Posted by Jessica Cuthbertson on Wednesday, 03/26/2014
On the Colorado eastern plains, well beyond the buzz of the metro Denver area, there is a school. My school.
The new, two-story building serves over 1,100 students in preschool through eighth grade. While the school itself is only four years old, the island of mobile classrooms to the east signal to visitors we have reached enrollment capacity. The expansive boundaries and four diverse neighborhoods that feed to the school include a middle class suburban housing community, an air force base, and two trailer parks along the Colfax corridor, one on the east and one on the west.
I have written before about the benefits of looping with students. I believe that strong relationships with families are a critical component to student success. I frequently communicate with parents via email and phone calls, and I try to invite families into the classroom for author’s chair events and literacy celebrations.
But I’m embarrassed to admit that until last week, the only neighborhood of the four feeder communities I had “visited” is the suburban housing development I drive through each day to reach the school’s parking lot.
With the help of a multilingual colleague, a teacher workday, and a few phone calls, we visited four families in two different neighborhoods over the course of an afternoon. We intentionally selected families who were unable to make the last round of parent/teacher conferences; families we don’t see at school functions, not because they don’t care, but because of complicated work schedules or graveyard shifts, transportation issues, language barriers, or a combination of obstacles.
Here’s what I learned from my first round of home visits:
· The language of love is universal
I carpooled with a colleague who is fluent in four languages, including English and Spanish. While I only speak English, after the first visit it became very easy to read the thoughts and feelings of the parents through body language and facial expressions. As we would with any conversation, we began with each student’s strengths. Pride and love are easily revealed through smiles and intonation, and disappointment can be inferred through a stern glance exchanged between a child and his mother.
In the words of my home visit partner, science teacher Lucia Gaspar-Domingo,
“Our kids face an abundance of social factors. However, they come to school and try to learn which should be cause for celebration. Teachers can make assumptions when parents are not involved in school activities. But in each home visit, parents encouraged their child to perform well in school.”
While each family is unique, all families share a commitment to their child’s education, and this commitment was palpable in each home visit.
· Thirty minutes can easily turn into three hours
Our second visit landed us in the other trailer park neighborhood that feeds to our school. The family recently moved in so furniture was scarce, but we were greeted with enthusiasm and warm embraces. The social seventh grader led the discussion and introduced us to her mother and four siblings, who range in age from one to sixteen years old. Three hours later, our bellies were full of frijoles (beans), spicy chicken, and guacamole, and we felt like part of the family. We stayed so long that we witnessed naps, diaper changes, cooking, cleaning, and many conversations across the three generations. The mother openly shared the strengths and challenges of the school’s parent outreach efforts so far, and offered specific ideas for engaging Spanish speaking households. We learned more from her in one afternoon than we would have in years of traditional parent/teacher conferences.
· Teachers should feel uncomfortable sometimes
Spanish is the primary language in three of the four households we visited. So I spent a significant part of the day in the role of a “second language learner,” listening carefully for key words and familiar cognates, observing body language and speaking as little as possible, knowing my colleague or the student would need to translate on my behalf. This forced me to be present in a way that is difficult when conversations take place on school grounds. Changing the setting by visiting my students’ homes made me feel vulnerable, nervous, and even uncomfortable at times. It shifted the inherent power structure between school and the communities our school serves. It made me feel the way I imagine many families feel when they step on school property—like they are visitors in unfamiliar territory.
After touring two neighborhoods and visiting four homes over the course of five hours we were exhausted and full, both literally and spiritually. I’m glad I got out of my classroom and into the neighborhoods where my seventh graders live, work and play. Now, when my students talk about the “little store” on the corner, or the soccer field by the clubhouse, I will conjure a mental image from firsthand experience.
I hope to make home visits a regular part of my practice.
Next stop: Buckley Air Force Base.