Introduction and Background
Both parenting and teaching are notoriously complicated, uncertain, ambiguous enterprises. When weteachers and parentshear one anothers 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 childs 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 childrens 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 teachers and from mine. These differences led me to look closely at this familys connection to the classroom and what supported their daughter Deborahs 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 childrens 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 childs 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 seeor fail to seechildren reflected through their own cultural lens.
Societys expectation is that children will be changed by school, but our team is arguing for cultural interchangethat 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 childrens 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 schools 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 Deborahs teacher draws parents into the classroom. Next, to give a flavor of what values parents and children encounter in Deborahs classroom, I describe and analyze the classroom circlethe time that children spend together in whole-group conversation. Finally, since any discussion of cultural relations requires bringing race and ethnicity to the surfaceeven in a case study about religionI 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 198182 (Jervis, 1986, 1991). Children in Dianes 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 Dianes classroom for this project, I do not mean to propose a right way of teaching that ensures childrens 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). Dianes way is only one possibility among many. Dianes 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:
That description, written in February 1981, still sits in my files reminding me of my first taste of Dianes 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 sailedor sloggedthrough 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 Dianes practice, she never backed off from what she did or never flinched under my criticism. I realized long after I finished the year that Dianes unconflicted aversion to thinking in typesindeed her aversion to anything that categorized children without recognizing their strengthshelped 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 Dianes 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 childs questions and her capacity to protect time for childrens 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 Dianes 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 childrens 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 familys 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 Dianes 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 principals 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 childrens experience and not others.
The schools 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 others pedagogy and philosophy known and shared by each other, diverse teaching styles and teaching practices exist side by side. Dianes 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 Dianes 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