It has not been an easy year, world. In light of all the tragedy occurring in our own backyards, as well as across the seas, I have been thinking carefully about how to address these topics in class. Although my students are itty bitty, they are never too young to learn tolerance, and they certainly are not too young to pick up on my energy around topics of race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism.
We’ve all been to college, so we know that engaging ELL families is critical to their students’ success. We know that language barriers are a challenge. We know that there are many current-day issues that impact a teacher’s view on immigrants, which may contribute to how they interact with ELL families on a daily basis. All the literature says “make sure they feel welcome,” and “encourage families to attend school events,” but as we know, these are not always the most helpful strategies. What does it mean to make families feel welcome? What if they don’t show up? What happens when translators don’t show up and you’re left to awkwardly sit in a room with an ELL family you don’t know how to connect with? Well, it’s now our job to bend over backwards to build relationships and lead by example. The world needs less awkward encounters with non-English speakers, less division, less discomfort, and less mistrust.
I’m here to give you 4 fun strategies for deepening your relationships with ELL families this year. Remember, I teach Kinder, so these may be more geared towards K-5 classrooms.
Pull out a map.
I’m serious. Or better yet, hop on Google Earth and go exploring. Identify the places most ELL families in your school building come from. People always assume I have no problem connecting with Spanish-speaking families because I can speak Spanish, but do you connect with every English speaker you meet? Probably not. I’m not even Mexican, as most of my ELL families are, so relating to their background and culture is still work for me.
Take the time to look on the map at major cities and states. It doesn’t take too long to google a few big names and learn about what’s happening there politically, what major tourist sights they offer, or what cultural events they hold dear. When I meet my families for the first time at Open House, I always ask where families are from originally. When they say Mexico, I go one step further and ask which part. Now with a little more background knowledge (provided by Google and YouTube), I can at least make one or two comments, pushing the conversation further.
Me: “Which part of Mexico are you from?”
Me: “Oh, wow! Very pretty there! And I’ve heard many artists come from there.”
It might sound a little hokey, but families remember those sorts of encounters. They remember that they met someone who knows a little something about their home. Even if it’s not completely accurate. How hard is it to compliment landscapes and surroundings? It shows that you’re curious about the world they come from. If you were traveling in Spain and you told someone you were from Seattle, and they looked at you blankly, think about what conclusions you might draw about them. How would you feel about your hometown? Now think about it if a stranger nodded and smiled, and then followed up with a simple, “Oh, yes, Seattle! It rains there a lot, yes?” It’s a starting off point to a short conversation. It’s all about showing interest.
Make friends with the siblings.
We don’t just get to build relationships with our own students, we get to expand and get to know entire families. Although we can’t use siblings to officially translate for meetings (like conferences or anything like that), siblings often pick up on the lay of the land in class quicker than parents can. One example I have is inviting two Ukrainian sisters to class to help their little brother during our gingerbread house day. Not only did they get to bond with their baby brother, I quickly showed them a few things their brother could work on to improve reading. They were so excited to help him out once they saw the materials we used in class. “We did that in kindergarten too!” they were saying. They also chose to tell their mom about what they had learned, and as a team, the three ladies helped their little man improve! Parents also appreciate a teacher who is getting to know the entire family– it helps them feel like they are closer to you, whether or not they can speak to you directly.
Find time to celebrate.
Real life is not a homogeneous group of sheep. In real life, people are different and it’s obvious. In Kindergarten, celebrating that is a number one priority. In fifth grade, celebrating anything might come with stressful strings attached. It will look different for everyone, but it’s important to include.
Find one 20 minute chunk of time on a Friday once a month to learn about a culture in your classroom. The best way to introduce a culture is obviously food, hands down. Kids remember that. For the first time this year, I handed out a monthly unit schedule to parents, pointing out when I needed volunteers to make treats of their culture. I had two Ukrainian moms enthusiastically ask me to prepare Trubochki for the class. I had some white families– who are generally overlooked in the culture department– prepare for us Scandenavian treats for Christmas. (This was exciting because we got to talk about how many of us do have cultural traditions that emerge during Christmastime, we just don’t always recognize them as something from another country). For Cinco de Mayo, a mom made flan for each kid, and another mom made tamales. As we watched the end of year video, it was incredible listening to my students excitedly remembering “when we ate Bread of the Dead” (for the Day of the Dead) or when we “tried the lefsa pancake.” I mean, they REMEMBERED! And those kids who got to bring it in and share it were all glowing.
Of course, you do have to check with your school’s policies to be sure it’s ok if someone makes food and brings it from home. I’m pretty sure we are only allowed store-bought treats, but since I tell all my parents at the beginning of the year about these cultural treats, I’ve never had a complaint).
USE CLASS DOJO.
If you’re not already using it, what is happening?! You can post pictures to show every family, not just ELL families, what’s going on in class. You can push messages out to parents so you don’t have to send paper copies home. You can communicate a child’s BEHAVIOR to parents BEFORE THE KID EVEN GETS HOME! For families that feel disconnected from the classroom, this is such a wonderful tool. Behavior is a big deal for most parents, and this close to non-verbal tool is the way to go for ELL families. I can’t oversell this.
I usually provide a sheet like this at the beginning of the year to help families navigate, and from there, it’s pretty hands off for me.
There you have it, teachers. Familiarize yourselves with your families’ homelands, meet the siblings, eat the yummy treats, and USE CLASS DOJO. For more great ideas to connect with families, check out Tips for Engaging ELL Families.
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy