Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Towards Conclusions

Society’s expectation is that children will be changed by school, but our team is arguing for cultural interchange—that school practice should also evolve in response to children and that educators should give home values more weight. Granted, policymakers do not make policy based on a single case, but looking closely at how the school community embodies or distorts support for one child’s learning can open up opportunities to reflect on home-school policies. Keeping that frame in mind, I have sketched out some implications that evolved from Diane’s classroom and Deborah’s family.

Cultural Interchange Is Based on Relationships That Grow Over Time

The capacity to see through others’ eyes is not a one-shot event. Parents and teachers need time to develop relationships on safe ground before they are ready to reveal their personal backgrounds. Especially, when teachers work with children and families who are very different from themselves, recognizing what is central to another person (in Deborah’s case her relationship with God), then understanding, appreciating, and taking account of it in action requires educators to engage over time with parents.

At first, the pace of cultural interchange proceeds slowly and unevenly. On Parent’s Night, Joel’s father asked: “How do you find the kids respect each other?” Had Halloween preceded Back to School Night, I doubt Virginia would have felt comfortable enough so early to raise her concern about lack of respect for Deborah’s religious beliefs. That teachers and families were together for two years gave cultural interchange a chance to develop. Even noticing slow subtle shifts and then making them explicit requires long looking. To capture cultural interchange, researchers have to be careful—too brief a stay risks taking only a snapshot.

Offering Multiple Entry Points Means Rejecting the Numbers Game

The parental role need not be determined by the school, since the school is not necessarily the center of a family’s life (Weber, 1997). This study suggests that by providing multiple entry points to the classroom community—and not assuming that any one structure is right for all parents—families will come to feel they themselves are helpful to their children’s learning in whatever way they can be. Adopting such an attitude would reduce the common school lament, “but no one came,” that often describes an event that most of the invitees did not attend. Small numbers should not deter schools from offering options. Not every parent enjoys formal monthly descriptive reviews, but the experience is powerful for those who do. Not every busy parent reads teachers’ letters, but for some no substitute exists for the written word. Not every parent has the time or temperament for classroom participation, but the invitation creates a compelling possibility.

Unrestricted Access Is Important for Developing Relationships

The process of cultural interchange between home and school, I have come to believe, must include opportunities for families to have unrestricted access to the classroom, especially when the school and the parents’ own experiences differ. Diane’s open-door invitation to enter the classroom at any time could be in and of itself threatening to many teachers and administrators, but educators must begin to think hard about it as both schools and demographics change. Children and their families must feel welcome at school and in the classroom so they can develop informal relationships that lead to trust, and therefore greater identification with each other. Teachers must warmly embrace the families of the children they teach. For too long, educators have tended to cultivate distance—except when they need “parents as partners” to cooperate with the schools’ agenda.

Images Matter to Policy

Inviting families in—at their convenience, on their terms—requires a major change of attitude. That shift from indifference and distancing to genuine invitation requires slow, subtle moves. Often tiny actions are significant. On the first day of school, Diane stood at her classroom door beckoning parents in with a dramatic hand motion. The image of a teacher’s openhanded gesture drawing families into the classroom needs to be in every policymaker’s head before good home-school policies can be enacted.

Political Power Is Not the Only Measure of Access

In Diane’s class, the parents who became engaged in daily classroom life did not want the power to make curricular, budget, or hiring decisions, although those avenues were available in the wider school arena. I suspect that parents felt participating in the classroom was more authentic and satisfying than the all-school forums (Anderson, 1998). The “rightness” of the fit between what parents wanted and what Diane offered in the classroom worked for these parents. Perhaps after the pathways between home and school are well traveled, families will be more interested in joining school governance efforts, but it is a mistake to assume that the exercise of political power is the only measure of access to school.

Amy Wells (1998) suggests that college-educated parents are the ones demanding access to school and the right to make decisions, therefore reinforcing the parents’ middle class status. Most (all?) parents and children will benefit by a closer relationship with school through the classroom. Therefore, access—even if it comes initially without wider school decision-making power—is necessary for forming relationships between parents and teachers. I realize that, as Michelle Fine (1993) points out, this position leads individual families to advocate for their own children and risks diluting their wider political engagement. But a focus on school politics, with all the power struggle that entails, can dilute potential relationships that benefit children directly. This is a tension.

Professionals Must Cultivate a “Working Trust” with Families

Because parents have a responsibility to help teachers understand their own views, there must be opportunities for parents and teachers to get to know each other. Yet it is hard for families—especially those outside the mainstream—to initiate a conversation. Especially for families who belong to groups that traditionally feel less powerful or less comfortable in schools, it is the professionals who must cultivate the trust that leads to understanding and respect. Call it a “working trust” when families and educators communicate easily and well. A working trust—teacher and parents do not have to become best friends—allows everyone to become more open about discussing problems, better able to explain what they mean, and less worried about offending each other. When disagreements arise, they have a better chance to work out the human tangles. This ideal is one crucial outcome of cultural interchange.

Formal Processes May Nurture a “Working Trust”

For the eight or so parents interested in gathering together each month, Diane used the formal processes developed by Patricia Carini (Prospect, 1986) to initiate conversation, but many different collaborative forums work. Regular formal ongoing conversations allow parents and teachers to bridge the gap that usually separates “expert” school personnel from families who know their children best. As parents and teachers gain a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives, they develop stronger voices to articulate their own fears, knowledge, and priorities. Virginia did not want her child to stand out as different. Both mother and child were concerned that no one was interested, and the general discomfort about religion in a secular place all contributed to the silence, but reducing the usual school-home boundaries in these monthly groups provided an opportunity for both Diane and Virginia to see each other’s point of view on many issues, not just religion.

