Between Home and School:
Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Introduction and Background

Both parenting and teaching are notoriously complicated, uncertain, ambiguous enterprises. When we—teachers and parents—hear one another’s stories, the details of our own become clearer. The more we understand, the more insight we bring to the next encounter, and the more solidly we can act upon what we have learned. I have written this family and classroom story because we need to know more about how individual teachers and families imagine the world and make decisions on behalf of children. The “we” here includes any of us who teach children across racial, ethnic, class, or religious boundaries, which includes most teachers in urban settings.

Teachers and school personnel need to recognize the powerful values in the home that support a child’s development. When these home values are ignored, the child suffers (Suina, 1991; Weber, 1997). It takes effort for teachers to be aware of home values, since these values are not automatic or naturally visible in school. Teachers need not (and cannot) reconstitute the home at school, both because parents have an unconditional attachment to their children, which teachers cannot duplicate, and because teachers can never know their children as do parents (Weber, 1997). But by paying attention to attitudes and rethinking strategies for involving families, teachers can become more flexible in developing ways to acknowledge children’s home values in school. Teachers can invite families to join the classroom community by providing multiple entry points, knowing that not every family will enter at the same place or benefit from the same kind of contact.

The story at the heart of this monograph brings forward the McMann family, whose religious beliefs only came to light slowly and whose demographics and experience with school diverged most clearly from the teacher’s and from mine. These differences led me to look closely at this family’s connection to the classroom and what supported their daughter Deborah’s learning. The distance between the classroom and the McMann family centered most dramatically around religion, but similar divides face all teachers who teach across racial, ethnic, and class boundaries. Let this story stand for other instances where worldviews of teachers and families are far apart and hard to discuss.

The opportunity to explore these issues arose when our NCREST-based team set out to document how teachers, parents, and children express and respond to differences in cultural values and experiences. After many years of teaching children in kindergarten through eighth grades and writing about my own and other teachers’ classrooms, this project provoked an old quandary about what teachers needed to know of children’s home lives. Attempting to understand the distances some children travel between home and school made perfect sense but, like most teachers, I had rarely observed students and their families beyond school. My early training suggested that the best information came from looking closely at a child’s work and daily classroom life, since I could only intervene based on what I saw at school. This project has allowed me to think more about the powerful influences that operate beneath the surface of observable behavior and about what happens when I and other teachers see—or fail to see—children reflected through their own cultural lens.

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 acknowledge home values more centrally in the classroom. We set out to show that culture (construed more broadly than race or ethnicity) mattered to children’s learning, but we did not know how it mattered. We suspected that if teachers ignored the culture of the home, children would not form strong enough relationships to allow them to engage in the school’s agenda.

This monograph has several parts. Before I tell the story of Deborah and her family, I explain my relationship with the teacher; I then set the context of the classroom by outlining the multiple ways Deborah’s teacher draws parents into the classroom. Next, to give a flavor of what values parents and children encounter in Deborah’s classroom, I describe and analyze the classroom circle—the time that children spend together in whole-group conversation. Finally, since any discussion of cultural relations requires bringing race and ethnicity to the surface—even in a case study about religion—I include a section that raises (but does not answer) questions about how a White teacher thinks about these topics while teaching predominately multiracial children.

For this study, I chose Diane Mullins’ second/third grade classroom at PS 3 in New York City, where I had observed in 1981–82 (Jervis, 1986, 1991). Children in Diane’s classroom are emotionally and intellectually engaged; they and Diane are “visible” (her word) to each other and to me, which makes it a good place to observe, to explore my questions, and to write about them.1 By choosing Diane’s classroom for this project, I do not mean to propose a “right” way of teaching that ensures children’s growth or to contend that she has a corner on it. I am not suggesting that Diane has magic charisma, a replicable program, or that she fits the pedagogical model for Ladson-Billings’ “culturally relevant teacher” (1994). Diane’s way is only one possibility among many. Diane’s practices permit children and families to make known their own agendas; thus her classroom allowed me a window into their assumptions, values, interests, and aspirations.

Diane understood that my sweep was broad and placed no limits on our work. We had a history together. From my notes:

I had come to PS 3 to teach writing through drama, but within seconds of stepping through Diane’s third/fourth grade classroom door, Tommy engaged me in a discussion of the bonding properties of molecules. Atomic theory is ordinarily too abstract for a ten year old, but Tommy, an overweight child with shoulder-length blond hair and a dirty face, had in his hands some interlocking beads from a college chemistry class. He was insistent: “Come look what I found out.” His jeans, which fit tight around the waist, must have once belonged to a much taller person; the long, frayed pants legs kept catching under the heels of his shoes, causing him to shuffle as he led me to his table. I was captivated and captured. No time to look around, except for glimpses. I saw Jan, tongue protruding, wire-framed spectacles sliding down the bridge of her nose, as she hunched over the typewriter, pecking out her thoughts one letter at a time. There was Monique, looking older than the other third/fourth graders, on the rug, surrounded by an admiring claque, openly discussing “my first menstrual period.”

