bible. In early March, at Diane’s invitation, Deborah read aloud in circle the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the same story she had retold in her writing notebook eighteen months earlier. On Purim, Diane brought Hamantoschen for the class, explaining that these were part of her own cultural tradition, which prompted Deborah to volunteer her favorite story of Esther. Notice that Diane brought something of herself to create a space for Deborah’s telling, rather than putting Deborah on the spot with a request to tell something about her religion, or by assigning everyone to contribute on a religious topic.

When I talked with Deborah, the pride and excitement in her voice—so clear on the tape—was evidence of a new classroom connection: “One thing I learned this year is that some people in the class are Jews.” In sotto voce, she remembered, “Well actually I learned that last year because you told me.” Overhearing this discussion about Jews, a Palestinian child in the class asked her, “Are you Jewish?” and when she said, “no,” he added with a slightly combative tone, “If you aren’t Jewish, then why are you talking about Jews?” Deborah said with total confidence: “There are stories that I know that Jews know. I know about Esther. Esther is a Jew.”

For the first eighteen months in this classroom, Deborah didn’t see her religion as something to bring to school, but ultimately she was able to share a piece of herself she never thought she could. This connection contributed to her own developing worldview. The sharing is also an opportunity for her own self-expression as she grows as a storyteller and becomes a carrier of her own culture.

Small, Slow, Subtle Shifts to Larger Ground

After Deborah went on to fourth grade, I wrote in a draft about Diane’s belief that a seven year old cannot adopt her parents’ beliefs as her own. Virginia took serious issue with Diane’s position (as articulated by me) that religious understanding is developmental. Virginia wrote: “Religion is not talk; especially for a child, it is practiced.” For her, the obligation to pass her religion on to Deborah is not a choice but a Biblical commandment. Virginia is clear: “I test all practices by the Word of God.”

In reference to religion in a secular society, Virginia also wrote on my draft:

I am aware of the times and world in which we live. I do not expect the world to make concessions for a Christian. We are its enemies. This world would certainly have been a better world if our children were taught to honor and respect the supreme Life given. I would not look to the school for understanding or concessions. It is my responsibility—not even the Church I attend, to teach my Children God’s will for them and I know that sometimes we would have to stand alone.

These differences mean that no halfway measures to bring a child’s religious identity into the classroom would serve Virginia. Virginia and Deborah and Diane did connect home with school in a way that enlarged all of their worldviews, but they did not replace any of their already held beliefs about religion.

Halloween is off the table; Deborah continues to stay home on Halloween. The community has not bent for Deborah or for its own sake. In her thoughtful book, Teaching and Learning in a Diverse World: Multicultural Education for Young Children, Patricia Ramsey (1998) has a fantasy vision of the future, where discussion about having holiday celebrations would continue for a long time. I would hope that PS 3 would begin that discussion. Diane’s call for change in a school council meeting has not yet been heard. Based on what we have learned in this study, I predict that any changes will come slowly.

Yet small, slow, subtle steps toward cultural interchange extend the common ground—a shift in attitude, a new way of seeing, a tiny action. At an early point, Diane misinterpreted Deborah’s absence at Friday night slumber party as her parents not understanding the importance of school social life for Deborah’s comfort in her new school. Diane (and I) had to stretch to realize that, rather than a deprivation to Deborah, the chance to honor God’s law by worshipping on the Sabbath is a privilege. Deborah continues to miss Friday night slumber parties and Saturday events, but recently I heard a child having a small tantrum in front of her mother: “No, I don’t want my party on Friday; I want it on Saturday night so Deborah can come.”

On the other hand, Virginia adjusts her life to see that Deborah participates as fully as she can on non-Sabbath days. After a recent death in the family, Virginia wanted to take Deborah home at noon to ease her own schedule before the funeral. Instead, she let Deborah go on an all-day class trip so she would not miss the chance to participate in this unique school event. Virginia would not negotiate with God, but did not hesitate to inconvenience herself. On any weeknight picnic or Sunday all-school fund-raiser, this family shows up.

Recently, over lunch, Virginia explained to me how happy it made her just to gaze on a picture of Jesus on the cover of the Bible study guide she carries in her purse. Her face radiated joy. Talking about religion at school is not so difficult any more.

What follows from greater teacher awareness of religious belief and religious diversity is not entirely clear. Even if First Amendment prohibitions do not arise, respect for the religions of others may call, not for discussion, but for acknowledgment and then respectful silence. Perhaps we should not be too quick to exclude from our schools what is so central to the lives of many of our children. Virginia wrote “Amen.”

I watched Deborah accommodate to school in the first year, when on some days, as I said in my notes, “She reminds me of a butterfly who hasn’t got enough sun yet to move” (5/30/97). In her second year, the classroom held more for her. Deborah may miss the community membership that Halloween implies in this particular community, but Deborah has more than one connection to school. She starred in a class play about aliens, dressed in a sophisticated black dress that fit her love of dressing up. She loves to mentor her sister, now a pre-K student at PS 3. Diane wrote in her 1998 narrative report that Deborah is “remarkably social” and has become “an almost daily presenter of her ideas, quite generous about sharing her knowledge and intimate feelings.” The report is full of new interests; the list is long. Because Diane and PS 3 created multiple pathways over two years for the McManns to enter the school community, family and teacher were able to build an alliance on behalf of Deborah’s learning. That warm embrace between home and school ultimately moved the butterfly’s wings.

Return to Top of Page

Towards Conclusions