Encouraging Cultural Knowledge: A Dilemma and a Challenge

Teachers often act without knowing cultural information. The teacher as ethnographer is a worthy response to the challenge of building on the diverse cultures in the classroom (Mehan et al., 1995), but cultural interchange depends on more than careful observation, an open mind, and specific knowledge or facts, although all of these are welcome. Teachers need to develop the habit of thinking about children’s cultures, noticing patterns, building up evidence to anchor their impressions, sharing their conclusions with one another, and examining their own attitudes. This exhortation to dig deeply into culture, however, competes with inducements to keep our eyes on the child’s learning. Teachers cannot be expected to know what I, as a researcher, found out about Deborah’s family. Even with sophisticated cultural knowledge, the dilemma still persists whether to foreground the child’s cultural background or the child’s individuality. Keeping both in mind simultaneously is a challenge.

Unexpected Differences Are Difficult to Detect

To be open to cultural nuances is hard when we are unaware of what cultural differences are salient to the students and their parents. Because Diane’s approach tends to be highly attuned to individual differences, her vision is mostly accommodated to variation. But detecting family differences when they are not in expected categories—for instance, religion—is a formidable task. If we do not know the category, it is hard; and if we do, that is maybe all we see.

Further Thoughts on Cultural Interchange

Diane took a strong stand: “Cultural interchange is human interchange. It happens wherever people are together.” Cultural interchange—as Diane construed it—unfolded in her class without an explicit focus on children’s cultural differences or an emphasis on what children can learn through a curriculum about other cultures.

Diane’s classroom practice has remained amazingly consistent over fifteen years. What happens in her class evolves out of children’s shared interests in each other and their world as they travel the city, read books of their choice, write what they want, draw what they chose, and do the math problems that arise out of daily life. “Living together and sharing perspectives” is Diane’s curriculum. Diane’s view of the world—through the lens of human variety rather than cultural difference—is one way of seeing that does not put culture, race, ethnicity, or religion at the center. Until Diane registered the importance of Deborah’s religion, that part of Deborah’s life remained outside the classroom.

Some might argue (and have argued) that Diane’s class involves little cultural interchange, since her own values prevail and she does not create a new classroom each year from the varied cultural norms families bring to school. True enough. Rather, her values lead to a classroom that eases school for children and includes them in an expanding, expansive community where she works to help them find a place to belong. To increase mutual understanding among children, she exposes them to other perspectives in order to widen their own; she responds to individuals, but relishes their interdependence. She provides entry points for parents, encouraging them to engage in school life and contribute in whatever way they can.

Persistent Blinders

Each member of our team saw cultural interchange differently (Bensman, 1999, McGregor, 1999, Xu, 1999).33 Diane’s classroom is one variation. I struggle to hear these other versions. Aside from not knowing the initial dimensions of what we were looking for, we did not know how this slippery process of interchange would affect our own perspectives. It turned out that becoming aware of own cultural lenses, which operate involuntarily below the surface of consciousness, was more arduous than we thought. Opposing themes of openness and narrowness persist. Habits of mind and habits of looking are embedded in the study like fool’s gold in a hunk of pyrite. Even when mined and exposed to the open air, old ways of perceiving the world fade slowly, if at all. Deeply held values do not change easily; nor perhaps, should they. They point us to experiences we perhaps need to seek out.

When I look over a classroom or a parent group, I now imagine that they are as different from me as I am from the participants in this study, including my colleagues on the research team. This major personal learning from the project gives me some notion of how far we have to go in making school comfortable places for all students and their families.

A task, then, is to hear the other voices and reflect with openness on what changes one can live with without abandoning core values or, as some might say, without blinders. My personal biases cause me to identify (some have said overidentify) with Diane’s perspective. Along with Diane, I have a visceral response to the triviality of standardized tests and the philosophy behind them. I am not much enamored of portfolios with indicators and rubrics either. I like evaluation to be up close and personal—where there is a relationship between the evaluator and whoever is being evaluated so they can, as Ted Sizer (founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools) says, look each other in the eye. I support all the independence and problem-solving that is not necessarily the cultural norm for families.

There is another side that I profess to be willing to hear, but it challenges my basic values. Perhaps Diane’s “easing” school may also make school too “easy.” Perhaps I ignored the opportunities she missed for pushing children to excel at formal academics and standardized tests, or ignored the signals that parents wanted more obedience and less self-reliance. The result is that I have built into this study a defense of progressive pedagogy. I believe that progressive principles—rethought for today’s diverse classrooms—have a better chance to improve learning for children outside the middle-class mainstream than increased reliance on standards imposed from a distance and high stakes standardized tests that produce winners (usually White) and therefore losers (disproportionately people of color). Some say I can afford to take this position since I—and my children—already have a secure place in the middle-class world. It is a dilemma that has the capacity to shift my whole way of seeing the world. I have not resolved it.

33Team colleagues David Bensman, Kemly McGregor, and Jianzhong Xu each wrote their case studies based on different premises about cultural interchange. Their studies appear under separate cover in this NCREST series. back to text

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