Out of the corner of my eye—experienced from years of teaching and observing classrooms—disarray jumped out at me, but so did involved children, none of whom seemed directed by the teacher. Besides writing and science, there was intense running in the halls as well as intense sitting in the corner with a friend. No tuned out passive kids in this classroom. No fill-in-the-blank busywork, either. Diane moved slowly around the room, sitting at tables with kids, mainly listening, her intricate long earrings swinging gently as she monitored the room. For the next three weeks, I taught Greek myths to small groups. I was astonished to see how the children ran this classroom by themselves. It was their classroom, not Diane’s. No child’s self-chosen activity seemed more valued by the teacher than any other. Diane asserted that children who wanted what I had to offer would join my skits. Jan and Tommy never joined. Monique never missed. Diane refused the principal’s mandate that I culminate this teaching with a polished all-class performance for the whole school: “A class play involves too much teacher-imposed energy that doesn’t follow the children’s directions,” she said.

I was intrigued by this classroom of children I had come upon in midyear. When my consulting days ran out, I stayed anyway. As gripping as it was for me, I was also shaken up. I disagreed violently with much of what I saw, especially when it interfered with “my” curriculum. I never stopped asking questions. Diane finally said with some weariness, “I am not an explainer. Join us and see for yourself.”

That description, written in February 1981, still sits in my files reminding me of my first taste of Diane’s classroom. I accepted her invitation and spent the 1981-82 academic year forcing her to become “an explainer,” insisting that she be explicit about every teaching decision she made.

Diane and I sailed—or slogged—through that year. After I spent hours in class taking notes, we spent more hours together after school reflecting upon what happened. Half the time I was exhilarated and half the time I had a headache as I began to rethink my own teaching values. Although I questioned much about Diane’s practice, she never backed off from what she did or never flinched under my criticism. I realized long after I finished the year that Diane’s unconflicted aversion to “thinking in types”—indeed her aversion to anything that categorized children without recognizing their strengths—helped me to see differences and refrain from labeling them as deficits. When I began observing Diane in order to write about a “whole classroom,” she compelled me to see “whole children.”

After I returned to teach middle school and continued to write about my own and others’ teaching, I came to see that the studies I wrote about Diane’s students were actually steps toward articulating my own values and teaching practices. That year Diane taught me how forcing children to learn academics or forcing them to show mature behavior faster than they were capable worked against their solid growth, and how “my” curriculum, if imposed with a heavy hand, interfered. I marveled at how Diane tolerated the idiosyncrasies of individuals who sometimes made group life difficult. Finally, I saw how her own quests for a child’s questions and her capacity to protect time for children’s own quests for answers supported their learning. Much to my surprise, it even substantially raised their test scores (Jervis, 1991).

In September 1996, I returned to Diane’s classroom with the same “luxurious perspective of the undistracted eye” we had agreed on in 1981: I would write and she would teach. Diane welcomed me back. Now a world class “explainer,” she had gained the ability to articulate exactly why she decides as she does in the classroom and had published several articles on her own teaching (Mullins, 1988, 1992, 1995). Both in 1995 and 1998, she received the annual Lillian Weber Award from City College Workshop Center, a shared acknowledgment for both teacher and student teacher for their “contribution to the development of an environment and classroom context that supports children’s learning.”

Diane has been teaching at PS 3 for twenty-four years. She walks to school each day through the neighborhood where she was born, raised, and went to public school. Now in her early fifties, she is proud of her family’s working-class origins, of her heritage from her Welsh father and New York-born mother and from her maternal Eastern European Jewish grandparents. Ten years ago, Diane wrote: “How can we make our schools work?...I am asking teachers to make the revolution in our schools by approaching the commitment of parents to their children and by making their own values known” (Mullins, 1988, p. 13). In the spirit of making her values known, she joined me in this work. That she was paid $3,000 interested her little; she ultimately gave the money to a charity that helps homeless families.

The McMann family (Virginia, her husband Peter, and Deborah and her two sisters) graciously came forward to allow me in their home to follow their experience in Diane’s class. The grant paid them $1,000, as it did two additional study families, to compensate them for their time, energy, and willingness to undergo the scrutiny this research required. I am profoundly indebted to the families and to Diane for their cooperation and collegial exploration of cultural interchange.

PS 3 was founded by parents in 1971. In 1994, after the first principal’s death, the community renamed it the John Melser Charrette School. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about this “head teacher,” as he liked to be called. He was seen one day disciplining a group of children, his tall frame lowered to meet them eye-to-eye. In his New Zealand accent, he gently demanded that they must never, never slide down the banister again. Then he took his leave, sliding down the banister. That spirit still infuses the school as children learn to raise their own voices, question authority, and negotiate their own education. This stance conforms to some children’s experience and not others.

The school’s original plan called for the right to hire teachers, but that plan did not eventuate and the school lives within the constraints of the Board of Education/union staffing patterns. Rather than lament this bureaucratic vise, the diverse classrooms give the school an interesting texture. Strong teachers operate autonomously, each with their own outside-of-school professional networks and connections to different institutions that provide student teachers. In the absence of whole school conversations that strive to make each other’s pedagogy and philosophy known and shared by each other, diverse teaching styles and teaching practices exist side by side. Diane’s classroom exemplifies one variation.

1Teachers, but not scholars, are often referred to by first names in academic writing, emphasizing the tradition that knowledge about teaching and learning is created by those outside the classroom rather than those inside. Although I disagree with that naming convention, I have used Diane’s first name and the first names of parents for two reasons. First, because first names are the tradition at PS 3. First names are also an indication of the peer relationship as teacher and parent that I sought to develop. We did this work together. To protect the privacy of children who are too young to give consent, the names of all family members are pseudonyms. return to text

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